Dagestan (northeastern Caucasus) is a small republic about the size of Illinois with 2.1 million people who speak more than 30 languages and are divided in 81 ethnic groups and ethnic groups. Located on southernmost point of Russia, Dagestan encompasses a large section of the eastern Caucasus mountains and 250 miles of Caspian Sea coastline. Dagestan mean the "Mountain Kingdom."

Dagestan is the largest republic in the northern Caucasus. Its tremendous ethnic diversity is attributed the combination of isolated valleys and its location at the crossroads between cultures in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The largest groups include the Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Lezghin and Lakh. Most of these groups are Muslims who live in remote valleys. Their neighbors have traditionally viewed them with hostility.

Dagestan is Russia's poorest state, with 200 families controlling the majority of the region's wealth in the 1990s. Fertile lowlands that produce famous Astrakhan melons and account for 70 percent of Russia's coastline on the oil-rich Caspian Sea. It also hold a strategic pipeline (which goes through Chechnya) and a railroad used to transport oil. But little money trickles down to ordinary people. The importance of the pipeline and railway diminished when the pipeline between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean through Turkey and Georgia became fully operational.

People of Dagestan

Dagestan is one of the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world. Known as “Mountain of Languages,” it is home to an estimated thirty ethnic groups, who speak dozens of Caucasian, Iranian, and Turkic languages. There is one story that a horseman carrying the languages of the world stumbled when he was in Dagestan. His bag ripped open and languages spilled out. Russian, Azerbaijani and Turkic (“Tatar”) serves as lingua francas among different groups in different places.

Dagestan groups have traditionally valued their freedom and independence. All 30 or so of the ethnic groups there are predominately Muslim. They practice a relatively mellow form of Islam. Moscow values Dagestan as a buffer zone between mostly Christian Russia and the more politically-active strains of Islam found south of Dagestan in Iran.

The ten non-Slavic groups in Dagestan identified by Soviet censuses within the population of about 2 million are, in order of size, Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, Nogay, Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Aguls. Knowledge of Arabic and the teachings of Islam are more widespread in Dagestan than in any other Russian republic. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The polyglot nature of Dagestan has made linguistic unity impossible; among the major groups, only the Nogay language is said to be declining in usage. Besides Azerbaijani and Russian, six languages were recognized as official languages in the late Soviet period. In the 1990s, tension has existed among the many ethnic groups, accompanied by a debate over whether the republic should be organized on a unitary or federative basis. *

Republic of Dagestan

The Republic of Dagestan, formerly the Dagestan (or Daghestan) Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Dagestan ASSR), occupies 50,300 square kilometers along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, from the border with Azerbaijan in the south to a point about 150 kilometers south of the Volga River delta in the north. Designated an autonomous republic in 1921, Dagestan lost some of its territory in 1941 and 1957; most of the original republic was restored in 1957. In the Soviet period, the Muslim majority suffered severe religious repression. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Unlike the other autonomous republics, Dagestan does not derive its existence from the presence of one particular group. Besides its Russian population (9.2 percent of the total in 1989),Dagestan is home to an estimated thirty ethnic groups and eighty nationalities, who speak Caucasian, Iranian, and Turkic languages and account for more than 80 percent of the population. The ten non-Slavic groups identified by Soviet censuses within the population of about 2 million are, in order of size, Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, Nogay, Rutuls, Tsakhurs, and Aguls. Colonies of Azerbaijanis (4.2 percent in 1989) and Chechens (3.2 percent) also exist.

Early History of Dagestan

Archeological finds in central Dagestan have been dated to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Copper Age periods. People at this time lived in clan settlements in single room dwelling with a hearth in the middle. This suggests social, economic and cultural continuity and links with the cultural areas in the northeast Caucasus. Tscoch, a 10,000-year-old settlement, is believed to be one of the oldest of its kind in the world.

Many groups in Dagestan were part of the Caucasian Albanian Empire, which had a writing system, and later came under control of Persian Sassanids, the Huns and the Khazars. Arabs and Islam began penetrating into the region began in the A.D. 7th century. There was heavy resistance. Dagestan was raided by the Mongols. The region appears to have suffered the most under the invasions by Tamerlane who labeled the people of Dagestan infidels and crushed them.

The introduction of Islam in the 8th century played a big part in the forging of a national identity in Dagestan. However, many places didn’t to covert to Islam until the 16th or 17th century. As areas were converted to Islam their language were given Arabic writing system. Education was provided at madrassahs (Islamic schools).

