sports blog by andy shenk

On the Shores of the Caspian

In Anzhi, Dagestan on October 17, 2011 at 5:44 PM

Andy Shenk

Part I of a six-part series analyzing the transformation of FC Anzhi, located in the impoverished Russian republic of Dagestan, into a cash-heavy club intent on climbing European football’s highest heights. Part I will deal with the history of the region. Each subsequent installment will be published on Monday, culminating on November 21.

Soccer club FC Anzhi, based in Dagestan, an impoverished republic of southern Russia, sent shockwaves through world soccer with its summer acquisitions of Yuri Zhirkov, Balázs Dzsudzsák, Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez and Samuel Eto’o. Transfer fees alone came to more than $90 million, while Eto’o became the world’s highest-paid athlete, at roughly $85.5 million over three years. Significant money for any club to spend, the transfers were even more noteworthy in Dagestan, the poorest of Russia’s 89 federal districts, with an annual budget of $1.5 billion.

The most puzzling question raised by this investment is why Dagestan? At first glance the answer is simple: owner Suleiman Kerimov, 118th richest man in the world according to Forbes, hails from Dagestan. With soccer Russia’s most popular sport, investment in Dagestan’s top club would be a sure-fire way to foster local pride in the republic and to enhance Dagestan’s battered reputation domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, Kerimov’s choice of location to build a world-class soccer club is puzzling when compared to the route typically taken by nouveau riche soccer club owners. Roman Abramovich, Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Roman Dubov and Vladimir Antonov, and Alisher Usmanov have all made waves in England for their recent takeovers of, or significant investment in, English Premier League clubs. Similarly splashy investments include Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent purchase of NBA franchise Brooklyn Nets and Leonid Fedun’s ownership of Russian soccer flagship, Spartak Moscow. London, Moscow, and New York are the typical settings for the fabulously wealthy to display their wares. Makhachkala, Anzhi’s hometown, boasts a population of 700,000, crumbling infrastructure and a dearth of middle-class jobs.

Kerimov’s investment does bear some similarity to Rinat Akhmedov’s ownership of Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk and Sergey Galitsky’s control of Russian outfit FC Krasnodar. Both men are valued at over $5 billion and, like Kerimov, chose to invest in sports teams from their home regions. Nonetheless, FC Krasnodar and Shakhtar are based in cities with over a million inhabitants and far superior infrastructure and economic development to that found in Makhachkala. Kerimov’s venture, it appears, is unprecedented in sports history for its ambition to invest massively in such an economically underdeveloped and politically unstable region.

One cannot hope to understand Anzhi’s home, the Republic of Dagestan, in a day, let alone in a year. The region’s history stretches back thousands of years, instilling in its inhabitants deep pride. Derbent, an ancient Dagestani city squeezed between the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, recently celebrated its 5000-year birthday and status as Russia’s oldest city. For millenia, Dagestan’s strip of Caspian coastland, anchored at its narrowest point by Derbent, served as the gateway for merchants, armies, and religious zealots who wished to cross between the eastern European plains and the Asian heartland. Because of its strategic importance, Dagestan was not only the object of many military campaigns, but also a melting pot of religious and cultural diversity. Dagestan greeted Christian and Muslim missionaries, as well as large migrations of Jewish peoples far sooner than its Caucasus neighbors to the west, who were mired deep in the mountains and cut off from relevant trade routes. Of the major religions, Islam would have the greatest impact in Dagestan, spreading through much of the region by the 15th century A.D., uprooting Christianity and meshing with animistic traditions wherever it went. Jewish communities would persist into the 20th century, though in very small numbers.

Dagestan’s early access to new philosophies lent it an advantage over the rest of the North Caucasus, a region stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and consisting of present-day Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. As Islam asserted itself as the dominant religion of the North Caucasus, Dagestan, which had welcomed the first Muslims to Derbent in the mid-7th century, assumed leadership of religious affairs in the region. Indeed, Islam only took root in neighboring Chechnya in the 17th and 18th centuries, while further west the religion failed to fully eliminate Christian influence.

Dagestan could also claim a storied military past. Though the coastlands were continually fought over by nearby Iranian and Turkish empires, the fortress at Derbent, built around 500 A.D., only once fell to its enemies. Incursions into the Dagestani mountains met with even less success.

