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15 Oct, 2009 12:52

Ethnic mosaics of the Stavropol region

A melting pot of religions, Russia’s Stavropol region is home to 14 ethnicities, which makes its diverse culture truly unique.

Whether it’s a traditional Russian song, the serenity of prayer within an Armenian church, or even the simplicity of daily conversation around the dinner table in an Islamic home, the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity in the region is special.

“There are Christians, Muslims and Jewish people here. We even have Catholics, but we try not to consider the religious differences. We consider ourselves people of our town who live together,” says Sultan Temirov, who is the head of the Cherkess Society in the resort city of Pyatigorsk.

Though the thought is noble, but the practice is not always successful. The Caucasus has been home to a multitude of ethnic groups for centuries, and the area is known for clashes.

“The two most recent examples are the conflicts in Chechnya. According to some figures, more than 200,000 Chechens died, and that is not including other nationalities. Now, after another Caucasian war, we have to find another way for peace,” Sultan hopes.

The Stavropol region has seen its share of violence as well. In 2003, four suicide bombers attacked a commuter train in the resort town of Essentuki, killing 40 people and injuring nearly 160 more.

More recently, last June, a fight broke out in a small village of Irgakly, drawing national attention. Around 200 young men are said to have taken part, with several people injured and dozens of arrests. Media reported that it was an ethnic brawl, although villagers were quick to dismiss it as a “scuffle over daily issues.” One way or another, a conflict resolution process was launched after the fight.

The governor of the region said economic problems are partly to blame for any tension. A series of meetings was held involving the men who took part in the fight, as well as local officials and religious leaders.

“How the brawl was settled should be admired and appreciated. The two opposing sides found in themselves enough will to overcome the conflict. They shook hands and showed that they want peace and have the ability to forgive each other,” believes Zaynudin Azizov, head of Dagestanian Diaspora in Irgakly village.

There are so many different cultures in this area each with their own customs, costume and song, but instead of taking this diversity and using it as a reason to fight, they are choosing to celebrate their diversity and are using it to bring people together.

Community leaders hope that this message can be embraced in the rest of the Caucasus as well.

“We meet here in this home of friendship and we try to understand each other, culture, cooking, and traditions. We try to leave the old unnecessary stuff and keep the clever traditions, and using this we are trying to teach youngsters according to the modern situation, but using past experience,” says Sultan Temirov.

Among those of different faiths, there also seems to be a genuine effort to try and understand each other.

“Nearby we have a mosque and when they have religious holidays they are always inviting us and we go with pleasure. When other events happen in town, representatives from different groups come together and we have friendly communication and continue to discover new qualities in each other,” says Armenian priest Khachatur.

Orthodox priest Father Vladimir believes this is the key to much-needed peace in the turbulent region:

“It is a fact that is inspiring me and giving me strength to believe in my home and that here, where we live, we will have peace, order and stability.”

North Caucasus is a very multinational area with lots of influences and living there you can hear songs of many nations, says poet and composer Damir Yakubov.

“Whatever song you sing – everybody seems to know it and people get engaged immediately and everybody loves what happens around and everybody is happy.”

Head of the Pyatigorsk Linguistic University – where more than twenty languages are studied – Aleksandr Gorbunov says they are keen at promoting cultural diversity. He says the curriculum includes special courses designed to give students communication skills in a multicultural environment.

Meanwhile, the head of the International Relations Department at Pyatigorsk State University Viktor Mishin says that their mission is to both open the world to Russian students and give opportunities for foreign students to explore Russia.

“We have been in international relations and programs since 1968. Since that time, over 16,000 international students graduated from our university,”
he said. “Nowadays they are living and working in 82 countries across the world.”

American Louis Pinkett, guest lecturer at the university, has shared with RT his experiences in the region. He says diversity lives naturally in the area:

“It functions so well together. The blond hair and the black eyes, and the Muslims and the Jews, and the Christians. And it’s not artificial at all, it just works,”
he said. “In New York, in most big cities, diversity is something that’s spoken about. And they are trying to count how many diverse people there are, and here that just happens.”