Letter from Makhachkala: reforging a new Dagestani identity on the Caspian coast

The Russian city of Makhachkala has always had a talent for reinventing itself. Now, the city is overcoming its difficult past to become a melting pot for a new Dagestani identity.

“I don’t know who these people think they are,” says Saida Gamzatova one afternoon in a plush, European-style cafe in Makhachkala, capital of Russia’s restive Caucasian region of Dagestan. “All these veils and beards,” she scowls around at the clientele. “It’s awful. You’d think we’re in Iran or something.”

Saida is a fortysomething, third generation Makhachkalan, a rare thing in this teeming young city. The daughter and granddaughter of loyal Soviet Dagestani bureaucrats who spent their lives administering this distant, mountainous republic on Moscow’s behalf, she is patriotic and secular in lifestyle. She has no time for the new Makhachkala, a youthful, bustling place that challenges the concept of Russia as white, Christian, and European.

“They’d never have allowed this sort of thing before the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she concludes, testily. But the socialist city that Saida remembers is long gone.

A view of central Makhachkala. Image: Shamil Magomedov/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

Makhachkala has always had a talent for reinventing itself. Its very first incarnation, a Cossack fort founded by Peter the Great and peopled by a handful of stray Germans, Georgians, and Jews, was slowly replaced the neat, Soviet provincial town of Saida’s childhood, made up of Russian consultants and technicians shipped in from the north, and the caste of Soviet, secularised Dagestanis they created in their own image. This mirage, however, ended with the Soviet Union.

Each in their turn, the pillars of Soviet Makhachkala are crumbling away

Down on the Caspian seafront, amid half-finished high-rises and lean-to street markets, a jumble of Soviet antiques quietly moulder: the Dagestan State Philharmonic, the National Museum, the Ministry of Agriculture. Despite their prime locations, these days most are derelict. Each in their turn, the pillars of Soviet Makhachkala are crumbling away.

Historian Sergey Manishev is another human trace of the old city. As an ethnic Russian, his community now makes up less than 2 per cent of the population, down from roughly 30 per cent in the 1980s.

“When the USSR fell apart, most of the Russians left,” he says. “The specialists and technicians all just moved back to where they’d come from. But my family didn’t have anywhere to go: we’ve been here since the 1840s. They came as Cossacks when Russia first conquered this area. Dagestan is the only place we’ve ever had.”

But as these Russians moved away, many Dagestanis moved back to the regional capital. With the collapse of the collective farms and controls on internal migration, villagers, far less moulded by the Soviet system and the secular, cultural unity it demanded, fled poverty to move to the big cities.

Men in Makhachkala. Image: Bolshakov/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

The result was a population explosion. At a time when most Russian cities are shrinking, official figures show Makhachkala has doubled in size, its number of residents booming from 300,000 in 1991 to 600,000 in 2019. Even this is likely a gross underestimate, as it excludes those living unofficially in the city, who aren’t registered with the authorities. Most observers put Makhachkala’s true population at well over a million. This change has transformed Makhachkala beyond recognition.

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“Makhachkala”, says local journalist Svetlana Anokhina, “is a bit like a teenager: rude and untidy, wild and uncontrolled in its movements”.

She has a point: the city centre might as well be a chaotic adolescent identity crisis rendered in brick and mortar. The lumpy plate-glass shopping malls and breeze-block apartments that have mushroomed out of the dusty Caspian coastal plain over the last three decades are squeezing out the last few Soviet hulks and the occasional relic of something older still. Above, an anarchic spider’s web of fraying electricity cables wend their precipitous way out in every possible direction; sometimes they can seem the only thing holding the city together.

Further out, an uncontrolled, unregulated urban sprawl more akin to a Brazilian favela than a Moscow suburb stretches for miles upon miles across the dusty coastal plain. These suburban towns, many of them former dacha settlements long since sucked into the ballooning city, are ground zero for the new Makhachkala.

Though far from a slum — in fact, some of the houses resemble nothing so much as fortified palaces — this is not an easy place to live. Out here, electricity and running water are unreliable, and rubbish collection non-existent. The situation has improved recently, but the decades’ worth of trash that coats the suburbs has earned Makhachkala an unwelcome title: Russia’s Garbage Capital.

Here, along rutted dirt tracks nosed over by hungry, semi-wild cattle, live the gortsy, or highlanders, the newly arrived urban poor, at whose religious piety and lack of sophistication Makhachkala old-timers like to sneer.

A crumbling Soviet-era building in Makhachkala. Image: Felix Light
A crumbling Soviet-era building in Makhachkala. Image: Felix Light
A monument to Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov. Image: Bogdanov-62/Wikimedia
A monument to Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov. Image: Bogdanov-62/Wikimedia

Yet, for all the jeers and barely-hidden disdain, these new arrivals have forced Makhachkala to reassess its identity. It isn’t just the architecture of the city which has changed. The fall of the Soviet Union and the changing demographics that followed forced Makhachkala to look out onto the region that it was supposed to lead. Barely larger than Scotland, Dagestan is an impossibly complex ethnic patchwork of 34 individual nationalities, each with their own language.

