Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 11

By Nabi Abdullaev, Makhachkala

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russia’s population has been dramatically decreasing, and the state’s attempts to reverse the demographic catastrophe have proved to be useless. The monthly allowance of 65 rubles–around US$2.30–obviously cannot stimulate the birth rate.

A group of Russia’s lawmakers recently decided to take a different approach to the problem. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) faction in the State Duma stepped forward with a set of amendments to Russia’s Family Code that would permit the country’s citizens to practice polygamy and polyandry. “The Russian Constitution allows us to change the Family Code,” LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claimed in an interview with Russian Public Television (ORT) in October. Allowing Russians to have more than one marriage partner, he argued, would “physiologically stimulate women to get pregnant.” The outspoken LDPR leader admitted, however, that the chances that such amendments would be adopted were close to zero.

The Moslem population of Russia’s Northern Caucasus has never sought legal sanction for the practice of polygamy. It has existed here for centuries, the only break occurring during the period in which Communist morality war forcibly took over from the traditional way of life. Islam permits a man to have up to four wives if he is able to provide each one with a separate dwelling and if he can earn enough to feed all of his offspring. The demographic situation in the conflict-torn Caucasus, where the male population was reduced by violence and the exodus of men seeking better material lives, the proliferation of polygamy. During the Tsarist period, there were very few lonely women in Caucasian auls, or villages.

The Soviet era saw the introduction of the moral code of the “builder of Communism,” which meant the de facto outlawing of polygamy. Only those not involved in “building communism,” like Muslim clergy in the countryside, or those whose social status could not be lowered further sometimes had two or three wives. To avoid criminal prosecution, they didn’t register their marriages with state bodies, and to excuse themselves in the eyes of Muslim society, the polygamists registered their Sharia marriages. All that was required to do this was that the eldest relatives of the newlyweds inform the mullah about the wedding. In addition, those who could afford it maintained multiple mistresses. The rest of the population, especially officials, had to maintain Soviet moral standards, given that any hint of promiscuity could give their rivals a trump card in the covert struggle for power.

With the fall of Communism, the situation changed dramatically. Women continued to be treated as commodities in Russia’s male-dominated society, and particularly in Caucasian society. Polygamy returned to the Northern Caucasus as a sign of material wealth, and the mandarins of the wealthy new regional elite became the standard-bearers of the process.

“If I can feed two families, why shouldn’t I?” said Abusupian Harharov, a Dagestani parliamentary deputy, in an interview with the local press. When Nadir Khachilaev, head of the Union of Muslims of Russia, was asked how things were going during one of his press conferences in Makhachkala, he answered sorrowfully: “I am not marrying any more.” The reason for his sorrow was clear: he had just married his fourth wife, and Islam would not allow him to have any more. However Gamid Gamidov, the former Dagestani finance minister, had four wives. Gadzhi Makhashev, one of Russia’s envoys to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, has two wives, as do most of Dagestan’s government officials and members of parliament. Some of the top officials of Dagestan’s Interior Ministry have two or three families. However they only register one of their marriages officially.

The regional authorities have tried to put polygamy on a legal footing. Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia, backed the republican parliament’s adoption of a law permitting polygamy. But this past summer, after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that regional legislation be brought into compliance with federal law, this law was rescinded.

Public opinion in the Caucasus tends to support polygamy and, surprisingly, women are its strongest advocates. Feminism and other idealistic philosophies have shallow roots here and are suppressed by pragmatism.

“I wanted to have children, but I couldn’t have them without being married. My brothers would kill me for the disgrace,” said Elvira Kuraeva, aged 33, a physician from Dagestan. “The men want to marry the young girls, and at 31 I could only hope to become a second wife. Luckily, I now have a son and, well, a kind of a family life. It is better than nothing.”

Victims of the region’s armed conflicts have other motives. Raisa Magomedova, a Chechen refugee who is currently living in a refugee camp in Nazran, Ingushetia, shared her views. “Today we, the Chechens, are left with one male for every three or four women,” she said. “How do you think must we live? So many people have been killed and we t have to restore our nation.”

Given that, more broadly, Russia today is mired in poverty and normal social relations have been ruined, the Darwinian law of natural selection has come to dominate society’s consciousness. This means that an able-bodied man has become a sought-after prize. “I would better off as a second wife of a rich man than the first wife of some poor fellow,” confessed Madina Ahmedova, aged 21, an attractive university student in Makhachkala. “I don’t want my children starving and growing up envying their wealthy counterparts. “

Polygamy as an existential choice is already creeping in among poor people in parts of Russia outside the Caucasus. Vremechko, a nationally broadcast television program, not long ago featured a story about a Siberian family in which a man had two wives, who were handling their common home and children. The show received a substantial amount of feedback from viewers who supported the idea of polygamy as a means of survival and cited more examples of its practice.

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.