Before every UFC fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov characteristically dons a distinctive piece of headgear – a woollen hat reminiscent of a blonde afro wig — as he makes his way towards the Octagon. The hat, known as a Papakha in his native Dagestan, represents the history of his people. The wool, equal parts menacing and majestic, encapsulates the laborious heritage of the mountaineers; the height projects the size of a highlander’s heart; and the weight illustrates the depths of North Caucasian pride.
The history of the papakha is difficult to trace prior to the 16th century. The word is of Turkic origin and describes an ovular hat made out of karakul sheep skin. Traditionally, when a highlander removes his papakha, it signalled the end of a blood feud between clans or an opportunity to woo a lady. Young men would fling the hat into the window of the lady they sought. If she kept the hat, it was a good sign for the proposal. In modern times, it is even used to distinguish men and measure respect. Thousands of dollars are spent to ensure that the papakha is made from the finest sheep skin.
It is also a symbolic reminder of the proud races that are scattered across the mountainous ranges of Russia. Khabib, one of the UFC’s top contender in the lightweight division, is as much a representative of his native land as his hat is a product of the Caucasian struggle. Every time he steps into the Octagon, he offers a small, furry reminder of the lesser known parts of the Russian Federation.
The Caucasus, a region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian seas, has been seen as a savage place – an area that never caught up with civilization, that was run by nobles, chieftains and highlanders. Russian and foreign poets and writers historically took to describing the region and its tribes through metaphors of their sublime mountainous terrain. The cordillera became an expression for freedom, love, beauty, as well as ferocious and untamed primitivism.
Much of the romanticized literature from the likes of renowned poet Alexander Pushkin emerged from Russia’s annexation of the Caucasus during the 19th century. As the Russian Empire sought to expand southward to create a buffer zone for enemy attacks, they encountered extraordinary resistance from the Caucasus – Chechens, Ingush, Balkars Abazins, and Dagestanis rarely united but to defend against a common enemy — and their disorganized guerrilla-style warfare. Even though the mighty Russian army had just defeated Napoleon’s ‘Great Army’ in 1812, it took them 47 years and the respective reigns of three separate tsars to end the conflict in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, the end came with the ethnic cleansing of the Circassian population, which was displaced across the remnants of the Ottoman and Persian Empires.
The bloody incorporation of the North Caucasus into the Russian Empire serves as a direct influence on the Dagestani population, and therefore, Khabib as well. Despite their vastly different culture, lifestyles, and religions, Dagestan, along with the other Northern regions, became a part of Russia. The amalgamation of dozens of ethnic groups meant that Caucasian heritage and autonomy would evaporate if not aggressively protected. The papakha is one of the traditional pieces of attire that survived the various purges, but its uses have been diluted.
While the papakha was mainly worn by the mountaineers and shepherds who resided at remote altitudes, it was also worn by the Cossacks, a semi-military group of East-Slavic “free men” who once occupied their own land and governed their people. The Cossacks were essential to Russia’s expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the tension between the free men and the empire. The Cossacks were later incorporated into the Russian Empire, and their land was transformed into Military states in order to support Russia during war. They made up a large portion of the Russian army during the Caucasian wars.
The papakha, a symbol of honour and heritage for the mountaineers, was later introduced as a part of the Russia army uniform. A slight difference in the hat’s shape and colour separated the intruders from the insurgents. Though they were removed during the 1917 revolution because many of the Cossack regiments fought against the ruling Bolsheviks, the hat was later reinstated and remains a part of the Russian military uniform.
Despite its popularized use during the Soviet Era amongst the leading generals in the army, the papakha remained a common piece of clothing in the Caucasus region in modern times. Their valuation of tradition and heritage is their main distinction from their historic Russian counterparts. The papahka may no longer be a status symbol or a matchmaking tool, but it is still proudly donned by the descendants of the mountaineers, as a reminder of the great cultures scattered across the cordillera.
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