Late night boozin’ – oh, I’m out of control
Red light cruisin’ got no sense of soul
I knew, you knew; we both knew the crime
Blacker, bluer; I’m back in line…
From “Makin It Work”, by Doug and the Slugs
I’m pleased to announce the return – at last – of kovane, who has presumably been partying it up in the fleshpots of the decadent and too busy with dilettante distractions for political and sociological rhetoric. But here he is, like Doug and the Slugs’ lead vocalist Doug Bennet – blacker, bluer…but back in line. And there the resemblance ends, because Doug Bennet, tragically, is dead and kovane, demonstrably, is not.
This marks the beginning of what will hopefully be an evolving series of posts on the Caucasus, and why Russia just can’t get it right. As you’ll see, the government and the country both are trying, and both are likely well aware that some western analysts see the region as a powder keg: more importantly, that some see it as an advantage to be exploited as well as a knife to turn in Russia’s side.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
The Clumsiness of Russia’s North Caucasian Policy – Part I
Hardly a couple of months goes by in Russia without some major event that brings public attention to the problems of interethnic relations. The assassination of former Colonel Budanov, the conviction of nationalists Khasis and Tikhonov, the terrorist attack on the Domodedovo airport, unrest on Manezhnaya square; even such a minor, at first glance, incident as the severe beating of a football player in Grozny – all of them sparked heated debates throughout the country. What’s more, hundreds of less conspicuous incidents evade the scrutiny of the press. Despite that, they also influence public opinion, often to a far larger extent. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words – and a written account of the most dramatic story pales in comparison with some banal, but brutal incident that has happened directly to a person.
The results are clear – the last 10 years have seen a steady growth of nationalist sentiment. According to the poll by Levada Center, the number of people who generally support the slogan “Russia is for Russians” rose from 43% in 1998 to 58% in 2011. And Russia’s national policy is being constantly criticized by all spectrums of the political scene. While statists see dangerous pandering to some ethnic minorities, the liberal wing has a field day finding the evidence of the “Hydra of Russian fascism raising its head”. All that is quite indicative of the point that, despite all the successes of Putin’s decade, one of the most threatening problems that Russia faces remains serious as ever and the approach to tackling it is in dire need of reconsideration.
Inconsistency begins even with the most basic rhetoric. For example, the notorious slogan of nationalists “Russia for Russians” was condemned by Putin and in 2010 made the federal list of extremist material. But it’s more than a hundred years old and was supposedly espoused by both Emperor Alexander III and Dostoevsky.And only 15% of the respondents interpret the term a “Russian” as an “ethnic Russian”. Others construe it as people of Russian culture and those for whom the Russian language is native. Some Russians bitterly joke that since the slogan was banned, the opposite must be true – “Russia is NOT for Russians”. And sadly, that’s how many of them feel. In a country where 79.8 percent of the population are ethnic Russians, it is they who are the most unprotected group.
Of the more than 180 ethnicities that inhabit the Russian Federation, only a few of them stir aversion. According to the poll by VCIOM, 29 percent of Russians feel negatively towards ethnicities that originate from the Caucasus, followed by only 6 percent towards people from Central Asia. If the enmity toward gastarbeiters from Asia is very like how Arizonians feel about Mexicans – the same “they took our jobs” trope, plus problems with drug-trafficking, the source of resentment toward Caucasians is much more complex. And stronger, as is seen from the poll.
What is it; simple racism because they aren’t white enough? Hardly so – Yakuts, Khanty and Chuckchi are much more likely objects of any white supremacist’s hatred but they weren’t even mentioned in the poll. Islamophobia? But other Muslim republics, like Tataria and Bashkiria,seem to peacefully coexist with the rest of Russia. Even the attitude toward different Caucasus republics varies – for example, supporters of the ultra-nationalist movement are calling for the separation of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, but are seemingly fine with North Ossetia, Adygea and the rest of the North Caucasus.
So what makes some republics of the North Caucasus special? Well, the history of this region has always been troubled, both before and after its annexation to the Russian empire. The Caucasus has seen numerous wars, religious movements and ethnic conflicts. But the key to its complexity lies in the socio-cultural mores specific to mountainous regions. Modern Dagestan, a republic a little larger than Switzerland, is inhabited by 14 distinct core ethnic groups that speak languages from 4 different groups while, on other hand, all Slavic tribes that lived in the European part of Russia fused into single a ethnicity with a single language. The Chechen nation is comprised of more than 150 teips: clans united by distant relation and common geographic location, while the Russian society is much more homogenous, atomized and European-like. These are only a few distinctions that show the root of the national problems plaguing Russia.
The two defining features of life in mountains are isolation and resource scarcity. The former contributes to the failure of the “melting pot” that works so well with peoples living on plains and clannishness, while the latter has more far-reaching consequences. For ages mountain communities were hard-pressed by food scarcity on the one hand and the increasing demand of traditionally large families on the other. Faced with that contradiction, clans worked out the only possible solution – the complicated custom of raids and plunder. It became so firmly incorporated in the culture and laws of Caucasian peoples that almost all aspects of life are affected by it. Taken herds supplemented food reserves of a settlement; raids provided a great opportunity for the hot-headed youth to prove their mettle, also directing aggression outwards. Finally, the casualties from raids and subsequent blood feuds kept the population size in check and balanced the number of mouths with the harsh conditions of the mountains. Even the potential problem of inbreeding was resolved through raids – to this day, bride kidnapping is common in the North Caucasus.
