| by Eva Gudbergsdottir

Illustration of woman wearing hijab

In 2003 the United Nations referred to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and epicenter of two wars with Russia, as the most destroyed city on earth. After years of reconstruction, Grozny is home again to more than a quarter million people. It’s also where Kathryn Smart is study­ing the Chechen language and conduct­ing research. “And walking so much I know the city better than the taxi driv­ers,” she adds.

Her interest in Chechen culture devel­oped over time. Growing up in Michigan, she loved going to ice hockey games with her father. Her favorite player was Rus­sian, which spurred her choice of Rus­sian as her language of study while an undergraduate in international relations at Michigan State University. She studied abroad in Volgograd not once, but twice, the second time enrolling in an advanced Russian language study program. During the latter trip she worked as an English tutor for a Chechen family in Moscow.

Kathryn came to the Institute in­tending to pursue a career in the nonproliferation field, but switched her focus to terrorism studies after taking Professor Gordon Hahn’s course on Isla­mism in Russia.

Through the Institute’s Graduate Ini­tiative in Russian Studies, Kathryn has been researching the role of women in Chechen culture at Grozny State Univer­sity to better understand how culture and politics play into women’s decisions to join militant groups in the North Cauca­sus. “I think it is very important to learn Chechen to fully understand the culture.”

Traveling into the countryside, Kath­ryn has discovered the limits of moderni­ty in Chechnya. Once you’re outside the capital there is no running water, there’s limited electricity, and young women have restricted freedom of movement.

She plans to continue her research until January, when she will move to neighbor­ing Georgia for five months to continue her Chechen language studies, supported by a prestigious Boren Fellowship. It’s a long way from the ice rinks of Michigan but exactly where her heart now lies.

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Eva Gudbergsdottir