Approximately two million people live in the Republic of Dagestan with two-thirds inhabiting the region’s 700 rural villages. With 32 different languages, Dagestan (literally ‘the mountainous land)’ has had a history defined by its geographical landscape. This feature has made it distinct from the other regions of the Caucasus, although it also has much in common with them, not least the fact that it shared a culture “already defined by what the Soviets had tried to suppress” (Chenciner, 1). As the name of the region suggests the mountainous features along with rivers dividing the plateaus has contributed to a form of individuality among the villages. Subsequent results of Dagestan’s geography include the “congeries of distinct languages and customs…, social ties formed among lines of clans, extended families, and villages groupings” (King, 10). In the sixth century, migration into the mountains by settlers was followed by recurring waves of nomadic tribes forcing them off their lands. Today, the region’s major ethnic groups include the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, and Lezgins, among many. These groups have formed unique societies which are diverse in terms of their different nationalities and were a product of time and regional geography. However, despite the changes in communities, distinct cultural elements have remained relatively similar. The villages “survived as a separate culture because the people share in observable, if partly conscious, vocabulary of real and abstract symbols” (Chenciner, 6). Another unique aspect of the village communities is the pacifist nature of the village culture. “One reason why Dagestan has avoided violence is the survival of its complex social structure and traditional rules of behavior” (Chenciner, 267). This may account for the peaceful coexistence between the multi-ethnic groups along with the development of limited democracy following the Gorbachev era.
Nationalism in Dagestan has long been suppressed. The Soviets worked to manipulate nationalistic tendencies by introducing urbanization and forcing ethnic groups to mix and live communally. For the indigenous peoples of Dagestan, all forms of nationalism begin with the Avar political and religious leader during the Caucasian War, Imam Shamil. His resistance against tsarist Russian rule was admired by both the Russians and the Dagestani. It was immortalized in paintings and literature, and provided a focus for nationalism in the region. This local nationalism emerged despite Soviet efforts to undermine Shamil’s reputation.
Since the fall of the USSR, annual celebrations and festivals in Dagestan have increased in number and frequency (Chenciner, 249). Events ranging from egg painting during the Festivals of Victory to being sprayed with water during agricultural celebrations demonstrate the individuality of the different groups. Many of the annual events combine elements of Soviet and traditional rituals, including song and dance festivals similar to the Baltic Song Festivals.
Unfortunately, national passions are most strongly located in the displacement and deportation of the different ethnic groups in the modern period. “The village,” writes Chenciner, “sometimes represented a whole nationality” each having cultural features found across the mountain region, such as Islam, while maintaining nationally unique characteristics (Chenciner, 250). Soviet policy in the regions concerning ethnic groups, Russian settlement, and intermarriage also defined the Dagestan natives. A woman from a particular tribe engaged to marry a Russian could be murdered by her family before the wedding ceremony, although it was acceptable for native men to wed their Russian counterpart. The family is enormously strong in the preservation of local traditions, and the role of women in the family seminal: “The women of Dagestan live in a state of self-contradiction: as guardians of tradition, work-horses, and breeding machines” (Chenciner, 39). Following the years of the revolution, the village women’s “seclusion had been interrupted by sending them off to be educated, giving them jobs away from the village” (Chenciner, 39). This is an indication of a threat to the traditions of the villages but an improvement in the lives of the village woman.
- Robert Chenciner, Daghestan: Tradition & Survival (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
- Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).