Dagestan's Road Warriors

Picture the most scared you've ever been in a car. Now multiply that by ten and you'll start to get a sense of what it's like to lay on the gas (and slam the breaks) on the mean streets of Makhachkala.

By / December 2011

In his 2008 book Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People, veteran BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbleby decries the reckless driving of Russian motorists. Despite hitting the roads in more than eighty nations, Dimbleby proclaims Russia’s highways and byways the scariest on earth. As frightening as driving through Russia proper can be — and, indeed, it can be terrifying — driving through Makhachkala, the capital city of Russia’s southern semi-autonomous Republic of Dagestan, makes steering the gridlocked streets of Moscow seem tranquil.

I speak from experience, having lived in this town of 750,000 in Russia’s Wild West for two years, but the statistics also bear out my observations—Dagestan has more traffic-related fatalities than any other Russian region. Likewise, Dagestanis have a reputation in Russian pop culture for being daredevils, or “wild sheep,” as my friend Kazi calls his countrymen.

A popular Moscow talk show recently panned the audience for any brave souls who had actually driven the streets of Makhachkala. When one proud guest raised his hand and came forward, he was greeted by expressions of awe, as if he had survived a tsunami. The host rewarded him on the spot. In Makhachkala, driving is nothing if not savage. Post-traumatic nostalgia transports me to several recent episodes in the not-so-distant past.

Take, for instance, my mid-summer rendezvous with Roma, a well-traveled Ukrainian colleague who decides to come visit Dagestan. Always game for adventure, Roma opts for the nine-lives-demanding, sixteen-hour express bus from Rostov to Makhachkala. I meet him at the bus stop, hand him a big can of Red Bull, and proceed to ferry him across this wild frontier town in my rugged Russian jeep, a dusty white Niva, the simple man’s 4X4.

At one point along the open highway, a car in the opposing lane turns right in front of us broad-side, forcing me to slam on my brakes from high speed. Roma turns yellow, bracing himself against the dashboard (Niva’s don’t sport airbags, or workable seatbelts for that matter). Somehow we manage to escape without hitting the car up ahead or getting rammed from behind, but the driver’s move sets off a chain reaction.

Car after car follows suit, crimping around and hauling tail in the wrong direction while we wait at a standstill, eyes half closed, waiting anxiously for the madness to pass.

Without warning, one vehicle breaks from the pack and barrels towards our front bumper. The driver hoists a handgun out the window, aimed cavalierly into the air over our windshield, and fires six shots in quick succession. The car skids past us.

“It’s just a wedding celebration!” I try to reassure a ghost-like Roma, eyes dilated in disbelief. “Dagestani weddings,” I go on, “are raucous events replete with celebratory outbursts of gunfire.” Roma looks at me incredulously, drawing his own conclusions. I can already hear him telling the story to his friends back home.

Fast-forward to a late-fall joyride with Marat, a 23-year-old son of a middle-class Dagestani businessman. After spending an evening with Marat at the club he runs, he invites me to tea and insists on ushering me across town in his vehicle, a beat-up mid-90’s BMW with tinted windows. I no sooner slam my door than the tires squeal.

An American, I reflexively reach for the seat belt but stop myself mid-grab: I’ve never seen anyone wear a seatbelt in Dagestan.

My personal crisis between choosing safety and following the local etiquette is soon quelled as Marat sniffs my dread and quips in disgust, “It doesn’t work.” A few moments later, as a sort of veiled apology for the sake of his visibly terrified foreign guest, he adds: “The first time people ride with me, they become very afraid. But after the first time, they learn to respect me. Inshallah (‘God willing’), we will be OK.”

And we were OK, despite the fact that Marat ran four red lights, cut off a police jeep (one of whose inhabitants jumped out waving an AK-47 at us), and dodged multiple head-on collisions.

Perhaps more telling is my recent experience with a local police captain. Not any local police captain, mind you. Captain Abdul works in the traffic police division, overseeing the government driving school and all local driving licenses. One evening, he steers me to his home for an unhurried dinner of local delicacies. To put it mildly, I am shocked when he speeds through the first red light.

