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Diana and Dinara are sisters. They are Ukrainians of Rutuls descent. Temperamental and open-minded, freedom-loving and ambitious: they shared their journey of self-discovery, internal conflicts, coming of age, and sisterhood.

6 January, 2024

Diana by Oleksandr Naselenko

Tell us about yourselves, and what you're currently up to. We know that you both live in different cities now: Diana in Odesa and Dinara in Dnipro.

Dinara: Right now, I work as a news editor at Kyiv Independent, an English-language Ukrainian media. In the initial weeks of the war, I collaborated with foreign journalists, acting as their fixer, helping to cover the events that were unfolding. In the early spring of 2022 year, I helped my mom and younger brother move to England. Initially, I even thought about staying there myself and had almost found a job. However, at some point, I realized that during the war, I couldn't work in British media and write about something unrelated to Ukraine. For example, doing reviews of new establishments that opened there. It's very meaningful to me that I'm currently working for an international audience and conveying accurate information about what's happening in Ukraine.


Diana: I studied food technology, always having a keen interest in cooking and exploring its cultural aspects. In 2021, I moved to Odesa with my boyfriend and worked as a cook in one of the establishments for a while.  Now, I work in a ceramic workshop and create small sculptures from clay.

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Picture from archive


Picture from archive

Where are your parents from? What are your roots?

Diana: Both my mom and dad hail from the village of Ikhrek, nestled in the Rutul district of Dagestan. It's a picturesque village in the mountains, where almost our entire extended family resides, both there and in the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala. By ethnic origin, we are Rutuls, a community in southern Dagestan belonging to the Lezgian language group. The largest settlement in this area is Rutul, from which the ethnicity derives its name.


Dinara: Typically, the customs dictate that girls marry early and dedicate themselves entirely to family life, focusing on home and child-rearing. Few women pursue higher education, and if they do, it's predominantly in the field of healthcare. Men often opt for military service or choose government positions. It's a convenient path: they get property and have stability. Rarely does anyone venture to take risks and change their life. Our father, however, is more of an exception.

This is fascinating!  So how did they end up in Ukraine?

Diana: Our dad arrived in Dnipro in the early nineties (1993-1994) to enrol in the faculty of industrial and civil construction at the Dnipro Institute of Infrastructure and Transport. In 1996, after completing his military service, he moved my mom and me from Ikrek to Dnipro when I was just eight months old. Those were the final student years for my father, so initially, the three of us lived in a dormitory. Dinara was born almost a year later here, in Ukraine. Looking back now, I see what an incredible journey our parents have had. They grew up in very conservative families with clear and sometimes strict rules, especially regarding upbringing. Children were involved in physical labour from an early age, with constant expectations of contributing to household work. Sons were cultivated for strength and keeping their word, while daughters were taught modesty and submission to their husbands. Furthermore, this work was in a village, and not just any village but one situated in the mountains. It was challenging. Except for our father, there were seven children in his family. However, from a young age, he yearned for freedom and viewed education as the means to achieve it, despite the challenges. He endeavoured to juggle manual labour at home with academic pursuits, finding allure in city life. I can describe our father as "self-made." He successfully relocated to a major industrial city, pursued an education, and established his own business. He always helped relatives  renovated the house in the village where our grandmother lives.


Father Rasym and Mother Zamina

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Zamina (right) with her classmate (left)

Dinara: I would like to add that our dad's ambitions had a significant impact on us as well. He always had lofty expectations and numerous demands. He would emphasize that we should excel in everything: be the top achievers academically and build the best careers. He wasn't willing to accept even the fact that I earned little at the beginning of my career; he didn't take this job seriously. In other words, he set a certain standard of living and wanted us to sustain it independently. Of course, it's not inherently bad, but it can be quite exhausting. There were periods in life where, no matter what I did, I felt it was not enough, that I was doing too little, and I needed to do better, more.

Fortunately, I feel that this pressure has diminished now. Dad has become more attentive to us, recognizing that we are managing. I believe he takes pride in us.

You mentioned that your parents grew up in a quite conservative environment. How did this influence your upbringing? In general, how did the Rutul cultural aspect manifest during your coming of age in Ukraine?


Dinara: From childhood, our parents explained that we were different, that we didn't have Ukrainian roots. Yet, it was unclear to me why they insisted I consider Dagestan my homeland when, for me, the homeland has always been the place where I was born and raised – Ukraine. So, this division created a certain conflict within me.


Diana: I would even note that it wasn't just an internal conflict; it manifested externally as well. As we mentioned, our parents were accustomed to a different worldview, and here it was changing right before their eyes. Our parents were navigating a tender balance. On one hand, they wanted to stay true to traditions; on the other, they had to adapt. Our upbringing was a bit stricter than that of most of our peers.


1-2. Diana (upper) and Dinara (lower) with their mother Zamina
3. Children's New Year Party, 2002-2003

4. Diana and Dinara at the attractions in Crimea, mid-2000s.

5. Diana, Dinara and their cousin

What was it manifested in?


Diana: A very high level of discipline. Even when we were children, we always had to be occupied with household chores. There was no such thing as doing nothing; our mom always found tasks for us. Of course, we could play, go out, but only after completing all the necessary work. We had to be "productive." Other rules included not arguing with elders, obeying everything, and not being too loud.

However, I understand that this was still much less strict than the conditions our peers faced in Dagestan. So, our parents did give us a certain level of freedom. I remember when we visited Ihrek, this difference was very noticeable. There was more restrained clothing, especially for girls. You couldn't be alone in a room where only men were...


