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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Very English Love for Dagestan




Robert Chenciner first went to Dagestan in 1983 when, after years of Soviet inaccessibility, its borders were at last opened. And Daghestan: Tradition and Survival is the fruit of his long love affair with this North Caucasus republic, famous for its remote and beautiful mountains, its brave warriors and its ancient history.


To his great delight Chenciner discovered that the republic, which guards Russia's southern border with Azerbaijan and Georgia, was able to survive communism with much of its rich and varied culture intact. The land runs from the warm shores of the Caspian Sea up to some of the highest peaks of the majestic Caucasus mountain range and is home to mountain horseman, nomadic shepherds and settlers swept in by various conquering armies through the centuries.


The republic, Dagestan, which is also transliterated as Daghestan, is the size of Scotland with a population of 2 million people, two-thirds of whom live in 700 mountainous villages. Because of the remoteness of these regions, tiny communities have preserved their own languages and way of life. The 400 people of the village of Ginukh, for example, perched high up near the Georgian border, speak their own language. There are 32 languages in use overall, most of which are mutually incomprehensible.


Chenciner is something of an English eccentric, an academic, anthropologist, art collector and contemporary chronicler rolled into one. He may be a senior associate member of St. Anthony's College, Oxford, but he is clearly most happy when bouncing down terrible mountain roads in search of a lost village or a prize fighting dog.


His book represents the idiosyncratic tradition of English exploring at its best. There is a wealth of cultural detail on every aspect of Dagestani life, from cooking and carpet-weaving to folk tales and religion. Interspersed with many photographs and anecdotes, it is a lively and amusing read.


Chenciner began to visit Dagestan at a critical period in its history. Emerging from the crushing weight of Soviet totalitarianism and still subjected to Russia's entrenched colonialist attitudes, he watched the republic struggle to re-establish its historical and cultural identity.


Dagestan is now being submerged in Western capitalism, which may prove even more damaging, according to Chenciner. But his depiction of an enduring cultural tradition which has, over the centuries, absorbed layers of influences, leads one to hope that it will find a way to cope.


A mixed legacy endures in Dagestan. The Leader or "Vozhd," as Stalin was known, underpinning the communist faith, is still revered in unexpected quarters. The great 19th-century rebel, Imam Shamil, has re-emerged as a hero with the resurgence of Islam. And the Ram, deified in the ancient pagan traditions, is even being used as a symbol by opposition and Green parties.


Chenciner was fortunate to work closely with Magomedkhanov, a Dagestani ethnographer whose standing in his own community opened many doors that Soviet suspicion and bureaucracy would have kept shut. Together they traveled around Dagestan, to festivals, weddings, funerals, markets and into the homes of ordinary people. Chenciner heard tales of Dagestan's folk heroes, the Nart giants. When a boy misbehaves, his father does not hit him, but tells him a story about the Narts instead.


The first generation of Narts were strong and stupid, and argued with God, who caused earthquakes creating mountains and river gorges. The second generation were wiser and kinder, but still huge; they could carry an ordinary man in their mouth, or hurl trees from the tops of mountains. The Narts represent the best human virtues and it is the ultimate compliment to compare a man to a Nart.


It was the Narts who first danced on tiptoe, an extraordinary feat still practiced by North Caucasian dancers. They wear soft black leather boots and, without any of the blocks that ballet dancers use, dance and leap on their points.


Dagestanis excel in sports. There is a village that specializes in producing tightrope walkers where everyone seems ableto hop, dance or slide on a tray along the high wire.


Dagestan has also produced a high number of champion wrestlers and, of course, its famous horsemen. These were the most feared enemies of the Tsarist armies last century, and can still leap off precipices or hurtle down sheer slopes at breakneck speed. Chenciner nearly got hurt when a local boy startled his horse causing it to bolt, and then watched laughing as he struggled for control.


Chenciner is much happier when examining rugs and carpets. An experienced collector of Oriental carpets and textiles, he is excited to find silk embroideries like nothing he has ever seen. "It was like finding the Rossetta Stone," he writes. These embroideries, made by an ethnic group called the Kaitag, are decorated with pagan sun signs, sun bursts, cosmic columns and fantastic beasts like crabs, dragons and elks.


Chenciner discovers rugs and carpets with rare designs made from fine old vegetable dyes in people's homes, sometimes hanging in a milkshed or in use as a lavatory curtain. He also finds some talented women weavers (women seem to do all the work in Dagestan) still practicing their craft.


In one village they still make the traditional bourka -- a high-shouldered black felt cape that protects the wearer and his horse from snow and rain. A good bourka should stand unsupported and can serve as a tent or a bed roll.


Chenciner's book is a happy one. He digs out ancient Dagestani traditions while skipping over the barrenness of the Soviet legacy. He only gives one hint of the despair of people who have lost their sense of pride or raison d'?tre in a vivid description of a drunken binge.


He also skirts wide of the political violence, organized crime and gun law that has taken hold in the republic in recent years and praises the Dagestanis for avoiding ethnic conflict. That might be premature, for Dagestan's future is a rocky road.


"Daghestan: Tradition and Survival" by Robert Chenciner. Curzon Press, 308 pages. pounds 25 or $40.