Russia Watch: Dagestan – Russia’s wild but beguiling southern frontier

Journalists love superlatives, and Russia’s southernmost republic, Dagestan, obliges.

Of Russia’s 83 regions, Dagestan last year recorded the highest level of political violence – 53 bombings and 405 dead.

Last year, Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in Dagestan. Last month, world attention swiveled to Dagestan when Tsarnaev emerged as the lead suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

This week, Dagestan’s reputation for violence was underlined when two car bombs exploded Monday in Makhachkala, the republic’s capital, killing four and injuring 44.

I just spent four days driving around Dagestan, talking to people. There is more to this majority Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea than car bombs.

First of all, it is Russia’s southernmost republic, blessed with 245 hours of sunshine in May, and 400 kilometers of sandy beaches year round. Moscow’s grumpiness is a world away. Dagestanis smile a lot.

The most populous republic in Southern Russia, Dagestan may also be the youngest.

Grandson rides in style. Shepherd takes his flock — and his grandson — up to the summer pastures. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Of 3 million Dagestanis, one million are between the age of 15 and 30. This demographic youth bulge accounts for some of the political turmoil, much the way the post-World War II baby boom generation shook up Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s.

Maybe Dagestanis should know better, but they are optimists.

On paper, Dagestan scores – another superlative – Russia’s lowest per capita income. But on the ground, lines and lines of cars clog roads. And roads are lined with rows upon rows of houses under construction. Could it be that half of the economy is under the table?

Commercial centers are chock-a-block with new stores, often blaring their wares with garish signs.

Elsewhere, polls indicate that only 2 percent of Russians dream of opening a new business – far below the Brazil-Russia-India-China average of 20 percent. In Dagestan, half the population seems to want to open a store.

Maybe Dagestanis know that, as outsiders – non-ethnic Russians without Moscow connections – they have no chance of landing a cushy job with a Russian state company. Instead, Dagestanis live by their wits.

In a “normal” setting, this would be a recipe for separatism. But Dagestan is – another superlative – Russia’s most ethnically diverse region.

In an area the size of Denmark, there are 13 “major” ethnic groups, and 30 “major” languages.

Dagestan’s ethnic Russian population has dropped in half in the last half century. But more important, ethnic Russians have dwindled from 20 percent of the population in 1960, to 3.6 percent today. A 60-something taxi driver told me that, half a century ago, his elementary school class was 80 percent ethnic Russian.

But, no single ethnic group is large enough to impose its will on the others. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, is from the largest group, the Avar. But they only account for 29 percent of Dagestan’s population.

As the English language is to modern India, Russian is the lingua franca that allows Dagestanis to communicate with each other. Financially, Dagestan is kept afloat by Russian government subsidies and wage remittances from the 500,000 Dagestanis who work outside of the republic.

Islam should be a unifying force. One imam told me that 25 years ago, in the late Soviet period, Makhachkala’s 500,000 people were served by one mosque. Today, he said, Makhachkala has 400 mosques. All this in a city founded as a Russian military fortress, a place that was long called Petrovsk, after one early Russian visitor – Czar Peter the Great.

The centerpiece of Dagestan’s Islamic revival, Makhachkala Grande Mosque was financed by Turkey and completed in 1998. Styled after Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Grand Mosque can accommodate up to 17,000 worshipers. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Across Dagestan today, it is hard to stand in a city, without spotting a nearby minaret. Overall, 83 percent of Dagestanis identify themselves as Muslims.

But Islam is split between followers of the Sufi Islam, and the new Salafi Islam introduced by foreign missionaries and Dagestanis who studied in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.

A lot of today’s violence stems back to this religious divide, a gap that can be as deep as the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Dagestanis can be very tolerant. In Derbent, Russia’s southernmost – and oldest – city (two more superlatives!) Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians live and work together in relative harmony. Forty kilometers to the south, in Azerbaijan, pogroms ethnically cleansed that nation of Armenians in the early 1990s. Similarly, neighboring Armenia has pushed out virtually all Azeris from its lands.

So Dagestan is a bundle of contradictions. But it is a bundle that the Kremlin will cling to.

About 2,000 years ago, a fortress was raised at Derbent. It blocked trading caravans and raiding tribes from moving south, passing through a three kilometer choke point between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea.

Watchtowers looked north. Persian mystics called Derbent the northernmost edge of the world.

Last week, as I walked the tourist-free ramparts of Derbent’s fortress, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it occurred to me that Derbent now serves as the southernmost edge of the Russian empire.

Car bombs will come and go, winning headlines and alarming TV viewers. Many Muscovites think Dagestan as a foreign country. Many Dagestanis talk of traveling ‘to Russia.’

But, following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Vladimir Putin will not loosen Moscow’s hold on the strategic piece of southern real estate that is Dagestan.


(At the top: Car bombs keep the tourists away. On a lovely May morning, we had the 2,000-year-old Derbent Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, all to ourselves. VOA Photo: James Brooke) 



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.