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ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Lezgi (pl., Lezgiar)


Identification. The Lezgins are the descendants of Caucasic peoples who have inhabited the region of southern Daghestan since at least the Bronze Age. The Lezgins are closely related, both culturally and linguistically, to the Aghuls of southern Daghestan and, somewhat more distantly, to the Tsakhurs, Rutuls, and Tabasarans (the northern neighbors of the Lezgins). Also related, albeit more distantly, are the numerically small Jek, Kryz, Khaput, Budukh, and Khinalug peoples of northern Azerbaijan. These groups, together with the Lezgins, form the Samurian branch of the indigenous Caucasic peoples.

Prior to the Russian Revolution, the Lezgins did not have a common self-designation as an ethnic group. They referred to themselves by village, region, religion, clan, or free society. Before the Revolution, the Lezgins were called "Kyurintsy," or "Akhtintsy," or "Lezgintsy" by the Russians. The ethnonym "Lezgin" itself is quite problematic. Prior to the Soviet period, the term "Lezgin" was used in different contexts. At times, it referred only to the people known today as Lezgins. At others, it referred variously to all of the peoples of southern Daghestan (Lezgin, Aghul, Rutul, Tabasaran, and Tsakhur); all of the peoples of southern Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan (Kryz [Jek], Khinalug, Budukh, Khaput); all Daghestani peoples; or all of the indigenous Moslem peoples of the northeastern Caucasus (Daghestanis, Chechens, and Ingush). In reading pre-Revolutionary works one must be aware of these different possible meanings and scope of the ethnonym "Lezgin."

Location. The Lezgins inhabit a compact territory that straddles the border area of southern Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan. It lies for the most part, in the southeastern portion of Daghestan (in Akhti, Dokuzpara, Kasumkent, Kurakh, Magaramkent, and Rutul districts) and contiguous northeastern Azerbaijan (in Kuba, Nukha, and Shemakha districts).

The Lezgin territories are divided into two physiographic zones: a region of high, rugged mountains and the piedmont (foothills). Most of the Lezgin territory is in the mountainous zone, where a number of peaks (like Baba Dagh) reach over 3,500 meters in elevation. There are deep and isolated canyons and gorges formed by the tributaries of the Samur and Gulgeri Chai rivers. In the mountainous zones the summers are very hot and dry, with drought conditions a constant threat. There are few trees in this region aside from those in the deep canyons and along the streams themselves. Drought-resistant shrubs and weeds dominate the natural flora. The winters here are frequently windy and brutally cold. In this zone the Lezgins engaged primarily in animal husbandry (mostly sheep and goats) and in craft industries.

In the extreme east of the Lezgin territory, where the mountains give way to the narrow coastal plain of the Caspian Sea, and to the far south, in Azerbaijan, are the foothills. This region has relatively mild, very dry winters and hot, dry summers. Trees are few here also. In this region animal husbandry and artisanry were supplemented by some agriculture (along the alluvial deposits near the rivers).