In the 10th century much of Dagestan was ruled by agents of the Baghdad-based Arab caliphate. After the califate was was destroyed it was ruled by a succession of overlords: the Seljuk Turks, the Persian shahs, Turkish sultans and Azerbaijani and Dagestani khans.

Dagestan lies at a key north-south connection between Russia and Iran in the Caspian Sea region. Between the 15th and 18th century the tribes here became involved in a series of feudal wars and periodically unified to fight off invasions from Turkey and Persia, one of these wars led to the downfall of the Iranian leader Nadir Shah, who invaded Dagestan in 1735, 1741 and 1743, burning villages and taking captives from Dagestan and selling them as slaves.

Later History of Dagestan

Arriving along the Volga, Russians first settled the near the Dagestan area in the fifteenth century. The region was claimed by Peter the Great as part of his Persian campaign. But Dagestan was not annexed by the Russian Empire until 1813, when it and Azerbaijan officially became part of Russia as part of deal to offer them protection against the Persians. The people of Dagestan did not like their Russian occupiers and fought a war of resistance under Shamil. The tribes of Dagestan fought bravely in the Caucasus Wars. See Caucasus, Avars, Chechnya.

After coming under Russian control, few people in Dagestan could speak Russian. Most of those who did lived in the colonial centers. It was only after the Soviets set up schools and local languages were given a Cyrillic alphabet that large number of people of Dagestan became literate and were able to speak Russian.

Dagestan was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921 after the end of Russia Civil War. During 1920-22 most of the Dagestani people joined the Chechens in a widespread revolt against Soviet power; some of the secret Islamic orders that led the revolt continued to practice terrorism through the Soviet period. Many of Dagestan’s people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia in World War II. The deportation was particularly unfair because most of the deported people had no contact with the Germans.

Dagestan After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

In spite of being bordered by Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Dagestan has for the most part managed to avoid the ethnic and political violence that has ravaged its neighbors. Rather than demanding more autonomy it has traditionally looked to Moscow for protection.

But since 1996 there has been increasing violence between followers of Nashbindiya Islam, a Sufi order and majority in the region, and a minority of Muslim extremists referred to as Wahhabites. In addition since 1992, Lezgins, who live mostly in southern Dagestan, and Lezgins in northern Azerbaijan, have demanded the creation of a single Lezgin republic within Russia.

Moscow supports the economy and government in Dagestan in part to help bring stability to the region. The Kremlin worries that if serious trouble breaks out in Dagestan it could spread throughout the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region.

The Russian government crackdown in Chechnya threatened to turn an nationalist conflict into a religious war and draw in other Muslim groups in Dagestan and the Caucasus region. Dagestan has a high crime rate and struggling economy. Students have to pay bribes of thousands of dollars just to sign up for the university.

Dagestani Religion and Society

About 90 percent of the people in Dagestan say they are Muslims although only about half of them are regarded as true believers. Laws are based on “Sharia” (Islamic law), traditional codes of law (“adat”) and local customs. Matters like inheritance are often determined by Islamic law. Before Islam ,many groups were Christians. Many pre-Islamic, pre-Christian belief remain.

Most of the Dagestani ethnic groups are divided into clans called tukum. Each tukum has its own cemetery, pastures, and hay fields and its members are bound together by obligation to providing mutual support and defense. Many men in Dagestan wear tall Astrakhan hats and burkas (local overcoats that look like live sheep).

Marriage customs are generally in line with those defined by Islam. After marriage a bride usually goes to live with the family of the groom and earns her place in the family in a step-by-step process that first involves doing chores. Her place is secured when she delivers a male child. Children are taught from a young age to respect their elders.

Wikileaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable about a wedding in Dagestan in which “dramatically paunchy men” dance “with two scantily clad Russian women who looked far from home” while one guest “brought the happy couple ‘a five-kilo lump of gold’ as a wedding present.”

Dagestani Life and Festivals

In the mountains of the Dagestan area, settlements have traditionally been built near water sources and arranged in terraces up the mountain slopes. A typical Dagestan dwelling has a hearth situated at the center of the main room, with external light entering through small rectangular opening that could be covered up in the event of an attack. Many households live in a multistoried building with several addition buildings for storage and keeping animals. Many men in Dagestan wear tall Astrakhan hats and burkas (local overcoats that look like live sheep).

