Savoir-vivre in the Caucasus

Diversity

Even though the Caucasus is a region that has a sort of a pan-Caucasian identity, it remains greatly diverse in terms of ethnics, religion, politics and culture. Despite some common features, Georgia and Georgians are different to Azerbaijan and Azeri, to Chechnya and Chechens, etc. Sometimes, the bordering states and republics differ so much that a trip from one place to another can come as a civilisation shock. Clear-cut distinctions can be noted e.g. between Ingushetia, closely attached to tradition and Islam, and North Ossetia, definitely the most russified and secularised republic in the region. A trip from Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia capital) to Nazran (Ingushetia’s largest city), separated by a mere dozen kilometres, gives an impression of a trip in cultural space. Whatever is considered a norm in Vladikavkaz (e.g. the way people dress), might raise controversy in Ingushetia.

Two natures of the Caucasus

One should also bear in mind that the Caucasus – to cut the long story short – has two natures. There exists a traditional and even traditionalist Caucasus, an exotic region reminding of the times before the Russian conquest. But there is also a modern, russified, sovietised and partly europeanised Caucasus. It might seem contradictory to you, but not for the people who live there. The same person will behave in a different way while visiting their family in a mountainous village and while socialising with their friends in a big city. Generally speaking, ordinary people, villagers behave naturally, the way they really are, and will not pretend to be someone else. Therefore, a man will not conceal that it is his wife who serves the table, while he sits there and drinks tea with guests. People who want to seem European try to ostentatiously dissociate themselves from some Caucasian customs and prove they are no ‘savages’. They make their wives sit by the table and make small talk, although it seems obvious that she feels uncomfortable doing this and it is not her daily routine. In Muslim countries some people ostentatiously drink alcohol and eat pork to prove they are no stick-in-the-mud Muslims. It is particularly clear in case of middle-aged people who were brought up in the Soviet times and formed by the Soviet propaganda. An increasing share of the younger generation doesn’t act like that. In republics like Dagestan, many young people even flaunt their faith and show that they are practicing believers of Islam.

Different ‘Caucases’

Apart from the two natures mentioned, Caucasus has many shades and differences. One may even say that there are different “Caucases”:
• Urban and rural Caucasus (the distinctions between them are greater that in case of European cities and villages, although the bonds between them are tighter) – e.g. cosmopolitan Baku and traditionalist Azerbaijani provinces;
• North and South Caucasus, divided by many distinctions; for example, people in Dagestan do not regard the Azeri as real highlanders and Caucasians. Dagestan inhabitants look down on Azeri’s habit of men greeting by kissing on the cheek or friends holding hands. Quite similarly, North Ossetians look down on their Southern counterparts (whom they call Kudar) and regard them as “georgianised”;
• Christian and Muslim Caucasus; however, there is no simple distinction into e.g. a Christian Georgia and a Muslim Azerbaijan; there are many regions and communities that do not stick to this description, e.g. the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia;
• Religious and secular Caucasus; the deepest divisions and greatest differences can be found in Muslim countries and regions, while Christian states are less internally divided;
• The conflict regions stand out in the Caucasus – wars, violence and waves of refugees have completely overturned the existing social structures and values, altered typical habits and behaviour, and created a number of different pathologies so far unknown in the Caucasus, such as homelessness, beggary, prostitution, orphanhood, etc.

What you have to know about the Caucasus

Taking all of the above in consideration, the best advice is to get acquainted with the region’s culture, tradition and history before travelling there. This is particularly important, as people in the Caucasus, like almost no other region, are absorbed with their history. At the same time, each nation has its own ethnic history, often conflicting with their neighbours’ version of history. Some sort of ‘indoctrination’ can therefore be expected – the Azeri will argue that the Armenians are not a Caucasus nation and vice versa, Chechens will claim that Ossetians and Dagestan nations are ‘traitors’ and ‘renegades’, while the latter will maintain that all Chechens are ‘bandits’ and ‘kidnappers’. In such a case it’s better not to get into a discussion and just change the topic, as you won’t succeed in changing their mind anyway.

