Award-winning travel writer Oliver Bullough journeys into the frozen heart of Central Asia to meet the 'White Hats'. This exiled community of Chechens survived everything that Stalin threw at them and now live an isolated and ascetic life on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
These Chechens were uprooted from their home in the Caucasus mountains in 1944 by a Soviet government determined to destroy them. Deprived of their belongings, their history, and the most basic of rights, they responded with a defiant commitment to their leader, a Sufi Sheikh whose memory continues to bind the community together and whose grave provides a reason to remain in this harsh environment even though a return to their homeland is now possible.
The sheikh gave them more than just ascetic rules for living, however. He also gave them a tumultuously spiritual ritual - the zikr - when men and women alike gather to chant and sing prayers to Allah. The ritual is at the heart of this community, haunting, powerful and totally their own. Once heard, it is never forgotten.
The few old men who still remember 1944 recall how, herded into cattle trucks, they survived the deportation, but many of their friends did not. They describe their lives on the bleak steppes of the Akmola region of Kazakhstan. Just reaching their village - Krasnaya Polyana - is a challenge, as the road through the fields is often cut by blizzards. The White Hats rely only on themselves. They love receiving visitors, but they ask for no help from the outside world.
Forced exile by Stalin has evolved into voluntary exile, a home on the steppe where they find freedom in the most exacting of circumstances.
Producer: Cicely Fell
An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.