Sandwiched between the rugged, snowy peaks of the Caucasus and the salty waters of the landlocked Caspian Sea, Dagestan is part of the Russian Federation, yet many Russian citizens know little about it.
Yet for the last two centuries, Russia and Dagestan’s histories have been tightly intertwined. Tsarist Russia took control of the North Caucasus by the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union deepened its tradition of centralized rule. These years left a deep imprint on Dagestanis’ lives.
With the creation of the Dagestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, this traditional Muslim society began to morph into a secular Soviet republic. Dagestani craftsmen began to abandon their individual workshops as the centrally planned economy took hold. Dagestan’s renowned tightrope walkers began working with local Houses of Culture, a mainstay of the Soviet system which limited their performances elsewhere. Religious rituals were discouraged - no longer the Quran’s teachings, but Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin's mottos were the standard to follow.
The new order hit the human landscape, too. Entire communities were forcibly relocated from the highlands to the valleys. Many villages were emptied and left to decay.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the republic took on the rugged task of unearthing its past and defining its identity. Dagestanis could be equally proud of Imam Shamil, the legendary 19th-century fighter who resisted tsarist rule in the Caucasus, and Musa Manarov, the first Dagestani cosmonaut of the USSR space era.
Women contemplate the sunrise on the Caspian Sea in Kaspiysk, a large satellite city to Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. In the background stands Dagdiesel’s Plant #8 which was one of the largest factories in what was an autonomous republic in USSR. Dagdiesel was founded in 1932 to build naval torpedoes, generators, and ship instruments. It still operates today, but at a lower capacity. Plant #8 used to be a testing area for Soviet underwater missiles.
A painting depicting a traditional Dagestani village welcomes visitors to the House of Culture in Tpig, a mountain village in the south of Dagestan.
Avshalum Yakubov, 80, walks through the Jewish cemetery in the village of Madjalis. He is the last member of a once thriving local Jewish community which ran a wealthy kolkhoz in the area. An only child, Yakubov wanted to join the kolkhoz, but his mother prevented him from doing so. He became a musician, instead.
A police checkpoint on a mountain road in Dagestan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, various Islamic militant groups took root in the North Caucasus and Dagestan remains heavily policed.
A view of Dagestan’s mountains on the way to Tsovkra, a village renowned for its tightrope walkers
Teenager Zumrud Gadjieva trains on a tightrope in Tsovkra, a mountain village in central Dagestan where the centuries-old craft is still practiced, although to a lesser extent. Dagestani tightrope walkers are renowned and have been employed in circuses in Russia and the former Soviet Union for decades.
As spring approaches, Dagestani youngsters set bonfires atop nearby mountains to celebrate Nowruz, a traditional Zoroastrian celebration which marks the beginning of spring on the vernal equinox. Here, bonfires rim a mountain overlooking the southern village of Shara. In Dagestan, the ritual, also observed in modern Iran, Central Asia and elsewhere in the Caucasus, stems from Persia’s centuries-old influence on the region.
Ashik Osman, 70, plays the saz, a traditional string instrument, on stage at the House of Culture in the village of Avadan. A well-known Legzin musician in Dagestan, Osman is the head of the republic’s only saz school.
Shakhbuba, 50, balances on a tightrope near Kabir-Kazmalyar, in southern Dagestan. Infertile land has caused many Dagestanis to leave their villages and move to other areas of first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and, finally, today’s Russian Federation in search of work. This temporary migration, called otkhodnichestvo in Russian, kept the tightrope craft alive since Dagestanis often would use this unique skill to earn their living outside of Dagestan.
Children pray in the main mosque of Kumukh, a village in southern Dagestan. The mosque is believed to have been built in 778-779, soon after the area embraced Islam.
On the mountainous road to Kumukh, which once lay within range of Silk Road trade routes to and from China. The road used to be the main travel link between the north and south of Dagestan. Today, there is a faster road running along the Caspian Sea coast.
A workshop in the silver factory of Kubachi, a village in southern Dagestan with a long tradition of silversmithing. Before the 1917 revolution, smiths worked independently, but under Soviet rule they were organized into cooperatives that eventually employed hundreds of local craftsmen. After the collapse of the USSR, most of these craftsmen returned to private business. Kubachi’s silver factory still functions, but today has just a few dozen employees, according to the factory director.
Ethnic Tabasaran women in the carpet factory in Mezhgul, a village in southern Dagestan known for its carpet weaving. Depending on the size, creating a carpet requires the work of between four and six women for roughly three to six months. As throughout the Caucasus, only women weave the carpets.
The upper part of Vachi, a predominantly ethnic Lak village in southern Dagestan. Laks, who speak their own Lak language, live mainly in southern Dagestan with a few communities present in Azerbaijan as well. In the summer of 1944, Laks from about 30 mountain villages were forcefully relocated to lowlands previously inhabited by Chechens who had been pushed out to Central Asia. More recent, voluntary migration to larger towns has caused many of Vachi’s houses, to fall into disrepair.
A private residence in the village of Vachi features a portrait of Stalin and an image of the Kaaba, the Mecca building that ranks as Islam’s most sacred site.
The Sulak River’s Chirkey Dam is Russia’s tallest arch dam (232.5 meters) and, at 1,000 megawatts, the North Caucasus’ largest hydroelectric power station. It started operating in 1974 and supplies electricity to central-south Dagestan.
A leftover Soviet slogan in the village of Tsudakhar proclaims that "The march of Ilyich's [Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s] thoughts, ideas and words expands across the universe."
Zakharia Magomedov, 51, sits by his small dacha on the bank of the Avar Koisu River at Irganai. The construction of the Irganai hydroelectric dam started in 1977 and it was only finalized in 2008. Most residents of the village were relocated at different times in the 1990s and 2000s.
A shepherd with his flock near Kumukh, a predominantly Lak village in southern Dagestan.
Saadat, the keeper of the local history museum in the central Dagestani village of Khunzakh.
Still one of Dagestan’s main tourist sites, the mountain village of Gunib was popular in the Soviet Union for its sanatorium and reputed cures for respiratory diseases. Its strategic location has served military purposes too. In 1859, legendary Caucasus resistance leader Imam Shamil took his last stand against Tsarist Russian troops here.
A family returns home to the village of Tsulikana after working in the fields.
A monument in Kumukh commemorates Musa Manarov, the first Soviet cosmonaut from the Caucasus. An ethnic Lak, Manarov was born in Baku, but his parents hailed from Kumukh -- reason enough for the village to honor him like a native. Manarov, now 67, traveled into space in 1988 and in 1990.