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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsCulture Studies Expedition Dispels Stereotypes

Culture Studies Expedition Dispels Stereotypes

The fourth HSE School of Cultural Studies Cultural Effects of Borders annual road trip passed through Rostov Oblast, Dagestan, Kalmykia and Chechnya. On the two week journey, students looked for regional cultural differences, talked to the local people and conducted their own research. On their return they talked to HSE News about the oldest city in the Russian Federation, local variations in women’s clothing and the taste of grilled ground squirrel.

The expedition is the brainchild of the Head of the School of Cultural Studies Vitaly Kurennoy and Academic Supervisor of the Masters in Applied Cultural StudiesRouslan Khestanov. Places on it are allocated through a competition. Before they left, students formulated hypotheses independently which they would test on the journey. Those with the best proposals were selected for the team. The researchers wanted to find out about elements of rural (traditional) culture in towns, handicrafts, museums in the North Caucasus and much else besides.

 After the expedition the participants have to write an essay on their research findings but for now, here are some photos and their impressions of the trip. 

We met a woman baking Lavash at a market in Dagestan. When she saw our camerashe asked, ‘Can you film me and put me on TV in Moscow so everyone can see we are not the savages many people think we are?’ The myths about people living in the regions are not entirely baseless but we returned from the expedition wanting to share our discoveries and shatter the stereotypes. Before we left, we were susceptible to them ourselves.  

The expedition was good for us, not just as students of culture but a human beings. Spending two weeks non-stop in the company of 15 people, each with their own personality, problems and habits teaches you skills for life. You learn to find a common language with each other and with strangers you meet on the way.

As well as being a form of transport — our car was a mobile research base. We discussed our aims and research tasks in it, and devised questionnaires for interviews with the local people. Our Supervisors did the driving and supervised our research at the same time.  

Kalmykia and its capital Elista made the most colourful impressions. It’s a real chess city. There’s a board on the central square with enormous pieces. An HSE Economics graduate who lives there showed us around town.   

Sleeping in the open has become a tradition for our expeditions. This time we stopped in the Kalmyk steppe. The tents and traditional dish of our expedition — cassoulet — came from Rouslan Khestanov. It’s a Swiss hunter’s dish. Our version of it is made of tinned meat with beans and masses of fresh herbs and species. Believe me, it’s delicious!

At the Kalmyk Victory Day horse race a fair unfolded. One of our group tried the ground squirrel cooked on a mangal grill which turned out to be rather bony and sinewy and no competition for the juicy mutton ribs. Many of us still can’t forget the taste of the delicious kalmyk mutton dumplings — byoriki — and the fried rolls. Kalmyk tea — a herbal drink with milk and butter and even salt and pepper — however, didn’t suit everyone’s tastes. 

Probably Dagestan made the most powerful impression on us with its natural  landscapes overwhelming the imagination, its national variety and careful attention to preserving traditional ways, languages and handicrafts.

The highest village in Europe and most southerly settlement in Russia is called Kurush in the Dokuzparinsky region of Dagestan.Kurush is 2500 metres above sea level. The road from Derbent goes along the border with Azerbaijan. We drove along the snaking mountain ridge road. You look out the window and you see the mountain tops disappearing in white mist. We couldn’t see a thing, but it wasn’t scary, we joked that it wasn’t a cloud but candyfloss. But when the mist lifted we found we were above the clouds and surrounded by snowy peaks. 

They already knew us in the village — news travels fast — but as it is in the border control zone we had to go to the crossing point and fill in special forms. And to relieve the boredom while we waited we chased a huge flock of mountain sheep. The village is tiny, everybody knows everybody and our arrival was a major event but they gave us a very warm welcome, showed us around and gave us the air-dried meat which is a famous local speciality.  

From village to village in Dagestan the levels of education, religious engagement, and behavioural norms vary greatly. You have the feeling they are different countries living only short distances from each other. 

The village of Gunib — is where Imam Shamil was held prisoner in the Caucasian War. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Dagestan. There’s the amazing landscape and famous sanatoria for patients with lung complaints and an interesting local history museum with a beautiful memorial to the WW2 soldiers — Cranes — and a huge reserve which has Shamil’s summerhouse as a symbol.

Derbent is the most ancient city in the Russian Federation. Locals guard the date of its foundation fiercely although there are radically different opinions about when it was — either two thousand or five thousand years ago. The oldest mosque in Russia — the Djuma mosque was build here in the VIII century inside the old city where the streets are cobbled with yellow stones and each house is more ancient than the next. This part of Derbent is more like something from an Eastern fairy tale than the streets of most Russian towns.  

Throughout our journey we often stopped local people to ask them questions. We tried to be sensitive to cultural nuances and choose the right words, so as not to offend anyone by accident or alienate them. In Derbent we realised that we wouldn’t have problems communicating. People came up to us to tell us their stories, told us about their lives, their thoughts about their city and their country.   

Kubachi is the centre of jewellery making in Dagestan. They make decorations and things for daily life. The head of the village welcomed us, took us to his home, introduced us his family and gave us a delicious meal. Almost every house here has its own museum with family wares. The houses are made of stone. They told us that the work is so meticulous that a mason could only dress one stone a day.  

We reached the closed village of Tarki — 10 minutes from Makhachkala - by some miracle. The inhabitants are deeply religious muslims who aren’t accustomed to attention from outsiders. The leaders of our expedition got talking to one of the villagers, he invited us to tea, talked to us for a long time and finally invited us to look at the plateau. From there we had an amazing panoramic view of Makhachkala. But when we returned to his sitting room he asked us, and where have you been today? He was astonished by our reply. It turned out that people just passing aren’t usually allowed in and we realised that we had been treated with unusual trust. 

It became clear that the idea muslim women have to wear long skirts and headscarves is to a great extent just a stereotype. For example, in Dagestan, except for in the most closed societies, girls are free to wear whatever they like. The main thing is not to expose too much flesh and avoid looking too provocative. In Dagestan we came across women in skirts just below the knee and in trousers. We asked local people about these particularities of dress and came to the conclusion that girls who follow strict rules and always cover their heads sometimes cause bewilderment even among their own people. 

It’s a bit different in Chechnya where girls generally go about in long skirts and headscarves, although we encountered exceptions there too. But even so they don’t cover their faces completely. 

The landscape changes on the journey from Dagestan to Chechnya. The unkempt grass is replaced by well-trimmed lawns, more and more neat buildings cropped up on all sides, luxurious mosques, vaulted arches at the approach to every settlement of houses. In terms of infrastructure, Chechnya reminds you of Moscow from a distance. We walked around Grozny in the evening where, contrary to our expectations we didn’t feel at all frightened or unsafe. The Heart of Chechnya mosque made a great impression. Architecturally it is like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. There were long, wide scarves for girls to put on at the entrance. We went to the Akhmed Kadyrov Museum which has a luxurious and unusual display.    

In Grozny we were struck by the Victory Day salute. Opposite the Heart of Chechnya mosque in the centre of town, there were artillery weapons from WW2 and missile launchers next to them. We thought that the salute would be very loud. They fired and everything around shook. When the plastic splinters from the charges fell into the crowd from the sky, no one could remain indifferent to the spectacle. 

Photos by Veronika Molchanova, Elizabeth Kosmidis, Alexander Suvalko, Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vitaly Kurennoy

See also:

HSE Students on Iran Trip: 'It Was Like Flying to the Moon!'

During the annual road expedition 'Cultural Effects of Borders', culture studies students from HSE visited Georgia, Armenia, and – for the first time – Iran. They talked to HSE News about the tastes and colors of Iran, and about how compliments form the foundation of the country's communications culture.