A Kuban Stanitsa

I learned about my mother’s death once the airplane landed in Moscow and my phone could be switched back on. She died while I was en route from Chicago. Immediately switching planes, I flew down south, to Krasnodar, my birthplace.

The funeral, as happens at such family rituals, reconnected me with a whole host of Kuban Cossack relatives from my mother’s side. The majority of them still live in her native village, or stanitsa, which literally means ‘winter camp’ as the Cossack military settlements were traditionally called to differentiate them from ordinary peasant villages. I haven’t seen many of my relatives in years, in fact I had never met a few nieces who were born in the eighties and who now have their own children who called me dedushka – during the years of my absence I became a grandpa, or rather a grand-uncle.

The stanitsa astonished me. It looked very prosperous, clean, modern and efficient. The majority of homes were recently renovated and expanded. My cousins now have heated granite floors in the kitchens and bathrooms, or good oak parquet elsewhere. Only my aunt Marusya, almost ninety years old now, lives in a more traditional house that still has plain plaster walls and painted wooden floors. But she also has a satellite dish on the roof – like everyone else in the village – and uses Skype (her daughter knows how to log in) to connect with her grandson and his family who live in the far north of Russia.

Aunt Marusya is also perhaps the last of my older relatives who speaks solely the local Cossack dialect, which derives from a version of eighteenth-century Ukrainian. (This means that I can easily understand basic Ukrainian but not the literary form that evolved later in the nineteenth century under a significant Polish influence, to counter the Russian influence, and which is still evolving now.) The next generation, my various cousins and their spouses, already speak mostly in Russian, using the local dialect only occasionally to make some colorful comment or joke. Their children speak only Russian and perhaps cannot speak the dialect at all. They were puzzled and amused by my rather rusty ability to switch into the ‘stanitsa talk’. Their parents rejoiced at it – after all these years abroad, I remained a good relative and true to my Cossack roots.

The Armenian name Derluguian, inherited from my father, didn’t seem to deter the familial feelings. The Cossacks were always frontiersmen open to non-Russians, evidently including my late Armenian father. He met my Cossack mother shortly after the victory in 1945. Both were very young and fatherless – there were few adult men alive at the time – so a hard-working and merry Armenian was very welcome in the family. My Russian name Georgi was inherited from my uncle killed in Poland in 1945. An American health insurance form once asked me to list the causes of deaths in my family during the twentieth century. This forced on me the realization that no male, on either side, died from natural causes during the 1914-45 period. I was raised by women, mostly widows.

When in my adolescent years I doubted in front of my mother that I should be considered a Cossack, she exclaimed (of course, in dialect): ‘But your eyebrows! Each worth a hundred rubles. Of course, you are a Cossack. Your grandfather Kondrat had two St. Georgi crosses for the Turkish campaigns, so half of the stanitsa lived in envy!’ And then she got darkly serious and added through clenched teeth: ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with the farmland but you must get it back from that dam kolkhoz. It is our farmland, and we are land-tilling Cossacks.’

In 1978 when I was admitted to Moscow State University and provided with a dorm room as an ‘inogorodniy’ (literally, a landless outsider), grandma Elya (Elena Mironovna) shook her head and muttered: ‘Are they out of their minds? How could you be landless? Tell them, you are a Kuban Cossack of Staro-Velichkovsky kuren (regimental settlement) of the Kuban Cossack Host.’

Despite the dark memories of Soviet collectivization, today everybody, to various degrees but evidently without exception, feels nostalgic for the Soviet collective farm. Even those who are among the most prosperous (the owners of a local motel, gas stations, truck business, or fishery) who are now driving Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, are vocally nostalgic for the kolkhoz. This nostalgia, however, is not exactly for socialism but rather seems to be a deeply conservative form of local rural patriotism. The kolkhoz used to be very dynamic in the sixties and seventies, when it supported its own amusement park, dance hall, cinema, and several splendidly equipped schools. I remember, from my student years in the late seventies, how a couple of my relatives came to Moscow to spend close to a million rubles of kolkhoz money (an astronomic sum) on gym equipment – an industrial-size investment back in those times. Moreover, the kolkhoz owned and operated its own factories that produced sausages, cheeses, preserves and sunflower oil.

