Russian marines repel an attack by Chechen rebels near Tsentaroy, Chechnya, Dec. 1999. In September of that year, Russian forces began military action against separatists. Initial operations were confined to air attacks, but on October 1, 1999, Russian troops entered Chechnya. By the beginning of December, the Russians had surrounded the capital Grozny, which they stormed on Dec. 25, 1999. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Russian marines repel an attack by Chechen rebels near Tsentaroy, Chechnya, December, 1999. In September of that year, Russian forces began military action against separatists. Initial operations were confined to air attacks, but Russian troops entered Chechnya in the following month. By the beginning of December, the Russians had surrounded the capital Grozny, which they stormed in December 1999.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Russian marines repel an attack by Chechen rebels near Tsentaroy, Chechnya, Dec. 1999. In September of that year, Russian forces began military action against separatists. Initial operations were confined to air attacks, but on October 1, 1999, Russian troops entered Chechnya. By the beginning of December, the Russians had surrounded the capital Grozny, which they stormed on Dec. 25, 1999. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Russian marines help a wounded fellow soldier after being caught in an ambush near Tsentaroy, Checnya, Dec. 1999. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Marines carry a dead comrade during fighting in Tsentaroy , Chechnya, Dec 1999. In September of that year, Russian forces began military action against Chechen rebels. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Russian forces uncover the body of a dead rebel in Tsentaroy. Chechnya, December 1999. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
Russian troops entered Chechnya in October 1999. By the beginning of December 1999, the Russians had surrounded the capital Grozny, which they stormed on December 25,1999, killing tens of thousands in the process. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
A russian soldier at an oil refinery storage facility that was destroyed in the first Chechen war in Tsentoroi, Chechnya, Dec. 1999.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen boys look through the window of a bus on a road to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, December 1999. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Grozny Chechnya March 2002 A girl with balloons at  the  downtown  of  Grozny
Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in the first year of his Presidency in 200, massive Russian Russian air strikes destroyed Chechnya's capital of Grozny in the second Chechen War, February 2000.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Grozny, Chechnya, 05 January 2000: OMON (Russian militia special forces) fighters playing draughts
A Russian militia special forces soldier in Grozny, Chechnya, January 2000. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Civilians are treated at a hospital in Grozny, Chechnya, March 2002. More than a dozen were injured after a Russian Army APC ran into a civilian bus. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Outside the destroyed House of the Blind in Grozny, Chechnya, March 2002.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
A couple walks through the ruins of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was flattened by Russian air strikes in the second Chechen war, March 2002. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen refugees in Urus Martan, Chechnya, Oct. 2009. 2009. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Grozny Chechnya February   2002  Market burning gas pipeline
A Chechen family who whose family members were abducted and killed by rebels in Shali, Chechnya, Oct. 2009.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Nurjan prays in her house in Shali, Chechnya. Her brother Yusuf was killed by Chechen military and another brother, Abdul Yazid, was abducted, October, 2009.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Sleptzovsk  Ingushetia/ Chechnya March  2002  Sleptzovsk Refugee camp.
Zainap Gaisanova, an invalid, and resident in a building occupied by IDPs in Grozny, Chechnya, Oct. 2009. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
A view of the reconstructed downtown Grozny, Chechnya, Oct. 2009. Moscow, has poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction of the cities and towns it had destroyed. The center of Grozny is packed with skyscrapers, sporting arenas, shopping plazas and an enormous mosque, the largest in Europe, dedicated to the memory of Akhmad Kadyrov. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
One of the biggest mosques in Europe, known as the Heart of Chechnya, the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, dedicated to the memory of current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov's father, Grozny, Chechnya, Oct. 2009.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Friday prayer at the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, Grozny Chechnya, Oct. 2009 Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen policemen, often targeted by rebels, guard a Grozny street with a billboard of Russian President Vladimir Putin and slain President Akhmad Kadyrov in the background, Nov. 2009.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Worshipers hurry into the Heart of Chechnya Mosque for the evening prayer in Grozny, April 2015. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Boys study to become hafiz, or reciters of the Koran at a boarding school in Grozny, Chechnya, April 19, 2015.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Amateur wrestler Buvaysar Eskaev, 16, does a backflip against the wall of his gym in Khasav-Yurt, Russia, where he is training in the hopes of becoming an Olympic wrestling champion, Khasav-Yurt Chechnya, June 2012Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Lechi Kurbanov, a world champion in karate and undefeated professional kickboxer, instructs students in karate at a gym in Grozny, Chechnya, April, 2015.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Members of the patriotic club Ramzan hold flags picturing Chechen leader Kadyrov on Putin's avenue in Grozny, November 4, 2009, Grozny, Chechnya, Nov. 2009. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen students wear ties picturing their leader Akhmad Kadyrov, at a WWII Victory Day Parade in Grozny, Chechnya May 2010.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Youth activists participate in a patriotic rally in Gudermes, Chechnya May 2010. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen police officers guard a monument to the late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, father of current leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Grozny Chechnya May 2010.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, center, along with Russian and Chechen officials, attend a ceremony commemorating the Soviet victory in World War II, Grozny, Chechnya May 2010 Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
A Chechen girl dances while wearing a shirt showing a portrait of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, in the town of Gudermes, Chechnya, May 2010.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Young women in Chechnya await the arrival of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at a folk festival near the town of Shali, Chechnya, April 18, 2015. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Traditional Chechen folk dancers perform for senior Russian and Chechen officials at a cultural festival near the town of Shali, Chechnya, April 18, 2015. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Workers set up their stand at a cultural festival near the town of Shali, Chechnya, April 18, 2015Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Worshipers leave evening prayer at the Heart of Chechnya Mosque in Grozny, April 17, 2015.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Chechen security forces participate in a military parade marking the Soviet victory in World War II, Grozny, Chechnya, May 2010.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR
Chechen police officers and students of the prestigious Suvorov Police Academy in Chechnya attend Friday prayers at the central mosque in the regional capital of Grozny, April, 2015.Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Women walk past a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late President of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, He was the father of Chechnya's current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, Grozny, Chechnya, April, 2015. Yuri kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Russian marines repel an attack by Chechen rebels near Tsentaroy, Chechnya, December, 1999. In September of that year,
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Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR
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Yuri Kozyrev: Photographing 15 Years of Chechnya's Troubled History

