Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Swan Bride/Part 1 - Dagestan - A Brief History

You may wish to skip the history

Part 2 - Lezginka
Part 3 -  The Dance of  the Swan Bride
Part 4 - A Political Epilogue

Part 1
A Brief History of Dagestan

To be moved by the story of the Swan Bride you have to understand her country. 

I have to admit that when we received the invitation to visit Dagestan we had no idea where the republic was.  We were drinking tea and enjoying the warm hospitality of two Dagestani girls in the cultural hall at the Sochi Olympics and looking at the most beautiful dance costumes; Saida and Diana told us about the richness of their country and invited us to visit, we had no hesitation in accepting their kind invitation.  Last week we visited Dagestan for eight days.

We now know Dagestan is a small Russian republic squeezed along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The name "Dagestan" is a compound of two words: "Dagi" which means mountains and "Stan" which means Country.  This name does not describe the Northern part of the republic which is flat semi arid land that connects to the Eurasian Steppe and Russia, but "dagistan" is a good descriptive name for the Southern part of the republic which is all mountains except for one narrow belt of flat land that runs along the coast of the Caspian sea.  This narrow belt of land provided the only passageway for traders who wanted to cross from the southern Silk Road to Russia and the Balkan states in the North. 

In the 4th century the Persians built wall across the passageway to control and tax passing traders. They called their fortress wall Darband which in Persian  means gateway.  Derbent, as the modern city is now known, is thought to have been in continuous habitation for 5,000 years which would make it the oldest city in Europe.  For millennia Derbent was the gateway between Northern nomadic peoples from the Eurasian and Mongolian Steppes and the empires of the Arabic, Iranian and Turkish peoples that came from the South. 

In 627 the Persian Christian leaning Sassanid empire were kicked out of Derbent by an Islamic Turkic Khaganate.  Derbent has the remains of one of the oldest churches in Europe which was built be the Persians, it is also the place through which Islam filtered into Europe.  Islam spread through the Derbent gateway into the Caucuses and Europe. 

Dagestan is a crossroads country that is dotted with pockets of ethnic peoples who have settled in the mountains and lowlands along the coast of the Caspian Sea, this tiny population of 3 million have over 20 languages and even more ethnic groups.  This is crude map of the ethnic diversity of Dagestan (boundary marked in dark pink). 

Diana and her cousin, The Swan Bride, are Laks, who were Mountain people.  Saida, who sadly could not join us during our visit, is a Tabasaran

The Russians, in Imperial overdrive after Napoleon had been repulsed from Moscow, invaded the Caucases in 1817.  The Russian fighting became known as the Caucasian wars (1817 - 1864) and lasted nearly 40 years. Tolstoy and Lermontov, who both took part,  wrote about their experience of the brutal subjugation of the warrior tribesmen that resisted Russian dominance. The last of the great warrior defenders of the Caucasus came from Dagestan; his name was Aman Shamil.  

Red bearded Shamil was captured in 1859 and taken across Russia to St Petersburg.  He told his compatriots that he had had no idea of the size and power of the country they had been fighting, and advised his armies to put down their weapons.  Some, including the Chechens (Chechnya) and Avars (N. Dagestan) did not heed his advice and continued to fight for a few more years, but without the agile and brave leadership of Shamil the Caucasian cause was broken .  

Shamil's sons became officers in the Russian Army, and on the whole Shamil's advice was right. The Dagestani's decision to be loyal to Russia has saved them from the fate that befell the Circassians, whose rebellious nature was severely punished by the Russians: In the 19th century the Russians forcibly moved 90% of the Circassian population out of the North Caucus mountains and dumped them in the Ottoman empire.  In the 1940s half a million Chechens, who Stalin falsely accused of being pro-Germans, were forcibly moved to Siberia and the deserts of Khakastan where nearly 60% of their population perished.

The Dagestanis sided with the Bolsheviks against white cossacks who had been garrisoned in the Caucuses, but being loyal to Russia was not easy.  The Soviets outlawed Islam and in the 1940s moved half of the populations of the mountain people down on to the flat land that had been vacated by the Chechens.  Diana's, and the Swan Bride's grand-parents, were moved from the mountains to the flat lands of Northern Dagestan.  Diana told me a story about how her great grandfather had decided one day that the family would no longer pray or be faithful to Islam, and how her great grandmother never forgave him for his decision.  She said his decision was about protecting his family.  Diana's people, who accepted their fate as being part of Russia, now speak and think of themselves as Russian.  They will tell you "Dagestan cannot exist without Russia", I heard this phrase many times, even from people who have since reconverted to Islam.  One very Islamic girl asked me "what is this news about Scotland wanting to be independent from Britain?  We are amazed, we cannot understand it".

The Swan Bride Part 1 - A Brief History of Dagestan

The Swan Bride Part 2 - Lezginka

The Swan Bride Part 3 -  The Dance of  the Swan Bride

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