A View from the South: Reflections on Dagestan

Map of Russia Highlighting Dagestan

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – EDWARD C. HOLLAND – July 31, 2017)

Edward C. Holland is Assistant Professor of Geography in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas. His research interests range across a variety of topics, including political violence, religion, and critical geopolitics, and are generally focused on the Russian Federation. He has recently published on these topics in Problems of Post-Communism, Europe-Asia Studies, and forthcoming in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. He was lead editor on Questioning Post-Soviet, published by the Kennan Institute to mark the 25th anniversary of the USSR’s breakup.

In Dagestan’s capital of Makhachkala, a wind from the north is called an Ivan, from the south a Mohammed. These names underscore the liminal position of the republic between Russia’s Orthodox core and the Muslim Middle East. The proverbial winds of change are also apparent in this city of officially 600,000 people on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Makhachkala is perhaps best known in the United States as the destination of the elder Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, in the years leading up to the Boston Marathon bombings. He traveled there in 2011 and 2012 to visit his parents, who had settled in the city after a stint in the United States. Whether Tamerlan was radicalized during his time in Dagestan is still not clear; he was, however, in Dagestan when it was considered “the most dangerous place in Europe.”

Then, Makhachkala was plagued by almost daily violence carried out by criminals and extremists. The republic’s interior minister, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, was assassinated in June 2009 while attending a wedding in the city. Bombings and other attacks were aimed at those easily identified as part of the state security forces. Businesses were targeted for extortion under the guise of religious fundamentalism. The cycle of repression and violence meant there was a large pool of potential recruits for Islamists to drawn from.

Over the past half decade, the security situation in Dagestan has generally improved, a development attributable to changes in Russia’s domestic policies toward the economy and insurgency and international events in the Middle East and Ukraine. Subsidies to the North Caucasus remain an important part of the republic’s budget-in 2013, the region received about 15,000 Russian rubles per person-although Dagestan received less per capita than a number of federal territories in the Russian Far East and Siberia, as well as less than both Chechnya and Ingushetia elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Other efforts have included campaigns ostensibly against corruption, but with the dual aim of consolidating the power vertical. The 2013 arrest of Said Amirov, Makhachkala’s long-tenured mayor and one of the republic’s key power brokers, was part of this crackdown and an attempt to reduce the practice of enrichment through political patronage.

The decline in violence in Dagestan and the North Caucasus over the past half-decade has been significant; from 2010 to 2016, the number of casualties fell from 685 to 204 in Dagestan and from 1,705 to 287 in the North Caucasus as a whole according to data collected by Caucasian Knot, an online news site. This is not to downplay the continued securitization of the city and republic. The headquarters of the MVD just off the city’s central square was heavily guarded, with stanchions to prevent automobiles from accessing it. Uniformed men carried AK-47s on patrol in the central square and outside the republic’s main government building. Traveling both to and from Makhachkala, we were stopped at a checkpoint in the republic’s north, just outside the city of Kizlyar and mere meters from the border with Chechnya. So while the security situation has improved, Dagestan remains a place where local contacts are a must for a safe and successful visit.

I traveled to Dagestan for four full days in April 2017, spending the first two days in Makhachkala and the last two visiting various sites along the republic’s coast and in the mountains. Makhachkala is the largest city in the North Caucasus Federal District. The official population total is likely a vast underestimate of its true size; more than a million people probably live in this urban conglomeration, hemmed in by the Caucasus on its southwestern side and the Caspian Sea to the northeast. Most who live here are first- or second-generation city residents. They or their parents moved down from Dagestan’s highlands in the post-World War II period or more recently. During my visit, I was struck by the city’s dynamism and youth: the grocery stores were stocked as well as in Moscow, women in Muslim dress walked and talked with their friends who were not wearing headscarves, and a complex network of marshrutkas serves the city’s residents.

The city’s urban landscape is evolving to reflect an influx of capital from Dagestanis who travel to other parts of Russia in search of work. The skyline is changing rapidly, with new high-rises squeezed between aging khrushchevki (the ubiquitous multistoried apartment buildings constructed during the 1950s and 1960s, some of which are now slated for demolition in Moscow). Apartments have been constructed without the proper permitting or in violation of the city’s master plan, leading to some pushback against new construction. High-rises are particularly apparent near the city’s southeastern edge, along the Caspian Sea and toward the neighboring city of Kaspiysk. Yet the juxtaposition of old and new is also notable in the city center, and the dissonance in the urban landscape is striking. New construction exists side by side with Soviet- or even tsarist-era buildings. The all-republic historical and architectural museum is bordered to its northeast by a modern structure whose façade is dominated by clean lines and air-conditioning units (see figure 1).

In a meeting, the republic’s minister for nationalities policy, Tatyana Gamiley, emphasized the ministry’s work in preserving and developing the ethnocultural distinctness of Dagestan’s nationalities; in another conversation thread, she underscored the tension between preservation and new construction in the city of Makhachkala and the potential tensions that redevelopment introduces. These issues of space and access remain in the foreground of managing the delicate ethnic balance in Dagestan, home to fourteen official nationalities as identified in the republic’s 1994 constitution.

Other notable elements of the urban landscape are everyday reminders of Dagestan’s place as a federal subject of Russia. The central square includes two prominently displayed quotations, one from Russian president Vladimir Putin and the other from Dagestan’s head, Ramazan Abdulatipov. The quotation from Putin on the façade of the building housing the Ministry of Nationalities Policy reads: “Seeing how they defend their land and Russia, I was even more fond of Dagestan and the Dagestanis” (see figure 2). The quotation from Abdulatipov on the other side of the square praises Putin’s leadership during the “most fateful days” of the Dagestani republic; “from the mountains of Dagestan, he began his work of uniting Russia and restoring her sovereignty and dignity.”

Reinforced by the presence of the state and the decline in violence over the past half-decade, the position of the Russia state in Dagestan-and Dagestan within the Russian state-is today more secure than at any point in the post-Soviet period. Yet the future of the republic’s security situation is unclear, as the return of fighters for the Islamic State to the North Caucasus seems possible. In the meantime, Makhachkala hurtles forward with development and growth. In a decade, it could very well be these processes of urban and social change that attract the interest of scholars and draw visitors to this evolving city.