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 on en route from Chicago. Immediately switching planes, I flew down south, to Krasnodar. The funeral, as it happens at such family rituals, reconnected me with a whole host of relatives from my mother’s side. The majority of them still live in mother’s native village, or stanitsa, which literally means ‘winter camp’ as Cossack settlements are traditionally called to differentiate them from 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 little children who called me dedushka — during the years I’ve been away I became a grandpa, more precisely 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 old aunt Marusya, now in her eighties, lives in a more traditional old house that still has plain plaster walls and painted wood floors. But she also has a satellite dish—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 the local Cossack dialect, which derives from a version of eighteenth-century Ukrainian. The next generation, my various cousins and their spouses, already speak mostly in Russian using the local dialect only occasionally and mostly to make some colorful comment or a joke. Their children speak only Russian and perhaps cannot speak the local dialect at all. They were puzzled and amused by my rather rusty ability to switch into ‘villager talk.’ Their parents rejoiced at it – after all these years abroad, I remained a good relative and true to the Cossack roots. Everybody, to various degrees but evidently without a single exception, feels nostalgic for the Soviet collective farm. Even those who are among the most prosperous today (the owners of a local hotel, truck business, or fishery) who are now driving Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, or Camries, are vocally nostalgic for the kolkhoz. In fact, they are among the most nostalgic. This nostalgia, however, is not 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 do recall, from the late seventies, how a couple of my relatives came to Moscow to spend close to a million rubles of kolkhoz money 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 are expanded and renovated. But they are now owned and operated by the dreaded ‘Muscovites’ – sleek young managers and elite technicians who are ‘parachuted’ in to the village from yonder, spending a few months (or 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, and do not connect locally at all. 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 the fifties and early sixties today). But I couldn’t determine how many they are and whether they make any coherent local force. The local state officials and their families, in the meantime, 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, in 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, without exception, even the youngest and most able, were evicted in the mid- to late nineties essentially by gangsters or ‘raiders.’ Their methods were mostly 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 heaven like Cyprus or Aruba, and they would claim to take the property under a ‘crisis restructuring.’ The old management was sometimes bought out, sometimes sent for a while to jail for various tax violations, and sometimes they simply disappeared and later would be found killed, 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 yet unseen and mighty force arrived — the ‘Muscovites’ armed with their MBAs and evidently with capital and political connections at 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. Well, there remains a lot I did not see or understand in just one week. Like in any initial phase of fieldwork, you get surprised about every hour. Only as one of my distant nieces and her boyfriend were driving me back to Krasnodar, I realized they were probably ‘Muscovites.’ 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. 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, French sociologist 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. However, it is so hugely different economically and socially… but indeed, I should probably return to spend a longer time in stanitsa Staro-Velichkovka.