Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian pole-vaulting champion who has recently apologized for making homophobic comments and apparently supporting Moscow’s anti-gay laws ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, is a member of one of the world’s smallest and most obscure ethnic groups.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Champion in her sport, the 31-year-old Isinbayeva was born to a father named Gadzhi Gadzhiyevich Isinbayev, who is a Tabasaran, a tiny ethnic group that number some 200,000 people, who primarily live in the republic of Dagestan in the northern Caucusus region of southern Russia. (Her mother is an ethnic Russian).
The Tabasaran are principally Sunni Muslims (a faith they adopted sometime in the 8th or 9th century following the Arab conquest of the region) and speak a language called Tabasarantsy. Yelena Isinbayeva is easily the most famous member of this ethnicity.
According to a Christian activist organization called PrayWay, the Tabasaran were traditionally divided into clan groups called “tukhums.” “These clans included several households related to a common male ancestor. Today, the clan system remains intact, and vendettas (blood feuds) still occur. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by not only the immediate family but also a wide circle of relatives. The couple was usually young (15 or 16) and came from the same social and economic level,” PrayWay said.
The Tabasaran, who are even a small minority in their native Dagestan (4 percent of the population according to the 2010 Census), are mostly agricultural laborer, but they also herd sheep, and work in trades like rug weaving and wood craft.
According to a publication called the Red Book of the Peoples of the Soviet Empire, Tabasarans belong to the Caspian type of the Balkano-Caucasian race. “Characteristic distinctions are dark pigmentation, a thin face and sharp features,” the Red Book stated. “Tabasarans… are considered to be aborigines [original inhabitants] of the Caucasus. Their development and ethno-genesis have been influenced by several waves of migration, as well as by the invasion of the Arabs and Turks.”
The ethnic group are referred to by early Christian church and Armenian historians from as long ago as the 5th century. Reportedly, Tabasarans have repelled waves of foreign invaders over the centuries, including the Arabian khalifs, the khans of the Mongol-Tatars, and Turkish sultans. After the formation of the Soviet Union, Tabasarans were incorporated into the Dagestan state. Under the Soviets, the local economy became industrialized and disrupted some of their ancient customs, although they apparently held on fast to their Islamic faith.
Tabasarans rarely make news (until Yelena Isinbayeva) – however, last summer Russian media reported that the chief of a Tabasaran “militant” gang was killed in the village of Mamedkala. The man’s name was “Ismailov” and he was reportedly involved in “numerous crimes of a terrorist nature.”
In July 2004, the Moscow Times reported on an elderly woman named Asli Isayeva who was a carpet-maker in the Tabasaran community in Dagestan. “Isayeva, 76,… is one of 5,000 women who have carried the region's tradition of carpet-weaving through the Soviet period into modern times,” the report said.
“Holding on to traditional crafts, like carpet-making, has been an uphill battle since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The centralized system, supporting the making of carpets in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Dagestan for resale elsewhere in the Soviet Union, is no more.” The Times sadly added: “Like so many other townswomen, she no longer makes the ornate wall rugs the Tabasaran people are famous for, weaving practical seat-covers instead.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.