Demography. The Lezgins are the second-most numerous of the Daghestani peoples. In 1979 their population was 382,611, of whom 49.3 percent lived in the Daghestan ASSR and 41.3 percent in neighboring Azerbaijan. Many of the Lezgins in Azerbaijan no longer inhabit their traditional rural areas in the northern part of that republic, having moved to important urban centers there (Baku, Sumgait, Shemakha, Kuba, and others). Since the environment in the traditional Lezgin territories is so harsh, the Lezgins have had to lead their flocks of sheep and goats into winter pastures in Azerbaijan and to find seasonal employment there. The Lezgins have therefore been strongly influenced by the Turkic-speaking Azerbaijani people and their culture. The Lezgins are the most culturally Turkicized Daghestanis. Most Lezgins are traditionally bilingual (Lezgin and Azerbaijani), and over the centuries many southern Lezgins were totally assimilated by the Azerbaijanis. This process of Turkicization of the southern Lezgins continued well into the 1930s. Had the Soviet regime not decided to actively suppress this process and support the Lezgins as a distinct nationality, the current Lezgin population and the number of Lezgin speakers would be much lower. In the north, however, the Lezgins exerted a major influence on the Aghuls, Rutuls, and Tabasarans. Most of these peoples spoke Lezgin in addition to their own languages, and many were being culturally and linguistically assimilated by the Lezgins. In the early Soviet period the regime actively supported the "Lezginization" of the Aghuls and Rutuls.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Lezgin language belongs (along with Aghul, Rutul, Tsakhur, Tabasaran, Budukh, Khinalugh, Jek, Khaput, Kryz [K'rits'], and Udi) to the Lezgian or Samurian Group of the Northeast Caucasian (Checheno-Daghestani) Language Family. The Lezgin language is comprised of three closely related (mutually intelligible) dialects: Kurin (also referred to as Gunei or Kurakh), Akhti, and Kuba. The Kurin dialect is the most widespread of the three and is spoken throughout most of the Lezgin territories in Daghestan, including the town of Kurakh, which, historically, was the most important cultural, political, and economic center in the Lezgin territory in Daghestan and is the former seat of the khanate of Kurin. The Akhti dialect is spoken in southeastern Daghestan. The Kuba dialect, the most Turkicized of the three, is widespread among the Lezgins of northern Azerbaijan (named for the town of Kuba, the cultural and economical focus of the region).

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Lezgins have occupied the areas of Daghestan and Azerbaijan since at least the Bronze Age. Little, however, is known about their early history. According to legend, the Islamic religion was first introduced among the Lezgins by Arab conquerors in the eighth century. The final conversion of the Lezgins to Islam, however, came in the mid-fifteenth century with the conquest of their territory by the Shah of Shirvan, Khalil Ulloi. As a result of the long influence of the Turkish khanates of northern Azerbaijan on the Lezgins, a Lezgin feudal principality, the khanate of Kurin, was formed in 1775 with its center in Kurakh. This khanate, however, included only a relatively small part of the what was then Lezgin territory and exerted only a minor influence on the Lezgins. The majority of Lezgins continued to live in free societies, although others lived, at different times, under the khanates of Kuba, Derbent, and Kazikumukh. In 1812 the Kurin Khanate became a Russian protectorate, and in 1864, with its abolition, the Lezgin territory became an integral part of the Russian Empire. In the mid-nineteenth century, under the leadership of Shamil and his Murids, the Lezgins played a major role in the Caucasus Wars against imperial Russia.