Such a way of life also shapes a system of values very different from what inhabitants of the plains are used to. The most interesting aspect of it is the contradiction between the primacy of collective interest and the honour that is bestowed upon the most skilled and brave warriors. On the one hand, the harsh realities of life in the mountains subject all individual freedoms to the goals of the clan. At the same time, men capable of holding weapons formed the backbone of the society and enjoyed a great level of independence. Moreover, clans were and often are governed by means of military democracy, where all men participate in making decisions to a different extent. The reason behind this is very simple – a skilled warrior could defend the settlement and provide for the clan, by keeping his household and clan safe from plundering neighbours. Another characteristic consequence of these specifics is the contradictory attitude to luxury. While maintaining a simple way of life, men had a penchant for ostentation – displaying trophies, quality weapons and mounts was a sure sign of the owner’s prowess and courage.
The established system of customs and laws that regulate the life of Caucasus settlements is complex and multi-layered. The most important set of laws, adat, is comprised of archaic customs that are universally recognized among clan members. Adat mostly deals with criminal cases and related customs, such as blood feuds and bride kidnapping. In the Muslim republics, it is used concurrently with Sharia law, which mostly comes second and regulates civil relations. What’s interesting, clans living on plains typically adopted Islam a century or so earlier than mountain clans and therefore Sharia law is much more influential there. Even a glimpse of the North Caucasus’ de-facto legal system makes it clear what a nightmare the official authorities have, trying to reconcile secular laws and the real underpinnings of life there. And it also has much to do with the legal troubles experienced by Caucasians coming to other regions of Russia.
To make matters worse, the said differences in cultural and social backgrounds create a lot of friction when young Caucasians come into more affluent Russian cities, looking for a better life. What do they see? Their male peers seem weak, unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves. They often shy away from sport in favour of strange and unmanly subcultures. And more importantly, they have very few friends who are ready to stick up for them in case of a physical confrontation. Local women dress provocatively and have a much more relaxed attitude to sex, one that would surely brand them as whores back at home. And the greatest unfairness is all those unworthy people often drive expensive cars, have a high income and live in luxurious apartments. Something that he, so strong, brave and righteous, doesn’t have – an injustice to be corrected, of course. Keeping in mind the fervent nationalism typical for small ethnicities, and it becomes clear why it is so hard for newcomers from the North Caucasus to feel any respect for the adopted home, let alone desire to assimilate.
There is also a certain feature of minorities that is, unfortunately, often overlooked, but nevertheless has a significant influence on interethnic relations. In Russia, ethnic Russians comprise 80% of the population, while the next largest nationality, Tatars, is only 4%. North Caucasians represent even a smaller share, and considering that most of them live in their own republics, their diasporas are only a tiny drop among people of other nationalities. That means that every Caucasian has to deal with Russians on a day-to-day basis a great deal more often than the other way round. And therefore, grounds for interethnic grievances, frictions and confrontations are also much larger. Moreover, when he or she comes home to family, every one of them faces the same difficulties and problems, so all these issues simmer in the inner circle. This creates a constant strong pressure that can easily contaminate the consciousness with a besieged castle mentality. And then many real interethnic issues turn into irrational resentment and xenophobia.
The picture from the other side is not prettier by any means. Caucasians coming to predominantly Russian regions are commonly seen as loud brutes having no regard for cultural norms and traditions of the place. Other accusations are that they are quick to pick a fight, bring friends and relatives into it and don’t hesitate to use knives and guns. The sizeable subsidies to the North Caucasus republics now regularly turn up on the agendas of fringe political movements. And finally, the most serious one is too-active participation of North Caucasian diasporas in organized crime. Unfortunately, there’s more than enough news and negative personal experience to bolster these beliefs, so they have become firmly entrenched among common Russians, something that doesn’t help in kindling interethnic friendship. There are other complaints, but they mostly coincide with those attributed to other minorities – excessive nepotism, sometimes weak knowledge of the Russian language and little desire to solve any of these problems.
So where does the invisible line between truth and stereotypes lie? Which issues are real, and which are just myths of ultra-nationalistic propaganda? Well, finding that out is complicated by the authorities’ deliberate effort to preserve the status quo. Thus, in 2010 the Moscow Duma put forward a proposal to forbid mentioning criminals’ nationality in the media. The infamous article 282 of the criminal code (hate speech against national and religious groups) is used almost exclusively against the most ardent Russian nationalists in order to prevent rocking the boat. And in most of the sharpest situations, the state readily sacrifices its own loyal servants in order to pander to ethnic minorities. This gives rise to justified anger even among people who don’t share strong nationalistic views and grants radicals a worthy cause. Looking at the most prominent cases will help to see the patterns that are the source of the problems.
News about shocking crimes and incidents involving natives of the North Caucasus crops up in public discussion with alarming regularity, but most of them quickly fizzle out. Well, the general public is not known for its great attention span. Thus, in 2010 protesters blocked one of Rostov-on-Don’s central streets after an incident in a dormitory of the city university. An Ingush student used a wrestling technique on a fellow student, Maxim Sychev, for refusing to do his homework. As a result, Sychev landed on his head and died later in a hospital. For all the righteous anger the public demonstrated, now the case is largely forgotten, and the culprit was quietly sentenced to only three years in prison. But not every case is this easy to hush up.