Russia: “In Almost Every Village Someone Was Killed”


Saida Sirazhudinova Khazbi Budunov

October 5, 2022

What prompted Dagestani people to oppose “partial mobilization”? Why did the protests have a female voice? What influenced the course of the events? What’s spiritual and political life in the republic like? Saida Sirazhudinova and Khazbi Budunov discuss the anti-war protest in Russia’s Dagestan and its conditions

Khazbi Budunov, economist

Why did the “partial mobilization” evoke such a strong response in Dagestan?

In Dagestan there are a lot of men who, at some point, chose to go into contract military service because of high unemployment and low salaries. Until recently, they were quite content with it: contract service was just a job, a source of income for them and their families. For them, this choice had nothing to do with being a war soldier or a patriot. And all of a sudden, they found themselves in Ukraine, in a combat zone. It is telling that many of the guys whose contracts by that time expired, did not extend them.

On the day the mobilization was announced [note: Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of military reservists on September 21, 2022], people from many Dagestan villages and auls received their summonses — all and sundry, even men born in the 1960s. In small villages of 500 inhabitants, several men from one family were drafted, including two out of three sons. At the same time, some of their family members were already part of the military, some were even killed in action. Horizontal ties are quite strong in these villages. People will protest in a coordinated manner; they will go out and block the roads. They will demand from local village councils and the administration to pass their message along to those in power, and the message is that they don’t agree with what’s happening and don’t want to die. There have already been protests like this before. While protests in rural communities do not require social media (although nowadays it is hard to imagine a contemporary Dagestani village where people don’t have a local WhatsApp chat room), in big cities social media plays a bigger role. The protest in Makhachkala, a major city in the region, was aided by media and Telegram channels, but came about because people were ready to go out. While here rural communities are generally rather inert, urban ones differ due to their civic engagement.

Can you describe the September 25th protests in Makhachkala?

It all started with women gathering at the Puppet Theatre. Apparently, they were mothers, wives, and sisters who care about what’s going on [note: with mobilization]. The police tried to persuade them to leave, but to no avail. The crowd began to grow, and men (mostly young boys and teenagers) joined in. For a city like Makhachkala the number of protesters was small, 200 to 300 people, according to estimates. Still, the protest came as a surprise to many, although in Makhachkala the population is quite engaged and politically conscious. For example, in one of the videos of the protests, you can see women arguing with a policeman: he tries to convince them that “Russia was under attack” and they are telling him that it was the opposite, that “it was Russia attacking Ukraine.” There have been protests in Makhachkala before: against the deforestation of the Samur Forest, to protect the Akgel lake, truck drivers protesting against the Platon ETC system [note: electronic tax collection system, which was adopted in 2015]… While the city is displaying its built-up protest potential, which has accumulated overtime, the villages are demonstrating an unconscious revolt of despair, with people tired of political lies. When protesters block highways and act regardless of sounds of gun fire, they are no longer afraid.

“While the city is displaying its built-up protest potential, which has accumulated overtime, the villages are demonstrating an unconscious revolt of despair, with people tired of political lies”

Popular discontent grows because of the extremely poor living conditions, endless infrastructural problems, and communal chaos in the republic. Today on a rainy day Makhachkala literally turns into Venice but not in the romantic sense. The roads in Dagestan see no maintenance, there is still no gas up in the mountains, and schools and hospitals are not being repaired. At the same time, people are tired of what they hear on TV and want to be left alone when it comes to geopolitical issues.

The Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Tatarstan responded to the mobilization by declaring military service an “Islamic duty.” What’s it like in Dagestan?

Apparently, Tatarstan is appealing to the precedent of World War II, when the war against the Nazis was declared a holy war for Muslims. Now they want to repeat that. People are told that Russia is under attack, but the people don’t see it and don’t understand why they have to go to war. I don’t know about the sentiments in Tatarstan, but in Dagestan, for the majority of the population, the Spiritual Administration has no authority. This becomes obvious when you look at how different localities celebrate Muslim holidays Uraza-Bayram and Kurban-Bayram on different days, despite the fact that the Spiritual Administration sets particular dates in accordance with the lunar calendar. In Islam there is no intermediary between a Muslim and his Lord, and this results in poor institutionalization of spiritual life. Mosques attract people and an imam acts as a spiritual authority. Could the circumstances of spiritual life affect the Dagestani protest? Of course, protesters could have a spiritual leader, but right now no such person has emerged. Said Afandi once played the role of a spiritual leader, but he was killed in a terrorist attack. He was quite influential despite the fact that he was affiliated with the Spiritual Administration. For these and other reasons, a scenario with an Islamic political protest in Dagestan is out of the question. Society as a whole consciously identifies itself as a secular-religious one.