Language and Literacy

Until the mid-nineteenth century the Lezgins, like all Muslim peoples of Daghestan and neighboring Chechnia, used the Arabic language as their only literary language. The first attempts to create a Lezgin literary language, written in Arabic script appropriating the dialect spoken in Kurakh, were made in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite efforts to establish a distinct Lezgin literary language, Arabic remained the dominant written language of the Lezgins through the early Revolutionary period (i.e., into the 1920s); it was used both for religious and secular purposes by virtually all of the intellectuals in Daghestan. Early attempts at writing this language in the Cyrillic script in 1904-1905 met with utter failure. As part of the anti-Islamic campaign of the 1920s, the Soviets changed Lezgin (and all other literary languages of the Moslem peoples of the USSR) from the Arabic to the Latin script. Then, as part of the Russification policy initiated in 1938, the literary form was changed from Latin to Cyrillic script. A major attempt was also made to replace Arabic and Persian words with Russian words. Lezgin is currently one of the nine official languages of Daghestan. Between the 1920s and 1960s Lezgin served as the language of instruction through the fifth grade among the Lezgins of Daghestan and among the Aghuls. Since the 1960s all education among the Lezgins of Daghestan has been in Russian only. Although books and journals are printed in the Lezgin language, most are translations of works from other languages (few works are written in Lezgin). Most of these translations are from the Russian language and, to a lesser extent, from other Daghestani languages. The Lezgins have a long literary tradition; however, most works by Lezgin authors of the past were written in Arabic or Azerbaijani Turkish, and contemporary works are written in Russian. Among the more renowned writers of Lezgin origin are the theologian Sa'id of Kochkhur, the mystical poet Etim Emin, the Azerbaijani historian Hasan Alkadari, and the poets Saifullah Chobanzade, Emir Arslan, and Hadji of Akhti. Soviet literature began with Sulaiman Stal'ski (the "national" poet of Daghestan) and has been followed by others, such as Tahir Alimov of Khurug, Alibek Fatahov, Shah Emir Maradov, and others.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture has never been of primary importance in the traditional Lezgin lands, which are too mountainous and dry to support farming. The raising of sheep and goats, and also of some horses, mules, and water buffalo, was more important to the Lezgin diet, which consisted primarily of meat and milk products. In better-watered areas and especially in the foothill regions, grains (wheat, rye, barley, and millet), garden vegetables (potatoes, peas, cabbage, cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes), and fruits were also grown. Because of the general rural poverty and the shortage of good agricultural land, transhumant sheepherding was widespread, requiring the males to migrate annually to the lowlands (mostly southward into Azerbaijani territory) to pasture their animals. In addition, many Lezgin males found seasonal employment in the towns and cities of northern Azerbaijan (Shemakha, Kuba, Shirvan, and others), coastal Daghestan (in the Azerbaijani-dominated town of Derbent), and in and around Baku. As a result, the Lezgins fell under a strong Azerbaijani influence and virtually all Lezgins were bilingual (Lezgin and Azerbaijani).

Industrial Arts. Lezgin women were famous throughout the Caucasus for their fine woven carpets. The Lezgins, however, were less well known, in general, for handicrafts and artisanry than the other peoples of Daghestan (Dargins, Laks, Avars, Kubachins, etc.). Because the Lezgin territories are so poor in economic potential, traditional economic enterprisesfood processing (meat, cheese, butter), leather working, and textile productionstill dominate the economy. Many Lezgins, however, work in the industrial areas of Azerbaijan and Daghestan and continue the tradition of economic out-migration. One notable alteration in the traditional economic pattern is that animals are now trucked between winter and summer pastures; in the past they were accompanied by shepherds on foot. Another is that the animals, which in the pre-Soviet period were wintered in Azerbaijan, are now driven far to the north (around Astrakhan). This was part of a Soviet policy aimed at diminishing Azerbaijani influence in southern Daghestan, and has strengthened the Russian influence on the Lezgins at the expense of the Azerbaijani influence.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, lands and herds were owned communally by extended families. Agricultural land was in short supply, and the pastures were used communally. The Lezgins had a stronger sense of land usership than of ownership. Although this should have made collectivization somewhat easier, the Lezgins openly resisted collectivization and Sovietization.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

Although a weak feudal structure had developed in the region of Kurakh, the majority of the Lezgins lived in free societies. These free societies, ruled by the village adat (traditional Daghestani customary law that predates Islam), were comprised of large extended patriarchal clans (tukhum ). The largest of the free societies were the Akhty-para, Alty-para, Dokuz-para, and Rutul (the Rutul free society was comprised of Lezgin and Rutul clans). Some Lezgin tukhums were, at different times, under foreign feudal overlordship (e.g., the Lak Khanate of Kazikumukh and the Azerbaijani khanates of Shemakha, Kuba, and Derbent). The Lezgin tukhum, a large extended family with a living or recently deceased common ancestor, owned all property. The elder patriarch or the elder male members made the major decisions for the clan. Members of the tukhum supported each other in their work and their family affairs and bore mutual responsibility for vendettas, which came under adat. Today, with modernization and out-migration, tukhums are becoming less important than they once were.

