The Makhachkala Airport Events From An Ethnographer’s Standpoint
November 7, 2023
  • Valery Dymshits
    Petersburg Judaica Center
Based on his many years of field research, ethnographer Valery Dymshits explains why the anti-Israel protest at the Makhachkala Airport turned violent and distinctly anti-Semitic, and discusses the origins of anti-Semitism in the North Caucasus.
The Makhachkala Airport pogrom caused fear and bewilderment across Russian social media. In particular, the message of the protesters – to turn away Israeli refugees – seemed ridiculous: why were Israelis going to Dagestan? It was also surprising that in Russia, where no protests are possible, a major violent action took place that was not immediately stopped and whose perpetrators got off – at least for now – with minimal punishments.

Who are the Mountain Jews?

The Mountain Jews are one of the Jewish ethnic groups. They call themselves “Juhuro” – “Jews.” Their historical homeland is the Eastern Caucasus, where the Caucasus Mountains approach the Caspian Sea. In terms of modern political borders, it is southern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan. In the 19th century, the Mountain Jews from Dagestan settled throughout the North Caucasus, and later spread quite widely across the world. The largest Mountain Jewish community is now in Israel. Many Mountain Jews also live in Moscow, the US and Europe.

The Mountain Jews speak a dialect of the Tat language, of the Western Iranian family. Another dialect of the language is spoken by Muslim Tats. After World War II, against the backdrop of rising state anti-Semitism in the Stalinist USSR, the Mountain Jewish intelligentsia in Dagestan and other regions of the North Caucasus began to promote the idea that it was the linguistic community that was important, not religion (religion is an anachronism that must be eradicated in an atheist state!), and got the Mountain Jews reclassified with the corresponding change made in their passports.

This is how one of the “indigenous peoples of Dagestan” – the Tats – emerged. In Soviet times, “Tat” in your passport (the USSR had “internal” passports where one’s ethnicity was noted) meant that you were a Mountain Jew from one of the Caucasus regions of the RSFSR. As a result of this whole story from the Soviet past, the Mountain Jews are still called Tats, which they themselves do not always appreciate. President Putin, when speaking about the unrest in Makhachkala, also repeated the formula about “the Tats as an indigenous people of Dagestan.”

Anti-Semitism in the Caucasus

In any country where a Jewish community historically exists or existed, there is or was anti-Semitism. There has always been anti-Semitism in the North Caucasus. The persecution of the Mountain Jews forced them at the end of the 18th century to seek protection at Azerbaijani fortresses (at Derbent and Quba). In the middle of the 19th century, during the Caucasus War, the Mountain Jews were again forced to flee, and this time they sought protection behind the walls of Russian fortresses (Nalchik, Kizlyar, Grozny, etc.). The Mountain Jews suffered greatly from pogroms during the Russian Civil War after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In August 1960, in Buynaksk (Dagestan) an article in a local newspaper nearly triggered a pogrom. It claimed that Jews were buying 5-10 grams of Muslim blood, diluting it in a bucket of water and selling it to other Jews. The contents of the article were broadcast on local radio the same day. The Jews of Buynaksk turned to the Politburo for protection from this slander, and it took Moscow’s intervention to defuse the situation.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, a meeting was held in a Derbent mosque to condemn Israel. Chairmen of collective farms and factory directors made speeches, calling on the authorities to “deal a blow to the aggressor.”
“The people on the streets understood this as a green light to attack Jews, and a pogrom was in the air. Jews turned to the authorities for protection and organized units to defends themselves. That time, however, no attacks materialized.”
Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, has grown quite rapidly in the past decade. Together with the nearby suburbs, it is now home to almost a million people, nearly a third of Dagestan’s overall population. Source: Wiki Commons
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, when anarchy reigned, Dagestan saw power, influence, land and property redistributed by criminal methods, with Islamic or nationalist slogans often used as cover. Numerous political assassinations took place.

The Mountain Jews, relatively small in number and surrounded by Muslims, suffered more than others. In 1993-94, they experienced intense violence and pressure (including threats, kidnappings and murders), because of which they were forced out of their homes and apartments, often leaving everything behind. The “humane” option looked like this: you were given 24 hours to get out and told to leave the keys to the apartment under the rug; the “inhumane” option was murder.

Jews fled to Israel, Moscow and Pyatigorsk. In Dagestan during that period, the prosperous Jewish communities of Buynaksk, Kizlyar and Khasavyurt disappeared. The Jewish population of Derbent dropped from 17,000 to 2,000. Behind all this violence was, of course, crime, the redistribution of positions, influence and property; however, it was justified with nationalist and anti-Semitic slogans.
In the late 1990s, the level of criminal violence declined, and life became calmer.

How ethnic prejudice turns into a pogrom

Anti-Semitism (like other similar phobias) is not an ideology, but a dormant element of consciousness. It is something like everyday microflora, which become pathogenic as soon as the host organism weakens. People of other faiths and foreigners are not liked, nasty myths are told about ethnic neighbors, but for the time being everyone lives peacefully, visiting each other and attending weddings; then a crisis comes, and old prejudices come to the surface.

The worst is when such a flare-up happens in a society that has not fully modernized (this is precisely the North Caucasus), when the mass of the rural population is still moving to cities. The newcomers retain traditional prejudices while simultaneously losing traditional checks and balances, no longer under the control of traditional authorities. They are disoriented, they demand a piece of the city pie, but do not know how to bite it off. They are poor, often unemployed, under the influence of radical preachers, young, easily mobilized, etc.

For the “native” urban population, a neighbor of a different religion is both a competitor and a resource; however, in the end everyone has a common city-based identity and patriotism. But for migrants, a native is a target, and a native of a different religion is doubly a target.

