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‘Who caused this unemployment — Nazis or our government?’ The Dagestani soldiers dying in Putin’s war
In Russia’s Republic of Dagestan, a federal subject in the North Caucasus, many young men are eager to join the military. Not only is it considered the right — and manly — thing to do, it’s also one of the only available means of economic mobility. In the past, federal quotas have put a limit on the number of soldiers who can come from each Russian region, leading some Dagestani men to go as far as bribing the draft board to take them. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the government has been actively recruiting Dagestani contract soldiers — and many have already returned home in coffins. According to one source from the Republic’s enlistment office, over 130 soldiers from Dagestan have died. Journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky traveled to Dagestan to learn how residents view the war — and how they’re mourning their lost sons and grandsons.
‘We’re not free people’
“I’ve been afraid to hear the word ‘Brother!’ since I was a kid,” says a teacher from a Dagestani village who asked to remain anonymous. “I always thought if someone came up to me and said, ‘Brother!’ it meant he wanted to scam me or rob me. And now, hearing the phrase ‘brother nation’ so much, I’ve realized it works exactly the same way.”
Recently, students in one of his classes wrote the letter Z on the board and defiantly stopped doing their schoolwork. When they received poor grades as a result, they went to the school principal and told her that their teacher had retaliated against them for showing “patriotiZm,” the teacher told Meduza. Fortunately, some students who “see and understand everything” visited him that evening and comforted him.
The students who drew the Z told their teacher that Putin is powerful, Russia would soon win the war, and that he himself will be declared an "enemy of the people" and sent to jail for 15 years “like Navalny.” Initially, he wanted to resign, he told Meduza, but he changed his mind because of his other students.
The war in Ukraine has split Dagestani society. Like everywhere in Russia, many people support Russia in its “fight against fascism.” On Rasul Gamzatov Avenue in the center of Dagestani capital Makhachkala, a banner with the pro-Russian slogan “Za mir,” or “For peace,” hangs on the Russian theater; underneath it are advertisements for two ensembles: “Donbas” and the newly-renamed “LeZginka” (A Lezginka is a type of Caucasian folk dance). Many of the city’s mini-buses also sport the letter Z, though very few private cars do.
“A colleague asked me if we were going to use the letter Z in our printed materials,” one theater director told Meduza. “Naturally, I said no and asked her why. ‘Well, they recommended it, and we’re not free people,’ she told me.”
“Something needs to be done,” said the director. “All of these fairytales about how culture is separate from politics are just criminal. It’s impossible to be outside of politics when something like this is happening in your country. We need to try not to get busted under one of these terrible [censorship] laws and not to put anyone at risk, but we can’t be silent. Maybe we can’t discuss it directly, but we need to talk about what’s happening.”
Military service, along with sports, is one of the main means of social mobility in the subsidized republic. Since the number of Dagestanis who can enter the army is limited by quotas, many people pay bribes to join. In the spring 2021 draft, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that about 3 thousand people had been recruited from Dagestan (the total number of draftees in the whole country in 2020 was estimated to be around 60,000). In March 2022, Dagestani draft offices began actively recruiting contract soldiers to serve in the “special military operation” in Ukraine. The salaries offered range from 177 thousand rubles (around $2,000) a month for a regular soldier to 215 thousand rubles (about $2.3 thousand) for an officer. The average salary in the Republic was a little over 32 thousand rubles (about $377.00) in 2021, while the unemployment rate was above 15% (compared to an average of a little over 4% in Russia as a whole at the end of 2021).
There have been conflicting reports about the recruitment campaigns’ success. According to a RIA Dagestan article from March 18, Dagestan’s enlistment office had signed more than 300 short-term military contracts for military service in the preceding week.” Meanwhile, a draft office employee in the Republic’s Babayurt district told a reporter from the newspaper Chernovik that the recruitment period for the “special military operation” ended on March 10 and that there were no responders. An article from March 11 quotes a duty officer from the office as saying that recruitment is still ongoing, but not for the conflict in Ukraine.
Dagestani families have been holding funerals since the first days of the war. Two of Chernovik’s obituary pages alone, from March 11 and March 18, list a total of 35 soldiers. According to the outlet Kavkaz.Realii, at least 60 Dagestan residents had died in the war by March 23. Unofficial lists compiled from news reports and social media posts include more than 100 names of soldiers who allegedly died in Ukraine. If those numbers are correct, Dagestan has lost more soldiers in the war than any of Russia’s other republics, outranking Buryatia, which comes in second place, by a wide margin.