Another reason why it’s worth reading something about the region before going there is that a person that knows something about the region’s history is held in great esteem by the locals. Basic knowledge on the region will also allow you to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as closed borders or travel ban that applies to some territories (e.g. Russia’s entire southern border is closed for foreigners, which is not widely known). Sometimes unaware tourists are planning to cross e.g. Turkish-Armenian or Armenian-Azerbaijani borders that have been closed for over 10 years, following the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

It’s also worth to get acquainted with the current political situation in the Caucasus. This situation is greatly changeable – sudden and dramatic events that are hard to predict in advance, tend to happen there. It is therefore advised to try and be up to date with the current events in the region, so that we do not get taken aback by what we may find when we get there.

The foreigners’ perception

One of the crucial questions we should ask ourselves before going to the Caucasus, is how the region’s inhabitants are going to perceive us. In Yerevan, Tbilisi or Baku a foreigner is no sensation, while it may become one in some mountainous village. People in the Caucasus often find it hard to understand why people would travel so far. So they ask whether we have family in the Caucasus, where we are on a business trip (‘komandirovka’), where is the rest of the group (if we travel on our own or with one more person), etc. If we are working on some NGO projects in the Caucasus, we may get asked about the motives of our involvement. The locals sometimes find it hard to understand that we want to do something disinterestedly of for free or simply because we take interest in the Caucasus.

While in the region, we must be ready to answer numerous personal questions, such as whether we are married and whether we have children (and if we don’t – why not). We may also hear comments that we should get married as soon as possible; people would even volunteer to find a ‘perfect candidate’ for us straight away. They would also ask how much we earn, where we live, what nationality we are and what is our travel destination. These people do not ask questions because they are rude or meddlesome, but because they need to somehow ‘classify’ us according to their way of thinking, and ‘translate’ us through the notions they use. They need to know who we are, where we come from, and what we came for to be able to relate to us and open up. In the Western culture this sort of behaviour is not customary, as someone’s private life, nationality, confession, and marital status are considered to be private. Things are completely different in the Caucasus. So let’s try to be open and in return these people will open, too.

To see the Caucasus, it’s enough to go to Yerevan, Baku or Tbilisi, to go sightseeing as advised in the guidebook and to walk in the mountains. However, to ‘feel’ the Caucasus, to try and understand it, you must get rid of an always-in-a-hurry-tourist approach and the desire to see as much as possible during the two-week vacation. It is worth to succumb to the slower pace of the Caucasus people’s life. It’s worth to linger in one place, because this is when we will see most. The longer we stay in one place, in one village, staying at one family, the more our hosts will open up to us. Neither should you protest if you feel ‘trapped’ by someone’s hospitability. For example, you find yourself in some village and would like to walk around and take some pictures. Instead, you are seated by the table, and endless courses and beverages keep arriving. Subsequent neighbours and family members keep coming around, everyone wants to see you, and people keep asking the same questions. You have to understand that this is what the Caucasus is about. Take your time, as you will have plenty of time to see other things…

Family

The family is the greatest value for people in the Caucasus, and relatives are the ones they can always rely on. Cultivation of family ties is therefore very important. However, a close family in the Caucasus means something completely different than in Europe. A close relative may be e.g. someone’s grandfather’s brother or the grandfather’s brother’s granddaughter (in the Caucasus she would be called a ‘troyurodnaya sestra’ – a half-cousin or second cousin). Numerous, multi-generation families are a rule in the Caucasus.

However, the family relationships in many Caucasus regions are quite peculiar. For example, in traditional Abkhazian communities in-laws never speak to their daughter-in-law, in Ingushetia a son-in-law may only turn up in his in-laws’ house one year after the marriage, and in Chechnya a father must never show his affection for his own children in front of other people. In all Caucasus communities, the elders enjoy great respect, regardless of their sex. Younger family members attend to them, fulfil their wishes and ask them for advice. The young often refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking in front of the elders. Among Chechens, respect for elders (not just seniors, but any people who are older than you) is probably the greatest. A younger person should stand up when an elder enters the room and only sit down, when the elder allows them to. The young ones are not allowed to speak without the elders’ consent.

