Reprinted from “The Brothers” by Masha Gessen by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Random House, Copyright © 2015 by Masha Gessen.
Makhachkala is a hard place to love. A locally prominent artist called it “a town without a legend” that was “unsuited for normal life.” A fort reconstituted as a town in the mid–nineteenth century, it felt like a haphazard and temporary agglomeration of more than a hundred ethnic groups, each of which maintained its own language and used variously simplified and mangled Russian to communicate with one another and the outside world. Streets bore the names of the ethnic groups that had originally settled there: Armenian Street crossed Persian Street. Soviet authorities renamed the streets in the spirit of internationalism and Communist ideology, but the old designations remained in the vernacular. Each group made its own living arrangements, usually unaided by the Communist state that had assumed the obligation for sheltering and feeding all citizens but failed consistently, and failed worse the farther from the center the citizens resided. People lived in barracks, in rehabbed fort structures, in sheds and other temporary dwellings, and well into the late twentieth century, indoor plumbing and cooking facilities remained the stuff of dreams.
Zubeidat was born in Makhachkala three years before an earthquake devastated the city. By the time she was a teenager, she was acutely and painfully aware of living in a backwater. Even the Chechens, who lived right next door and had been decimated by forced exile, had a real city: Grozny had fashion and music. It was from Grozny that young men would bring records and reel-to-reel tapes for Makhachkala’s first diskotekas—a fancy word for dances—in the early 1980s. To create disco lighting, the young men stole colored glass from traffic lights and, at great peril to themselves, flashing lights off police cars.
Everyone in Makhachkala knew everything about everyone else. There was one Russian Orthodox church in the city and, directly across the street, one abortion clinic. Being seen entering either could ruin one’s reputation for life—the church because of Party prohibitions on religion, and the clinic because, while most Soviet women strove to control their fertility and had few means of doing that aside from abortion, Dagestani women were having more babies than women almost anywhere else in the USSR were having, and staying home to raise them. The home was ruled by the men in accordance with Adat, a set of rules that were said to derive from Islam but were largely local customs. Most of the local populations were Muslim; the Russian colonizers had imported Russian Orthodoxy, and migrants had brought Greek Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Judaism. The Communists had banned the open organized practice of all religions, and in Muslim groups over the course of decades the family and community practices of Adat came to reign supreme—and to be conflated with Islam in the popular understanding.
Customs differed somewhat even between closely related Muslim ethnic groups such as Chechens and Avars, the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. In both traditions, though, the eldest brother ruled over all siblings. Zubeidat was Avar, so if she wanted to go live with her brother in Moscow – and she wanted to, desperately – she first had to ask her eldest brother, who lived in Novosibirsk, in southwestern Siberia. That was where she had gone, then, to ask his permission.