The factories are still there, as I discovered. In fact, they have been expanded and renovated lately. But they are now owned and operated by the dreaded generic ‘Muscovites’ – sleek young managers and elite technicians who are parachuted into the village from yonder, spending a few months (or at most a couple years) locally and then moving on to another project. They are the newly made MBAs who earn a lot, know or care nothing about agriculture or the local area. The ‘Muscovites’ are in fact the financial enforcers of some gigantic, impersonal entities whose command channels go so high they are out of local sight. These entities and their renovated factories and industrial farms are rapidly becoming the main employers in the village. There still exist a few independent farmers and small entrepreneurs (electricians, garage and gas-station owners) whose assets go back directly to their jobs in the last years of the Soviet Union (which is why these folks are mostly in their fifties and early sixties today). But I couldn’t determine how many they are nor whether they make up any coherent local force. The local state officials and their families, meanwhile, seem a more numerous elite although they are also threatened by political and bureaucratic intrigues way above the levels they can hope to control.

The local story of privatization seems to have run like this: First, at the end of Gorbachev’s perestroika (which everybody ritually curses) the managers of collective farms and local agro-industrial units discovered that they could now charge ‘market prices’ while the control from local Party and even government structures disappeared virtually overnight. The last generation of Soviet ‘red directors’ simply had to maintain basic production, feed their workers, and share some funds with the localities along old paternalistic patterns. The rest could be pocketed. The sums gained in just a few years must have been considerable judging by stories of vacation homes in Spain and grandchildren now studying at Oxford. Because our southern province is blessed with exceptionally fertile soils, good climate, and has several ports on the Black Sea, there was no problem disposing of wheat, corn, meat or sunflower oil across Russia or exporting to foreign markets – the hard ‘durum’ wheat went mostly to Italy, cooking oil to the Third World. In short, the situation in the North Caucasus was quite unlike the big factory towns in central Russia and Siberia.

But the last generation of Soviet managers held to their new ownership positions for just a few years. All of them, even the youngest and most able, were evicted in the mid- to late nineties by gangsters or ‘raiders’. Their method was the same in almost all instances: an ‘alien’ with a distinctly criminal demeanor would arrive with a large private security detail or even with state anti-riot police and in a surprise move occupy the entrances and offices at a local factory. The pretext was usually a bankruptcy procedure mandated by some obscure court from a distant town somewhere in the middle of Russia.

The new legal owners were completely faceless, an anonymous bank or unknown group of investors registered in some tax haven like Cyprus or Aruba, and they would claim to take the property under a ‘crisis restructuring.’  The old management were sometimes bought out, sometimes sent to jail for various tax violations. At other times they simply disappeared and would later be found dead, or never found at all. The luckiest, those who survived, are still living reasonably well and away from trouble somewhere in Cyprus or Dubai.

But the raider capitalists did not last very long either. In the 2000s a new and mighty force arrived – the ‘Muscovites’ armed with their MBAs and evidently with capital and political connections of an altogether different scale. They also brought new production technologies and equipment imported from Europe. This is probably why the fields look so well-kept, the warehouses and agro-industrial factories so brand-new.

There remains a lot I did not see or understand in just one week. Like in any initial phase of fieldwork, you get surprised almost every hour. Only as one of my distant nieces and her boyfriend were driving me back to Krasnodar did I realize that they were probably more ‘Muscovites’ than locals. She has no father and had to work her way up in the big town, eventually becoming a lawyer. The boyfriend in the meantime turned out to own an advertisement firm where he is apparently the sole permanent employee. Her main interest in life used to be Krishnaism, and she spent a few weeks visiting the ashrams in India. More twists in the ongoing story of our native village. But now, much to her mother’s relief, she seems more interested in starting a new family with her boyfriend.

Years ago, Pierre Bourdieu suggested that I should use my native access to do local fieldwork. I did, of course, in the war zones of the Caucasus. Krasnodar is in fact just a few hundred kilometers away from Chechnya or Abkhazia. But it is so hugely different economically and socially…indeed, I should probably return to spend a longer time in stanitsa.

Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘A Small World War’, NLR 128