When, in the 19th century, the Russian army sought to gain control of the Caucasus, their greatest opposition came from Dagestan and their neighbors to the west, Chechnya. For thirty years Imam Shamil of Dagestan rallied his countrymen and Chechens alike in a hard-fought war for independence. Though the Russian army ultimately triumphed, it marked the first time that a foreign army had overrun Dagestan’s interior maze of mountain valleys, populated by dozens of linguistically and culturally distinct ethnicities.

Thus, Dagestan entered the 20th century with a proud religious and political history. Nonetheless, it lagged eductionally and economically behind much of Russia, not to mention the more developed Western nations. Its linguistic diversity and mountainous terrain made communication and trade for the hundreds of far-flung villages difficult. Instead of enjoying a cohesive economic and political system, Dagestan witnessed the evolution of many tightly-knit local communities. Though bound to one another by religion and memory of the recent struggle for independence, these communities functioned quite independently of one another. With the exception of Dagestan’s few modest cities, which had long dominated the region’s industry, trade, and education, much of the population seemed destined to continue relying on subsistence agriculture and cottage industries in isolation from the world outside its borders.

In 1917 Russian revolutionaries in the capital city of Petrograd overthrew the 300-year old Romanov dynasty, and began the process of political reconstruction that would culminate in the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. The USSR, comprised of nearly 300 million citizens, 15 republics, and a landmass 2.5 times that of the United States, would flex its muscles internationally for seventy years, gaining fierce enemies and loyal allies. Its domestic politics, apart from the horrors of totalitarianism, however, remain poorly understood. In Dagestan, one of the many economically fragile regions that the USSR took possession of in the 1920’s, Soviet influence would pervade society—quite often with positive consequences.

In attempting to modernize Dagestan, one of the Soviet government’s greatest challenges lay in bringing cohesion to its more than thirty distinct ethnic groups. Education, with its ability to not only impart knowledge but also ideology, became one of the Soviets’ primary tools. Gradually, schools were established throughout the mountain villages, where children learned to read and write in their own languages and in Russian, the new lingua franca of the republic. Previously, education had been limited to the cities and religious schools, where Arabic and Turkish were more likely to be taught than Russian. Now, all Dagestani children were told of their shared Soviet history with other Dagestani ethnicities and with children from across the empire. Across the Soviet Union, local histories and cultures were picked through by academics for heroes who presaged the coming Soviet age by fighting for the commoner and against capitalism and tyranny. Thus, Imam Shamil, the courageous Dagestani who stymied the massive Russian army for nearly thirty years, could be celebrated by all Soviet Dagestanis for his defense of simple, communal village life against the incursion of Russian imperialism.

As with any top-down government initiative, not every ethnicity in Dagestan was treated fairly. The most populous ethnic groups—Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, and Rutuls, primarily—were allowed to teach their native language in the schools, publish newspapers and operate radio and TV stations. Smaller groups, with often miniscule populations, found much less official recognition of their languages and cultures. Schools in these villages were taught in the language of the largest neighboring ethnicity, Avar, Dargin, or Lezgin, and very little cultural expression or political representation was granted the minority ethnicity.

Nonetheless, for most Dagestanis the Soviet period marked a flowering of national pride. They could revel not only in their historic achievements and remarkable linguistic and cultural traditions, but also identify themselves with one of the most powerful nations on earth. As in education, Soviet economic policy sought to uplift and connect the more “backward” peoples of the USSR through economic development. Often at tremendous cost, the government established factories, large-scale farms, institutes of higher education, medical facilities and more in Dagestan. Dagestani poets, scientists, soldiers, and athletes, hitherto unknown outside of the Caucasus, gained national notoriety for their accomplishments.

The tragedy of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as it was named in the Soviet Union, bound Dagestanis even more tightly to their nascent Soviet identity. From 1941-1945 160,000 Dagestanis would fight against Nazi Germany. Only 80,000 would return. As more than fifty Dagestanis received the Soviet Union’s highest honor, Hero of the Soviet Union, for their actions in battle, the entire republic rejoiced in the victory over the Axis powers, who had brought untold suffering to their land. Even today, sixty-six years after the capture of Berlin and end of the Great Patriotic War, Dagestanis mark their role in the victory as one of the republic’s greatest accomplishments.

