The Old Women

From the Russian daily Kommersant:

…The director “ascertained the reality of a ‘gentle Moslem occupation’ exemplified by the co-existence in a faraway Kostroma village of a few lonely old women and a family of Uzbek refugees with their numerous children. The old women are making moonshine and talking about who is going to bury whom; the Uzbeks are procreating, praying, making plov, building an electric station and take no offense even when a local idiot sets their house on fire.

The movie is titled The Old Women (Starukhi); the director’s name is Gennady Sidorov. Apparently, it offers a neutral, non-judgmental perspective, so no wonder some call it anti-Russian, and some anti-Moslem. I am not sure if I will ever get to see it, but there is something important behind its plot. First, the depopulation of rural Russia. There are thousands of near-empty villages around Central Russia where only a handful of old people remain. Thousands more are completely deserted. (On the contrary, Russian cities are overfull teeming hives.) The young leave in search for better life in towns and cities; at best, they come back for a summer vacation. The Uzbeks must have arrived into one of those dying places, escaping the misery of their home village. This is only a guess — poor peasants with no connections and no hope leaving their native Uzbekistan to settle down in the middle of nowhere, in the woods north of the Volga river. Or was it an ethnic conflict somewhere they were fleeing from?

Second, a shadow of Russian guilt. Twelve years ago, Uzbeks and Russians were still citizens of the same country. Even under Soviet rule, Uzbek leaders were reputedly corrupt. When each of the fifteen Soviet republics became independent, Central Asian countries turned into dictatorships of various degrees of ugliness (even Kyrgyzstan, let’s admit it). Then, on top of the ethnic conflicts that had started in the late Gorbachev years, there was no extra freedom, little new opportunity and hope. The Russian-speaking minorities faced additional problems, typical of minorities stripped of status. The renewed corruption and authoritarianism made the late, senile Soviet system seem nearly benign.

Looking back now, I realize the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the cause of much suffering in Central Asia. Most people in certain Central Asian countries might even be better off if Russia still had a say in their internal matters. I see no particular reason why the overnight separation of Soviet republics was so absolutely necessary for their exodus out of Communism.

There are enough people in Russia who don’t want Uzbeks in, even in Kostroma. But who else will fill the void in those parts, hospitable only to people ready to endure hardship? Only those who have known more bitter hardship. The scarcity of rural population is nothing new to Russia; it may be one of the keys to understanding its history. For instance, Sergei M. Soloviev, one of the two greatest 19th century Russian historians, argued that serfdom persisted in Russia until so late (1861) because the scarcity of agricultural labor would make it prohibitively expensive (apparently, to landowners). Sounds shaky to me but the core fact is true: Russia has vast expanses of cultivable if low-yield land with too few people to settle or work it.

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