Reading about the recent murderous explosions in Volgograd and their Dagestani perpetrators, I could not help but recall my only visit to Dagestan and its capital, Makhachkala. Although the Soviet Union no longer existed, it was not surprisingly still very Soviet in atmosphere: for it has proved easier to take a country out of the Soviet Union than the Soviet Union out of a country.
The city’s hotel was a typical concrete block of the type beloved both of Intourist and British town councils of the 1970s. It had a prostitute or two in the foyer, just as in the good old Soviet days. The main political conflict in the region at the time was in Chechnya rather than in Dagestan, which was relatively peaceful and indeed a safe haven for Chechen refugees.
A friend of mine and I arranged a meeting with a reputedly fanatical Islamist leader in Dagestan. He invited us to breakfast in a park with a picnic table.
The breakfast picnic consisted of a slab of milk chocolate and a bottle of Dagestani cognac, and you could tell that our interlocutor was a fundamentalist because he insisted that we match him glass for glass, toast for toast. I had never drunk brandy for breakfast before and did not much care for it; but the fundamentalist was Russified to the extent that a bottle once opened had to be finished; there was no question of, say, drinking half a bottle and leaving the rest for some other time.
On the contrary: when, much to my relief, we had finished the bottle, he promptly obtained another and insisted that we drank it. It was the only time in my life I had drunk two thirds of a bottle of brandy by eleven o’clock in the morning (actually I had drunk a little less than that, as I managed to pour some into a flower bed as the fundamentalist wasn’t looking). Gosh, I thought, if this is what the Moslem fundamentalists are like, goodness knows what the infidels round here must be like.
Makhachkala, I believe, has been virtually destroyed since my brandy breakfast. One tends to think that, because there are innocent victims in any violent conflict there must a good and a bad side that are fighting. Alas this is not so. The ways of political viciousness are legion, and evil may fight evil with as much ruthlessness as it ever fights good.