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Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Dagestan

Elmira, a Kumyk woman


A Trip to Dagestan

Victoria Lomasko

Translation: Thomas Campbell



 The first sight I was shown in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a Russian Federation republic in the North Caucasus, was the prison on Scorpion Hill.

“A rebuilt garrison fortress, it is one of the oldest buildings in town: the original masonry walls have survived,” the locals said.

Another such sight was an ordinary nineteenth-century mansion, deemed the most beautiful house in Makhachkala.

The locals also suggested touring the numerous markets.

“Our city is one big bazaar,” they said.


The fish stalls of the second market I visited, where I sketched a Tabarasan man and a Dargin man.

I tried to draw and mingle with people at the markets. What is your ethnicity? is a question people are glad to answer in Makhachkala. Over thirty ethnic groups peacefully coexist in Dagestan.

After receiving a complimentary portrait from me, one man came back half an hour later, drawing in hand.

“I took a closer look at it and realized you drew the nose too big,” he said.

Another sitter, a female honey vendor, also rejected her portrait.

“Everyone says I have a straight Greek nose. But you have given me a Roman nose,” she explained.

The women had asked me to draw her with her son. An elderly passerby noted behind my back that Islam prohibited making images of human beings.

03_MaryamwebMaryam (left): “Muslim women are not supposed to let themselves be drawn. Am I committing a sin?” Her son Muhammad is on the right.


Students from Jemal College, where I gave a lecture, talked about cases when people had enrolled in the art department but then refused to draw models for religious reasons.

“Some ‘covered’ girls destroy drawings of models after critiques. They want to do only costume design,” the students said.

“Covered” refers to girls and women who have donned the hijab.


Teacher Tatyana Borisovna: “Religion does not allow us to draw nude models.”

 There is no nudity in the art department.

“One year we sketched a guy without a shirt,” the students recalled. “But even that was behind closed doors. The model did not want everyone to know he was posing.”

05_MusawebMusa, aspiring contemporary artist: “I like contemporary art because it is incomprehensible.”

 Me: “You don’t want Dagestanis to understand it and come to exhibitions?”

 Musa: “No.”

 This was the conversation I had with a student who attended my lecture on socially engaged art.


06_KizilurtwebSaida (left): “If someone objects to me drawing, I’ll lose my temper.” Her friend and fellow student Raisat is on the right.

“What can a woman do in Dagestan?” asked Saida. “Islam says a woman cannot dance or sing.”

Friends Saida and Raisat hail from the town of Kizilyurt. They rent a flat together in Makhachkala. Their families calmly let the girls go to the big city to study art, and Saida’s mom even helps out with hanging their works during critiques.

“As a child, I saw a girl from a religious family dressed all in white and wearing a scarf. It was so beautiful. That was when I first asked Mom to buy me a scarf. When I read the Koran, I realized I was wearing the scarf for myself. Anyone can go up to an ‘uncovered’ girl and ask for her phone number. I feel comfortable wearing a hijab, a tunic, and jeans,” Saida said.

“I would like to wear a scarf, but my parents would think the Wahhabis had recruited me. The husband of an acquaintance of mine was recruited, and they left with their children for Syria. They are convinced if they perish there they will go straight to paradise. There are girls who take off their scarves when they leave the house, and there are girls who put them on when their parents are not looking,” said Madina, another student.

Uma’s mom is a music teacher, and her dad is an artist.

“When I said I wanted to study art, Dad silently left the room. And he came back with a sketch pad.”


“They try and marry off girls in a hurry, while they still have no opinions of their own.”

“In a hurry” means before the age of twenty. In Dagestan, it is important the husband be able to easily train his wife to suit himself.


There are many women in Makhachkala whose appearance is emphatically sexual. I tried to meet some of these “bombs” (the local subculture of fashionable women with long black hair and enlarged lips), and ended up meeting a model.


Model (right): “‘I can convey the charms of Islam to you,’ my husband said to me. I put on a headscarf and felt as if I had died.” On the left is her friend, a journalist.

 Although still quite young, the model had already been married, dealt with domestic violence, and been divorced. I have not identified her by name here, because such models are far and few between in Dagestan.

“It is risky being a model. I don’t walk around outside,” she said.

09_the busweb

“Covered” women riding a bus to the Tsumadin Market in Makhachkala.

The Highland Villages: Kidero, Mokok, and Bezhta


In Makhachkala I met the ethnographer Patimat “Patya” Magomedova. Patya invited me to join her on a trip to the highland villages along the Georgian border. Her goal was to research female circumcision in Dagestan. In the village of Kidero she interviewed a woman who had performed the “operation” for many years.


Aishat (left): “I do it the way my stepmother taught me. I tell everyone I can teach them. A nurse wanted me to teach her, but how could I show her? She should bring a girl.” On the right is Patya Magomedova.

