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 


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