In late March, Chernovik also wrote about the parents of Dagestani soldiers who can’t find their sons. Meduza’s correspondent confirmed that information about hospitals overcrowded with Dagestani soldiers is spreading around social media. “One of my relatives has serious shrapnel wounds, and another one died,” Makhachkala resident Akhmed (name changed) wrote online. “Those are the results so far of this absolutely stupid massacre on foreign land.”
‘He went to protect his motherland’
In Kani, a mountain village that once extended far beyond its current borders, there are currently about 30 families left; conditions are difficult, and most people have left for the lowlands. According to local residents, 20 men went to Ukraine to fight in the war. On April 1, the last day before Ramadan, cars full of people dressed in black pull up one after another. They’ve gathered to mourn 25-year-old paratrooper Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, who died on February 24, early in the war. Before going to Ukraine, he fought with the Russian army in Syria. According to the government’s official story, Gadzhimagomedov, surrounded by Ukrainian troops, detonated a grenade, killing himself along with his opponents. “He took that step because he understood who he was dealing with: neo-Nazis, who abuse prisoners and brutally kill them,” Vladimir Putin said after his death. On March 3, Putin awarded Gadzhimagomedov the title Hero of Russia. Images of Gadzhimagomedov’s official military portrait have since appeared along roads across the Republic.
Women’s sobs can be heard far beyond the rural cemetery. Gadzhimagomedov’s female relatives cry beside his grave, which is covered in sweets, rice, and halva. The men stand a bit further back, waiting patiently; some of them quietly wipe tears from their eyes with handkerchiefs. It’s only when the women eventually fall silent and move away that the men approach the grave to pay their respects. Afterwards, everyone goes to the home of the deceased; the women go inside and the men stay outside and sit on improved benches made of wooden boards.
“He spent his childhood in this house. He was a true mountain man — may Allah bless him with Heaven. He was a cheerful, well-mannered, calm young man. He really loved the mountains. He would come here on vacation — every time he would conquer a new peak. He hadn’t even lived with his wife for a year,” said Malik, Gadzhimagomedov’s uncle. “On February 20, his daughter was born, and on the 24th, he passed away. He didn’t even get to hold his child in his arms. After the army, he planned on returning to Dagestan. He said he might even move to the mountains and raise livestock. He had a lot of plans for his life, but it was cut short.”
“I served in the Soviet army myself,” added another relative, an old man with a white beard. “I was a paratrooper in Fergana. When he was little, I told him about jumping.”
The man has never been to Ukraine, but he has no doubt about the righteousness of Russia’s war there. When asked about the purpose of the war, he says, “Stalin didn’t destroy these nationalists back in 1945. They’ve reared their heads again. If our troops hadn’t gone there, they would have encroached on our country. So Mr. Putin did the right thing.”
“He was courageous from the day he was born,” said Murad, another one of Gadzhimagomedov’s uncles. “He had the qualities of a man. His hobbies were sports and martial arts. Even back when he was a teenager, he knew he was going to serve. He would never have left a fellow soldier, a brother in arms, behind. That’s why he went. To protect his motherland.” When asked why Ukraine was the country where Gadzhimagomedov needed to protect his motherland, Murad says, “No comment.”
Murad is far from the only person to cut an interview short with these words. Outside of interviews, people can frequently be heard arguing vigorously with one another about the war — and many aren’t shy about calling it a war. “When they announce it’s time to mobilize, you’ll go!” one village resident says to another. “No, I won’t!” the man says back, “I’ll go to prison before I go to war. For who, for what? If they come here, to our motherland, I’ll be the first one fighting — you bet your ass I will. But nobody attacked Russia. It’s not the Nazis who are our enemies. They’ve confiscated [oligarchs’] yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — meanwhile, there’s not a single MRI machine in all of Dagestan. Is that the Nazis’ fault? Why are there so many young people in the army? Because there’s no other work. Who left us without work, Nazis or the government?”
Many of the young men who went to war, though, didn’t do it for political or financial reasons. According to their relatives, a lot of people see it as unmanly to sit on the sidelines why others fight. A “decent guy” joins his friends when they go to war — otherwise he’ll look like a coward. One young man didn’t have anything against Ukrainians and didn’t even want to carry a weapon, but when a friend of his signed up to join the “special military operation,” he did, too — just to support his friend, one village resident told Meduza.
