Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan: Keeping it in the Family

Long tradition of intermarriage in Dagestan still going strong, despite warnings about the effect on the gene pool.
By Violetta Kulebyakina

“We have just started looking for a bride for our eldest son,” confided Abdulmejit, a 46-year-old father of five from the autonomous republic of Dagestan, in Russia.


“We started with the circle of second cousins…


We say, ‘Better a poor person you know than a rich person you don’t’.”


Marriages between close relatives have long been considered standard practice in Dagestan. The custom is thought to derive from the region’s history of ethnic divides and traditions of loyalty to one’s home village.


Only very gradually are some sections of the population beginning to wake up to the consequences that these unions can have for the genetic health of future generations.


Kamil, 22, who belongs to the Avar ethnic group and is due to get married this autumn, explains how talk of his future wedding first began when he was a young boy.


“When I was three, the cousin of my father, who was a very good friend of his, was expecting the birth of a child,” he said. “They decided that if a son was born he would be my best friend, and if a girl was born she would be my wife. A girl was born and since childhood I knew that she would be my future wife.”


But his betrothed’s family went to live in Russia and, after a long time living so far apart, Kamil’s own family decided that the girl was no longer a safe bet. Instead, another relative was found to be his wife.


“All my relatives are married within the family, this is normal here,” the young man told IWPR. “I didn’t have much choice. In our family we say, ‘A person from the outside won’t care for you as much as one of your own.’


“If something happens, an outsider may abandon you. But a relative will stay with you, if only because you are linked by family ties.”


Historian and ethnographer Khaibulla Magomedsalikhov told IWPR that cases where the bride and groom are related account for over 80 per cent of all marriages in Dagestan.


Three years ago, Dagestan’s leader Magomedali Magomedov presided over the marriage of two of his grandchildren, much to the astonishment of wedding guests invited from Moscow.


Research by academics shows that such unions are more common in northern and central parts of the republic.


Ethnographer Ruslan Seferbekov told IWPR that the practice has its roots in a historical reluctance on the part of the rural population to allow their children to marry outside their own village.


“In inaccessible areas, villages did not have much contact with each other,” he explained. “Additionally, neighbouring villages may have had different languages and national groups. An ignorance of customs, traditions and languages set up obstacles.


“In some cases a village had a bad reputation,” he added, “and parents were categorically opposed to establishing family ties with a village that had disgraced itself.”


The practice of marriage between cousins is sanctioned in Islam, the dominant faith in Dagestan. While the Koran explicitly outlaws marrying one’s siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and various other categories of relatives, there is no ban on cousin marriage. However, as Seferbekov points out, the custom predates the arrival of Islam in the region.


According to Seferbekov, intermarriage is particularly associated with ethnic groups native to Dagestan.


“These marriages are prevalent among all native ethnic groups to one degree or another, particularly among the Avars and Dargins,” he told IWPR. “They do not wish to marry outside their villages and 90 per cent do not welcome marriages with residents of another village or region.”


Cousin marriage is rare amongst ethnic groups whose roots lie outside the republic, he added, even in communities that have been settled there for a long time. Ethnic Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians and Armenians, he said, even go so far as to forbid such unions.


Older people, and many young men in Dagestan continue to approve of marriages among close relatives, but attitudes to the custom are beginning to change among young urban women.


“In my circle, people feel negatively about marriages within the family, as they realise the influence of the genetic factor on future generations,” said Dina, a 25-year-old Dargin.


“However, they are prepared to close their eyes to this if there is ‘no other choice’,” she added, explaining that it is still considered better to start a family with a relative than with someone from another ethnic group.


Doctors say concerns about the effects of intermarriage on the gene pool are very real.


“In my 34 years of work and in my life in general I have constantly seen children born to parents who were related,” Khalimat Geligaeva, a paediatrician from Makhachkala, told IWPR. “This is a very widespread phenomenon in Dagestan.”


“Of course, in marriages between close relatives, there is an increased risk of giving birth to children with physical and psychological problems,” she added. “In our tukhum [clan] there are several families which only marry among themselves. In every generation we have children with Downs Syndrome, infantile cerebral palsy and other conditions.”


She said the overall frequency of congenital abnormalities is low in Dagestan compared to other republics, but she put this down to factors such as the fresh mountain air and relatively low rates of alcohol consumption.


As a concrete example of the effects of intermarriage on the gene pool, 41-year-old businessman Magomed cited the village of Zilebki in the Dakhadaev region of central Dagestan. “We refuse to marry our children to people from there,” he said.


“The village is small, with about 300 people. But the inhabitants have intermarried so much that children with physical defects are frequently born there.”


Violetta Kulebyakina is an independent journalist based in Makhachkala.