Those pushing for a protest mentioned, in a negative light, the Russian imperial general Alexei Yermolov, referring to him as “the founder of the police in the Caucasus.” How significant are the Caucasian War and Yermolov to Dagestan?

Indeed, during protest days, anonymous telegram-channels and even the President of Ukraine Zelensky reminded Dagestanis of the Caucasian War of 1817-1864 and its major figures. However, I think, these things don’t really touch Dagestanis hearts because there are no separatist tendencies there. Dagestanis have always been proud that they are part of Russia. They don’t see their relationship with Russia as one of a metropolis and a colony. There is even a legend circulating in Dagestan that Imam Shamil’s last will was for Dagestanis to never fight against Russia. This idea has a firm place in people’s minds. As for calls for separatism, we should remember that in 1999 Dagestanis articulated an armed response to the separatists.

“Popular discontent grows because of the extremely poor living conditions, endless infrastructural problems, and communal chaos in the republic”

Almost everyone must have noticed that both Putin and Zelensky constantly refer to the past in their public speeches but it is an imaginary past. They are suggesting we build a future on the basis of national myths. It is time to stop endlessly referencing Alexander Nevsky and Stepan Bendera [note: recurrent historical figures in Putin’s speech and propagandistic tropes], and start talking about actual socio-economic problems.

The protest has to do solely with the fact that people don’t want anyone to interfere in their lives and force them to go to war. People live, work, farm and run small businesses, and now they are being dragged off to war, which affects the well-being of their families, their villages, and the city as a whole.

And what do people think of the Chechen Republic and its leader?

Unlike Chechnya, Dagestan is a multi-ethnic republic, which, after the collapse of the USSR, established a parliamentary system of ethic quotas on the seats in the National Assembly and a collegial executive body, which guaranteed rotation of top officials. This system existed until the mid-2000s. Today, Dagestan is mostly under external governance, and everyone is more or less fine with it. After the difficult 90s, mono-ethnic Chechnya fell into the hands of one man [note: Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen republic], and this system of one-man rule is unimaginable in Dagestan. Therefore, any of Kadyrov’s attempts to impose anything on the Daghestani people, let alone unify the two republics, are doomed to fail.

“It is time to stop endlessly referencing Alexander Nevsky and Stepan Bendera, and start talking about actual socio-economic problems”

Is there a chance that the Dagestan protest will spread to other regions in the Caucasus?

This is quite possible. However, we must keep in mind that the protest potential could wither away very quickly. I’ve heard that those who were mobilized by mistake have already been sent home. Dagestani officials accused military offices of misfiring. Popular opinion can impact how the situation evolves. If Dagestani demands are met and if news of this spreads to other regions, more people might begin protesting. Yet, we should not forget that there are quite a few people in Dagestan ready to join the war and fight.

How are those people justifying their desire to partake in the war?

They simply repeat the arguments Putin uses in his “historical” speeches and addresses. They repeat the same thing over and over again: NATO wants to destroy Russia. People’s motivation could be explained by the resentment they inherited from the 90s, when Russia went from a relatively safe and well-off country to a global periphery. Many remember the horrors of the Chechen wars and the 1999 attacks on Dagestan [note: the beginning of the Second Chechen War]. Now Dagestanis, as well as other Russians, want historical justice and the reimplementation of the borders the country had back then. I’m afraid this resentment will only grow over the course of the mobilization.

Saida Sirazhudinova, president of the Center for Research on Global Issues of Modernity and Regional Problems “Caucasus. Peace. Development.”

What makes protests in Dagestan stand out?

If we are talking about the residents of the region, they have always been vocal about issues that affect them personally. For example, unjust distribution of land plots or territorial disputes. People in Dagestan have always been responsive and proactive, especially women, and that attitude has been evident in all conflict situations in the region. However, after the mobilization was announced, the backlash was particularly strong because too many men from Dagestan have already died during the war in Ukraine. In almost every village there’s someone who was killed. People see this and understand everything, because the Dagestani population is small and the number of men is decreasing. This protest is an attempt at self-defense in the face of the mobilization. Caucasus is not homogenous, as there are many small peoples scattered across the region. Each group has been preserving itself for hundreds of years, and now they are trying to protect their own identity and uniqueness against a threat.

“The backlash was particularly strong because too many men from Dagestan have already died during the war in Ukraine. In almost every village there’s someone who was killed”

Can you comment on the special role of Dagestani women in this protest?

