Makhachkala. CC BY 2.0 Un Bolshakov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 7 February, a new post appeared on Ramazan Abdulatipov’s Instagram page. The post concerned plans to build a “historical park museum” in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, as part of a new network of museums called “Russia, my history”. “After a broad public discussion, which has been conducted for the first time on this kind of issue, I have decided to assign territory on Imam Shamil Avenue for this project. The Moscow developers of this project have approved this territory as the most suitable for a historical park,” wrote the head of Dagestan. The Makhachkala residents who had been following this decision closely in the past few weeks breathed a sigh of relief, before calling and congratulating one another.
Abdulatipov’s post did contain one worrying paragraph, however: “Some people have decided to use this project as a PR stunt, stirring things up and disinforming people, telling them that the museum would be built on the territory of the Lenin Komsomol Park.” To parse out Abdulatipov’s words: several ministers and indeed, the head of Dagestan’s own press service had been suffering from delusion, and there’d been no confrontation between residents of Makhachkala and the authorities whatsoever.
The reality is somewhat different.
Come to Makhachkala and you’ll find that property developers have gone wild. Here in this town on the Caspian coast, residents are used to uncontrolled and chaotic town planning, which usually involves the destruction of buildings and green spaces. When a municipal playground is built, it often turns into a three-storey restaurant. Every year, the amount of green space is reduced, including for the sake of new “cultural sites”.
In June 2016, Dagestani media reported on plans to open a museum park “Russia, my history”, which would include media installations and panoramic projections. These installations would, it seems, strengthen visitors’ knowledge of history and patriotism. It was also reported that a significant part of Lenin Komsomol Park — Makhachkala’s oldest and more or less only park — would be given over to this project.Lenin Komsomol Park.
The fact that nine other regions were planning to participate in this country-wide project, and that it was organised under the patronage of Vladimir Putin and the support of Abdulatipov meant that, well, it wasn’t up for re-evaluation. Dagestan’s social media made a few groans, slagged off the authorities and then turned their attention to other sources of frustration. Only a few people took an interest in who these Moscow developers were, and what they were planning to do.
In November 2016, Musa Musaev, the head of Makhachkala’s city administration, signed part of city’s Lenin Komsomol Park over to the non-commercial fund “Russia, my history. Makhachkala” for 49 years. The organization behind this fund, apart from Musaev’s old home in Dagestan’s Ministry of Construction, is the Moscow-based Fund for Humanitarian Projects.
As their website reports, the Fund for Humanitarian Projects has so far carried out four projects, three of which are dedicated to the Rurik dynasty and the Romanov family, and the fourth – to the history of Russia from ancient times to today. The organisation has also released two mobile apps, which, as you might guess, are named after the Ruriks and Romanovs. But the Fund’s main asset is the fact that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin visited their exhibition “Russia, my history. 1945-2016” at the Moscow Manege exhibition centre in November 2016. Putin then suggested the Fund should build branches of this museum in Russia’s regions. The coordination of this work was assigned to the Presidential Administration’s unit on civic projects, whose deputy director (responsible for “strengthening the unity of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation) is Magomedsalam Magomedov, who, in 2010-2013, was president of Dagestan.
The Fund’s partners include the Presidential Administration, Moscow Patriarchate, the Ministry of Culture and the Moscow city government. The idea behind this project belongs to Putin’s spiritual guide Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), who is responsible for cultural projects in the Russian Orthodox Church, and chairs the Fund’s expert council.
"Russia, my history" exhibition at Moscow's VDNKh. (c) Maxim Blinov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.But given that this is Makhachkala, not Moscow, it was decided to add a local element to the museum’s pre-existing model. This work has been given to a “team of specialists”, though we don’t know who they are, or what exactly will be exhibited in the museum.
Recent events surrounding a new memorial at Akhul’go, the site of a dramatic siege by Russian forces against Imam Shamil’s forces in 1839, can help us make a few prognoses though. For example, at the opening ceremony last month, Ramazan Abdulatipov made a speech, the meaning of which came down to this: the blood spilled by Russian soldiers and Shamil’s men sanctified the “historical unity, the brotherhood of the peoples of Russia”. Both the idea itself and its realisation gave cause for serious concern.
This move against the Lenin Komsomol Park is not new, they’ve been going on for years. Back in the Soviet era, parts of it were sliced off for the construction of ideologically important buildings
“The victory of Russian forces at Akhul’go is only the first stage in that bloody war. There’s still the peak of Shamil’s might in the 1840s to come, his victories and, accordingly, the defeats of Russian forces,” says Vadim Mukhanov, a senior researcher at the MGIMO’s Center for Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security. “The restoration of historic buildings and architectural sites would serve the cause of reconciliation and harmony better than a memorial or an entertaining museum. The decisions of the local administration, which are basically personal PR projects, could lead to a new surge in conflict.”