Jun 19, 2015
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Yuri Kozyrev recalls the winter of 1999 as one of the most trying and tragic of his career as a photographer. It was the eve of Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the Russian presidency, and the height of the Russian bombardment of Chechnya, when entire towns in that breakaway republic were, as the Russians often put it, “made level with the earth.”

Kozyrev, a native of Moscow, documented both of Chechnya’s wars against Russia in the 1990s. The first one, fought between 1994 and 1996, had resulted in a humiliating defeat for Russia. But the carnage was far worse when the conflict resumed under Putin in 1999.

Arriving in Chechnya that fall, Kozyrev’s plan was to find and photograph two men amid the chaos of the Russian invasion. The first was Major General Alexander Ivanovich Otrakovsky, who was then commanding the Russian marines from his encampment near the town of Tsentaroy, a key stronghold of the Chechen separatists. The second was the general’s son, Captain Ivan Otrakovsky, who was serving on the front lines not far from the base, in one of the most hotly contested patches of territory.

The aim, says Kozyrev, was to document the two generations of Russian servicemen involved in the conflict – the elder brought up at the height of Soviet power during the Cold War, the younger in the dying years of Moscow’s empire. After weeks of negotiations, he finally managed to embed with the marines and to track down their general, a stocky man with a sly smile and a distinctive mole on the right side of his nose.

At the time, his command center was in an abandoned storage facility for crude oil, Chechnya’s most plentiful and lucrative commodity – and one of the main reasons why Russia refused to allow the region to secede. “It was incredible,” Kozyrev says of his first encounter with the general. “Here were these commanders living inside of a giant oil bunker.”