Respect for parents is also very important; the parents’ will must not be opposed, especially in matters such as marriage (marriages are still being arranged, even in the cities and even among educated people). One also needs their father’s consent to start an education or a job, to leave one’s native village, etc. According to the tradition (especially in the North Caucasus, where it is deeply rooted), the eldest son should live with his parents and take care of them as long as they live. Obligations to one’s parents and the necessity to take their opinion into account are often quite burdensome, but increasingly more often it is the parents who give their children a free hand in many respects.

Children are a ‘gem’ of each family in the Caucasus. As a rule, families have many children, whom they greatly love and respect. Still, a child is a part of a hierarchical family structure, so that it knows its place and is aware that there is children’s world and adult world, and the latter has more rights and privileges. It can be seen very vividly while visiting a Caucasus home. In European families, a child (especially, a small one) is always the centre of attention, which is often quite tiring for the guests. Things are different in a Caucasus family – children usually do not participate in the elders’ gatherings, leave the room when guests arrive (if they are big enough to do that), and when too little, they are being discreetly taken care of by their mothers, so that the guests do not get absorbed.

Hospitality

A Caucasian home is no castle. Quite the opposite, the more frequently the guests arrive and the longer they stay, the more honoured the hosts feel. For example, in Chechnya it is right for the host to ask the guest what he came for and how long he is going to stay only on the third day after the latter’s arrival (even if it is an unexpected guest). In the Caucasus, a guest is held in great esteem and is THE most important person in the house. Therefore the hosts would say ‘feel like a guest’ rather than ‘feel at home’. In many traditionalistic houses, there is a special room for guests (the so-called kunak chamber), the best and nicest room in the house. It is the host’s duty to fulfil the guest’s wishes, to amuse him and provide entertainment and attractions. So, don’t be too modest and use your ‘privileges’, as receiving guests and amusing them is something natural for the Caucasus inhabitants.

While staying at a Caucasian home you should keep several things in mind. You absolutely must take your shoes off, even if you enter a house for just a moment. Sometimes the hosts would ask you not to do this (especially in modern buildings in big cities), although it happens very rarely. Gifts are very welcome, and at the same time they don’t have to be expensive and can be purely symbolic. It may happen that the host will refuse to accept it thrice, which is a kind of a ritual and does not mean that he does not want the gift. A proper thing to do is also ask courtesy questions about the hosts’ and their family’s health, etc. This is particularly significant in Chechnya and Ingushetia, where it has become a custom.

A feast at the table would usually take a long time. Except for religious Muslim houses, we might expect a lot of alcohol on the table. However, unlike in Russia or Ukraine, the hosts hardly ever force you to drink (or drink excessively). A refusal to drink is usually accepted with understanding. It is in fact approved of when a woman refuses to drink or takes just a sip. A key element of drinking is raising a toast, especially in Georgia and Armenia. A tourist would not be forced to propose a toast; although you should try to do it as such a gesture would be very welcome. Before hitting the road, you can prepare a few ‘ready-made’ toasts, and they don’t have to be particularly sophisticated – the really sophisticated ones are a rarity even in the Caucasus.

When you’re a guest in a place, where a foreigner is still a rarity, you should remember that the Caucasus locals enjoy receiving guests and treat it as a great attraction and sometimes even a privilege. A person gains great prestige if a foreigner happens to participate in his son’s or daughter’s wedding or some other ceremony. As a rule, the foreigner becomes a guest of honour and is expected to deliver a speech at such a ceremony. It also happens that the family who hosts a tourist wants to boast such a special guest in front of their neighbours, relatives or friends, and therefore the news about your arrival would be spread very widely.

When you’re a guest at somebody’s place, you’d better forget about ‘freedom’ or spending money. The host will ‘escort’ you for the whole time, and if he can’t, he will ask his son, brother or some other relative or even a neighbour. If you mention that you feel like walking around the village, it will be understood that you want to be shown around. You’d better not object to that, as this might be offensive to the host.