If the memorial complex and the copy of Franz Roubad’s 1888 panoramic painting didn’t lead to criticism, then many saw the gallery, where, among others, there is a portrait of Vladimir Putin atop a white horse, as an attempt to please the Kremlin. The fact that this was presented as a project to commemorate Imam Shamil nearly turned this strategic mistake into an insult. Thus, there are grounds to believe that the mistakes with Akhul’go could be repeated in the Dagestani section of “Russia, my history”.
A computer mock-up of the Akhul'go memorial complex. Source: Untsukulsky Municipal Council. Patimat Takhnaeva, a member of the Moscow Institute of Eastern Studies, asks the question: “Who are the authors of this new textbook on Russia’s history? The idea itself is throwing us back to the Middle Ages, when the Bible was represented for the illiterate on the walls of churches. But that was a sacred text, you can’t get away from the story there. But this is decorative history designed to provoke a patriotic commitment to the glorious past and a feeling of your personal attachment to the great ‘historical Russia’. The main leitmotif is the thousand-year tradition of the Russian state on the basis of Orthodox faith. And the powers-that-be, who are supported by this, are holy and untouchable. Here we should talk about a specific delivery of historical knowledge, the manipulation of minds. Not history as a science.”
It’s unlikely that the residents of Makhachkala thought much of these nuances and understood what kind of museum was being proposed. Indeed, few people thought about what exactly they were going to lose with the park, but then they realised: the park isn’t just trees or a place to go for a walk with your child, it’s part of the city’s historical memory.
One of the triggers for this process was an announcement in Chernovik, an independent weekly newspaper, on 20 January. It invited people to a guided tour around the Lenin Komsomol Park on 29 January. “Come with your children and parents, bring your friends. We want your generation to remember this park how it is now — big and beautiful, with tall trees. And perhaps, this is our chance to say goodbye to it.” And people came. With their children and their grandchildren. The police came too: apparently they were worried that the tour would turn into an anti-government meeting.
3 February: people picket the site where developers planned to bury a time capsule. (с) Patimat Makhmudova.Yana Martirosova, the tour guide, tells me: “I knew that the police would come, but I didn’t realise there would be so many. I’ve never done a tour under armed guard before. But then I relaxed, the main thing is that people came. It means they need the park. I told them about Arkady and Nikolai Veiner, who came to Petrovsk [the old name for Makhachkala] in 1909 to continue the work of their father, a brewer. The territory they received was swampland. And to dry it out they planted a garden here, which was called Veiners’ Park. Later it became Lenin Komsomol Park. After the tour, people began to voice their dissatisfaction at the coming clearance loudly, and there was a risk that the police would disperse us. But together with the journalists, we managed to calm things down.”
This move against the Lenin Komsomol Park is not new, they’ve been going on for years. Back in the Soviet era, parts of it were sliced off for the construction of ideologically important buildings — the Monument to the Liberating Soldier, Musem of Military Glory and the Alley of Glory. By a twist of irony, these sites were supposed to fulfill the same aim as the “Russia, my history” museum: “to capture the minds of youth in order to develop patriotic education and attract them to the study of history.”
Many older city residents remember what Veiners’ Park used to be like. For them, it was another world — grass, trees, pheasants and rabbits. All of this is gone now. And the strength of the protest can be explained not only in reference to the fact of an attack on the park, but how it was done. If previously developers have come from the side and behind, then this project aimed to take the centre of the park — with a lack of ceremony characteristic of those who consider themselves to be its “real owners”.
This park is ours
One of the people who came on the “farewell tour” is Arsen Magomedov, director of a legal firm.
“I saw many people I knew there – surprisingly, from completely different spheres. Some people I met at Chernovik. There was a bunch of people there who turned into the initiative group. We swapped numbers, made a group in WhatsApp and agreed about further action. Then we started working with the documents, and we found that everything had been done with a mass of violations. There were no open public hearings on the issue, there was no tender. The territory was just given to the Dagestan Fund of ‘Russia, my history’ on the order of the head of the republic.”
For a time, all the city’s confessional, national, territorial, political and other points of tension were forgotten. Sufis and Salafites, liberals and Stalinists, long-term city residents and new arrivals came together to defend a hectare of land
After the “farewell tour”, the initiative group started to patrol the territory assigned for the museum. Residents of nearby apartment blocks joined them. And if a message came in on the WhatsApp group (“They’re digging!”), then it was shared very quickly over social media, and people rushed to the park.
