Land of dreams and myths Dagestan is situated in the North-East of the Caucasus mountain range. It borders the Caspian Sea in the East, the Chechen Republic and Stavropol Territory in the West, the Kalmukya Republic in the North, and Azerbaijan and Georgia in the South. The republic measures 50.300 square km and had 37.5 inhabitants per square km in 1989. 28 percent Avar, 16 percent Dargin, 13 percent Kumyk, 11 percent Lezgi, 9 percent Russian, 5 percent Lak, 4 percent Tabasaran, 4 percent Azeri, 2 percent Nogai and others (1989). Rural population: Avar 69 percent, Dargin 69 percent, Kumyk 54 percent, Lezgi 52 percent, Lak 34 percent, Tabasaran 63 percent, Nogai 81 percent and Rutul 69 percent (1989).
Multi-ethnic structure It is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world, counting 36 ethnic groups and 80-odd nationalities. Dagestan was the center for Islam in the North Caucasus and the capital, Makhachkala, is the seat of the Muslim spiritual board of Dagestan and the North Caucasus. The Dagestan landscape changes from high mountains in the South to flat steppe land in the North. Because there is no easily accessible pass over the Caucasian mountains, the coastal plain of Dagestan, bordering the Caspian Sea, is an important North-South passage. The mountainous areas are still extremely isolated, notably in winter.
Persia ceded the Muslim khanates on the territory of Dagestan to Russia in 1723. The Dagestanies revolted against the Russians for many years, including the Murid Uprising that lasted from 1828 to 1859. Russia finally captured over the country in 1859 and Dagestan ASSR was created on January 20, 1920.
Dagestan is the largest republic in the region with almost two million people. It is a highly multiethnic republic with 10 groups sharing power. Although Dagestan has the least number of Russian immigrants, the republic has been strongly Russianized in terms of language. Many of the smaller peoples have been assimilated by bigger ones. This has happened mainly through lack of official recognition in terms of official registration as well as in terms of language. Dagestan still has a strong Islamic identity of the more conservative kind and the clan structure is still functioning and is the foundation for today's ethnic structure. Birth rates are high - the population has doubled in the last 30 years - and there is an increasing pressure on land.
During the Soviet period many peoples were resettled from the mountains to the plains. For example, the Avar were resettled in the northern plains, traditionally the habitat of Kumyk. Today the Kumyk are a minority in their own districts, and therefore feel their language and culture to be threatened. Kumyk movements are attempting to transform Dagestan into a federation. Nogai and Lezgi are backing the idea because half of their population lives outside Dagestan under conditions that are far less favourable than those in Dagestan, where they share in power and have their own newspapers. The government and most of the other minorities reject this concept since it would split up the republic into ethnically defined territories. They fear that new borders might create more problems than they solve. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Lezgi were divided by the new Russian-Azerbaijan border. After much protest the two countries have agreed to keep the border open. However, the Lezgi are fearful for future contact with their kin across the border, because the political situation in Azerbaijan as well as in Russia is unstable. The Lezgi movement claims the establishment of a free Lezgistan that encompasses both groups of Lezgi. Conflicts arise because Lezgi in Azerbaijan are not recognised as a minority. They are threatened by forced assimilation, drafted against their will to the Azerbaijan army in the war against Armenia, and those Lezgi who agitate for a free Lezgistan are imprisoned. In Dagestan, where Lezgi participate in the administration and the media, lately it has been difficult if not prohibited, to publish information about this conflict of interest with the government arguing that this might provoke a conflict of arms. Dagestan also has to solve a territorial issue concerning the deported peoples. When the Chechen were collectively removed to Central Asia, Dagestan like Ossetia was given part of their territory, which was never returned. Unlike Ossetia, where the issue led to armed conflict, Dagestan is attempting to solve the issue peacefully. The returning Dagestany Chechens - registered as a specific ethnic group, the Akki-found their settlements inhabited by Lak who had been moved to these places from the high mountains. The Dagestan government has promised to build new houses for the Lak close to other Laks in the vicinity of Makhachkala, and let the Akki Chechen settle in their auls of old. Obviously, such a solution needs funding. Representatives from government and parliament report that they are often accused of being conservative communist old-timers, but as inter-ethnic violence and bloodshed have been avoided so far, their cautiousness might be well considered.
The multi-ethnicity of Dagestan calls for a difficult balance, and there is a strong awareness among all peoples concerning a potential dominance by the largest ethnic group, the Avar. The sensitive balance is threatened by Moscow's insistence on privatization and on the introduction of a presidency which could support one group over the others. There are claims for the establishment of an ethnic representative parliamentary chamber in order to avoid a president, representing one people, obtaining too much power. Also, the Dagestan government has expressed its anxiety about the abolishment of 'sovereignty' from its constitution.
Dagestan differs by the richest arts and crafts. The earliest monuments go back to epoch of bronze. The known centres of applied art are Kubachi (the jewels decorated by engraving, enamel), Gotsatl (copper stamping, jewels), Balkhar (ceramics with painting), Untsukul (wooden products with silver notch, nacre). The centres of carpet manufacture in southern Dagestan are known from ancient times.