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

Dagestan Mourns National Poet

Rasul Gamzatov was the best known figure from Dagestan in Soviet times.
By Nina Agayeva

Another era has ended in Dagestan, with the death of its national poet and most famous son Rasul Gamzatov at the age of 80.


For many in Dagestan, the death of Gamzatov - who was buried on the slope of Mount Tarki-Tau in Makhchkala on November 4 - is an important milestone as he represented a certain kind of Dagestani who was loyal to the communist system, but was also modern and internationally-minded.


"When Gamzatov died, it felt like the entire 20th century died with him, but there is no void - it's full of his poetry," said Skandarbek Tulparov, director of the Russian Drama Theatre.


Makhachkala resident Patimat Magomedova, a professor at the environmental Biology Centre, told IWPR that the poet had given Dagestanis an instantly recognisable identity during Soviet times.


"When my husband and I met people during our seaside vacations [in the Soviet era], we found it hard to explain where we were from," she explained. "But as soon as we mentioned Gamzatov, our friends would immediately liven up, and quote some of his poetry."


Gamzatov, the son of a well-known folk poet, Gamzat Tsadasy, came from the mountain village of Tsada. He started writing poetry at the age of ten and his first Avar-language book of poetry was published in 1943, with his first Russian-language collection being issued four years later.


He headed the Dagestani Writers' Union for more than half a decade, having published numerous books of poetry, prose and essays including "My Heart's in the Mountains", "Lofty Stars", "My Dagestan" and many others.


For younger Dagestanis Gamzatov was a more remote figure, a poet laureate constantly caught up in one celebration or commemoration and another. Fazir Jaferov, 33, who heads the Verba youth creative writing club at the Dagestani Writers' Union, told IWPR, "Gamzatov lived in an epoch with a cast-iron system of values and coordinates. The nation needed him, and Soviet authorities highly appreciated [loyal] writers. We have it harder; we are on our own, and our poets are at a loss."


To a great extent, Gamzatov owed his international fame to his skilful creation of his own image. Although a graduate of the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, he never became fully fluent in Russian. "Not that he ever really tried. The Communist authorities only needed him as long as he was a celebrated mountain poet from the ethnic outskirts of the Soviet empire," said one writer who knew Gamzatov well.


In that capacity, Gamzatov travelled the world at a time when Soviet citizens were rarely allowed abroad. He gave Dagestani felt cloaks to Fidel Castro and Yassir Arafat, and every Dagestani loved him for it, as did the Soviet rulers. When asked why he wouldn't emigrate, Gamzatov said, "What am I going to do abroad with my Avar-language poems?"


When liberalisation began in the Soviet Union, Gamzatov was cautious about it, keeping a portrait of Lenin in a prominent place in his house. Five years ago, he said in an interview, "Dagestan needed the [1917] revolution... It gave minorities everything, it revived them."


Later he commented, "We were better off under the communists. People still vote for them, because they want order back."


However, Gamzatov was often accused of not helping those writers who were persecuted by the Soviet regime.


"I regret the fact that I let myself be misled," he once said. "I made hasty judgments about things I knew nothing about. I was 23 in 1947, and I did speak at the meeting denouncing [dissident writers Anna] Akhmatova and [Mikhail] Zoshchenko. My father asked me if I had read them. I said no."


Both the Soviet and Russian authorities were lavish in their awards for Gamzatov. For his recent 80th birthday celebrations, Gamzatov was flown out to Sochi on the Black Sea coast, where President Vladimir Putin awarded him an Order of St. Andrew the First-Called for "outstanding contribution to national literature and active public life".


Gamzatov himself said, "I told [Putin] that I had the impression that religion has merged with the state, while literature and culture are divorced from it."


Dagestani people wonder if all the fuss actually helped kill their national poet. "He was an old man. It must have been too much for him," said one local.


According to an unofficial source, Gamzatov's anniversary cost the government one million dollars, but the focus of the celebrations did not look well during the festivities. However, he went to Sochi, listened to the endless congratulatory speeches of government officials, and went to his home village high in the mountains for yet more events.


Despite its proverbial hospitality, Dagestan is a very closed society and locals never write about the private life of public figures. So the private face of Gamzatov still remains a mystery to most.


"I wanted to write about Gamzatov the way he really was," Felix Bakhshiev, a well-known Dagestani writer and journalist told IWPR.


"I was planning to see him again after his anniversary celebrations, and ask him what he thought about all this fanfare. Now I'm not going to write anything. Were he alive, he would read my stuff and tell me if it was okay to publish, but now I'm afraid I might offend his family."


A memorial named "White Cranes" is to be erected next to the poet's grave to commemorate one of his best-known poems that became a song about Second World War soldiers who never returned from the battlefield.


Nina Agayeva is a reporter with Makhachkalinskie Novosti newspaper.