“I don’t understand! You, too?” I protest in disbelief. With a mischievous grin, the captain begins to explain: “There’s no law here in Dagestan. At least not the kind you’re used to. We do have laws, but they’re laws of another kind. Laws tethered to our hearts and to our ancient warrior blood.”

Glimpsing the lingering skepticism on my face, sensing that his romantic talk is not quite convincing me, he tries harder: “We are warriors, you see. Our forefathers were warriors and we are warriors. We make and defend our own laws. Look at our situation in this republic. This [the wild driving] is the only opportunity, healthy opportunity, for our men to keep being warriors. The more energy and passion and hot blood they can channel into their driving — and not in other truly unlawful pursuits — the better.”

His words, tempered as they are with a twinge of humor, have the ring of truth about them. Dagestanis, after all, are the stock that produced the highest number of decorated heroes in all of Russia during World War II, and the same group that continues to yield a singularly stunning number of world-renown freestyle wrestling champions. Five of the seven Olympic gold medalist wrestlers at Beijing 2008 trained in Dagestan.

In the hours and days after our meeting, I ponder the captain’s justification. Could it be, as he suggested, that there is a modicum of nobility behind all this road chaos?

Enter more eyewitnesses. Over the months, I meet visitors from Russia proper, the US, Korea, India, Switzerland, Germany, Zambia, Cameroon, Namibia, Oman, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. Despite their many differences, one thing they all agree on is that driving in Makhachkala is risky business.

One Cameroonian student, GB, sums it up: “This place is crazy! I thought I was coming to study in Russia. This? This is a totally wild city. The driving? You take your life in your hands every day! The driving here is absolutely messed up.” Or is it?

True, Dagestanis may call themselves hot-blooded when they get behind the wheel, but you will be hard pressed to find bona fide road-rage in Dagestan. Apart from an occasional heated argument (usually after an actual accident has occurred), Dagestani drivers do not generally take road competition personal. True, best friends might cut each other off, rev their motors, and lay into the horn, but when all is said and done, they remain friends. True, Dagestanis may pack heat in the glove box and occasionally fire off a few rounds out their window.

But, by and large, the act of navigating Makhachkala roads won’t make you any enemies. In fact it’s more likely to make you some friends. One factor people often point to as proof of the depraved nature of Dagestani driving is the lack of official roadside assistance programs such as AAA.

I’ll never forget the laughs and the looks of sheer bewilderment from the auto insurance personnel when, as a first-time driver here, I inquired about roadside assistance. They quickly informed me that in Dagestan the concerned parties almost always resolve accidents out-of-pocket, without involving authorities. Sounds shady, I know.

Dagestan’s paved battlefields are perilous places, but the local warriors are, for the most part, big-hearted and chivalrous. If you break down, blow a tire, or run out of gas, you will not wait more than five minutes without a stranger stopping and offering help and perhaps even towing your car to the shop using his own jimmy-rigged towropes. Said stranger will accept no payment for his efforts.

To drive in Makhachkala is to engage in fierce battles for sure, but the casualties of war are well tended to.

Perhaps what amazes me most about the road situation in Makhachkala is the lack of public outcry against it. From Mumbai to Madrid and Lima to Los Angeles, drivers the world over like to complain about traffic. In Dagestan, however, such griping is rare. One would not blame the local population for rioting in the streets over the lack of enforcement of traffic laws or the astounding number of traffic-related accidents each month, but locals seem strangely content with, and even proud of, their reputation.

On a recent foray into Makhachkala via taxi, I ask my steely-nerved driver about this phenomenon. “Today, what else can we be proud about here?” Osman moans, dodging an approaching minibus.

After a short pause, he straightens his back and peers deep into my eyes with a fiery glaze, his voice of frustration now transfigured into a shout of triumph: “Why, if a person can learn to drive in Makhachkala, there’s nowhere on earth he can’t drive!”


Dave Hayton, an EthnoTraveler contributor, works as an ethnographer in Dagestan.