In my last post, I started to think about characteristics which help cultures to endure. In this post, I’ll begin to look at this in more detail, in what will be the first of a series.
One of the things that first got me interested in the Cossacks was that they are a resurgent culture: crushed under Soviet rule, but now re-establishing and re-inventing their way of life. Without any doubt, the Cossacks of today are not those of yesteryear: too much has gone, too many communities were dispersed. The old way of life has largely disappeared. Today’s Cossacks often have no personal connection to the historical Cossack communities, or are fragmented and disinherited remnants. Still, even considering all that, there’s much of interest in what they’re doing.
What I didn’t expect was that, in learning about the Cossacks, I would become more and more interested in their Caucasian neighbours – the Circassians, the Chechens, and the many, many other peoples of the region’s ethnic and cultural patchwork.
The major issue that’s drawing me in to these nations is the sheer power of their culture. The majority of the original Cossacks were, after all, drawn from Ukraine and Russia. The remnants of the Zaparozhian Cossacks, in particular, had a very strong and established culture – and yet they became very strongly influenced by the tribes, adopting the weapons, costumes, dances, and equestrian culture of the ‘mountaineers’, or ‘gortsy‘. The cultural transfer was pretty much one-way, though; the mountain tribes didn’t adopt much from the Cossacks.
Furthermore, many of the Caucasian nations were directly assaulted by the Soviet regime. The Chechens in particular were uprooted and transported en masse to Siberia, during which process vast numbers died. And yet, they retained their culture, and waited out their exile until they were allowed to return once more to their homes – after which their culture continued to flourish. Other nations had similar experiences.
What is it about these cultures that made them so prestigious that the Cossacks adopted them? How did they fight the Russian empire for decades, or even centuries? What is it that motivated and enabled the members of these nations to cling to their cultures so tenaciously? That’s what I want to start exploring in this post, because if I can get some answers they’ll be very helpful in understanding how to build a resilient culture, or to strengthen a failing culture to face new challenges.
In particular, I ask myself: why is it that the Chechens can endure everything that the 20th century threw at them and be stronger than ever, while the culture of the Welsh language could be in its last generation as a community culture? What can we learn from the Chechens that could be applied quickly in Wales and, by extension, in other contexts where a culture has to be built and/or buttressed in a very short period of time?
There’s one thing that needs to be specifically addressed here before we go any further. All my life, I’ve believed in an open, equal, fair and tolerant society. I do not believe in discrimination based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, or anything else.
The problem to which I cannot find a solution is the question of whether such a society can exist without abundant resources. When the pie is growing, it’s easy to give everyone a share. When the pie is shrinking, things are less easy.
Based on the evidence before me, I believe that our economic “pie” is shrinking rapidly; hence the rise of protest movements and extremist parties. Already, we can see the Western world moving away from openness and tolerance; once the crisis of resource shortage really bites, and it could do so suddenly and dramatically, there won’t be an affluent government to help out any more. Government will be ineffectual, absent, or even predatory. That means that the only way to get help when you need it will be from your community – whatever it’s called, however it’s structured, or whatever its basis.
This isn’t going to be charity; it’s going to be mutual aid. In other words, if you’re not a member of the community, the community will not help you. There will be members – and there will be outsiders. Cymry or alltud. One reason I’m starting to think now about a Resilient Community Manual is precisely because most of us don’t have such a community. The foundations for them certainly exist. Some are new groups, but many, many more are the remnants of traditional groupings, based on ethnicity, language, religion, or the rest. Few are ready at the moment for social and economic collapse. Those that get through will be faced by the traditional enmities and conflicts of the past, plus a bevy of new ones. I don’t welcome this. Not one bit. But I don’t, at this point, see any other way that things might unfold.
Having accepted this, I nevertheless find it really, really hard to like. Many people – possibly including you – won’t be able to accept it. Right up until everything goes pear-shaped, and then you’ll just have to join whichever community will have you. If you can’t find one, you’ll be screwed. The best discussion I’ve read of this is This presupposition of passivity, by John Michael Greer. It’s well worth reading…
In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers.
As JMG points out in his post, that last sentence is difficult to accept for most of raised in an individualistic society. Nevertheless, consideration of our likely future – based on a thorough study of current trends – and of what has worked in the past, I’ve come around to sharing his view. So, having established that, let’s look at some specific examples of cultures in the Caucasus.
This first clip, about the Kabardians, is very interesting. Some key points are:
- an emphasis on freedom, honour, and tradition;
- quite a small population: only 600,000 in Russia;
- traditional handmade mats: uses and traditional functions;
- reverence of culture heroes;
- traditions of elegant clothing;
- traditional clothing still worn;
- a tradition of personal elegance and appearance;
- observance of traditional rites and rituals eg wedding hospitality;
- teaching children of both genders traditional skills such as cooking and crafts, all to a high standard;
- an equestrian culture, in which men are expected to be more than competent riders – including a version of buzkashi;
- long-distance horse races in mountainous terrain;
- traditional personal weapons and their mastery;
- personal honour and its defence;
- traditional dance, the choreography of which had to be reconstructed.
The second clip, about the Adhyge, is – perhaps not unsurprisingly, quite similar. I noted:
- a knowledge of personal genealogy;
- a strong commitment to maintaining and using traditional craft skills;
- intense respect for elders;
- public, community ritual;
- tolerant religious views;
- traditional gender roles, but with a tolerance of those who don’t conform;
- following tradition as a lifestyle;
- “I live the way my grandfather taught me”.
I’ve also been watching a fascinating documentary about the Chechens, but it’s both longer and more powerful, so I’ll come back to it in another post, in which I’ll also look at the Cossacks. They’ll add further data points to the above, after which I can start to attempt to distill some applicable learning points and, hopefully, methodologies.