Dinara: There was no talk of dating boys. In Dagestan, there is no such concept as "dating."If you're in touch with someone and share it with your parents, they may already be contemplating arranging a marriage.

Returning to the Rutul cultural aspect: how is it present in your life?

Dinara: First and foremost, it's the Rutul language. In childhood, we often heard it from our parents, and I regret that I almost don't remember it now. And also, the cuisine. Our home was a haven for guests, and Mom was constantly cooking something.


Diana: Yes, food is an exclusive story! It's one of the pivotal reasons why I steered my life towards the cuisine.  My favourite dish is chudu which exists in the cuisine of different nations  – delicate pastry, a thin canvas of dough, and cradles with diverse fillings. Something similar in Crimean Tatar cuisine is called yantik, in Azerbaijani – qutab, in Balkars and Karachays – khychiny.

Chudu is a dish that carries the essence of home, evoking the nostalgia of childhood for me.

Chudu recipe with greens from Mother Zamina 


3-3.5 cups of wheat flour

- 1 glass of drinking water

- salt



- Sour milk cheese - 200g

- Egg - 1 pc

- Onions - 1 pc

- Butter - 1 tbsp.

- Green onions, dill, parsley, spinach or other greens to taste

In a deep bowl, mix the dough thoroughly. Cover it and leave in a cool place. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Sauté two finely chopped onions in butter. Pass the cheese through a sieve, add raw egg, onions, and chopped herbs, mix well.


Divide the dough into six to eight equal portions. Warm a dry skillet over gentle heat. While it's warming up, roll out a piece of dough to make a circle no more than 3 mm thick. Evenly distribute the filling on one half of the circle and cover it with the other half. Secure the dough's edges meticulously before placing the savoury creation onto the heated skillet.


When the dough starts to rise, make a small hole in the middle with a knife. Cook each side until golden brown. Do the same for the remaining portions. Gild the still-warm chudu with melted butter and present it with either sour cream or your preferred sauce Enjoy!

You grew up in two cultures: Ukrainian and Rutul. How do you harmonise these two parts of your identity?

Dinara: I reflect on this question often. The cultural environment that has surrounded me throughout my life is mostly Ukrainian, leaving a profound mark on my outlook. Additionally, there's a more European outlook on human rights, equality, freedom, and individual choice. I hold deep affection for our country, my native city—this is where I feel a sense of belonging, where comprehending enfolds me.

From the Rutul side, it encompasses elements of daily life. I took domesticity mainly from my parents, as well as hospitality.  I am naturally expressive— Caucasians don't hide their emotions, they have a vivid emotional spectrum. The most important thing is, perhaps, the collective composition of my thinking, as opposed to an individual one. I feel like I have a very strong need to be part of a community, to contribute, and to feel like I'm part of something greater.

Diana: A few years back, I delved into exploring the history of Dagestanis, developing a heightened interest in it overall. Unfortunately, historical sources detailing the lives of my people before significant events, such as the Russian Empire's intrusion into the Caucasus, are lacking. This prompted my research, focusing not on political changes but rather on arts and crafts, folk songs within the Rutul community, and other ethnic groups in Dagestan.

The realization that I had nearly forgotten the Rutul language, once spoken in my childhood, left me disappointed. Consequently, I embarked on a journey to relearn it and created a series of clay tablets titled "Ukrainian-Rutul Dictionary." These tablets documented words I either newly acquired or remembered with my mother—simple words akin to those one starts with when learning a foreign language.

It seems that no one in the world has made such dictionaries from Rutul to Ukrainian.

This work was even somewhat futuristic for me, about a desired future where we would treat each other (and each other's languages) with equality, regardless of our ethnicity. And revive languages that have either already disappeared or are disappearing very rapidly.

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Сlay tablets of Ukrainian-Rutul Dictionary

Currently, a large number of mobilized Dagestanis are fighting on the side of Russia in Ukraine, even though in September of last year there were many videos of Dagestanis going out to protest against the mobilization. We know that they even delivered a summons to your relative, who, however, declined it...

Dinara: It's a complex and painful situation. Unfortunately, the impact of disinformation is substantial, and many of our relatives still in Dagestan are not on the side of Ukraine.  But it is worth understanding that this is a consequence of a decade-long policy of Russian colonialism and the effects of Russification in Dagestan. This creates a certain internal dissonance for me: on one hand, I recognize that their situation is a result of being, in a sense, under the occupation and Russia has a lot of leverage, but on the other hand, I do not want to minimize their responsibility.

Diana: Everything inside me shrinks when I read in the news that missiles are being launched from the Caspian Sea. We rested on this sea so many times, my dad taught me to swim there.

Recently, I have been looking for opposition-minded people in Dagestan who oppose the war in Ukraine, and I am writing them words of support. Those who remained there dared to express their disagreement with the war.

Because if a person leaves Dagestan and goes to protests, it is perceived as a norm, at most, it is even a duty to some extent. But people who speak out against the war, staying there - they are taking a big risk, it's not just about the possibility of deprivation of liberty, it's a matter of life and death. This is very strongly manifested in the various nations of the Russian Federation. In the republics, it is much more difficult to blend in with the crowd and remain unnoticed, so those who dare to speak out have courage.

I believe that if I were in their shoes, it would be crucial for me to receive support from someone who shares a common background. 

Despite being in Ukraine, experiencing missiles and drone attacks, I want my fellow countrymen in Dagestan, who do not support the war, to understand that I respect their stance, and their efforts are not in vain.


By Oksana Hrushanska, Alice Zhuravel

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