He recalls Otrakovsky as a kindly intellectual, nothing like the Russian cutthroats who would later be accused of committing atrocities in Chechnya. The general, whose troops referred to him affectionately as Dyed, or Grandpa, was willing to help Kozyrev. But he explained that reaching his son on the front lines would be extremely dangerous, as it would require passing through enemy territory around Tsentaroy.

That town was well known in Chechnya as the home of the Kadyrov clan, an extended family of rebel fighters whose patriarch, the mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, had served as the religious leader of the rebellion. During the first war for independence in the 1990s, he had even declared a state of jihad against Russia, instructing all Chechens that it was their duty to “kill as many Russians as they could.”

At the start of the second war, however, Kadyrov switched sides and agreed to help the Russians, causing a fateful split within the rebel ranks. While the more recalcitrant insurgents had turned to the tactics of terrorism and the ideology of radical Islam, Akhmad Kadyrov abandoned his previous calls for jihad and agreed to serve as Putin’s proxy leader in Chechnya in the fall of 1999.

That did not stop the fighting around his home village, as various insurgent groups continued attacking Russian and loyalist forces positioned around Tsentaroy. So none of the Russian marines were especially keen to move around the area unless they had good reason, and it took Kozyrev days to convince the Russian commander to allow him to reach the front lines. Eventually Gen. Otrakovsky consented, providing the photographer with an escort of about ten marines and two armored personnel carriers.

They set out on what Kozyrev recalls as an especially cold day, rumbling through fog or mist that made it difficult to see the surrounding terrain. As the general had feared, the group was ambushed. From multiple directions, Chechen fighters opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, forcing the convoy to retreat from Tsentaroy. One of the marines was killed in the firefight; three others were wounded.

When they returned to the base, it was clear from the glares of the troops that they all blamed Kozyrev for the fiasco, he says, and Gen. Otrakovsky advised the photographer to leave in the morning. “He said it may not be safe anymore for me to stay among his men," Kozyrev remembers.

The trauma of that incident has lingered, weighing heaviest during his later assignments in Chechnya. Today, the region is ruled by Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, who took over after his father was assassinated in 2004. His native village of Tsentaroy has since enjoyed a generous stream of aid for redevelopment, including the construction of a beautiful mosque dedicated to Ramzan Kadyrov’s mother.

The rest of Chechnya has been rebuilt with similar largesse from Moscow, which has poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction of the cities and towns it had destroyed. When Kozyrev returned to Chechnya in 2009, nearly a decade after the end of the war, he says, “It blew my mind. The place is unrecognizable.”

The Chechen capital of Grozny – which the U.N. deemed “the most destroyed city on earth” in 2003 – is now a gleaming metropolis. Its center is packed with skyscrapers, sporting arenas, shopping plazas and an enormous mosque, the largest in Europe, dedicated to the memory of Akhmad Kadyrov.

His clan now rules the region unchallenged, having sidelined all of its local rivals with Moscow’s unflinching support. Throughout the region, portraits of Putin and the Kadyrovs are now plastered on the facades of buildings and along highways. Among the more ostentatious is a gigantic picture of Akhmad Kadyrov astride a rearing stallion, which adorns a building at the end of the city’s main drag – the Avenue of V.V. Putin.

The strangeness of the transformation, and of its architects, still seems astounding to Kozyrev, who last went on assignment to Chechnya for TIME in April. The trips always remind him of Gen. Otrakovsy, who died of a heart attack while commanding the marines in southern Chechnya, about four months after the young photographer had shown up to ask for his help. The general’s son, whom Kozyrev never did manage to find, went on to become a right-wing politician in Russia with close ties to Orthodox Christian conservative groups.

These were the men who executed the war that helped bring Putin to power. “But it was all the decision of one man to bring Chechnya back under control in ‘99. Putin decided to do that,” Kozyrev says. “And it’s incredible, when you think about it. But the men of Tsentaroy turned out to be his most loyal helpers.”

Yuri Kozyrev is a photojournalist and a TIME contract photographer. He is represented by Noor. In 2000, he received two World Press Photo photojournalism awards for his coverage of the second Chechen war in 1999.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

Simon Shuster is a reporter for TIME based in Moscow.

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