‘Stop feeding the Caucasus ↑ ’ is a cry frequently heard from Russian nationalists, of both the radical and moderate-democratic persuasions. Aleksey Navalny is the most typical example. The suggestion is that Chechnya and the other republics of the northern Caucasus receive too much in the way of subsidies, both direct and indirect, and that there is no check on how the money is spent. As a result, people in other parts of Russia are convinced that the Caucasus is drowning in cash. But is this true? How rich are the inhabitants of the northern Caucasus, and what do they eat on a day to day basis? Let’s take as an example a village in the Karachay-Cherkessiya Republic, in the west of the region.
A pension for a ghost
If five hundred people gather on the street in a Russian town or village, it won’t be long before a police patrol car or an anti-riot squad appears. In a Caucasus mountain village a crowd like this arouses not the slightest interest, let alone alarm, in the local guardians of law and order. They realise that this is no demo, but a routine wedding or funeral.
Today it is the latter that has drawn a crowd to the village of Sary-Tyuz. Family and neighbours have gathered to say their goodbyes to Mariam Khubieva, an elderly widow. Her life has mirrored all the major events the people of the Karachayevo region have lived through in the twentieth century.
In 1943 Mariam was a teenage girl working on a collective farm. She survived the five-month German occupation of the area, and was deported to Kazakhstan along with the entire Karachai population, officially accused of collaboration with the Nazis. The true reason for this exile is still unknown: Karachais tend to blame the Georgians, who, they claim, denounced them in order to annexe the mountain regions adjoining their republic.
Mariam lived in exile until the ‘50s, when she returned home together with most surviving Karachais. Their old wooden houses had been burned down, and they hastily built new ones out of home-made mud bricks. They dug holes in the middle of the unpaved street, threw in some straw, added water and produced their own building material.
Mariam married and worked in a small clothing factory in the village. In the ‘90s the factory closed down after Karachayevo Cherkessiya, like the whole northern Caucasus, was flooded with cheap Turkish knitwear. Mariam’s husband, a tractor driver at the collective farm, died at around this time.
Even after Putin’s pre-election pension increases in 2011, Mariam’s basic state pension was no more than 5,000 roubles a month – about $150. However, in the Caucasus pension levels have always been higher than average. In the first place, half the peoples of the Caucasus – Karachais, Balkars, Chechens and Ingushes – receive compensation for their deportation.
In the second, by the 1950s almost all the inhabitants of Karachayevo Cherkessiya were registered as disabled. This was a result not only of their working conditions, which were indeed hard, but of the loyalty of local health service officials, something unknown in any other part of Russia. The loyalty, it must be said, comes at a price of about six month’s pension in the form of a bribe. So, taking into account her compensation and invalidity benefits, the deceased was in receipt of a total of about $260 from the federal exchequer each month.
Mariam was buried according to Muslim rites, without an autopsy and before sunset on the day of her death. In other regions of Russia official notification of a death reaches the social security agencies pretty quickly, but in the Caucasus Mariam Khubieva will go on receiving her pension and other benefits for quite some time. It is accepted practice that her relatives will get the payments for another two to three years. During that time the deceased will also continue to ‘vote’ in elections.
Drinking the Karachayevo Way
The average wage in Karachayevo Cherkessiya is not much higher than a pension. None of Mariam Khubieva’s adult children, her closest relatives, are well off, but if you were to tell an average wage-earner in central Russia about the amount spent on funerals here, they would think the wake was sponsored by an oligarch.
Although Maulud – readings of sacred texts about the life of the Prophet – is first and foremost a religious ceremony, it is dominated by food. ‘Doing Maulud’ means not just inviting the mullahs for the readings, but feeding about 500 relatives and neighbours.
The memorial rites involve the ritual slaughter of three bulls. The first should be slaughtered on the third day after the funeral. Then the mullahs calculate the date of the 52nd day after death, and a second bull is killed on that day. The third bull is slaughtered on the first anniversary of the death. The bulls have to be large and well-fed; otherwise they will not provide enough meat for everyone.
Almost all the dishes prepared for Maulud are meat based. They include khychiny (fried pasties), pelmeny (large ravioli) and simple boiled meat. The guests don’t just eat together, but take food home afterwards in large plastic bags. These ‘goodie bags’ always include bread, a pack of pasta, a bottle of cooking oil, a packet of sugar and a hunk of bull meat. The remaining contents depend on the imagination and financial situation of the organisers. There might be dried fruit, imported cheese, chocolate, tea or coffee. The guests take these bags home with them, and if someone didn’t make it to the celebration, someone will bring them a bag.
The tables at the ceremony would remind you of a wedding reception, were it not for the lack of alcohol. I was told that there is a saying in work teams where there are people of different ethnic backgrounds: ‘to drink like a Karachai’, in other words, only on happy occasions. ...