And this is where something surprising happened, something worth of the city chronicles. For a time, all the city’s confessional, national, territorial, political and other points of tension were forgotten. Sufis and Salafites, liberals and Stalinists, long-term city residents and new arrivals came together to defend a hectare of land and 65 trees destined for destruction. One state media correspondent said: “I’m supposed to write a super-positive text about this, but I won’t.”
This activity and growing dissatisfaction couldn’t remain unnoticed. The city administration’s website was updated with information that openly confirmed that the territory was signed over on the orders of Abdulatipov, and that the administration would spend 140m roubles (£1.9m) on it. A day later, the mayor’s office conducted public hearings, and the video of municipal deputy Zagra Magomedova’s fiery speech went viral, proving that you can find people capable of going against orders from above even among public officials.
The author with concerned citizens after a broadcast on Ekho Moscow. Makhachkala radio station. (c) Rasul Kadiev. The events surrounding the museum, which had been conducted smoothly up till now, were now beginning to come off track. The press conference at RIA Dagestan, where employees of state media were to meet the principle architect, was broadcast live. People latched onto the architect’s revelation that, for him, personally, he had enough trees in the garden of his own home. Employees of state media now added their voices to the campaign in defence of the park.
This was completely unexpected for the authorities — and the activists. It seemed they had a lot of people on side, but it was unclear how to use them. The request for a public demonstration had been turned down on the grounds of a “likely diversion and terrorist act.” Instead, they were offered a demonstration in the middle of March, prompting jokes to the effect that terrorist acts and diversions also had to be approved by the Ministry of Justice.
The watershed moment came on the day when the developers were supposed to plant a time capsule at the location of the future museum. Residents, activists and journalists sent to cover the event waited together for Abdulatipov’s arrival. Only green ribbons, attached to coats and arms, set people apart. It quickly became clear that the event had been cancelled. And so people built a snowman in place of the time capsule, attaching a green ribbon to him too.
The snowman in question. Source: Facebook. The next day, 4 February, the activists divided into two groups. One group decided to guard the park, and the other went to visit the rector’s office of Dagestan’s State University, where they were to meet with Makhti Ramazanov, director of the future museum. The moderator of this meeting from Dagestan’s presidential administration tried to intervene, but this did not protect Ramazanov. He was asked about existing infrastructure (which were not built to withstand such a project), and parking. A member of Dagestan’s Civic Chamber reminded the audience that six percent of Makhachkala’s territory is green land, when it should be 40%.
Meanwhile, Zurab Gadzhiev, a historian, talked numbers — the amount of money that is granted to Dagestan’s museums, the number of museums that are closing region-wide due to a lack of financing, and which could all-too well use that 140m roubles assigned to Makhachkala’s version of “Russia, my history”. Most people asked the authorities to find another location for the museum. Only two people were against it as such.
Sure, it’s the first time this kind of story has happened in Dagestan, but it’d be laughable to conclude that “democracy has arrived in the republic”
Ramazanov responded: “Moscow chose this place. If we hadn’t have agreed to the park, then Chechnya would have got it!” To which the audience responded: “Well let them take it!”. People shouted from their seats that there was nothing to breath in the city, and that the park is the only place to go for a walk with your children.
This discussion was broadcast live, and local residents watched it like a boxing match: “What’s he talking about?” “Shamil, finish him!” “The park is ours!”
How united are we?
We can only guess what was happening among the backers of this project during this time. Public officials also came out against the project, such as the deputy chairman and chairman of Dagestan’s Civic Chamber — though this wasn’t known to the general public at the time. Representatives of the ministries preferred to remain silent. As the deputy at the Ministry of Resources put it: “We react when a tree is damaged. Have they even broken a branch there in the park? No. So, when they break something, then we’ll react.”
As we found out on 7 February when we met in the park once again, another location has been chosen for the park near the Dzhuma Mosque, in the city centre. We didn’t celebrate. Everyone was so tired that they just sighed and went back to their business. There wasn’t much confidence either: it seemed as this move was just to calm us down, and that the bulldozers were still just round the corner. For some, at least from the outside, it looked like victory. One Facebook user posted the news to a civil society group from Kaliningrad: “This isn’t about the Kaliningrad region, but it’s about citizens who are defending their city from barbarians. Let’s not forget that ‘while we are united, we are undefeatable’.”
This small victory didn’t deceive anyone. Sure, it’s the first time this kind of story has happened in Dagestan, but it’d be laughable to conclude that “democracy has arrived in the republic”. The initiative group isn’t going anywhere.