South and Central Asia Desk
Written by: Jake Mezey, Timothy Dwight College ’21
Dagestan is a semi-autonomous republic in Russia’s Southern Caucuses known for its ruggedly beautiful mountainous terrain, its long history of conflict, and its wrestlers. From spartan gymnasiums filled with children as young as five to the Rio Olympics, Dagestani wrestlers are known for their skill and almost religious dedication to the sport. Wrestling has always had a special place in Dagestani culture and society, but in the last several decades it has become a way to keep young boys out of insurgent groups as well as a rare opportunity for economic mobility.
Dagestan lies on the Caucuses isthmus with the Caspian Sea to the East, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the South, and Chechnya to the West. The Republic has few large urban centers, instead most of the population lives in small towns which cling to the area’s signature steep rocky hillsides. While Dagestan is predominantly Muslim, there is significant ethnic diversity in the region. The largest groups are Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, and Lezgins. Ethnic Russians make up about 10% of the population.
In the 18th century, the Southern Caucuses were hotly contested between Imperial Russia and Iran. Russia consolidated its control over the region in the early 1800s; however, it faced numerous rebellions and uprisings, most famously under the legendary leader Imam Shamil in 1834. In 1999, Dagestan became embroiled in the Chechen Wars when extremist groups from Chechnya seized territory in Dagestan. Retaliation by the Russian military sparked counter-state and inter-ethnic violence which still simmers today. Furthermore, poverty and lack of effective state control in the region led many young Dagestanis to join radical groups such as ISIS or to find work in the drug trade.
In many ways, wrestling has been Dagestan’s answer to the social stresses produced by violence, poverty, and disaffected young men. The sport is cheap, requiring only a singlet and a pair of shoes. Wrestling gyms also tend to serve as a form of day-care for the younger children, whose parents can leave them under the watchful eye of a coach while they are at work. As boys grow up in this system, their coaches take on the role of both a mentor and moral guide. Hard work, discipline, and respect are the main values that wrestling coaches emphasize, and especially in Dagestan these values are often married to traditional Islamic teachings. Training consists of hours of perfecting technique and sparring in the wrestling room, as well as running through the craggy peaks of the Dagestani countryside or the shores of the Caspian Sea. This moral and physical ethos channels the wrestlers’ energy and ambition into competition and constructive goals.
Few other legitimate avenues exist in Dagestan for socio-economic advancement, especially for women. While men’s wrestling has been ubiquitous in Dagestan for decades, women’s wrestling is only starting to take hold. Around the world, from the United States to Japan, women’s wrestling has been growing exponentially but has often faced resistance and cultural backlash. The traditional religious and cultural values of Dagestan have also been slow to evolve, but have proven flexible enough for Dagestani Women to begin finding success at the Russian, European, and World Championships.
The ultimate goal for young Dagestani wrestlers is Olympic Gold. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Dagestani’s won five out of eighteen available medals (three per weight class), more than a quarter of the spots on the Olympic podium. Abdulrashid Sudalaev is the current World Champion in the 97-kilogram weight class and was the Olympic Champion at 86 kilos. He is the number one ranked pound-for-pound wrestler in the world. Another prominent Dagestani is Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib grew up wrestling but currently fights Mixed Martial Arts in the UFC. He is undefeated at 28-0, and in his last victory over Dustin Poirer he was paid over five million dollars. Wrestlers like Sudalaev and Nurmagomedov represent the hope for Dagestanis who want to climb out of cycles of poverty. Even if they fail to achieve the highest levels of success, many wrestlers become coaches and mentor the next generation in turn.
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