The Russian Village Entirely Populated by Tightrope Walkers

The circus-skill tradition goes back so far in tiny Tsovkra-1 that no one knows quite how or why it started—but it may end before long

A man walks on a tight rope in the remote mountain village of Tsovkra-1. THOMAS PETER/Reuters/Corbis

In Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan, nestled amid the rolling hills of the Greater Causcus Mountains is a tiny, largely secluded village where every physically able citizen can walk a tightrope.

In Tsovkra-1 tightrope walking has been the tradition for over 100 years. The tiny hamlet (which was given the numeral to help differentiate it from a nearby place with the same name) produced at least 17 men and women who became famous throughout the former Soviet Union for walking tightropes in circuses. The village is now home to fewer than 400 people, but even now all of the village’s school children reportedly study tightrope walking, and old and young alike regularly practice in all kinds of weather.

Legend had it that the tightrope tradition evolved in Tsovkra-1 as a way to expedite romantic encounters. As Reuters explains it, “the young men of the village grew bored with trekking for days to court women in a village on a neighbouring mountainside, and instead came up with a shortcut.”

They strung a rope from one side of the valley to the other and hauled themselves across. To show off, the most daring began to walk the rope and the skill became a prized test of manhood.

Some modern inhabitants doubt this romantic legend, however. One man suggested that it emerged from the harsh winters and difficult weather of the region. When bridges regularly got wiped out, locals could have adapted by walking on rope while awaiting repairs.

However the tradition got its start, by the early 19th century villagers began to market their skills by touring neighboring villages, according to the Independent. Tsovkra-1’s glory days arrived in the decades following World War II, when Soviet circuses rose in popularity and recruited the village’s best performers, who made the region famous for its people's unusual skills.

Today, however, the tradition is in danger of disappearing. Like other hamlets in the region, the farming community has suffered population decline as young people flee the region’s poverty and hard living for urban centers, and as the Independent points out, political instability have made the region a dangerous place to live. There are no longer the same funds or facilities available to train young tightrope walkers.

For now, however, locals still pride themselves on their ability to walk a rope less than a centimeter thick suspended at least a story high. The Week has a captivating photo essay of Tsovkra-1’s people and traditions. Check it out to catch a glimpse of the quiet village and green hills below the tightrope walkers’ feet.

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