As the journey nears its end, a look at how samovar politics, mixed with rampant corruption, have helped turn Dagestan into the most deadly of Russia's North Caucasus republics.
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.)
As for the men who persecuted and raped Zalina Ayubova, they might well be already free if it weren't for the efforts of two journalists in Makhachkala: Zaur Gaziyev, the editor in chief of the newspaper Svobodnaya Respublika (Free Republic), and Nariman Gadzhiyev, a radio host and former local TV personality.
Zaur, who was once a human rights activist, heard about Zalina's story via his contacts and wrote a long column about it on Feb. 11. "There are so many such cases in Dagestan, where a victim is frightened off, bought off; when a person is simply killed and buried, and all traces concealed," he wrote. Nariman then reposted his friend's article on his popular blog.
"The response was unbelievable," said Nariman, a jolly, thickset man with a pneumatic pistol tucked in his waistband, when I visited his office. The article got 53,000 hits that day, making it one of the most discussed topics on the Russian Internet. "It struck a nerve because everyone can imagine it happening to their sister or daughter."
The fact that unscrupulous officials appeared complicit in an attempt to impede the investigation was also resonant, Nariman added. "It's exactly this kind of case, this kind of contemptuous treatment of a human life, which can drive young men to take up arms and join the boyeviki [militant fighters]," he said.
A week later, the furor prompted Dagestan's president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, to announce he was taking personal control of the investigation. "As a Dagestani, a Muslim, and the father of three children, I am deeply revolted by what has happened," he said. "Attempts to make sure the people guilty of this monstrous crime avoid responsibility will be harshly suppressed."
Madina hopes the president's attention will make it harder for her daughter's attackers to quash the prosecution. "The bastards must get what they deserve," she said.
But the broader problem seems destined to persist. In numerous conversations, residents of Makhachkala described to me a paralyzing level of daily bribe-taking.
"You pay to get into university, you pay to stay there; everyone pays to get a job unless they have family connections," said Rasul, a man in his early 30s who trained at a police academy in St. Petersburg for five years but couldn't afford to buy himself a position in the local force when he came home. "Some people are just totally powerless and excluded. And in the end they can't take it anymore; they pick up a gun and head for the hills."
Elsewhere, a businessman who provided state-funded adult education classes explained how he was pressured to invent hundreds of ghost students so officials could cream off the extra tuition payments. And in a shabby office of the Dagestani branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a worker gestured to a building in front of a pond outside, which he said had once been the academy's property. "But a chinovnik [state bureaucrat] sold it for construction," he told me. "Just like that, money went straight in his pocket."
Such practices are rife all across Russia, of course. Last year the Kremlin itself estimated that it loses at least $35 billion a year to rigged state tenders. In one high-profile case in May last year, a Russian construction entrepreneur revealed that he had paid $4 million in kickbacks to a senior state official in order to secure a contract to build a luxury residential complex for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Yet, analysts say, the clannish nature of society in the North Caucasus republics means corruption here runs even deeper. And even when lawbreaking is not involved, leaders and officials do little to dispel an image of shameless extravagance.
Two years ago, Medvedev asked regional leaders to detail their income and belongings. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, who owns a gold-plated pistol, several racehorses, and a collection of expensive sports cars (he acquired a Ferrari Testarossa in 2006), declared two assets: a 36-square-meter apartment and a Lada Zhiguli, the Soviet-era workhorse sedan.
This month, Abdusamad Gamidov, Dagestan's finance minister, announced a tender for an Audi A8L worth $290,000. (Many Dagestanis I met earn about 6,000 rubles, or $200, per month, making that equivalent to 120 years' pay.) The minister swiftly withdrew the tender when Russia's anti-corruption campaigner, Aleksei Navalny, posted it on his blog, saying that "world presidents" had more modest vehicles.
And that is suggestive of the root of the problem: Dagestan, like most of the North Caucasus, is heavily subsidized, receiving at least 65 percent of its budget from Moscow.
One evening toward the end of my stay in Makhachkala, I went to see Zaur Gaziyev. "For years now the Kremlin has been sending us huge tranches of federal money," he said. "And in exchange for the loyalty of local elites, a lot of the cash is allowed to go missing."
That, said, Zaur, has proved a bankrupt mode of governance. "And it's not just the fault of Dagestanis," he said. "Many of the suitcases [of money] stay in Moscow.
"As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head."
ABDULA MAGOMEDOV/AFP/Getty Images