Family Structures In North Caucasus Modernizing But Conservatism Is Intensifying – OpEd


A massive, four-year-long study of families in the North Caucasus shows that they are modernizing rapidly in many respects with the authority of elders and clans falling and gender roles changing. But at the same time, under the impact of Islamization, conservatism on these questions, especially among men, is intensifying

Irina Starodubrovskaya of the Gaidar Institute reports her findings in current issue of Moscow’s Russian-language Journal of Social Policy Studies (, a detailed article that has now been summarized by IQ journalist Olga Sobolevskaya  at

The basic features of the traditional family, including generational and gender hierarchies, are falling apart, the Moscow scholar says. The clan is declining in importance; but “at the same time,” gender differences remain and young people affected by the spread of fundamentalist Islam often have more traditional views than their elders.

In traditional societies there, “the family and the clan serve as the model of society as a whole,” with strict age and gender hierarchies, the unity of the personality and the community, the submersion of the individual in the collective and the regulation of behavior with the assistance of fear and shame.”

That model which was undermined by the Soviet system has broken down since 1991 for five major reasons, Starodubrovskaya says. These include migration which takes people out of their traditional milieu, market relations which change the basis of authority, urbanization, globalization and its models of alternative behaviors, and fundamentalist Islam.

The last element works in a contradictory way, she says. On the one hand, because most of the adherents of fundamentalist Islam are young men, they reject the authority of fathers and father figures. But on the other, they insist on family relations and especially gender roles that are more conservative than those their parents have accepted.

Within the region and even within families, these various values are often in open competition and conflict, the scholar says the survey shows. As one respondent from Karachayevo-Cherkessia put it, “in one house there may be entirely European rules for somethings, and Asiatic ones for others.

But the overall trend is clear: the clan is ceasing to be the structuring element of the community, the older generation is losing control over the young, the nuclear family is becoming predominant, but children continue to be held responsible for taking care of their elderly relatives.

Nonetheless, the speed of change varies among the republics. In Chechnya and “especially in Ingushetia where there are no major cities and where the clans live together in compact settlements, traditional relations are stable … in Daghestan, the situation is more complicated,” with an intermixture of values and behaviors.

Marriage practices are among the most sensitive indicators of these changes.  Parents no longer organize most marriages, but in some places, the kind of Islam the potential partners profess is more important than the attitudes of relatives or members of the community even though many new couples are forced to live with their families.

One interesting detail which shows the way in which change and tradition are accommodating one another: Ever more parents are willing to allow their daughters to marry earlier not so much because they think this is a good idea but because otherwise, given the spread of sexual freedom, their daughters won’t be virgins when they do.

’s most important finding, however, may be this. Her research found that there has been a shift back to very conservative values, “above all” among young men. Young women continue to seek emancipation but young men who affect fundamentalist Islam want to restore family practices that even their parents think are outmoded.

As a result, the scholar says, the North Caucasus is likely to be riven by more conflicts in  the future, although they may be fundamentally different than those which have divided it up to now.

Indeed, in reading this study, the author of these lines was reminded of the ways in which the Soviets sought to use young women to break down traditional societies in the Central Asian republics in the 1920s, a strategy brilliantly described by Gregory Massell in his 1974 classic The Surrogate Proletariat (Princeton University Press).

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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