Dagestan Jews (2023)

The ancient city of Derbent in Dagestan is usually associated with Persia and the Middle East, but its history, in fact, is intertwined with the Jewish diaspora. Its few descendants still live in the city. They became the centre of attention in the fall of 2023 due to the attempted anti-Semitic riot at the airport of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

Contemporary history has reshaped Russia’s ethnographic map. The fact that the oldest Jewish community in the country lives in Derbent is little known. There are assumptions that the diaspora has existed for over 2000 years.

Approximately 800 Jews live in Derbent, out of 125 thousand residents. Until the 1990s, Jews constituted no less than 30 per cent of the city’s population, according to the estimates. There were also a lot of Jewish settlements around Derbent; now almost no Jews are left there.

The main reason, as the members of the diaspora say, is employment. According to them, the situation is currently normalizing, and job opportunities are being created. But everything was much worse about 5–7 years ago. So people leave, some for central Russia, some for Israel, depending on their education.

Most of the old Jewish houses in Derbent have hardly survived to this day, but the synagogue has. Despite any politics, it functioned even through Soviet times. There were four synagogues in Derbent before the 1917 revolution, though, and seven before the repressions. The current one was rebuilt in 2009 as the old building had fallen into disrepair.

Jews who left Derbent for Moscow in the '90s attribute their departure to the ongoing war in neighbouring Chechnya. There was oppression of non-Muslims in Dagestan as well. The diaspora leadership denies that. There is currently no anti-Semitism, according to the official point of view. Indeed, there are no immediate signs of xenophobia in the city; the residents are very peaceful and sociable with visitors.

It wasn’t always quiet in Derbent, though. There was an outbreak of anti-Semitism under Stalin. And even now, perhaps, the friendship of peoples is not so serene. The city’s old-timers believe that the culture and attitude in Derbent have changed in recent years. In 2013, the chief rabbi of Derbent, Ovadia Isakov, was attacked and suffered severe gunshot wounds. The perpetrator of the attack is still unknown.

After the Makhachkala events, Derbent remained calm, with no interethnic conflicts. Mountain Jews are considered locals here and not associated with the state of Israel in the public mind. However, some tension emerged against the backdrop of events in Gaza, according to residents.