The republic is also overwhelmingly Muslim. In many Makhachkalans’ minds, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of what is known locally as “Islamification” are one and the same. The end of socialism meant the end of state atheism, which had meant that Islam was, if not banned, then at least frowned upon officially.

“I wouldn’t say religion was ever suppressed here,” says Anokhina. “There were always old men praying, people used religious language in their speech, that sort of thing. But it was definitely more private back then.”

As Makhachkala emptied of Jews, Armenians, and Russians, most of whom emigrated or returned home after the collapse, the city’s culture took an austere, religious turn.

As Makhachkala emptied of Jews, Armenians, and Russians, most of whom emigrated or returned home after the collapse, the city’s culture took an austere, religious turn. Underground mosques and madrasahs preaching, as official euphemism has it “non-traditional”, fundamentalist Islam, popped up in the gaps between the city centre’s chic coffee shops and electronics emporia. Alcohol and immodest clothing retreated behind closed doors, while public gender segregation is not unheard of.

For many of Saida’s generation, it has been a disorientating cultural change. “When I was growing up you could wear whatever you want here,” she tells me. “Nowadays you can’t wear shorts without being shouted at on the street.”

For local officials, however, more sinister was the huge number of frustrated, religious young men who were swept into Makhachkala’s slums by breakneck urbanisation, and then swept up by the overspill of neighbouring Chechnya’s anti-Russian war. Even today, when the security situation is much improved and the insurgency mostly defeated, most Makhachkalans have their own terrorism stories, of when they saw or heard a shootout or a bombing during the bad old years of the 2000s.

The Makhachkalan coastline. Image: Vladimir Varfolomeev

Today, the lasting effect of the violence and terrorism is on Russian perceptions: in Moscow and St Petersburg, Dagestan is seen as a symbol for all that is alien and barbaric in Russia’s Caucasian provinces.

For those Dagestanis who travel to Russia’s big cities in search of work, often driving taxis or on construction sites, the result is racism and discrimination. Despite their Russian passports, Dagestanis in Moscow are often seen as culturally just as foreign as their fellow migrant workers from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and suffer from similar harassment at the hands of the capital’s police.

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At home, it has fostered a colonial mentality, with the centre periodically removing Dagestani leaders it sees as unreliable, and replacing them with its own appointees. In 2013, Russian special forces descended on the city in a spectacular raid, detaining the city’s notorious longtime mayor, Said Amirov and spiriting him away to Moscow by helicopter to face murder charges. In 2017, the entire republic’s government was dismissed and an obscure Russian civil servant with no ties to Dagestan parachuted in as Moscow’s new local viceroy.

But, as the old Makhachkala slowly vanishes, yet another new version is slowly emerging. An old pluralism is starting to reassert itself.

Makhachkala’s endless growth spurt is changing things in Dagestan. The melting pot is beginning to break down the republic’s other ethnic divides. Traditionally, Dagestan has managed its diversity by a complex, Lebanese-style system of interethnic understandings. Money, resources, and jobs are allocated by a strict, if not always explicit system of quotas, while the biggest nationalities — Avars in the west, Kumyks in the north, and Dargins in the centre — divide up the top political positions amongst themselves. But as rural Dagestanis from all over the republic pour into the city, the intricate jigsaw of ethnic relations is slowly blending into a common, Dagestani identity.

The central mosque in Makhachkala. Image: WIkimedia Commons under a CC licence

A steady rise in mixed Makhachkala marriages means an increasing number of young Dagestanis speak no language but Russian, their parents’ common tongue. These new Makhachalans, many of whom talk of “going to Russia” for education and employment, are probably the most Russian generation Dagestan has ever produced. Slowly, on quiet streets and behind closed doors, trendy bars, cafes, and offices are opening up, many of which bear more than a passing resemblance to those in Moscow or St Petersburg.

“Everything that has happened recently has made Makhachkala more culturally distinct,” says Anokhina. “These days, it’s even there when you listen to the language spoken in the city. It’s a special kind of Makhachkala Russian pidgin now, full of words from the native languages.”

Makhachkala’s very appearance seems to reflect this new Dagestani identity. The city centre’s jumbled blend of Soviet, Islamic, and new Russian styles speaks to the reality of life in Dagestan: austere and religious by tradition, but chaotic and pluralistic by necessity. It is a history that sets Makhachkala apart from its neighbours, of which many locals are proud.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s making us more Russian,” says Anokhina. “More likely, it’s just making Makhachkala a more Dagestani city.

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