Sword or Samovar

The Deadliest Village in Russia

At journey's end, reaching the heart of the North Caucasus's Islamist insurgency -- and getting arrested.

GUBDEN, Russia — As you drive in to this village in a fold of dry hills in central Dagestan, you pass two ruined buildings, one on either side of the road.

The collapsed buildings are all that remains after a suicide bomber in a Lada Priora sedan packed with explosives detonated himself outside a security checkpoint here at 10:35 p.m. on Feb. 14.

The bomber was Vitaly Razdobudko, a notorious figure in the ranks of Islamist extremists fighting the Kremlin's rule in Russia's North Caucasus, a sweep of mountains and steppe between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Three hours earlier, just a little further down the road, Razdobudko's wife blew herself up outside Gubden police station. Between them, the couple killed three people and wounded 26 in what rebel websites called a "twin martyrdom operation."

Russia has seen far more deadly strikes by the Caucasus militants in recent months. Most infamous was the suicide bombing by a 20-year-old Ingush man at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, which killed 37 people in January. But the real front line in Russia's war on terrorism lies 900 miles south of the capital in places like Gubden, a small sun-splashed white-stone village, my final stop on a monthlong trip.

This is a war not just of guns and bullets and bombs, but a war of ideas; and it's a war the Kremlin appears to be losing.

With more than 30 mosques for a population of no more than 8,000 people, Gubden is probably the most religious place in Russia. It is also one of the most violent. An estimated 70 percent of the population here practice Salafism, the brand of conservative Islam that is associated with the insurgents. And a steady flow of these orthodox believers have joined the fight to carve out an Islamic caliphate through bloodshed -- bloodshed reciprocated by security forces attempting to stamp them out.

The current head of the Gubden jamaat, Ibragimkhalil Daudov, is one of the leaders of all boyeviki (rebel fighters) in Dagestan. His predecessor in Gubden, Magomedali Vagabov, who was killed in a special operation in August last year, was also a key figure in the Caucasus Emirate, the regionwide Islamist coalition. (Vagabov's wife Mariam was one of the two women who detonated bombs on the Moscow metro a year ago this week; Daudov's wife accidentally killed herself as she prepared a suicide belt in a hotel room in the Russian capital on New Year's Eve.)

These men bear little resemblance to their forebears in the separatist movement of rebel Chechnya in the 1990s. Then, the Chechens' leader was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a dandyish former air force general with a clipped mustache who dreamed of an independent Ichkeria under the flag of the Chechen wolf. Today's boyeviki are jihadis from across the North Caucasus and beyond who idolize international terrorists like Osama bin Laden and thirst to become martyrs.

Shortly before blowing himself up at the checkpoint on the edge of Gubden in February, Razdobudko -- a 32-year-old ethnic Russian convert to Islam -- recorded a video, which appeared on the Internet after he died.

"This jihad in the Caucasus is the true jihad," he said, looking pale and grim-faced as he sat in darkness at the wheel of his car, holding a copy of the Quran. "Here the best Muslims have gathered, because they sell their bodies, their possessions, and souls to Allah in exchange for paradise. They are not afraid of death; the mujahideen, the warriors of Allah, aspire to death even more than the apostates and polytheists aspire to life."

*****

Traveling through five republics of the North Caucasus over the last few weeks, I've explored some of the main causes for the ongoing war on Russia's southern perimeter: the brutality of state security forces, choking corruption, unchecked inequality, and neglect of festering ethnic disputes.

I started my journey about 300 miles to the west on the plain in Kabardino-Balkaria, a new hot spot in the insurgency, where civilians are increasingly sucked into the violence. From there I passed through the relative calm of North Ossetia to the tortured sliver of Ingushetia, where kidnappings and bombings are routine. Then came Chechnya: subdued, rebuilt at last, but stricken by a capricious new khan. And finally, to Dagestan: the great mountain republic, and the bloodiest of the lot.

One thing keeps on echoing back: the divisive force of religion. All along my route, I've witnessed a gulf of understanding between state-sponsored "traditional" Islam and followers of the more conservative Salafi strain.

This confrontation is particularly acute in Dagestan. Here, Salafis, who believe in a return to the teachings of early leaders of the Muslim faith, face off against Sufis, who are supported by the official Spiritual Board of Muslims.

There is intolerance on both sides. In Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, a Salafi woman dressed in a hijab and floor-length tunic showed me a recording on her cell phone of Sheikh Said-Afandi, one of the republic's most revered Sufi leaders.

"Disgusting," she said, as she watched scores of the sheikh's murids (followers) lining up to kiss his hands. "No man should make himself an intermediary between Allah and Muslims, demanding his own worship."

In the Islamist insurgents' online propaganda, where Sufis are condemned for "pagan practices" such as performing ritual dances and visiting the graves of their ancestors, the rhetoric gets even nastier. "Fed with a fatty broth, they are like a hoard of dirty pigs," says one diatribe. "They fawn before the [Russian] kafirs and are slaves of the butchers of the Kremlin!"

Yet such bile stems from a truth: Sufi leaders have been tainted by their ties with state officials and by their past readiness to marginalize Salafis, sometimes to the point of open persecution on the presumption that every Salafi is a potential terrorist. (The term Wahhabi -- often used for Salafis -- has become virtually synonymous with boyevik, a fundamentalist fighter.)

Although state-linked Islamic leaders in the North Caucasus rarely participate in this violence themselves, they have at times been willing accomplices. When militants assassinated Anas Pshikhachev, the mufti of Kabardino-Balkaria, on his doorstep in December, rebel sources said he'd been targeted for helping the police draw up lists of Wahhabis to interrogate, beat, and torture.