 “I make a small incision to start the bleeding. One little drop of blood suffices. Circumcisions were performed in Soviet times as well. I do it to the girls before they have their first periods. After their periods start, the girls are ashamed, and I ashamed to look. When they did it to me, there was an older girl ahead of me who cried, ‘It hurts!’ I ran away, and my grandmother had to catch me. Afterwards she explained, ‘Now you will be pretty. You can perform the prayers and will do well at school,’” Aishat recounted.

Why are circumcisions performed? Several women responded by saying they had been circumcised themselves and would circumcise their own daughters.

Others said it followed from the Sunnah, the sacred legacy of the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They said Muhammad had his daughters circumcised, and so all Muslim women should be circumcised.

Both most of the women had circumcised their daughters or were planning to have them circumcised so they would not “run around.”


Little Patya and her dad

The mother of this little girl thought it would be better for her to be “cold” than “depraved.”

The question of whether to circumcise girls is decided by the mothers with the passive consent of the fathers. Some mothers plan to have their daughters circumcised even if their husbands do not agree.

“Now is a difficult time: there are many women and few men. A girl should be circumcised so that in the event she can live alone.”


In Kidero we stayed with a relative of Patya’s named Bika. Bika had married a man as his second wife. Her circumstances are quite ordinary in Dagestan. The husband lives in another village with his first wife, and he visits Bika from time to time.

“After my divorce, I was left with two children, but I did not want to be someone’s second wife. When my current husband courted me, the relatives noticed and the gossiping began. Like it or not, I had to agree to get married. Now things are good. Living as a divorced woman is too hard in a village. Even if you behave perfectly, the gossiping starts,” Bika said.


Bika: “According to Islam, a man has a legal right to take a second wife.” On the right is Patya Magomedova.

Bika told another story.

“There was once a shootout in Kidero, and two policemen were killed. Sometime after the incident the women were arguing about second wives. Hearing the argument, the widow of one of the slain policeman said, ‘I’d rather my husband had another nine wives but were still alive. At least I would see him once a year.’ Her remark was followed by an embarrassed silence.”

“The second wife is a legitimized mistress,” said Patimat.

She argued that almost no one stays with his second wife until old age. According to Islam, the husband should provide equally for both wives, but often the second wife does not receive serious material support.

This is a conversation we had while visiting another home in the village.

“Why are there only women in the house?”

“She is a second wife. Her husband does not live here, so among adult men only her relatives can visit the house.”


This was Patimat’s opinion of the scandalous wedding, in Chechnya, between 46-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov stalwart Nazhuda Guchigov and 17-year-old Luiza Goilabiyeva.

“I don’t understand why such a huge scandal was made over the wedding. Sometimes the brides are fourteen years old. Just imagine, a girl being forced to marry! It happens here all the time. Often the choice of the parents even proves to be the better one. And under Islam it is legal to have a second wife. I would not want my life discussed so publicly. I think the Chechens will kill the female journalist who broke the story,” she said.


In Kidero I met with Sirazhudin Abdurahmanov, author of The Hairpin Turns in Our Lives, an account of the forced relocation of Dagestanis to Chechnya, in 1944, and back to Dagestan, between 1956 and 1958.

“Several districts were relocated then, but only our district, Tsuntin, was completely burned. Houses were set on fire right in front of their inhabitants, because they refused to leave. Families lost up to five or six members along the way or in Chechnya itself. Many people came down with malaria; it was tough for people to acclimatize. The Chechens saddled a horse with a golden saddle for Hitler, but why were we deported?” Abdurakhmanov said.

Abdurahmanov was born in Chechnya and finished the sixth grade there. I asked him what he remembered about the return to Kidero from Chechnya.

“We returned to the mountains in ZiL trucks. There was one truck per household, and so we could not take a lot with us. When the road ended, we set off on foot,” he said.


“Why is there nothing in Russian textbooks about the forcible deportation of the Dagestanis?”


Sirazhudin Abdurahmanov: “When my parents came back, the house was gone. But they were told to get the collective farm up and running before tending to their own household.”

When I asked Abdurahmanov, “Why do you write in your book at the fair and caring time of Stalin?” he became indignant.

“Could Stalin possibly have seen how the deportation was carried out? What do you think he was doing during the war?” he retorted.

For several years, Abdurahmanov and his allies have been seeking to have the deportation of the Dagestanis recognized as a historical fact, and monetary compensation paid to residents of the Tsuntin District, which had been burnt down. He believes it is critical to “bring the problem to Putin’s attention.” When he learned that a Muscovite had arrived in Kidero and was interested in local history, he walked from one end of the village to other in the rain to meet with me, but he was visibly disappointed I had no access to the president, although I worked in Moscow.


This is Abdurahmanov’s neighbor lady Halimat. She was born in Chechnya and remembers the return to a Kidero in ruins.


