For men living in Russia’s North Caucasus, life is far from easy

We speak to sociologist Irina Kosterina, who recently studied men’s lives in four North Caucasus republics.

Editors of oDR
2 May 2019, 12.01am
"First furrow" holiday, Dagestan
(c) Vladimir Sevrinovsky. All rights reserved

For men living in Russia’s North Caucasus, what do you do when your family considers you responsible for bringing home the bacon - and the only job you can get is as a security guard at a petrol station? Or what do you do when your father and grandfather have passed on to you the duty of defending the family’s honour, and the police can stop you and ask for a bribe at every traffic light?

Poverty, a lack of rights and prospects are all problems that have surfaced in a recent study of men’s lives in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation together with the Free Happy People international centre. The study comprised 800 surveys and 80 in-depth interviews.

Here, oDR speaks to the study’s coordinator, sociologist Irina Kosterina, about the results.

What aroused your interest in this subject? Why men, and why in the North Caucasus?

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Our interest was aroused by previous studies we [the Heinrich Böll Foundation] had made. A few years ago we were commissioned by a number of North Caucasus NGOs to look at the position of women in the region, to discover what issues they had to contend with, what problems they encountered and how best to deal with them. It turned out, for example, that women had little awareness of the help they could get from local NGOs: some of them didn’t even know the term “civic organisation”. The study also surfaced a huge number of problems to do with domestic violence - both in the in-depth interviews and surveys. This subject was impossible to avoid: we saw that it was the thing that women were most worried about.

When we - both researchers and activists - met as a group to discuss this new information, we realised that we hadn’t anticipated the scale of the tragedy in the region. We were both bewildered and horrified, it was unclear what we should do. But one thing was clear: women weren’t bringing this violence on themselves. It didn’t exist in a vacuum: it was caused by something. Something was provoking, aggravating and legitimising it. And so we decided to listen to men, to understand them.

There’s around a dozen or so NGOs working with women in the North Caucasus, but we knew nothing about men: what was happening to them, what they wanted, whether they were satisfied with their lives. Up till then all our work had been concentrated on women: all the NGO leaders and volunteers were women, and it was women and girls who came to 90% of our workshops, while men didn’t make it into this picture.

What points of overlap between men and women has your study revealed? Are there some issues in common?

We covered more or less similar issues in the questionnaires, to keep the fields of study similar. Women and men have very similar ideas of what the main problems are in the [North Caucasus] republics. People were basically concerned with the day-to-day problems in their lives – unemployment, low incomes and an absence of opportunities for professional growth because of the small job market.

Money worries were of equal concern to men and women. People also talked about corruption, a sense of injustice and the clan system. Some issues (bad roads, substandard living conditions) differed, of course, from those faced by Moscow residents, but were similar to those found in the Russian province – unscheduled electricity outages in the winter, water turned off for long periods in the summer. So the basic complaints were all about low living standards.

"You’ve got a wife and three children, your relatives are constantly on your back – you’re the head of the family and responsible for everything, but you have no power"

But still the main point is lack of work or the stereotypes about what jobs are dignified for a man in the North Caucasus to have. These ideas strongly limit men’s possible choices, and hit the reputation of the breadwinner hard.

Do you believe that domestic violence is connected to this sense of not having found one’s place? How do women interpret domestic violence in terms of where it comes from? And how men interpret it?

They interpret it very differently. Violence is a very complex issue and you can’t say that men see it one way and women another. Even among women there was a variety of responses and attitudes. There’s a certain section of people living in the North Caucasus for whom violence is legitimised by the fact it is inevitable, it’s always been around.

Of course, militarisation has a very strong impact on violence - as a result of the many armed conflicts. Militarisation in the region is much more intense than Russia as a whole. People in the North Caucasus still keep weapons at home.

There was one workshop we ran - it was held in an awful sanatorium where they gave us buttery semolina to eat, which boys in the North Caucasus won’t eat, of course. So we decided to cook for ourselves. We bought meat at the local market, and one boy from a mountain village in Dagestan – the only one who could cook – taught the others to make a quick kebab. Then, of course, we realised we needed knives to eat it, and all the men went off to their cars and came back with daggers – they all had daggers. I asked why they needed them, what they were planning to do with them. Their answer was: “On the road, anything can happen”. These were real weapons, with quite large blades: if the cops found them we’d be in trouble. On the other hand, they had the local police sorted: “Hey, man, I’m off to another region, how could I go without my dagger”? They know themselves how to regulate the movement of daggers. So there are a lot of arms around, and not just blades – guns as well.

"First furrow" holiday, Dagestan
(c) Vladimir Sevrinovsky. All rights reserved

But the main thing is that men in the North Caucasus have a strong sense of injustice. It is stronger and more potent and overlaid, of course, with a mountain-dwelling masculinity that should really be independent, but has, for the last century, been subjected to the might of the Russian Empire, which has attempted to domesticate, colonise and modernise it. And this hasn’t helped, because violence takes its root as a counterbalance to this external pressure. It’s particularly visible in Chechnya, whose leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his army, which has pretty extensive powers at a local level, are constructing a ruthless hierarchy. Men feel very vulnerable and very much subordinate to the system.