‘It was his duty’
Not far from Kana, in the larger village of Kulla, residents are still mourning 21-year-old Makhmud Channanov, who died on February 28 and was posthumously awarded the Order of Courage. His relatives vye for a chance to talk about how he dreamed of becoming a football player, and how he would always check to see if there was work to be done before going on a walk.
The farm where Channanov grew up is active but it’s not large. Two cows and a calf stand in a clean pen. Next to them are walls of carefully arranged dung, which locals use to heat their stoves. Channanov’s father abandoned the family a long time ago, so Channanov was raised by the women from his mother’s side. Now, the three mountain women gather in the house in their mourning clothes: Shamsiyat, Channanov’s mother; Liza, his grandmother; and Khadizhat, his aunt. Nobody else is here. The spring sun shines from through the thick curtains from behind the house, and the women’s faces seem darkened by grief.
“He was the one who wanted to join the army. His mom and his grandmother agreed. It’s hard for a man to get a job without a military ID. We were pleased to bring him there,” says Khadizhat. She’s holding her young son behind her back, the way many women in Caucasian villages do to free their hands up for work.
“At first, he complained. But by the end, before his death, he told his mom and his grandmother that he was starting to like it. He started to like it, he matured, he became so handsome, and that’s when Almighty God took him. We didn’t see him like that, we only saw photos,” said Khadizhat. “Makhmud didn’t tell us he was going straight to Ukraine, to the hot zone. He just said, ‘We’ll be there as support.’ The last time he called his grandmother was the morning of the 23rd. He said they were collecting their telephones and he wouldn’t be able to contact us anymore.”
The women learned about the fighting from watching television. When the first reports of casualties appeared, they began to get scared. On the morning of February 28, Shamsiyat called her son’s commander herself, and he told her everything was fine. That calmed her down a bit, but she still made sure to always keep her phone with her. The next day, she decided to take a nap after working a night shift and gave her phone to Khadizhat, who soon received a message: “Makhmud is gone.”
“He was my only child,” says Shamsiyat, wiping her tears. “They didn’t use to send only children to war. Why did this happen? I’m not young. I still check to see if he’s messaged me on WhatsApp. He told his grandmother that the other mothers were crying a lot. Apparently they knew where their children were being sent.”
Especially upsetting for the women are comments on social media from Ukrainians who claim Channanov set out to kill children. “He would never hurt anyone,” Shamsiyat insists. “He served his motherland, he took an oath. It was his duty — it was a job.”
Now the women deeply regret supporting Channanov’s decision to join the army. “If we had known, we’d have gotten him out of there,” said Khadizhat. “She put so much work into her child, just for him to turn 21 and…” She trails off.
As the women tell their story, the door opens and shuts several times. Once they’re done talking, the whole house is full of silent men. An old man with a gray beard starts taking out certificates recognizing Channanov’s achievements: one for football, one for athletics, one for participating in a summer camp, etc. A pile of sports medals chime against one another in his palm. Finally, the men bring in the final artifacts from his life: his military uniform and his Order of Courage, a silver cross in a red box. Nobody knows what he did to earn it.
‘You Russians have nothing to worry about — it's Caucasians who will do everything’
On April 4, Makhmud Channanov’s family, along with several other victims’ relatives, were invited to meet with Sergey Melikov, the head of Dagestan. He thanked the mother and fathers for raising warriors and announced that 50 million rubles from the Republic’s budget would be allocated to help deceased soldiers’ families.
“People who are born true warriors are endowed with a readiness for heroism. These sons of Dagestan, who were unwilling to accept others’ attempts to destroy our traditional values, to destroy the historical memory of the great acts of the fearless generation of the Great Patriotic War, were such people,” Malikov said at the meeting. “Today, our soldiers and officers, with full confidence in their own righteousness, are fighting for the peace that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers defended and saved.”
Malikov then quoted Caucasian poet Rasul Gamzatov: “Unfortunately, in the end, only war can demand and glorify people of honor and conscience.”
Not long before, one of the soldiers’ relatives had quoted a few lines by the same poet, albeit in a much less official setting. “Let bread on earth be cheaper, and let life be more precious,” he started, then read the final lines from the poem:
I like all peoples very much.
And cursed be the man
Who dares, who tries
To vilify any group
* * *
An old man sits among tourists on the shore of the Caspian Sea, talking to himself about the war. Upon hearing a passing visitor from Moscow say he opposes the war, the Dagestani man reassures him: “You Russians have nothing to worry about. It's Caucasians who will do everything. For the Motherland, for Stalin, for Putin!”
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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