Russia’s modern ills disturb oldest city before disputed birthday

Derbent Letter: corruption and violence keep visitors from stunning ancient city

Derbent fortress in Dagestan, southern Russia. It was originally built by Persian rulers in the sixth Century. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Derbent fortress in Dagestan, southern Russia. It was originally built by Persian rulers in the sixth Century. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

 

Russia is famed for leaving the curious with more questions than answers, and the country’s most ancient city is among its most intriguing riddles.

One puzzle in particular is vexing the people of Derbent, which for millennia has guarded a narrow pass between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea.

“Where did 3,000 years go?” asked local man Zulfikar at the Juma mosque, Russia’s most venerable, which was established in 733 by Arab rulers of Derbent.

“Officials say the city will celebrate 2,000 years in September. But everyone living here thinks it’s 5,000 years old. That’s what we were always taught.”

From its Tsarist-era lighthouse blinking by the shore, up through a bustling old town hemmed in by ancient walls, to the vast Persian-built fortress that stands golden against the hills, Derbent’s people are baffled by its newfound “youth”.

As academics debate the merits of the 2,000-year-anniversary – which was decreed by Russian president Vladimir Putin — locals have little doubt that worldly motives lie behind the sudden rewriting of their city’s history.

 

Local cliques

The anniversary has become a battleground for rival local cliques, for whom the dispute over Derbent’s antiquity masks a grubbier scrap for political clout and some €30 million allocated for renovation of the city.

 

Derbent has a dazzling past as a key outpost of the Persian, Arab, Ottoman and Russian empires, but in a present mired in neglect, corruption and violence this Unesco world heritage site is a no-go zone for all but the boldest visitors.

The lurid allegations of graft and abuse of power traded by allies and enemies of Derbent mayor Imam Yaraliev are common currency in Dagestan, which is now the hotbed of an insurgency fuelled by fury at corruption and police brutality, as well as rising Islamic fundamentalism.

Activists and reporters are routinely followed and monitored, often threatened, arrested and beaten, and they sometimes die in strange circumstances.

The latest activist to perish was Ruslan Magomedragimov (45), who was found dead on March 24th in the town of Kaspiysk, between Derbent and Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala.

Police insist there was no foul play, but relatives and colleagues say he was suffocated and bore possible injection marks on his neck.

Last Sunday, the founder of a Derbent anti-corruption blog was allegedly abducted from the city and badly beaten. Vyacheslav Starodubets claims the attack was retribution for his criticism of the local authorities, a charge they deny.

Such incidents are common in Dagestan, where cronyism, arbitrary arrests and police violence serve to radicalise the young; Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent several months here – sometimes attending a deeply conservative Makhachkala mosque — a year before he and brother Dzhokhar bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Activists put little store by official figures showing a recent reduction in terror attacks in Dagestan, saying that the drop – if real – is largely due to scores of local fighters who are travelling to the Middle East to join Islamic State. They also dismiss suggestions that Dagestan is more stable since the arrest of Said Amirov, Makhachkala’s notorious mayor for 15 years, who was whisked off to Moscow by helicopter in a spectacular special operation in 2013.

“I thought such helicopters would be flying regularly after that,” said one anti-graft campaigner. “When that didn’t happen, I realised that talk of a big crackdown on corruption was nonsense, and Amirov’s arrest was just for show.”

Hospitality

The stunning scenery, history and warm hospitality of Dagestan are vastly outweighed by its woes in the eyes of most potential visitors, and very few foreign tourists will venture to Derbent for the 2,000-year celebrations.

Sceptics claim the commonly held 5,000-year figure for Derbent’s antiquity has been erased because it so outshines the Russian state’s 1,000-year history, at a time when Moscow is bent on promoting the glory of the “Russian world”.

Like so much about Dagestan, however, the truth of Derbent’s ancient origins and current travails is elusive.

Leading Dagestani archaeologist Murtazali Gadjiev insists Derbent has been continually inhabited only for about 2,000 years, though there is evidence of an earlier, interrupted, human presence at the site.

“I’ve been criticised by all sides over this date, but I want the truth, without politicisation or fairy tales,” Prof Gadjiev said in his office at the Dagestan Scientific Centre.

“Derbent is a famous place, the southern gate to Russia, and we must do our utmost to make it beautiful,” he added.

“But you must remember that Derbent is a city of the orient – a place where people tell all kinds of tales.”

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