The Soviet Union failed, however, to bring about lasting economic prosperity. Widespread famine in the post-war period decimated Dagestani villages. Even the relative stability of the 1960s and 1970s failed to significantly boost standards of living. Dagestanis were increasingly moving from the mountains to the cities of Derbent, Izberbash, Kaspiisk, Makhachkala, Buinaksk, Khasavyurt, and Kizlyar in search of employment and a more comfortable life. Soviet economic policy guaranteed everyone employment, but wages were stagnating and the Soviet economy sagged due to a lack of productivity and widespread corruption.

Ultimately, the system came crashing down in the 1980s and early 1990s. Dagestani unemployment skyrocketed as factories were abandoned and economic trade plummeted. The Soviet economy, which had artificially propped up republics such as Dagestan, gave way to the unregulated economic chaos of the Russian Federation in the 1990s. Corruption gained an even tighter grip on the republic as government officials, police officers, even doctors and educators, sought to complement their meager (often unpaid) salaries by demanding bribes for every reason imaginable.

Though Soviet economics were largely responsible for the financial troubles of the 1990s, Soviet nationalities policy helped Dagestan to navigate the political turmoil of that era more successfully than many other national republics. Neighboring Chechnya sought to break off from the Russian Federation and Ingushetia and North Ossetia experienced outbreaks of violence over border disputes. Meanwhile, Dagestan’s practice of sharing political power between its many ethnicities ensured that no one group could gain an upper hand. Indeed, the old political leadership in Dagestan retained most of its power in the new democracy, winning election again and again from Dagestanis nostalgic for the stability of the Soviet Union.

Apart from the economic conundrum, two more major developments marked the transition from communism to democracy. First, barriers against the practice of religion were removed. In Dagestan this meant an explosion of Islamic fervor, characterized by the building or refurbishing of thousands of mosques, the burgeoning influence of a religious elite, and, most significantly, a rising Islamic identity set in contrast to the Orthodoxy of the Russian heartland. Indeed ethnic Russians, like Dagestanis, eagerly embraced nationalist philosophies in the 1990s, viewing them as an appropriate corrective to the strident multinationalism of the Soviet Union. The Orthodox Church became one primary symbol of the new Russian nationalism, though Russians did not join the church in large numbers. Thus, the divisions of religious identity, which had been ably swept under the rug by Soviet politicians, came back with full force in the post-Soviet period.

Second, the economic collapse, felt most severely in the Russian Federation’s outlying regions, led many, including Dagestanis, to find seasonal and permanent employment elsewhere. For the first time Dagestanis moved en masse out of Dagestan and into ethnically Russian territory. Though Russians had long had an established presence in the national republics, they were not prepared for Caucasian and Central Asian migrants to populate their cities, often as undocumented workers due to stringent migration laws. The squalid living conditions forced upon migrants due to low wages, differences in culture and religion, and their noticeably darker skin, all contributed to rising tensions between ethnic Russians and those from Dagestan and elsewhere. The two Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s, accompanied as they were by several horrific terrorist attacks in Russian cities, only served to convince many that the peoples of the Caucasus, in particular, were unfriendly, uncouth, and not welcome in Russian society.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the majority of Dagestanis remained patriotic and loyal to the Russian Federation, viewing it as the legitimate, if less successful, heir of Soviet rule. Dagestan could be grateful to the federal government, which annually underwrote between 75-90% of the republic’s budget, guaranteeing some measure of economic stability. Dagestani men, at the age of eighteen, served two years in the Russian military the same as any other male Russian citizen. However, the increasingly frosty reception faced by Dagestanis in greater Russia hardened the local Dagestani identity, rooted in Islam and ancient cultural traditions. At the same time, Dagestanis grew increasingly disenchanted with the corruption of their own officials. Public protest remained minimal, yet a vocal minority embraced radical Islamic teachings to condone violence against the established Dagestani elite.

Dagestan, now entering the second decade of the 21st century, lies at a crossroads. Hemmed in by continuing economic despair and corruption at home and a lack of opportunities in the rest of Russia the republic is desperate for change. Into this morass steps FC Anzhi and its ambitious owner, Suleiman Kerimov. Part II will provide a history of Dagestani athletics, which have long played a significant role in Dagestani identity, though more often through the sports of wrestling and boxing. What more can we learn from the past, as FC Anzhi today proudly pronounces its aim to bring about a “New History?”


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