MAKHACHKALA, Russia — When I passed through the mountainous south of Dagestan on a 2008 walking trip across the Caucasus, I was treated with incredible kindness. The hills of this Russian republic are full of hundreds of stone villages, clinging to the slopes, where life is eked out from shepherding or the odd patch of crops. Every night, for three weeks, a stranger would give me food and a place to sleep in their home. No one ever asked anything in return.
But there is another side to Dagestan's generosity, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a blunt speech here two years ago. Speaking about what drives terrorism in this republic and across the rest of the North Caucasus, Medvedev identified "monstrous scales of corruption" as one of the chief causes. Dagestan is not just the most welcoming of the North Caucasus's troubled republics; it is also the most deadly. And the corruption that Medvedev pointed to is at the very heart of the violence that is destroying this self-contained, traditional society.
Dagestan's isolation has preserved customs of hospitality and honor that are common to all its 32 indigenous ethnic groups. Yet Dagestan has also been shielded from moderating outside influence, something that has made it vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. The republic has the deepest Islamic tradition in the region (Arab invaders were here in the seventh century A.D.), and when religious emissaries from the Middle East began to pour in after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they found a fertile breeding ground for new recruits.
Conservative Salafis entering Dagestan came into confrontation with the Sufi "tariqats" (orders) that had dominated religious life here before the Bolsheviks. In the following two decades, a growing number of locals became Salafis -- known derogatively as Vakhkhabity (Wahhabis) in Russian -- and some joined the Islamist insurgency spreading out of Chechnya.
Dagestan has paid heavily for its involvement. The Caucasian Knot website recorded 378 insurgency-related deaths and 307 people wounded in the republic in 2010 (compared with Ingushetia with 134 deaths and 192 wounded, and Chechnya with 127 and 123). In Makhachkala, the militants -- operating from safe houses and mountain bases -- shoot and bomb the cars of police and officials. People calmly follow the plumes of smoke to take a look and film the scorched remains on their cell phones.
This terrorist war against Russian rule has been intensified by clumsy religious policy, persecution by Russian security services of suspected rebels and their families, ham-fisted economic plans that have kept many out of work, and -- as Medvedev said -- suffocating corruption.
The effect of graft is twofold. First, it feeds social discontent, as the gap widens between rich and poor. And secondly, it nurtures deeply criminalized Islamist guerrillas who rely on extortion and racketeering to keep their fight alive.
These causes of conflict are not unique to Dagestan. Over the last month, as I've traveled across five Russian republics in the North Caucasus, I have been constantly assailed by accounts of sleaze. "It is totally ingrained," said Mukhadin, a shop assistant in his 40s in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, who asked not to use his surname. "Someone gets a position in a ministry and he drags his whole clan into office with him, even the half-wits. There's no meritocracy, no recourse to justice. An educated guy who could work 10 times better is just left bitter, without a job."
Corruption is a soft, imprecise word. Most often, it means simply theft of funds. State officials steal public money that could help families climb out of squalid poverty or build schools or save lives in hospitals.
Yet corruption is also theft of rights, and theft of justice.
Last week, in a cafe in Makhachkala, I met Zalina Ayubova, her mother, Madina, and their lawyer, Sapiyat Magomedova.
Zalina is a 13-year-old schoolgirl. She and her mother live in Khasavyurt, a town about an hour's drive west of the capital that is best known for being the place where Chechen rebels and generals of the Russian army signed a peace agreement at the end of the first Chechen war in 1996.
One morning in September last year, Zalina was walking home from a visit to a doctor's clinic when she was stopped in the street by a former classmate called Shamil. Threatening to hurt her if she resisted, Shamil, 14, and two older friends allegedly took Zalina to an abandoned hut near the local prison. There, later in a hotel, and then in a house that was under construction, a series of young men paid Shamil for the privilege of raping Zalina. On one occasion Shamil is said to have accepted a payment of 200 rubles ($7) and on another, 150 rubles.
After three days, one of the rapists -- Shamil's older brother, Khasim -- called Zalina's mother, Madina, and agreed to tell her where Zalina was if she came to meet him and didn't tell anyone else.
After some agonizing, Madina -- who had been desperately searching for her daughter -- decided to call police. She and an officer went to the agreed spot, and Khasim was immediately arrested. He admitted to raping Zalina, whom Madina found lying unconscious on a sheet of cardboard in the half-built house. She had not had anything to eat or drink since she was abducted.
It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Zalina had spent several days with her tormentors. She knew Shamil well, and the four young men who had raped her made no attempts to hide their identities. One had confessed. A doctor confirmed that Zalina had been repeatedly assaulted.
Three of the alleged rapists were arrested and charged, and Shamil was released on bail because he is a minor. Yet the investigation quickly stalled. Relatives of the accused men came to Madina, offering her 600,000 rubles ($21,000) or an apartment in Makhachkala in exchange for withdrawing the case. "When I refused," she told me, "they said, 'Don't worry, we know where to take our money.'"
Soon, strange things began to happen. The fourth rapist was not detained, and it was unclear whether an arrest warrant had been issued in his name. Madina heard that he was walking freely around his home village near Khasavyurt.
Meanwhile, a medical test of fluids left on Zalina's clothes mysteriously found no match with the DNA of the alleged attackers. At the same time, the men's relatives began to dispute that Zalina had ever visited the doctor's clinic on the morning she was kidnapped (apparently in an attempt to suggest she had joined the men voluntarily). Medical records proving she was there went missing from the clinic and turned up at the house of Shamil and Khasim's father, a traffic policeman.
"It's clear there has been a determined effort to derail the investigation, either using money or connections in the law-enforcement agencies," Sapiyat, Madina's lawyer, told me at our meeting in the cafe.
(Sapiyat herself is personally acquainted with Dagestani justice. Last June she was hospitalized after being beaten by special forces officers at a police station in Khasavyurt. A probe into the attack has achieved no result. In fact, a parallel investigation was launched after several of the officers alleged that Sapiyat, who is 5 feet tall and weighs 92 pounds, had been the aggressor. At the time, Sapiyat was representing a woman who had allegedly suffered years of blackmail at the hands of a local policeman.)