The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova and the North Caucasus

Khava Gaisanova lives in Chermen, a village in the heart of the North Caucasus on the other side of the mountains from Sochi, Russia. In 2007 her husband Mukhazhir disappeared, like so many men in the North Caucasus disappear without a trace – kidnapped, arrested or simply executed and buried in anonymous graves. So many elements of the region seemed to come together in Khava’s life story that we decided to use it as the basis for our project. In The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova, a grim picture unfolds of the region hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.


Khava Gaisanova’s parents were exiled by Stalin from Bazurkina, Ingushetia, in 1944. Family photo from 1958, Astana, Kazakhstan.


The train station in Konservny from where Khava’s parents were deported in 1944


The main event nowadays is the Moscow-Grozny train, which stops here twice a week.

“Astana was a real city. I had friends and family there. There was a nightlife. Chermen was so rural. I didn’t see the paradise my mother was always talking about.”

—Khava Gaisanova


When Khava returned in 1975, the village was renamed Chermen, North Ossetia.


Khava and her husband Mukhazhir in Chermen, 1970s.


Policeman Aliskhan was blown up by insurgents while having lunch in a restaurant.


Recent passport photo from Mukhazhir.

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Mukhazhir’s photo album.

“I looked and asked everywhere, from Dagestan to Karachay-Cherkessia. I couldn’t find a trace of my husband anywhere.”

—Khava Gaisanova


Mukhazhir Gaisanov, Missing

“My husband had gone shopping in Vladikavkaz with a neighbor,” says Khava. “They then intended to drive to Ingushetia together to buy a new car with an Ossetian license plate. They never got there. They were probably arrested by men posing as the police, or stopped by the real police. No one knows what happened.” Mukhazhir’s car was found the same day, in the street near the interior ministry and police headquarters. Residents had alerted the authorities. A car with an Ingush license plate parked in an area like that was suspicious. There had been a spate of bombings and residents were afraid that this car, too, would explode. “I got everything back,” says Khava. “All their important documents were still there, except my husband’s driving license. That’s our only clue; that someone asked for his driving license. Otherwise the car was clean. There was no trace of blood, nothing that indicated any violence.”


The school in Chermen where Khava is a teacher.


Polaroid of Khava with Mukhazhir, daughter-in-law and friend in her garden.

“What happened in Beslan was incomprehensible and horrifying. Those children taken hostage at the school, so many dead… It’s only 20 kilometres away. I almost had a heart attack when it happened. But all Ingush were victims of what happened next.”

—Khava Gaisanova


Ilona Karkiva ( 15) lost her mother and was seriously injured during the Beslan school siege.


Khava next to the fridge from where she sells lemonade and water.

“Sometimes when it’s dark at night, I become paralysed with fear. I see masked men entering my room.”

—Ilona Karkiva


Khava on a school trip to Sochi with her class in 1983.

“After reading this book, I was deeply impressed. Not only by what the authors - under sometimes life-threatening conditions - have established, but also by the enormous power to survive of all those ordinary people they have interviewed and portrayed and whose stories are now burned on my brain.”

—Michel Krielaars, NRC, 2013



Text: Arnold van Bruggen. Design: Kummer & Herrman.

The North Caucasus is so incredibly complex that we initially got lost in the details. No other book took us so long to define. A history of violence was to be the overarching theme, but then we met Khava Gaisanova and decided to focus on a single character. So many elements of the region seemed to come together in Khava’s story that we decided to use it as the basis for our book. All even chapters are about events in the life history of Khava and her ancestors, while the uneven chapters place these family events in the larger perspective of the North Caucasus. The book is printed on newsprint to emphasize the urgent character of the story. A reproduced photo album of the missing person Mukhazhir is concealed in the back of the book.

English and Dutch edition, softcover, 20 x 27 cm (7 7/8 x 10 5/8 in.), 352 pages and 32-page insert, 107 color photographs.

Gold medal European Design Awards 2014

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Contact Gallery, Toronto, Canada, 2014


CFD Barcelona, Spain, 2015


The release of The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova and the North Caucasus took place early 2013, right before the end of The Sochi Project. We decided to focus on the comprehensive final exhibition of The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus and not to a an own exhibition of this project. However, the chapter about the North Caucasus within The Sochi Project final exhibition can be seen as the representation of this story and may be used as a separate exhibition. Like the final exhibition, broadsheet newsprint photos are intertwined with videos, wall texts, framed photos and the publication about the North Caucasus.

Required dimensions for this exhibition: 30 - 40 running meters of wall. All exhibitions are custom designed and adapted to the interior of the hosting institution. For more information and rental prizes, please contact


CFD, Barcelona, Spain, 2015


M. Žilinskas Art Gallery, Kaunas, Lithuania, 2016


EFTI, Madrid, Spain, 2016

“The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova, easily one of the very best photo books published in 2013.”

—CPH Magazine, 2014


FoMu, Antwerp, Belgium, 2013


Indira Ghandi Art Centre, New Delhi, India, 2015


Aperture Gallery, New York, US, 2014


Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, 2014


Fotohof, Salzburg, Austria, 2014

Video of the abduction of a boy by security forces accidentally recorded by security cameras in a car repair (included in exhibition).

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Amnesty International (Dutch), January 2013


NRC Boeken (Dutch), April 2013

“To co najważniejsze w tym wydawnictwie, to wstrząsające historie bohaterów, którymi dzielą się z nami jej autorzy. Niektóre na długo pozostają w pamięci i nie pozwalają o sobie zapomnieć.”

—Fotopolis, 2013

Interview in connection with North Caucasus presentation in group exhibition ‘On the Move’, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2014


De Standaard (Belgium), February 2013


Monocle (UK), July 2013

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Vrij Nederland (Dutch), January 2013