Ilyas Kayayev’s cramped apartment behind Makhachkala’s Polytechnic University is an unexpected repository for ancient treasure.
In a cluttered back room, the balding, 50-something historian stores books from his grandfather’s library: 600-year-old volumes on mathematics and religion, an 18th-century apothecary manual. They are written in Arabic, not Russian.
The fragile tomes are a testament to Dagestan’s long exposure to the outside world via the Caspian Sea. The first wave of Islamization was brought by Arabs, followed by Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. By the 15th century, the Caucasus was almost entirely Islamized.
Learning became a “profession” in Dagestan, Kayayev says, because the mountainous land was hard to cultivate, motivating young men to study.
The czars’ armies only managed to subjugate the region’s unruly highlanders in the mid-19th century, as Turkish and Persian influence waned.
After seizing power in the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were determined to stamp out religion and independent scholarship wherever they encountered it. Kayayev’s grandfather, a scholar who had studied in Cairo, was imprisoned three times and ended up dying in exile in Kazakhstan.
Stalin deported entire ethnic groups he deemed untrustworthy to the wastelands of Central Asia.
People in Dagestan destroyed the books they owned for fear of repressions, Kayayev says. No more than a tenth of the volumes contained in Dagestan’s pre-revolutionary libraries survived the Bolsheviks.
Kayayev fully accepts the messiness of history, namely that Russian colonization meant subjugation and modernization. At the same time, he rejects that the new rulers were especially harsh on the North Caucasus – after all, serfs in Russia lived in bondage at the time of the czarist conquest.
“Everybody was equally downtrodden,” Kayayev says. Even though both his grandfathers died in Bolshevik captivity, he can’t say Russian rule has been bad on the whole. “What’s the point of being independent and sitting in a cave?”
“Objectively we’re part of Russia, that’s our history. Our mentality is oriented toward Russia.”
Yet Kayayev is concerned with the growing rift with the Russian heartland. Today Russian nationalists openly call for separation from the North Caucasus, which they consider culturally incompatible, a source of ethnic conflict and a drain on the federal budget.
“There is no official ideology,” Kayayev complains. “But no state can exist without one.”
The absence of a national idea that unites all of Russia’s 100-odd ethnic groups has created a vacuum since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Russia proper, it has been filled by Russian nationalism; in the North Caucasus, by Islamic extremism.
What makes the situation even more explosive in Dagestan is that a dozen indigenous ethnic groups are in a constant tug-of-war for influence and recognition.
Kayayev, for example, sees himself as a custodian of the language and traditions of his Lak people, who number less than 200,000. He has published two books: one, a dictionary of the Lak language, the other a Lak grammar written by his grandfather at the beginning of the 20th century.
Kayayev boasts that with the exception of Georgians, the Laks had the highest percentage of mobilized men of any of the Soviet Union’s ethnic groups in World War II, as much as 17 percent. His father defended Moscow from the Nazis in 1941 and came home an invalid. Seven of his mother’s brothers fought in the war.
In 1944, the Laks were resettled to Chechnya after Stalin had the entire Chechen population deported to Central Asia because of his fear they would collaborate with the Nazis.
The shifting of ethnic groups and attempts by later governments to undo past injustices have only deepened resentment among neighbors.
“Several times we’ve been on the brink of war,” says Kayayev. That’s why he believes that Dagestan needs a government agency to balance the interests of the different national groups.
According to Kayayev, the most dangerous development since the fall of communism is the decay of the educational system. At least in the Soviet Union, teachers earned living wages, and there was social mobility.
“There used to be a certain level of professionalism,” he says. “People didn’t get their jobs because of nepotism. There weren’t criminals in government – guys who were in jail one day and in public office the next.”
“I’m a believer, and I’m sure that Islam isn’t calling on me to return to the Middle Ages.”
The government’s inability to meet the population’s basic needs only fuels discontent and causes more people to join the Islamic underground, he says.
“We need to create the conditions so that nobody heads for the woods. If someone has already taken up arms and decided to die, it’s too late.”
Kayayev lights another Winston Blue.
“I don’t want an Afghanistan,” he says. “I’m a believer, and I’m sure that Islam isn’t calling on me to return to the Middle Ages.”