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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Everyone in Makhachkala Packs a Gun

MAKHACH-KALA, Dagestan — More than anything, my friend and photographer, Lidia Vereshchagina, wanted to crawl back into the plane that brought her here from St. Petersburg and fly back — as quickly as possible.

Having gone through passport control at 1 a.m., Lidia emerged into the airport of the Dagestani capital, where my colleague and I were supposed to meet her. But she saw neither my friendly mug nor the familiar face of my fellow journalist. Instead, Lidia faced a crowd of plainclothes police wielding Kalashnikov machine guns.

Lidia knew about the kidnappings in Dagestan by warlords from neighboring Chechnya. She knew about the war. What Lidia didn't know was that everybody in Makhachkala carries a gun.

Take, for example, Shalap, our driver-cum-bodyguard in Dagestan — a driver because that's what we hired him for and a bodyguard because he carried two pistols, one on his belt and another one on his ankle.

We delegated Shalap to meet Lidia in the airport. Naturally, we instructed him to make a large poster saying "Lidia Vereshchagina" and hold it up when the plane landed. Naturally, Shalap made the poster. But when he came to the airport, he, naturally, forgot it in the car.

Lidia saw the Kalashnikov-wielding men. She saw Shalap, a man she's never met before, approaching her in his black suit, white shirt, and tinted glasses, a Makarov pistol on his belt.

"Lidia," he said. "Come with me."

In Shalap's black Volga, Lidia met his girlfriend, Fatima. He brought Fatima "to make Lidia feel safer," he explained later. Fatima, who runs a restaurant in downtown Makhachkala, quickly reassured Lidia about the danger of having armed people casually going about their business in the city.

"I have guns, too — look," Fatima said. She opened her purse, and Lidia caught a glance of two Makarov pistols. Lidia wished her Pentax could shoot more than just pretty pictures.

With every adult in the street likely to be carrying firearms, the temperature of interactions between people in Dagestan is raised several degrees: Everyone is aware that bloodshed is a real possibility. At the same time, no one would stick a gun in anybody's face just to prove his point, since the offended party might whip out his or her own gun as well. If you want to make an impression you should be equipped with a bazooka or have an armored car with a fully equipped crew waiting for you around the corner.

With a war raging on in neighboring Chechnya, one would think that it would be reasonable to restrict the possession of weapons in Dagestan. But local authorities don't seem to object. According to Shalap, "everybody gets guns through their police contacts."

But can any of these people actually shoot?

"I was a sniper in the army," Shalap said with a bravado that's even more common in the Caucasus than concealed weapons. "Recently, this guy offered to let me shoot from his sniper's rifle. We had to shoot an apple, and the bet was a case of vodka.

"Well, I won the bet. And I even took off the telescopic sight!"

Driving along at over 140 kilometers per hour, Shalap turned his smiling face to us. Sitting on the back seat of his black Volga, we politely clicked our tongues in appreciation of his reported aptitude. At that moment, our car veered out of control and we nearly hit an approaching truck.

Anna Badkhen is a reporter for The Boston Globe.