Having said that, you may not get an equally warm reception all over the Caucasus. There are more and more tourist places where the stay is paid for, even in the highlanders’ houses – it is getting common in many regions of Georgia and Azerbaijan (e.g. in very popular Western tourists’ destination – Khinalug village) and in the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkess republics in the North Caucasus.

If you are going to a place where there is no lodging house, you’d better talk to the head of the local administration (Russian: glava administratsii) or a headmaster. These are usually the people who have been around, talk better Russian, etc. They would either put you up for the night or find some place to stay. While travelling to very traditionalistic regions, such as upper Dagestan, you should first go to a place called godekan – a central meeting place of a town or a village, usually situated in the middle of the place. At any time you will find there elderly men called Aqsaqals, who form an informal community council (Russian: sovet stareyshin). A proper thing to do is to greet these men, introduce yourself, talk for a while and ask whether you can stay at the village. However, women should not shake hands with them and talk to them first, as it is considered improper. Another inappropriate thing to do is to not greet the people we pass by while walking.

Food

The food in the Caucasus is usually diverse; everyone can find something for themselves. In Muslim countries or regions pork is eaten extremely rarely, although we can come across people who do that. However, vegetarians may find it difficult to find diversified food, as meat dishes prevail in the Caucasian cuisine. It has to be added that people in the Caucasus often do not consider poultry or dolma (meat and rice-stuffed grape leaves) to be meat. Having said that, Caucasian cuisine offers a wide selection of cheese, and vegetables and fruits in the summer. However, coffee fiends must keep in mind that coffee is hard to find in Azerbaijan’s restaurants and bars. Coffee is hardly ever drunk in mountainous villages, whereas tea is used in excess (although it is often herb tea, made from herbs picked in the mountains). All kinds of alcohols are of course quite common, especially in Georgia, Armenia and some North Caucasus republics. People drink wine, cognac, beer and vodka (including the famous Georgian grape vodka chacha). However, you will find increasingly many people, especially young ones, in Azerbaijan and Muslim North Caucasus republics, who do not drink at all. There are villages in the North Caucasus (such as Gubden in Dagestan), where you find no alcohol whatsoever for religious reasons. Many Caucasian Muslims (especially in Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia) also observe a fast during Ramadan.

Clothing

While travelling to the Caucasus, you don’t need to take particular clothing with yourself. However, you must observe a couple of rules. You must mind the gap between the city and the country. In big cities people usually dress in the European manner, while in the mountains they have a more traditional dress code. Men should avoid wearing shorts, especially in the country, while women should not dress too extravagantly and explicitly. Even though usually people would not comment on your clothes, you’d better avoid the mentioned way of dressing to show your respect for their customs. Also, in regions inhabited by Muslims you should definitely avoid exposing your underwear while your laundry gets dry, as it is regarded obscene.

You should also remember that there are very traditionalistic, even fundamentalist villages in the Caucasus, especially in Dagestan. In such places even a woman who is wearing trousers may get rebuked for ‘indecent conduct’. It’s also worth taking a headscarf that should be put on in mosques. Wearing a headscarf in the mountainous regions, albeit voluntary, would be approved of by the locals as a sign of respect for their customs and traditions. Generally, when you’re in the Caucasus, try to avoid dressing in a ‘Western’, tourist kind of manner – by doing this you are likely to attract the attention of those whom you’d better avoid, such as thieves.

Women in the Caucasus. Man-woman relations

The Caucasus is a region where we can still come across sharp distinctions into male and female social roles. Two separate worlds – male and female one – exist. Representatives of the two sexes rarely spend spare time together (if they’re not related). Men get together within their circle, while women meet within their circle. Men and women usually get together at family occasions, although men usually sit separated from women. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, especially in big cities and in Georgia & Armenia. It seems, though, that the exceptions only prove the rule.

There is also a clear division of roles within a family: a man earns the living and a woman keeps the house, cooks & cleans. In mountainous villages this division is particularly distinct. When guests turn up, it is the man who talks to them, while a woman serves the table. Obviously, man-woman divisions do not concern foreigners; a female tourist is first of all a guest.