In Gubden, two Salafi men told me that they and other pious Muslims were regularly rounded up for questioning, purely on the basis of their beliefs. One said that his 77-year-old relative had been called a Wahhabi purely for saying that he didn't pray at the mosque, as some Salafis choose not to do.

His friend added: "So please show me, where in the Russian Constitution does it say that a man can be taken by police for not going to a mosque?

"They [security forces] do whatever they like, they burst into your home, they carry out searches without a warrant. There's no lawfulness; that's why we have this chaos in Dagestan. They put pressure on a peaceful man. It happens once, twice, three times. Finally he can't bear it anymore and goes to the forest [to join the boyeviki]."

*****

Gubden has suffered immensely from these divisions, though you wouldn't know it at first. On the day I visited, people strolled along the village's narrow, winding streets. Two women in headscarves leaned over a wooden balcony to talk to a friend in the dust below, and a group of spindly cows drank from a stream.

But I hadn't been in town for an hour before I was detained. A group of plainclothes policemen, one carrying a Kalashnikov, came to the house where I was talking to three local men over tea and spoons of honeycomb.

The officers were jumpy. They took me to the station where Razdobudko's wife, Maria Khorosheva, had triggered her belt of explosives at the entrance (she too recorded a martyr video, saying her attack was retribution for Muslims being "killed and tortured" in Russia). The building was surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, and rows of concrete barriers designed to stop vehicles approaching.

I was questioned for almost two hours, as were the men with whom I'd been talking. The senior officer at the station, on the basis of no evidence, suggested I had forged links with militants in the village.

I got used to such accusations during my journey. Senior officials in Russia regularly say -- without providing proof -- that the CIA and other foreign spy agencies fund Islamists in the Caucasus. Any Westerner passing through the region is seen as a possible go-between.

I also understood why the police felt nervous. On the wall of the room where we sat was a portrait of a square-jawed man with steel-gray hair in a uniform and a peaked cap. I recognized the face. It was Abdulmalik Magomedov, the former chief of the Gubden police.

Magomedov was shot dead in a skirmish with fighters near the village in 2008. A year later, his wife, daughter, and older sister would die in one of the cruelest acts ever committed by the militants. The three women had gone to Magomedov's grave in one of Gubden's cemeteries on the anniversary of his death. As they began to read passages from the Quran, a bomb laid by the grave exploded, killing them all. Last summer, Magomedov's surviving son, Ruslan, was assassinated in the middle of the village. The entire family, now, is gone.

And so the policemen crouch in their fortress, radiating fear and hatred. "We don't go out in uniform," explained one, called Umar. "It's too dangerous." Another said with disgust: "One day the Wahhabis plead they are peaceful, repressed believers, and the next they'll drag you off and kill you, or hold you for ransom."

Yet the police are not the only ones who are suffering in Gubden.

Just down the road, opposite a gas station, I found the house of Abdurashid Rashidov. Early on Christmas Day 2009, a team of 10 armed men in black uniforms and masks broke down Abdurashid's door, pushed him and his wife to the floor, and dragged off their adult son, Magomed -- who may or may not have had ties to the rebels. Magomed has not been seen or heard of since.

"It was the police or the FSB that did it, who else?" said Abdurashid, a trim middle-aged man in a white skull cap. "I wrote to the authorities asking for help, but they did nothing."

I asked what he planned to do next. "Magomed was my only son," Abdurashid replied. "I have decided to resolve this by my own methods."

He would not say what exactly he meant.

*****

As I've traveled over the last few weeks, I've found it difficult either to condemn men who've suffered immense pain and humiliation for taking matters into their own hands, or to blame the policemen I've met for being skittish. The Caucasus is a place where easy definitions of victim and persecutor break down almost immediately.

It is clear, however, that people here have a catastrophic lack of trust in the Russian state -- and that to a large extent, Russia has earned that mistrust through neglect and bad policy, helping to create a pool of disaffected young people who see little chance to control their futures.

Last September, the Russian government published a strategy document for the economic development of the region. Some ideas seemed utopian (building a chain of ski resorts), others sensible (reviving mining of precious metals).

But the key challenges remain unaddressed: Elections are still rigged, bureaucrats still steal on a mind-boggling scale, and jobs are scarce. Add to this the ongoing savagery of the FSB and other security forces, and it is little surprise that young people are seduced by Islamists who promise a world of purity and brotherhood.

"We don't have a tradition of being serfs for hundreds of years, like the Russians," Dagestani journalist Zaur Gaziyev told me. "Our culture is different. If we are slighted or wronged we don't go and get drunk on vodka. We pick up a gun and go out to murder the one who wronged us."

The Kremlin has failed the people of the North Caucasus, and not just economically, but politically and spiritually as well.

"The insurgents have popular websites with good design that get thousands of views a month," one human rights activist railed, early on in my trip. "They promote their ideology, publish articles on how to make homemade weapons, and provide links to international jihadis. Where is the response from our official Spiritual Board of Muslims? Where is their Internet presence? Where are their charismatic people offering an alternative?"

In Makhachkala, a lawyer I met reinforced that view. "In the highlands of Dagestan the Kremlin has lost the ideological battle," he said. "It has nothing to offer."

Until that changes, the violence is likely to continue unabated. 

As I left Gubden, the policemen from the station insisted on giving me an armed escort to a nearby town so I could meet a senior officer. He was a pleasant, educated man, and for a little while we sat chatting in his office. It was a moment of calm at the end of a stressful day. Yet as I left the building, I was jolted back to reality.

A young soldier at the gate was receiving a warning over his walkie-talkie about a suspect car. "Zhiguli VAZ 21014," said the voice urgently. "Silver color. Registration number 528. Suicide bomber. Shoot to kill."

ABDULA MAGOMEDOV/AFP/Getty Images

Sword or Samovar

Dangerous Graft

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