Men are also subject to structural violence from the police and everyone else, with endless traffic cops stopping your car, extorting cash, humiliating and blackmailing you. Women are immune from this kind of violence: they can’t be touched; they’re protected by tradition. When there were the recent protest rallies in Ingushetia, riot police beat up and grabbed men – but they couldn’t behave the same way with women. A man can’t even lay a finger on a woman who is not a member of his family: it’s taboo. So women face violence in the home and men, from the state.

In other words, men subject women to violence because they themselves are subject to violence by the state and society?

Imagine you’re proud highlander who is unemployed, and all you’re offered is a miserable job. You’ve got a wife and three children, your relatives are constantly on your back – you’re the head of the family and responsible for everything, but you have no power. So you look around for some power, and find it by creating a new hierarchy out of your relationship with your wife – the only person you can lord it over.

Your mother is a respected figure, the person obeyed by men in the Caucasus: mother is always right, it’s mother can even find you a wife. So you just have this one woman who you’re not particularly in love with yet, because sometimes marriage isn’t about deep and pure love, but because it’s time, and there’s a good girl from a good family available, and so on. And you don’t have any strong emotional attachment to this person, so you can bully her and shout at her.

Aggression and violence are often a sign of lack of confidence in yourself and your future. Nearly a third of male respondents to our survey are telling us that their main feelings are around anxiety and frustration.

Yes, that’s true. For a huge proportion their main feelings were “hope for a better future”.

Is that typical of both men and women? Do they have a similar emotional perception of reality?

I would say that there is a difference. We can think back to the 1990s and the ways women and men experienced the economic crisis and general collapse of everything. Women had a very practical response: they turned from teachers into newspaper sellers and didn’t make a big deal of it, whereas men either lay in their beds staring at the ceiling or resorted to crime. I think there’s a similar logic here. Women in the North Caucasus live for the moment and deal with the issues in front of them; they have more solidarity, more resources, abundant friendships and support systems, and that gives them strength. And they also realise themselves more in the private sphere.

Meanwhile, a man has to react and deal with the outside world, and be in public. In Chechnya, Kadyrov monopolises this sphere – he’s on TV and everywhere else. And in Dagestan there have been endless tales of nepotism and corruption, with mayor after mayor put behind bars. When men look at politics, they can see that there’s nothing you can rely on. It’s not very clear how men should interact with the outside world in the North Caucasus.

Indeed, interaction takes place rather in the small circle outside the family, not in public. Social networks are in very active use; Dagestani men are always making statements about life, values and the right way to live. Women, on the other hand don’t make statements, but chat on WhatsApp about day to day stuff – they can’t even post photos of their children on Facebook for fear of being outcast, and they can’t put nice pictures of themselves on Instagram, their husbands will get jealous.

Your studies were commissioned by North Caucasus NGOs and was carried out in collaboration with them. Can civil society help both men and women in situations where they experience inequality and violence?

I don’t think that civil society can solve the problem of violence, which is an urgent problem across Russia. It’s just there are certain specifics in the North Caucasus, and another set in Moscow, and a different set again in Novokuznetsk or elsewhere. The specifics and roots of violence are much the same everywhere, and unless there is state intervention years will go by before anything will start to change. They’ve now decriminalised domestic violence, and women’s crisis centres have told us that its level has risen – the government needs to punish rapists. We had a hopeless protection system as it was, and now it’s even worse.

"We need to talk and discuss, but not in the shape of a lecture delivering colonial knowledge to the maligned North Caucasus, but just a discussion about what suits people and what doesn’t – real issues"

Have you been able to make any recommendations about how civil society might operate in the North Caucasus in regard to the family, intimate matters and private life?

The development of civil society is of a very specific type in the North Caucasus. There is no money and it has to rely on presidential grants, and you can only apply for presidential grants for things that fit into the rhetoric of tradition: traditional family, traditional values, help for mothers and the war on extremism and terrorism.

When we visit, people write to me complaining about us feminists turning up yet again. But over my years of working there, I’ve discovered that if we avoid words like “gender” and “feminism” and just talk about important things, a lot of people will come to workshops and take part in discussions – there’s an enormous demand for airing these issues.

People in the North Caucasus are very happy to talk about everything connected with gender, sexuality, intimacy and relationships. Politics don’t particularly interest them, but that does. We need to talk and discuss, but not in the shape of a lecture delivering colonial knowledge to the maligned North Caucasus, but just a discussion about what suits people and what doesn’t – real issues.

There is a lack of knowledge about where and how to earn money: many men would like to open a business but don’t know how. They need workshops to help them develop their own business at last, and not work at some hateful low paid job. There are very few workshops available for budding entrepreneurs and those there are, are usually run by state institutions and are not in tune with people’s real demands and possibilities.

At the end of one of our programmes, a group from Dagestan created a project for fathers. They ran workshops, invited a gynaecologist, a psychologist and a lawyer and talked about what happens to a woman in pregnancy and how to care for a baby - the young men found it all really interesting. But these projects are very short term: two workshops and that’s it. I believe that this work with young fathers should become a long term targeted programme in every Russian republic, so that men can become better informed. They really want to know and understand, but they live among a lot of stereotypes, prejudices, rumours and almost pagan assumptions about how to behave. There is a demand for knowledge. Now there needs to be a reaction to this demand.

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