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

Dagestan's Ancient Industry Faces Modern World

The craftsmen of Kubachi are richer than ever before - but are they losing their old techniques?
By Musa Musayev

The craftsmen's village of Kubachi, home to around one thousand families, lies in the mountains of central Dagestan. It is reached by a winding road twenty kilometres long, running through a deep gorge.


Kubachi lies piled up against the mountainside. The courtyard of one house serves as the roof of the one below, giving the impression of one big building running up the slope. The land is no good for cultivation here, but they have their own way of making a living.


Kubachi lives by fine craftsmanship in metal. It is the only place in the North Caucasus where people still follow an unbroken tradition of high-quality metalworking. Its finely worked silver and gold daggers, cups and necklaces are popular all over Russia.


The village's fame dates back to the Middle Ages, when its armourers were never short of business. But now, in the age of the market economy, it is facing its biggest challenge - and no one quite knows where the changes are leading.


Many are getting rich and by the standards of Dagestan - one of Russia's poorest regions - Kubachi is an extremely prosperous place. On the money he makes in a year, a craftsman can earn enough to buy a good Russian car, an almost impossible dream for most Dagestanis.


One craftsman proudly shows off his house to this journalist. Like many in Kubachi he has a "home museum" displaying his family treasures. On the wall hang bronze trays, and old lamps and jugs lie on the shelves. At first sight they look black with age, but closer inspection reveals the intricate patterns underneath. Pride of place belongs to a silver casket which belonged to his great grandfather, and a 19th-century pistol with silver inlay.


He has a small foundry at home, which he uses to smelt metals for bracelets and rings that go to the mass market. He is making a good income from this - and that's why he does not want his name mentioned, because he is not registered with the tax authorities.


Some fear that the easy money to be made from these small, quick-selling artefacts is destroying the old traditions. This man is making more money from his inexpensive jewellery than older established masters are from much more intricate work.


"Young people today are more drawn to quick money than to beauty and the art of their ancestors," said master engraver Said Akayev. "To support their families they are forced to work for the market and there is no time to perfect their technique."


Engravers like Akayev use an array of cutting tools to work silver, gold, bronze and ivory and are expert at filigree and enamelling work.


"When there is no art, the need to employ the really difficult techniques of our ancestors fall into disuse," he said.


In Soviet times the craftsmen were all united in one cooperative, which was later turned into the Kubachi Artistic Works. In good times it employed up to 800 people, who worked up to three and a half tons of silver. The products were exported all over the world.


In the early 1990s production at the factory fell dramatically and foreign buyers disappeared. However, some 200 people started producing privately so that overall output actually increased. The village now gets through up to eight tons of silver a year.


Many workers still work at the plant in the mornings, earning around 2,000 roubles (67 US dollars) a month and the right to a pension. They then go home and work for themselves for the rest of the day.


Last year a scandal erupted in the village over attempts to privatise the factory, but the workers resisted the takeover, and it did not go through.


Said Ninalalov, the factory director, says that it is still on the list of establishments, which are slated for privatisation. Dagestani newspapers accused him of wanting to take over the plant himself, but he strongly denies the charges.


"I was on the side of the staff and I believe that it is impossible to privatise art," he told IWPR. "The people who wanted to do this did not even meet me - such matters are decided at a different level."


Ninalalov says that the factory is not in as bad a state as people say, and its work is selling all over Russia. "The plant is acquiring new equipment and production is increasing," he said. "We are now working up to a ton of silver a year and in 2003 we plan to raise that to one and a half tons. All the big towns in Russia, from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk, are selling work by Kubachi masters."


He says that is hard to find a niche in world markets because no one has put a proper valuation on Kubachi work. For example, the local museum failed to buy a sword and two daggers by the famous old master Rasul Alikhanov, but when a price of 60,000 dollars was put on them plenty of buyers suddenly expressed interest.


"I also got hold of a sword made for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty [in 1913] made by one of the famous Tupchiev family," Ninanalov said. "It was undervalued at the ridiculous price of 20,000 dollars."


Contemporary craftsmen would not be able to sell at these prices, though. Thirty-seven-year-old Rasul Abakarov concedes that modern work is not of the same standard as it used to be.


"Few of the younger generation would be able to exhibit at international festivals," he said. "And we can't talk of high art today."


Musa Musayev is a journalist with Dagestanskaya Pravda newspaper in Dagestan. The website of the Kubachi Artistic Works is http://kubachi.jewellernet.ru/