Residents of the nearby village of Mokok also hope that help from Moscow will arrive. Their school is falling apart: the walls could collapse on the children at any moment. They have been demanding repairs for over twenty years. Officials from Makhachkala have visited the school, and there have been reports in Dagestani media, but all their efforts have been in vain.


“They propose closing our school and transporting the children to the neighboring village by bus. This would be too dangerous on our local roads,” the primary grades teacher said.


 This was a physical education class.

“The girls do pushups at home. The boys do pushups here on the floor, because we do not have any mats,” the teacher said.

The school is heated with a wood furnace. Classes are often interrupted because of the smoke. From October on, the children sit in the classroom in their overcoats.

“Our dilapidated school takes first place in district competitions,” the school’s principal said. “We have had these desks since I was a pupil here. We do only cosmetic repairs.”


In Mokok we visited a big family.


“When the wife was expecting our last child, the doctor told me she would die and had to have an abortion. I said, “Let her die. I will not murder my own children.”

This couple had nine grown children, thirteen grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Except for the youngest son, all the children lived in their own houses. The parents hoped the youngest son would soon get married but would stay with them so his wife could help around the house.


Youngest sister: “There is no entertainment here. A female friend and I would walk to the nearest mountain when it was sunny, and even then the men were indignant. ‘Why are you going there?’ they asked.”

There is no good road to Mokok. When it is snowy, rainy or icy, the narrow mountain road becomes hazardous and impassable. The villagers, especially the women, rarely leave the village. Life here is more isolated than in nearby villages. Perhaps this is one reason why there are many marriages between close relatives.

“How can you marry a completely strange man?” was how one woman, who had married her first cousin, remarked on this state of affairs.


Eldest sister: “If had a one-room flat in Makhachkala I wouldn’t stay here for a single day.”

Most of the men in the village use various social networks, but they forbid their wives from using them. As in the rest of Dagestan, women are first supervised by their fathers, brothers, and male cousins, then by their husbands.

As the youngest brother in the family said, “God forbid that my sister should talk on the telephone with some man! I would feel we had disgraced the entire village.”


The last stop on our trip was Bezhta, Patimat’s native village. All the Bezhta residents with whom I spoke noted they had a “secular society.” In their view, villages like Kidero and Mokok were overly religious. During Soviet times, the people of Bezhta had often traveled to Georgia, and many of them still like Georgian culture.

I quizzed Patimat’s great uncle, who had taught at the village school during Soviet times, about how communist ideology, Islam, and highland customs had combined back then.


“I’m a communist even today. I respect Stalin’s regime and policies.”

 He told me that it had been forbidden to pray openly but everyone had prayed at home. Teachers made sure the children did not pray at school. Young Pioneer girls came to school wearing headscarves and Young Pioneer ties. One resident of Bezhta recalled how the authorities had tried to combat this for a couple years during the 1980s. Girls were supposed to attend classes with their heads uncovered.

The teacher had seen his future wife at school and went to her parents to have the match made.


“I didn’t known him before that. I got married, and then finished school.”

It was considered a disgrace for a couple to socialize before the wedding. Young men and women were able to meet and socialize before getting married only between the sixties and the eighties. (Different sources named different decades.)

“The ways of doing things now are more correct,” said Patimat’s aunt.

“If relationships between men and women were wholly governed by highland customs, how was the Soviet ideology of sexual equality expressed?” I asked.

“By the fact that boys and girls sat at the same desks in school,” replied Patimat’s great uncle.


This is what a typical family evening looks like in Bezhta. Every home has Wi-Fi, and most people are active social network users. The children constantly watch television and more and more often speak Russian with each other. The older generation studied Russian at school, but in everyday life they spoke only Bezhta.


Here was what women in the three villages had said about wearing headscarves.

“If I stop wearing a headscarf, my relatives will kill me,” said a woman in Kidero.

“Little girls start wearing headscarves between the ages of three and five. People are already unhappy my little girl does not wear a headscarf, but I would rather make her start wearing one when she is ten,” said a woman in Mokok.

“Here you can go about in whatever you like, even a kimono,” said a woman in Bezhta.

Despite the village’s “secularism,” there has never been a disco there. The locals think discos are places for girls of “easy virtue.” Young people meet mainly at weddings.

As in earlier times, it is crucial to stay a virgin. I was told that if a couple had premarital sex, the guy would later refuse to marry the girl. The women of Bezhta were surprised when I told them that in Russia people lived together before getting married.


We returned to Makhachkala from Bezhta on a shuttle bus. The trip took around seven hours.

While we bumped along as the bus made crazy turns over precipices, a fellow passenger told us how the locals had traveled to the big city in Soviet times.

“Even in winter we would ride in the open back of a truck, wrapped in a blanket. Now it’s comfortable,” he said.

The shuttle travels from Bezhta to Makhachkala every morning, and once a week from Kidero. The only way out of Mokok is in your own car or in a UAZ off-road vehicle that functions as a private taxi.