Preserving Culture Far from Home

Culture

Written by Isak B. with an Introduction by Corey Shepherd

September 8, 2021

Some eightplus years ago when I couldn’t speak Russian, Illias and I became friends on the strength of his English language skills and our shared curiosity of each other’s cultures. It was at his invitation that I first traveled to Dagestan and experienced North Caucasus hospitality. It was also with Illias that I was almost mauled by a pack of dogs, but that’s a different story.

Like many other North Caucasians, Illias grew up outside of his homeland and yet cares deeply about his native Lezgi language and culture. We asked Illias to share how he and his family have sought to preserve their culture and language while living in Moscow, far away from their Dagestani roots. 

This is the story of one family – my family – and how we are trying to preserve our Lezgi culture and language.

The Challenge of Preserving Lezgi Culture

I was born in Moscow, where I have lived almost all of my life. My parents, however, were born in Dagestan in the Lezgi village of Akhty.

Many North Caucasians – including Dagestanis like myself live outside of the region both in and outside of Russia. In the North Caucasus they lived in monoethnic environments but now live in multicultural cities where the dominant languages and cultures are not native to them. This undoubtedly influences the preservation of their culture, especially that of their children.

Many of these displaced people look at this situation with great concern and work hard to preserve their cultural distinctives and pass their native tongue on to their children. What exactly does it look like to preserve minority cultures and languages when we leave monoethnic environments and move to large, diverse cities?  This is the story of one familymy family – and how we are trying to preserve our Lezgi culture and language.

Illias together with his grandfather in their home village of Axkhty

Summer Trips Home

Every year I try to visit Dagestan in the summer for at least one or two weeks. During this time I try to visit my relatives who are living in various places throughout Dagestan, but I spend the greatest amount of time in my parent’s home village of Akhty. This helps to maintain a spiritual connection with my own historical rootsto understand and know the cultural air that my people breathe.  It’s also a really pleasant experience to speak with everyone, everywhere, in my native tongue.

Coming home in the summer is a common practice among many Dagestanis. In fact, parents will often stay for a week or two; but when they return to work, they leave their children with relatives so that the kids can spend upwards of one to two months in the native culture.

Children live outside of the Caucasus typically in Russia – for the rest of the year. But the memories of summers in Dagestan are preserved in memories, leaving a positive impression that beckons them to his ancestors’ native land. Without these trips, it’s very difficult to impart to children a spiritual connection with theirnative culture.

Summer in the Caucasus is especially wonderful. Exotic fruits and berries grow there. The mountains are covered with luxurious shades of green. Everywhere one looks there is an alluring, lively view. This makes the region an ideal place, especially in the summer, for a child to truly enjoy childhood.

I have memories of my own summers spent helping to take care of my grandparents’ handful of farm animals;going on hikes; and swimming in clean, crisp mountain rivers. The most important element of these summers as a child, however, was spending time speaking in Lezgi and playing with other kids. All of these things helped me grow up, at least partially, right in the middle of my own native culture.

Local Ethnic Organizations

There is a rich cultural life for ethnic minorities in Moscow. Many non-profit organizations have been established that are charged with the task of coordinating the efforts of their own people interested in creating and developing various cultural-linguistic projects.  

I once worked at such an organization that was involved in publishing news, providing humanitarian help, promoting education, and defending legal rights for our Lezgi diaspora.  I did this work with energy and enthusiasm, as this organization was a true place of interest for young Lezgi people and for all who cared about the preservation of our culture.

Illias in the Mountains with Friends

Every year I try to visit Dagestan in the summer

Illias Hiking in the Mountains of Dagestan

Speaking One’s Native Language at Home

Growing up in our home – even in Moscowwe typically spoke in Lezgi with one another. This did not hurt our Russian language skills, and we are all native speakers of Russian.

Interestingly, this was not a requirement of our parents. I remember my mother wanting us to speak Russian more often so that we would not have problems at school, but everything has worked out.  We speak Russian fluently, and we haven’t forgotten Lezgi.

Surely these conversations at home in the native tongue are one of the most effective ways to preserve a minority language while living in a city and a culture of a different primary language.  But it’s not easy because children are probably speaking in Russian with everyone other than their nuclear family — at preschool, in grade school and playing with friends. 

 In fact, this immersion in the Russian language is essential for the child, because it remains the foundational means of communication in society. Therefore, parents have a difficult choice to make in terms of which language to prioritize at home. 

Cultural Events

At around 17 years old I began to attend cultural events held in Moscow by Lezgi organizations and activists. There were dance nights, holiday celebrations, concerts, culinary clubs, literature evenings, master classes, book presentations and many other similar gatherings. These events were offered so we could meet other Lezgis, so that we could experience various aspects of our culture that were difficult to experience when living outside the homeland, and so that we developed an appreciation for our native culture. It is not unusual for people to meet their future spouses at these types of events. 

Online Projects

Over time I became interested in online projects. I played an active role in two specific spheres: the creation of a Lezgi language section on Wikipedia and the translation of the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte into Lezgi. Both projects achieved a degree of success and are still in use today.

Many North Caucasian young people are using technology to promote the interests of their own ethnic groups.Culture-themed websites, phone apps, native language dictionaries and libraries are among the online projects being worked on by young people from the North Caucasus. All of these projects share the goal of helping others from their group gain access to information in their native tongue. 

the impulse remains strong to preserve something of what has been handed down to us

Conclusion

Among Lezgis there is a strong desire and demand for measures that help to preserve national identity through the study of our native language and culture. Foundational to the various projects and efforts I’ve described above is the understanding that the assimilation of minority groups into the dominant culture may be inevitable. 

But as I remember those summers in our native village of Akhty, and as I look around the dinner table at my closest family members, the impulse remains strong to preserve something of what has been handed down to us by generations that have gone before.    

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