Dagestan, part of the ethnically diverse Caucasus region, is an especially rich area of ethnic and linguistic variety. An Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of the RSFSR during the Soviet period, it has continued to be an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation since. There are twenty-six distinct languages in the Northeast Caucasian family. The majority of these languages' speakers live in Dagestan. The largest of these are Avar, Dargin, and Lezgin. The total population of the Dagestan A.S.S.R. in 1989 was 1.77 million. Many other nationalities, such as Russians, also live in Dagestan.
The capital of Dagestan is Makhachkala, located on the Caspian Sea. The Terek River is the most important river in Dagestan, flowing from Chechnya and toward the Caspian Sea. There is a small coastal plain that gives rise quickly to the eastern portion of the main Caucasus range. The most intense ethno-linguistic diversity is found in the mountains as a result of the isolation that historically separated groups of people. The northern part of Dagestan connects with the Eurasian steppe.
Many of the people of Dagestan are descendents of the residents of the ancient Caucasian Albanian Kingdom. This kingdom was known for its multiplicity of languages and was Christian for many centuries, having close relations with the Armenian people and their Christian culture.
Dagestanis were traditionally Muslims peoples. Attempts in the post-Soviet period to incite Islam-based rebellion, however, have been generally unsuccessful. These rebellions have come from the direction of the troubled Republic of Chechnya, which is located west of Dagestan. The Islam of Dagestan was traditionally a Sufi-based Islam, one that is inimical to the sort of puritanical Sunni sectarianism that is exported from other parts of the Islamic world. Sufism in this part of the world is not without its militant expression; one of the most famous leaders, Shamil, was an Avar of Dagestan. His power base was mainly in the Central Caucasus among the Chechens.
Unlike many of their other neighbors in the Caucasus, the Dagestanis, for the most part, did not experience the exile and deportation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This makes the narrative of their people much less filled with the anger and alienation that characterizes Chechen, Abkhazian, and other histories. The ethnic fragmentation of Dagestan has also prevented a unified Dagestani national identity from being formed.
The Russian Empire appeared in this area in two different forms: by the Cossacks who lived at the periphery of the empire in the semiautonomous communities; and by means of the imperial army's movement down the Volga River and to the western shore of the Caspian. Peter the Great captured territory in this area, but Dagestan was not fully brought into the Russian Empire until the mid-nineteenth century.
The Soviet period saw the creation of Cyrillic-based alphabets for the various languages of Dagestan. This strengthened the existence of the larger languages, and may have forestalled the extinction of some of the smallest of the languages. It also served to forestall the creation of a united Dagestani national identity.
In the post-Soviet period, in addition to Islamic agitation from the west, there has also been a certain amount of ethnic conflict. The conflict is generally over who will control the politics and patronage of certain enclaves, while the larger groups jockey for position in the republic's government. Some of the conflicts result from the ethnic mixing that was encouraged and sometimes forced during the Soviet period.
See also: avars; caucasus; dargins; islam; lezgins; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist
Hill, Fiona. (1995). "Russia's Tinderbox: Conflict in the North Caucasus and Its Implication for the Future of the Russian Federation." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project.
Karny, Yo'av. (2000). Highlander: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.