MOSCOW — One year ago, a Moscow blogger, Stanislav Starodubets, began to travel regularly to Russia’s oldest city, Derbent, in the Dagestan Republic in the North Caucasus, where he had once served as an army conscript and had many friends.
Starodubets launched a website, “My Derbent,” to expose corruption and identify violations by local authorities. The reporting focused in particular on the city’s mayor, Imam Yaraliyev.
As the blog grew popular, people took to referring to the author simply as “The Muscovite.”
A blond man dressed as a hipster, Starodubets stood out in Derbent. He rode his bicycle around the city in the mornings and had a full-time job at a local historical museum.
Then, last Sunday at around noon, three men in balaclava masks grabbed Starodubets in front of the Grant Guest House where he stayed in downtown Derbent, and tried to push him into a car (a Lada, of course).
Starodubets fought to get away from his kidnappers and they beat him on his head. “Help! Please help! I am being kidnapped!” he yelled. But everything happened too fast: The men put a bag on the blogger's head so roughly they caused a severe concussion. They wrapped tape around his wrists and his head.
The vehicle with Starodubets and his interrogators climbed up into the mountains for about half an hour. He knew that 15 journalists had been killed in Dagestan since 2000, and now he was a victim, too.
The car stopped and the kidnappers moved Starodubets into a different vehicle, where he was interrogated by two men—one of them was whispering the questions and the other interrogator asked them loudly.
Although Starodubets could not see the men in the car, he realized that everything he said was likely to be recorded or videotaped. “They told me that I had a maximum of three days to get out of Derbent. ‘Go back to your Moscow,’ they said, otherwise I would be finished,” Starodubets told The Daily Beast from Derbent hospital.
The questions concerned the blogger's background and home addresses of his relatives. “The most important question for them, it seemed, was whether I had been hired by a state Duma Deputy Murad Gadzhiev, the mayor’s main political rival,” said Starodubets. “I have never met that deputy.”
Ethnic and territorial identity, extremism, and corruption were serious challenges for the Kremlin in North Caucasus. A recent report by public opinion center VTIOM said that only 41 percent of Russia’s population thought of Dagestan as a part of Russia and only 39 percent recognized Chechnya as part of Russia.
Certainly there are few Russian tourists who think of Derbent as a safe destination. The ancient citadel on top of a hill, one of a few existing Sassanid-era fortifications, stayed empty until last month. On weekends, buses brought families to celebrate weddings in the historical site. Local tourist guides and historians complained to The Daily Beast that despite money invested by Moscow in reconstruction of the city in preparations for September’s 2,000-year anniversary of Derbent’s founding, the flow of tourists coming to the city was much shallower than in Soviet times, when Derbent was full of foreign visitors.
One of the Russkiy Mir (literally, Russian World) ideologists, Sergei Markov, believed that Russia is a transnational community of people sharing the Russian language and committed to Russian culture and history.
Russian World ideology, embraced by Putin in 2006, reached the peak of its popularity during the Crimea annexation last spring. But in North Caucasus the ideology felt shaky. Markov explained why the Kremlin’s struggle against elite clans in the North Caucasus faced complications. “The problem is that the Kremlin’s hands are tied up in the fight against corruption in North Caucaus, as there we feel a much bigger threat of Islamic extremism and America’s intentions to organize a ‘colored revolution’ in Russia,” Markov told The Daily Beast.
Victims of abductions and beatings in Dagestan did not blame the United States or any other foreign intruders. They blame local authorities.
“I was serving the state, fought economic crime,” former police Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Kislitsky told The Daily Beast in Makhachkala. “I did my best for my country and my country’s economy, but my position was seen as a profitable business, so somebody launched a campaign to discredit me, to get rid of me.”
Last August traffic policemen stopped Kislitsky and forced him out of the car. The attackers in uniforms, who the lieutenant colonel recognized, smashed his head with something heavy and forced him to drink alcohol. “I blamed the local interior ministry for launching an attack on me.” Kislitsky said.
Abductions are a notoriously popular method of punishment in Dagestan. Every Russian soldier living with a family in the old town of Derbent preferred not to leave the base.
“Life is dangerous for people in uniforms in Dagestan, we don't see Russian soldiers or officers in our cafes or grocery stores. As for journalists, we are beaten and shot at, hunted like birds, especially those of us who try to write the truth about violations by local officials,” Magomed Khanmagomedov, a reporter from the Chernovik newspaper and survivor of four attacks told The Daily Beast.
None of the 15 cases of murdered journalists has been investigated seriously, Maksim Shevchenko reported at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin that took place in the Kremlin last October and was devoted to development of civic society in Russia.
Putin promised to pay attention to atrocities in Dagestan.
In most of the cases attackers stayed unpunished.
In an interview with The Daily Beast last week Derbent City Mayor Yaroliyev said that he wished Derbent would become “the world’s spiritual center, a citadel of beauty and harmony for several religious and ethnic communities.” The mayor said that criticism and legal complaints against him “had no ground.”
On Monday, The Daily Beast asked the mayor to comment on the attack on Starodubtsev.
“We are sick of this phony idiot, so we don’t even pay attention to him,” said Selimov, head of the mayor's security operations. He told us when we mentioned that the attack on him “was ordered by the mayor's people.”
Shortly before the accident the city mayor, Imam Yaraliyev, criticized the blogger, calling him “an enemy” in front of Dagestan minister of health, minister of culture, the head of local police and a few other officials. Since mid-February republican prosecutor's office had conducted a number of checks during a criminal investigation against the mayor, which revealed the Derbent administration was involved in illegal land deals worth 36 million rubles of Russian state budget. “I have filed a complain at a local prosecutor's office and will not leave Dagestan before I see some progress on the investigation,” Starodubtsev told The Daily Beast.