Of Love for Dagestan, the Land of Mountains by Andy Shenk
May 12, 2012, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Reflections, Sports | Tags: , , , , , ,

The last time I visited Makhachkala, my friends and I were chased out of town, slipping out by the sea on a train headed for Moscow. We left carrying an oversized teddy bear, our suitcases, and memories of a proud, beautiful land.

Eleven years before I arrived for the first time with my family on a stuffy, overflowing Aeroflot airplane direct from Moscow, sixteen checked suitcases and boxes holding our belongings for a new life in the mountains of Dagestan. First, though, Makhachkala would squeeze us, enfolding us in its grimy, cement-stained arms until we resigned ourselves to sipping tea and watching old Bond movies flicker across the black-and-white TV. We lodged at the Hotel Lenin, right on the main city boulevard, Leninskii Prospekt. My siblings and I enjoyed the glass Fanta and Coke bottles we ordered from the hotel restaurant…the tepidly warm beverage, not so much. While our parents traipsed about buying furniture, securing documents, and attending social events to which their friends kept inviting them, we kids hung out with other expatriate children. Down to the beach on the Caspian Sea one day, another day walking up and down the wide pedestrian avenue in the middle of Leninskii Prospekt. There wasn’t much more to do in the city of 400,000 for an eight-year-old American boy who didn’t speak Russian. The city closed in on me, my grassy backyard and basketball hoop, cold clean water flowing from the tap, and immaculate streets and sidewalks that I biked down thousands of miles away in suburban Ohio. But I did begin to assimilate one important concept, subconsciously at first, when we first came to Makhachkala. After eight years of living in a one-story brick house in Northridge, Dagestan would be my new home.

Most of my years in Dagestan passed in the Tabasaran highlands, a hundred miles south of Makhachkala. There the Caucasus Mountains gracefully slope toward the shore of the Caspian Sea, pinching the ancient city of Derbent against the water just forty miles east of the village Bookhnog where we made our home. To the north, west, and south rose mountain ridges, the highest western ridge cresting just over nine thousand feet. On this sheltered land rested dozens of small Tabasaran villages, some thousands of years old, but all of them sputtering, choking in the fumes of the Soviet collapse. Work remained for precious few when the carpet factories and collective farms disbanded, and the grueling task of wringing food from the mountain sides drove the young folk en masse to the cities. Makhachkala, Derbent, Izberbash, and Kaspiisk swelled with the influx of young village couples hoping to find an easier, more profitable life in the urban sprawl creeping along the coast of the Caspian.

Continue Reading...Our family settled in Bookhnog, population two hundred, where the fog rolled in every afternoon from the valleys beneath our ridge, blotting out the mountain sunshine in the blink of an eye. Pea soup fog so thick you could hear the cows mooing for what seemed an eternity on their walk home from pasture before they came clomping by. The buckets full of crystal glass water from the spring a quarter mile away strained your muscles on the walk through the muddy village paths, but the sweet liquid sliding down the throat took away every ache and pain. On late September mornings we awoke to marvel at the fresh coatings of snow on the surrounding ridges and peaks; on clear summer evenings the full moon rose large as a golden saucer in the southern sky; at night we took our time walking to the outhouse, overwhelmed by the brilliant canopy of stars shining above.

The people of the village invited us into their homes freely, initiating us in the Dagestani traditions of hospitality. My siblings and I learned the Russian language alongside our friends at the local school, oblivious to their harsh Caucasian accent. The native tongue, Tabasaran, possessed over forty letters in the alphabet, including five distinct variations on our letter “K” and six variations on “CH.” During religious holidays, and at weddings and funerals we observed our friends’ Islamic faith drawing the community together. On May 9th and February 23rd Russian patriotism took precedence with school-sponsored festivities celebrating the brave history of the Russian and Soviet military.

Yes, in the evenings many men drank themselves stupid on vodka as only true mountain men can. Parents became old before their children’s eyes; by fifty many looked similar in age to pampered American septuagenarians. And the work, yes, the work came in unceasing waves of knee-cracking, back-breaking, joint-splitting labor up and down the mountain valleys. Cows to be milked at five, chickens and turkeys to feed, rows and rows of potatoes to plant and weed and hoe and harvest by hand. Slopes of golden hay to cut down by scythe in late July, dry, and carry home on rickety old Russian trucks. Wood to chop in the woods, split at home and stoke the furnace with. Hours of cooking, preparing meals from scratch to feed the sprawling families, all on simple wood stoves; perhaps a gas range if you were rich. Dishes to wash, and water to haul, and laundry to stomp clean by feet on the concrete slab by the village spring. Bookhnog, and with it, the Dagestani mountains, sagged under the weight of miserable work providing nothing but more work the next day and the next day and the next.

I lived in this land for much of eight years, growing from a boy into a soft-spoken American teenager who spoke Russian like the lads from the Caucasus. At age sixteen I moved back to the States to earn an American high school diploma and enroll in college. The summer following my freshman year at Carleton College two friends and I traveled back to Dagestan, sweating out a brutal thirty-five hour bus ride from Moscow to Makhachkala to spend two weeks with my Dagestani friends. The family had left a few years before, unable to secure governmental permission to remain living in the republic. I savored the time with old acquaintances, hiked up and down the dusty mountain roads to village after village to see everyone I could. Reluctantly, with tears in our eyes, Joe, Andrew and I left the mountains, bumping down the highway first to Derbent and then Makhachkala, where we said our final goodbyes.

Our last day, my final memory from the Land of Mountains, the local bureaucracy extended its welcome, too, hosting us in an office near the city limits, attempting to discern whether we were permitted to grace Dagestan with our presence. Seven hours passed in negotiation. Finally, a few minutes before the train for Moscow pulled out from beside the sea our inquisitors delivered us to the station and we breathlessly boarded our wagon, clutching the oversized teddy bear an elderly friend had delivered on the steps of the station, to be delivered to my niece in Columbus, Ohio.

I remember the dwelling place of my youth often now. Five years have gone by, but the emergence last year of Makhachkala’s football club, Anzhi, on the world arena allows me to reconnect daily with life in the Dagestani capital. I love watching the Dagestani fans crowd ancient Dinamo Stadium just a stone’s throw from Leninskii Prospekt and cheer their fabulously rich team on to glory. They’ve qualified for European competition next year, and will soon ascend European football’s highest heights, Inshallah. Some of my Bookhnog friends, long gone from the village, may be in the stands tomorrow when Anzhi hosts Russian champions Zenit in their final home match of the season. The Dagestan that I knew as a child is changing, foreign investment surging in to tap the Caspian oil fields and to build the tourist infrastructure long dreamed of by Dagestani businessmen and politicians. High-profile football will draw European fanatics, wishing to see their team play a match in one of Russia’s most hitherto unknown republics. The days when I could boast of being one of only a few Westerners to have ever lived in Dagestan are passing. So be it. All I wish for now is the chance to mingle again on the Dagestani streets and hike through the mountain valleys. I’d go to the Anzhi matches and wave my yellow-green scarf, proud to know this place and to know these people.