The beginning of the ascent to the sacred mountain Shalbuzdag around 3 a.m. (Maxim Babenko)

On the road in an old Soviet all-terrain vehicle on the way to the base camp of Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

Will we ever know the true toll that the coronavirus pandemic has taken on the globe? We have the tally provided by Johns Hopkins, which I have pointed to again and again. But there is no way we can truly know how accurate the numbers are. This is especially the case in countries in which the numbers are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. All we can be certain of is that the pandemic is real, and it is ravaging. It has struck far and wide, from China to the United States, and even as far as Dagestan, a Russian republic along the Caspian Sea.

As The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan recently reported, there has been some confusion as to the accuracy of the number of cases that have been reported. As Khurshudyan said in August:

“The mountainous republic in the North Caucasus region along the Caspian Sea was reporting just two to three fatalities per day from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at the time. That didn’t add up when a single village might hold five funerals in one afternoon.

“Dagestan’s officials eventually acknowledged that the real number of coronavirus cases and deaths was probably much higher. And, in the process, Dagestan became a point of reference for questions on the overall tallies in Russia.”

Russian photographer Maxim Babenko went to Dagestan and found an area struggling to get back to “normal.” People there are rattled and nervous amid rumors of the arrival of a second wave. To deal with this stress, Babenko told In Sight, many of the people in Dagestan “turn to God to protect them from illness.” They’ve turned to prayer and visiting local shrines, including making pilgrimages to Mount Shalbuzdag, revered as a holy site by the region’s Muslim population.

According to Babenko, “Soviet Muslims of Dagestan, who were not able to make the obligatory pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, turned to Shalbuzdag . . . many people claim that seven trips to Shalbuzdag are equal to one Hajj.”

As we’ve seen time and time again, the coronavirus has brought indelible changes across the spectrum of humanity. But we’ve also seen that, no matter where they are, people have been stubbornly continuing to find ways to live life — to do the things they hold dear. In the mountain crags of the North Caucuses, life goes on.

Babenko’s photos bring that point vividly home. Life goes on in his photos. From a wedding in the village of Kubachi to pilgrims at a sacred lake en route to the summit of Shalbuzdag, Babenko shows us how the people of Dagestan continue to persevere.

You can see more of Babenko’s work on his website, here.


A wedding in the village of Kubachi. This is only the third wedding after the quarantine was lifted in Dagestan. (Maxim Babenko)

A woman rests while climbing Shalbuzdag. On average, the ascent to the mountain takes about five hours. (Maxim Babenko)

A boy prays at night at the burial site of Saint Suleiman at Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

The beginning of the ascent to Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

Pilgrims at the sacred Lake Zem-Zem, which is on the way to the top of Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

A pilgrim climbs Shalbuzdag early in the morning. (Maxim Babenko)

Pilgrims on the top of Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

Children dancing during a local holiday in the village of Kubachi. (Maxim Babenko)

A boy runs through a cemetery wearing a homemade mask during a local holiday in Kubachi. (Maxim Babenko)

Pilgrims pray at night at the burial site of Saint Suleiman at Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

A woman rests while climbing Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

Maryan, 86, at her home in Kubachi. She was seriously ill during the pandemic. (Maxim Babenko)

Pilgrims during the ascent to Shalbuzdag. (Maxim Babenko)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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