A winter festival that revolves around symbolically killing off Death (winter) to make way for spring begins when costumed men representing”botsi” (“wolf spirits”) emerging from a forested mountainside. Alexander Milovsky wrote in Natural History magazine: “Toward late afternoon the main character, Quidili, made his appearance by ambling down the same mountainside. He was a tall, shaggy creature, with a large head, expressive bulging eyes and an enormous pink mouth with shining cooper teeth. His giant wooden jaw repeatedly opened and clacked closed. Villagers and “botsi” alike were respectful, yet bolder youngsters ventured to tug at his garb or jab a wooden stick into his giant mouth.”

“The Quidili ascended an ice platform and was formally greeted by the village schoolmaster. There was them dancing by shepherds and dairymaids and the botsi were dragged to the river and dumped in the ice cold water. “After justice had been meted out Qudili wished the villagers peace, prosperity and a good harvest and the followed the botsi to the river. There he calmly lay down and was ‘decapitated” by a village elder wielding a violet-red sword, leaving a puddle of make-believe blood in the snow...Several botsi put the “corpse” on a stretcher and carried it away. Merriment returned quickly and the wolves held their costumes out of sight of the crowd and rejoined their neighbors amidst the celebrations.”

Dagestan and Economics

Most of the rural population raises livestock in the republic's hilly terrain. Dagestan is rich in oil, natural gas, coal, and other minerals; swift rivers offer abundant hydroelectric-power potential.

A direct 1,400-kilometer pipeline between Baku in Azerbaijan and Novorossiysk on the Black Sea in Russia opened in 1997. More or less a refurbishment of an existing pipeline, it passes through Chechnya and Dagestan and allows oil from the Caspian basin to reach the Black Sea, where it can be loaded on tankers for easy delivery to Europe and to the United States. Much of the pipeline was built and paid for by a consortium of 12 mostly Western oil companies that developing that oil fields in the Caspian Sea.

In some parts of Dagestan every village specialize in one craft such as leather, woodworking, bronze embossing or utensil making. The town of Tsovkra didn't have a "real trade" so villagers took up tightrope walking . They started out performing at weddings and festivals; now they appear in circuses across Russia.

Different Dagestani Groups

There are 28 recognized Dagestan ethnic groups. They main one, that live primarily in Dagestan (and in some cases Azerbaijan), are the 1) Avar (501,000), 2) Lezgi (367,000), 3) Dargwa (282,000), 4) Kumyks (200,000), 5) Lakh (100,000), 6) Tabasarans (60,000), and 7) Nogays (60,000),

Smaller groups include the 8) Tats (20,000), 9) Rutuls (13,000), 10) Tsakhurs (13,000), 11) Aguls (9,500), 12) Udi (6,500), 13) Archi (1,000), 14) Gunzib (400), 15) Ginukh (200), 16) Khinalug, 17) Botlikh, 18) Godoberi, 19) Chamalal, 20) Bagvalal, 21) Tindi, 22) Akhvakh, 23) Tsez, 24) Khvarshi, 25) Bezhetins, 26) Kryz, 27) Andi, and 28) Budukh. Where no figures are given the population is than 500.

The Avars are by far the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. The Lezgins (also seen as Lezghins and Lezgians) are the dominant group in southern Dagestan; because of the Lezgins' location, their society has been more affected by foreign cultural influence than the other groups. Like the Avars, the Dargins, divided into several distinct groups, maintain their village communities in relative isolation. The Kumyks, the largest Turkic group in the republic, are descendants of the Central Asian Kipchak tribes; they inhabit northern Dagestan. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Laks, a small, homogeneous group, occupy central Dagestan; their region was the original center of Islam on the upper Caspian coast. The Tabasarans, who live in southern Dagestan, are strongly influenced by the more numerous Lezgins, although folk practices such as vendettas persist. The steppe-dwelling Nogay of Dagestan, the second Turkic group in the republic, are descendants of one of two Nogay hordes of the Middle Ages; the second and larger group settled to the west, in Stavropol' Territory, and speaks a different language. The Tsakhurs, Rutuls, and Aguls are small, isolated groups of mountain people who lack a written language and largely have preserved their traditional social structures. The capital city, Makhachkala, is located in southern Dagestan, on the Caspian Sea, in a region dominated by the Lezgins. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Most of the Dagestani languages are unwritten and have less than 10,000 speakers, These groups are collectively known as Lezgians. These should not be confused with the Lezgi (also known as Kuri), one of the larger tribes with 200,000 members on Dagestan and 170,000 in Azerbaijan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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