May 06, 2019

Fact-Checking the Caucasus

Fact-Checking the Caucasus
Nina and Shurik, the heroes of the movie Kidnapping, Caucasian Style. Youtube

Two acquaintances-thrice-removed (friends of the father of a friend), who were native to a village in the North Caucasus, and I were sitting in a restaurant with walls even edgier than exposed brick: exposed cave, albeit partially covered with colorful rugs. All of a sudden we heard a cacophony of beeps and vrooms. Dozens of cars and motorcycles populated exclusively by men had pulled up outside. 

One of our guides explained that this was a wedding procession. They were going to go get the bride from her house and take her to the groom’s family. Slightly embarrassed and worried about causing offense, I tentatively asked if they still “steal” the bride like in the famous Soviet comedy Кавказская пленница (usually translated as Kidnapping, Caucasian Style). My worries were unfounded. He laughed heartily and said they still did do that, and then we talked for a few minutes about how great Soviet movies are. 

According to a first-hand account by a native of the Northern Caucasus, published in Russian Life a few years ago, the tradition of stealing brides – almost always consensually – continues to be a culturally valuable way to form families for various social and even economic reasons (then – reducing dowries; now – a way to make the groom’s family pay for the dress!).

How true are other stereotypes about the Caucasus presented in Kidnapping, Caucasian Style? Spoiler Alert: if you have not yet seen the movie, watch it now!

Claim: Donkeys are a crucial animal in the Caucasus. The hero Shurik makes his appearance riding on a donkey, which then serves as a major plot point: the stubborn creature refuses to move except when following the beautiful heroine Nina. 

Reality: Absolutely true. Donkeys have been used as a beast of burden in the Caucasus and Central Asia for centuries.

Donkey in the caucasus
A donkey sleeping outside our restaurant. / Katrina Keegan

Claim: Caucasians love toasting. Shurik is in the Caucasus to gather folklore. Whenever people find out this folklore includes toasts, they get very excited and make Shurik drink with them.

Reality: Yes they do, but it may be a bad source of traditional folklore. Some scholars argue that even in Georgia, which out of all the Caucasus is the land most famous for its toasts, the tradition emerged only in the nineteenth century, due to Russian influence. 

Toasting kidnapping caucasian style
Shurik listens to the first of many toasts. / Youtube

Claim: Shashlik (shish kebabs) is a traditional food of the Caucasus. Shurik enjoys some outside before the opening ceremony of a new Soviet marriage center. 

Reality: Indeed it is. While the Caucasus can’t claim exclusive copyright on the concept of meat-on-a-stick, they certainly enjoy it as one of their key traditional foods. 

Shashlik caucasus
Lamb shashlik being kept warm at our table. / Katrina Keegan

Claim: The Caucasus were the Soviet Union’s “кузница, здравница, и житница (blacksmith, sanatorium, and breadbasket),” according to the local party official and wannabe groom in the movie. 

Reality: All three of those pretty much check out. At least, if “blacksmith” can be interpreted as the production of metal machinery, mostly for agricultural or oil extraction purposes. Many of Russia’s best sanatoriums have always traditionally been located in the Caucasus, from the Russian Empire through to today. While Ukraine and Moldova could also make solid claims at being the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, now that those are separate countries, the northern Caucasus do play a leading role in Russian agriculture. Our guides were apple farmers. 

Hot spring caucasus
A natural hot spring that is bright blue due to the presence minerals. / Katrina Keegan

Claim: Caucasians have some interesting hats. Nina’s uncle tries to convince Shurik of the traditional nature of the bride kidnapping ritual, partly by introducing the captors in traditional clothes, including hats of course. 

Reality: Traditionally, yes; now, it depends. The tubeteika worn by the man on the left (the famous actor Yuri Nikulin, by the way) is a hat traditionally and still worn by some Muslim men, including in the Caucasus. In contrast, the chalma on the man in the center is an Islamic piece of headwear not native to the Caucasus. The furry papakha, worn by the man on the right, is not commonly worn nowadays, but was once so firmly integrated into the some northern Caucasian cultures that they would say “if you have a head, it should have a papakha on it.” 

Hats caucasus
A demonstration of traditional headwear in the movie. / Youtube

Claim: Speaking of that photo, clearly Caucasians use giant daggers on a regular basis. 

Reality: Daggers are traditional, but haven’t been seriously used since the eighteenth century. Guns are obviously more effective weapons, and Caucasians masters started to produce their own. Gifting a dagger symbolizes friendship and peace. If a weapon is a symbol of peace, it is probably not really a weapon anymore. 

Lermontov weapons
Even nineteenth century Russian writer and Caucasus enthusiast Mikhail Lermontov’s collection of weapons includes more guns than daggers. / Katrina Keegan

Claim: “They don’t speak Russian at all!” lied Nina’s uncle to Shurik, about the captors, as part of an attempt to make the bride kidnapping seem traditional. 

Reality: The Caucasus have tremendous linguistic diversity, but all the same, most Northern Caucasians speak Russian. In villages with schools teaching in local languages, the chance of not speaking Russian well is higher, but even so, most people learn it from TV or from visits to nearby cities. While we were there, I heard one woman who spoke Russian with a strong accent, but our guides, for example, spoke perfect Russian to us and a local language among themselves. 

Cows caucasus
Even the owners of these cows in the remote mountains likely speak Russian. / Katrina Keegan

Claim: Some men in the Northern Caucasus have multiple wives. Nina’s captors try to entertain her with a song about the pros and cons of having multiple wives. 

Reality: It’s rare and officially illegal, but does occur. When we were talking about our families, one of our Caucasian guides mentioned that, according to the dictates of their culture, it is possible to have multiple wives. When my friend clarified whether he meant in the past, the guide said that it still happens today. 

Kidnapping caucasian style dance
Nina dances to the song about having multiple wives while plotting her escape from one potential husband. / Youtube

Claim: You might come across a bear wandering around the Caucasus mountains. Near the end of the movie, Nina and one of her captors are pursued by a bear. For a few moments at least, they can actually bear each other’s company.

Reality: Shockingly, it really does happen. While you may think more about bears in Russia’s northern taiga, the Caucasus certainly have their fair share. When I expressed surprise about this to our guides, without telling us what was happening they took us to visit a bear one of their friend’s found in mountains as a cub left to die by its mother. 

Caucasus bear
The bear we met in the Caucasus enjoys a snack. / Daniel Herschlag 


You Might Also Like

The Life and Death of the Mushroom Eater
  • February 01, 1999

The Life and Death of the Mushroom Eater

Alexander Griboyedov's day job (as a senior Russian diplomat) kept him from applying his immense talent to more than just a few works of literature. It also led to his tragic death 170 years ago.
30 Years Under the White Sun
  • April 01, 1999

30 Years Under the White Sun

Russians' favorite movie, White Sun of the Desert, turns 30 this month. But for the movie's director, Vladimir Motyl, it has not been three decades of glamour and fame.
Pearl of the Caucasus
  • May 01, 2017

Pearl of the Caucasus

The Republic of Georgia is a land of exquisite paradoxes that are sometimes lovable, sometimes infuriating.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Okudzhava Bilingual

Okudzhava Bilingual

Poems, songs and autobiographical sketches by Bulat Okudzhava, the king of the Russian bards. 
At the Circus (bilingual)

At the Circus (bilingual)

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602