Marriage and Family

Most Lezgin marriages were within the clan even though clan exogamy was allowed. Families traditionally arranged marriages (the elder women were the most important in these decisions). The groom's family paid a bride-price (kalïm ). This custom is still followed in some areas but is becoming rarer, and the kalïm is now more of a symbolic payment.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Lezgins are primarily Sunni Muslims of the Shaft school. Given the strong Azerbaijani influence on them, however, there is a sizable Shiite minority among the Lezgins. In addition to mainstream Islamic traditions, there are many surviving pre-Islamic traditions. Many Lezgins preserve the names of pagan deities that have become synonymous with Allah. There are also many local pilgrimage sites that predate Islam. During the spring, several ancient spring rituals are also commonly practiced (e.g., young people jumping over bonfires). Bones of animals are thought to have magical and healing powers. Many pre-Islamic planting, harvest, and other rituals related to the cycles of animal husbandry are still practiced. Sufism has thrived among the Lezgins as a mystical underground movement within the Sunni superstructure. It has served as an alternative to the centralized authority of both the Islamic clergy and the Soviet government. Sufi orders provided group solidarity and protection from the Soviet system. Members provide mutual assistance in finding employment, housing, and positions in schools; help arrange marriages and pay the kalïm; maintain burial societies; and alleviate local disputes.


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 138-143. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre (1967). "The Problem of Bilingualism and Assimilation in the North Caucasus." Central Asian Review 15(3):205-211.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 168. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Geiger, Bernhard, et al. (1959). Peoples and Languages of the Caucasus. The Hague: Mouton.

Wixman, Ronald (1980). Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus. University of Chicago Department of Geography Research Paper no. 191.

Wixman, Ronald (1984). "Daghestanis." In The Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. 2nd ed., edited by Richard V. Weekes, 212-219. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


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The Lezgins are an ethnic group of which half resides in the Dagestani Republic. According to the 1989 census they numbered 240,000 within that republic, a little more than 11 percent of the population. All told, some 466,006 Lezgins lived in the Soviet Union, with most of the rest residing in Azerbaijan. Of the total, 91 percent regarded Lezgin as their native language and 53 percent considered themselves to be fluent in Russian as a second language. Within Dagestan the Lezgins are concentrated mainly in the south in the mountainous part of the republic.

The Lezgin language is a member of the Lezgin group of the Northeast Caucasian languages. In Soviet times they were gathered in the larger category of the Ibero-Caucasian family of languages. The languages within this family, while geographically close together, are not closely related outside of its four major groupings. This categorization has become understood more as a part of the Soviet ideology of druzhba narodov (friendship of peoples). The other Lezgin languages are spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan. They are generally quite small groups, and the term "Lezgin" as an ethnic category has sometimes served to cover the entire group. Ethnic self-identity, calculated with language and religion, has been a fluid concept.

The Lezgin language since 1937 has been written in a modified Cyrillic alphabet. Following the pattern of other non-Slavic languages in the Soviet Union, it had a Latin alphabet from 1928 to 1937. Before that it would have been written in an Arabic script. A modest number of books have been published in the Lezgin language. From 1984 to 1985, for example, fifty titles were published. This compares favorably with other non-jurisdictional ethnic groups, such as their fellow Dagistanis, the Avars, but less so with some nationalities that possessed some level of ethnic jurisdiction, such as the Abkhazians.

The Lezgins long gained a reputation as mountain raiders among people to their south, particularly the Georgians. Again, precision of identity was not necessarily a phenomenon in naming raiders as Lezgins. The Lezgins and the Lezgin languages were likely a part of the diverse linguistic composition of the Caucasian Kingdom of Albania. Much has been said of Udi in this context.

In the post-Soviet world the Lezgins have been involved in ethnic conflict in both Azerbaijan and Dagestan. They form a distinct minority in the former country and experience difficulty in the context of this new nation's attempt to define its own national being. In Dagestan the Lezgins, located in the mountains and constituting only 15 percent of the population, find themselves generally alienated from the centers of power. They are also in conflict with some of the groups that live more closely to them.

See also: dagestan; ethnography, russian and soviet; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Karny, Yo'av. (2000). Highlanders: a Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Paul Crego