You can be proud of being a Dagestani, proclaim the billboards lining the highway from the airport to Makhachkala.
It is the spring of 2013. The billboards picture, by way of argument, the recently appointed head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, speaking with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Both look unhappy, but the photo op, apparently a one-time occurrence, seems not to have generated a better option.
The highway to the capital, like so much of Dagestan, is an object of pride and an embarrassment at the same time. It was built recently, and well; it is by far the best road in Dagestan, so good that at night young men race their souped-up Lada Priora sedans here. The Lada Priora is a bad, Russian-made car, but its twentieth-century technology lends itself to quick fixes. Which is a good thing, because as the road enters the city, turning into the main avenue, the smooth surface gives way to potholes that can cost you your tire or your life.
Outside the city, the highway is lined with unfinished houses, scores of them. They betray modest ambition—small two-story structures along a highway—and yet even this dream has gone unfulfilled. Rectangular openings stare at the highway where windows should be. Cows graze in between these carcasses and wander lazily onto the highway.
People you meet in Dagestan will tell you where else they have been. They have rarely ventured very far, but they have invariably found any other place to be remarkably different. Several drivers tell me that in Moscow or Saint Petersburg or even provincial Astrakhan, three hundred miles to the north of Makhachkala, people do not drive into natural-gas fueling stations (almost everyone in Dagestan seems to drive a car retrofitted for natural gas) with a lit cigarette in their mouths. In Astrakhan, one man tells me, they get all the passengers out of the car before refueling. This kind of regard for human life awes and baffles him. Astrakhan is no hub of bourgeois humanitarianism, but then, compared with Dagestan, almost anyplace is.
The Russian Federation includes eighty-three nominally self-governing regions, districts, autonomies, and republics; the republics differ from the rest of the convoluted federation’s members in that they have the right to choose their own state language— mostly because the republics are, by and large, populated by non- Russian ethnic groups. Dagestan, a republic, sits on the edge of the Russian empire, a mere two and a half hours by plane south-southeast from Moscow but as culturally remote as the far north-east, where Russia borders the United States, or the far east, where it seeps into China. Dagestan borders Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south and war-torn Chechnya to the north. Throughout its history as a part of Russia, Dagestan has been one of the poorest parts of the empire, and one of the most embattled. It has also always been the most diverse, with dozens of distinct ethnic groups living in various states of war and peace. Each group has a fiercely defined identity, but no single ethnic group claims the region as an ersatz nation-state, and a Dagestani identity per se can hardly be said to exist. So the billboards seem to be calling on people to take pride simply in living in Dagestan. But why would anyone want to live here?
This is where the story begins.