In recent years, public life and public resistance have fallen on the shoulders of women. Well, women in the Caucasus have always been active — case in point, their protests against the war in Chechnya. Now the responsibility for the discontent, for the protest itself, has been borne by women because it is socially permissible for them to have an emotional reaction. Yet that does not mean that their reaction is not taken seriously. Indeed, it is. Women do not only show their emotions, they make their voices heard, they express their position. And as we can see, police have detained not only men, but women as well.

Most Dagestani women, of course, do not see themselves as political activists. They simply want to protect their families, their children, and their community. If a woman does not stand up for her child, what else can she do? We saw this attitude during the Chechen war. Women may not play a leading role, but they are among many who openly express their position. In the case of military conscription, it is women who bear and endure the losses. They have no choice, this is the Caucasus: if a woman loses her husband, she has very little chance of any normal life in the future. Due to the peculiarities of tradition, this normal life is almost impossible, even though in Dagestan these traditions are not as severe as in Ingushetia, for example.

What role does religious culture play in the region?

In Dagestan, religion truly matters. Many people follow opinions expressed by religious leaders who have influence over particular groups. Even when I tried to deal with an issue concerning women, I always asked the leaders of various religious groups to collaborate with me. But then they were not very helpful. Now, when the issue concerns not only women but also men, unofficial leaders have started to make appeals. In general, religious leaders in Dagestan are not very interested in standing up for women.

In Dagestan, there is a clear rift between official Islam and certain Salafi groups. The protest we are observing is supported and endorsed primarily by Salafi leaders and imams who reside outside of Russia. The discontent began with Salafi groups, but there were also secular young women among the protesters. The Mufti’s position is close to the official position of the Russian authorities, although the Mufti’s wife made a statement about suspending the mobilization in the republic, following the example of neighboring Chechnya. The presence of a wide Salafi stratum in society contributed to the protest, although not all members of this group joined it.

“If a woman loses her husband, she has very little chance of any normal life in the future”

“This is not our war!” chanted the protesters in Dagestan. How do you interpret this slogan?

If we talk about Dagestan, it is the most fragmented republic, there are various ethnic groups here. Most people don’t want war, they don’t want to lose their loved ones. They don’t understand why all of this is happening. If they saw a threat to the integrity of Russia and a threat to their republic, a threat of a real military attack, they would stand up for the country. But they don’t understand what is happening now, they don’t see any reason for the war. Of course, not everyone can express their position, people are afraid to say something contradicting the official party line.

The military threat, as you said, can, on the one hand, be understood as a threat to Russia and, on the other hand, as a threat to Dagestan. Did the war spark any regionalist sentiments?

Dagestan is a patchwork republic, and on a certain level there is a fear of being left without federal leadership. Hence, Russian influence is great and regionalism is weak. There are groups in Dagestani society that are interested in regionalist politics, but at the same time it is important for society to have a common civil identity and preserve the diverse population. Now it is important for people to claim that they are Dagestanis. The risk that the Dagestani population will decrease is quite real, and in this sense, regional identity sometimes begins to prevail over that of a Russian citizen.

How is this identity constructed? Do the protesters reference any events, characters, or historical myths in their discourse?

In the reports on the protests, there are two key figures: Imam Shamil and General Yermolov, who were adversaries during the Caucasian War. It is no coincidence that earlier protests took place by the monument to Yermolov in Pyatigorsk. However, The Battle of Ghunib is a more significant event for Dagestanis. Yermolov is an iconic figure in Chechnya because his approach was particularly harsh there. Dagestan’s case is different since the locals tended to adapt to the situation more and sometimes even managed to use Yermolov to their advantage.

The leadership of the Chechen Republic has been actively supporting and taking part in Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. What is the attitude of Dagestanis toward it?

The relationship between the Chechen Republic and the Republic of Dagestan is strained because of territorial disputes. While religion might seem to be a bonding agent between some groups from both republics, Chechnya’s spiritual leadership is different from that of Dagestan. Dagestanis and Chechens are both Caucasians, but they live in two distinct republics with mutual grievances toward each other.

“it is important for society to have a common civil identity and preserve the diverse population”

Can the protests we are witnessing in Dagestan spread to other republics?

I’m not so sure about that. Protests are not breaking out in every part of Dagestan and do not involve the entire population. Those who participate in rallies tend to protest peacefully, following the rule of law, and without provocations. There is a wave of arsons at military enlistment offices throughout Russia but not in Dagestan. The nonviolent character of the protests might be explained by the memory of the numerous terrorist attacks and the murders of police officers and soldiers in the region. That is why people in the area believe attacking a specific group can harm the community as a whole. Hence the methods of the protesters are moderate. The people want to show that they are not aggressive and act according to the law, without resorting to violence against the police or making radical claims. Surprisingly enough, in these protests, people are trying to assert their rights within the framework of the opportunities provided by the Constitution of the Russian Federation.