The problem in such societies is the rapid growth of capital cities, since only there can people access resources that do not reach the periphery. Makhachkala is one of these cities. Over the past decade, the population has grown by 50% to 600,000. Together with the nearby suburbs, it is now home to almost a million people, nearly a third of Dagestan’s overall population.

The city’s rapid growth is also driven by a higher birth rate than the national average. Many young people have recently moved to the city. This makes it much easier to find 2,000 aggressive hooligans.

What did the pogromists want?

Ethnic or religious identity often generates strong emotional reactions. Sympathy for fellow believers is an understandable emotion, but it has nothing to do with pogroms. Peaceful protest is a legitimate form of collective political action, which would have looked natural in Dagestan, where the absolute majority is Muslim and sympathizes with the Palestinians. But the situation took a different turn.
In Dagestan, the population is inclined toward direct action. Last autumn, when the Kremlin announced mobilization, Dagestan was the only region in the country that saw a strong and violent reaction.
A synagogue in Makhachkala. Source: Yandex
It was not a one-off, either. Every time there are interruptions in the supply of electricity and gas to different settlements in Dagestan – a frequent occurrence due to infrastructure problems – people organize mass and rather aggressive actions. I am not saying that the Makhachkala Airport pogromists were the same people who protested against mobilization last autumn. But such reactions are part of the local political culture.

Protests in support of the people of Gaza are taking place all over the world, including in Europe and the US. In Muslim countries – for example, Turkey – they are especially widespread. (By the way, the million-strong rally in Istanbul was also held at an airport.) The actions, as long as they are nonviolent, are legitimate. Makhachkala residents also had the right to hold their own pro-Palestine and anti-Israel rally with biting slogans. Students at prestigious American universities are also rallying in support of Gaza with posters that are, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.

Young Makhachkala residents, stirred up by information about the war in the Gaza Strip and news of mass demonstrations in support of Palestinian Muslims around the world, spontaneously decided to go and protest. Spontaneous protests in today’s Russia are extremely dangerous, but in Dagestan, as noted above, the practice continues.

The crowd headed to the airport, since planes regularly arrive from Tel Aviv. The logic was clear: dissatisfaction with Israel should be displayed specifically to the Israelis who are likely on this flight. At first everything was drastic, spontaneous, but rather nonviolent. Social media aided the rapid mobilization.

‘No Israeli refugees in Dagestan’

It was then that particular Dagestan and Russian factors made their presence felt. Not many people came to the square in front of the airport – according to media reports, fewer than 2,000 – but they were all young men. One particularity of the region is that women do not go to such events; neither do older men, who maintain a balance between traditional Islam and local customs. The audience for radical Islam is predominantly young men. At the airport, the crowd riled itself up. Just standing there and shouting was uninteresting and boring; an active show of force and fury was demanded, and the crowd rushed toward the airfield.

Thank God, there were no lynchings of passengers, everyone was saved, but a tragedy was barely avoided. We must rejoice not only for those whose lives were in danger and survived, but for everyone – blood makes a situation irreversible.

The slogan “we will not let Israeli refugees into Dagestan” did not appear out of nowhere. It arose from the assumption that the Mountain Jews living in Israel would want to send their women, children, old people – those who cannot fight and are suffering from bombardment – to where they lived before repatriation, to relatives, to friends. I do not know whether this was actually the case, but such an assumption does not seem absurd. People in Dagestan had gotten used to the Israelis: they regularly came for weddings and funerals and just to visit. Now, with the conflict, the crowd demanded not to let the enemies of Muslims – Jews and Israelis – into their Muslim country.

Was the pogrom at the airport inspired by someone?

In my view, this is the most foolish of the takes circulating on social media and in the media. The regime is constantly telling the population: the people do not have any agency; they cannot do anything without behind-the-scenes puppet masters; any protest is organized by enemies. Russian President Putin and the head of Dagestan Sergei Melikov have claimed that the Makhachkala Airport pogrom was inspired by the American intelligence services. Meanwhile, others allege the same thing – only that it was the Kremlin that was behind it.

You have to really not respect people – no matter whether you think they are good or bad – to think that they will not do anything without being egged on by the authorities. This is the colonial optic: the noble savage in his natural state is welcoming and friendly until someone teaches him bad things. You can think that a person is doing something bad, you can hate him for it, but you cannot stop seeing him as a person who makes his own decisions, good or bad, and is responsible for them.

Of course, the authorities – national and local – bear political responsibility for everything that happens in the country and in the region.
However, the incident is not the direct fault of the authorities. They are the least interested in such excesses,
because: a) they constantly trumpet the “religious harmony” in Russia; b) they are “fighting Nazism,” which looks awkward against the backdrop of pogroms; c) they are trying to develop tourism in Dagestan and have invested a lot of money in it; d) they want to guard their monopoly on violence. In my view, what happened is negligence, not malicious intent.

The authorities caught on and reacted very seriously, right up to Putin’s statement the very next day after the pogrom, even though he does not speak out on just any occasion. Though the words sounded menacing, the results have been modest. In total, 15 pogromists were sentenced to eight days of administrative arrest, even though the airport was paralyzed for two days and several police officers were injured. For peaceful expressions of protest on an incomparably smaller scale in Moscow and other cities, activists have been given real prison sentences. Clearly, the authorities are pursuing two goals: to explain that this was bad and not to trigger new protests.

We must hope that the measures taken will have an effect and that what happened will remain a local episode – otherwise, the centuries-old history of Jews in the Caucasus could come to a swift end.
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