Should a woman decide to travel the Caucasus alone, she should exercise great caution, as this might turn out risky, especially in Georgia. A woman on her own can find herself being picked up persistently. There are several reasons for that. In the Caucasus, a woman usually ‘belongs’ to someone. She is a wife, daughter, cousin, sister of a specific man. She is kind of ‘attached’ to the man, which also means that she is under his protection. Therefore a possible ‘beau’ has to take into account that should something happen, he will have to deal with that man sooner or later. Caucasian men reason as follows: if a woman does not ‘belong’ to anyone, and is not attached to any man, it means that she can mine. In such a case she can be easily accosted, as there is no one to defend her. However, if a woman travels with her husband, boyfriend or friend, she has to keep in mind that in some situations she might be completely ignored and looked through. A Caucasian man will talk first of all to a male tourist.

A man travelling across the Caucasus alone will almost certainly get offers to ‘have fun’ with local ladies of loose conduct. A refusal often causes great surprise.

Couples who travel the Caucasus should in turn avoid showing their affection to each other, as it is considered indecent and can be extremely embarrassing to locals, especially in Muslim regions. On the other hand, we should not express our surprise that e.g. in Azerbaijan men greet by kissing on the cheek and hold hands when walking. You can also come across such customs in Armenia (though they are not so common), although certainly not in the North Caucasus, where this would be unacceptable.

Relations with the authorities

The relations with the authorities (be it police or office workers) is the most problematic thing while travelling across the Caucasus. It is a problem first of all in the North Caucasus, mainly in its eastern part (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). This is the least stable part of the region, flooded with the military and police due to the conflict in Chechnya and the activity of Islamists. You should therefore expect numerous document checks, examination of your luggage, etc. The whole region is intersected by a network of checkpoints, while the borders between the republics actually remind state borders. Entry into some territories may be very difficult. This mainly applies to Chechnya; according to the law, a foreigner can enter the republic only with a special permit. The authorities’ consent (in this case, the consent of the Federal Security Service, the FSB) is also required to enter all bordering territories. In case of the regions that are popular tourist destinations, it is not difficult to obtain a permit – special tourist agencies will take care of that. They will also help you obtain the temporary registration (Russian: registratsiya) – a tourist needs such a registration if he stays longer than 3 days.

Checks are common during longer journeys; for local police they are often an opportunity to extort bribes from people, especially foreign tourists, who are considered a ‘tasty bit’. Very often policemen would make up alleged offences to force the tourists to pay. Nevertheless, you should avoid paying bribes, which is not that hard. There are ways of dealing with the police’s importunity, the most effective being plain patience. If you are consistent in refusing to pay bribes, at the same time keeping your cool and letting them know you are aware of your rights, they will give up after a while. You should not worry that a bus or a marshrutka (a small bus) will leave without you. Passengers are united by a kind of a team spirit; the driver will also wait until all passengers will be given their documents back and allowed to go. You should avoid kicking up a fuss, shouting, being rude, as it can only worsen the situation. Another way is to pretend you don’t understand Russia or to appeal to their Caucasian hospitality. Even if you have not attended to formalities (e.g. you don’t have the registration), you can try to refer to your unawareness or try to arouse their pity. Only in extreme cases (exceptional importunity or rudeness of the uniformed) you can demand to call the Ambassador of your state. You should also bear in mind that the policemen or the military often stop foreigners simply because they’re curious, as they don’t meet foreigners too often and want to talk to them.

In the South Caucasus the aforementioned problems happen much less frequently. In this region you should avoid travelling to the frozen-conflict areas – the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as it may turn to be quite risky (especially in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia). While on the mentioned territories, you are not under protection of your diplomatic agencies, as they cannot act freely there.

In official contacts with the authorities (e.g. while working on some NGO projects) proper and formal clothing should be observed (especially in Azerbaijan and Armenia), as it is treated as a sign of respect towards the authorities. The representatives of local authorities must feel that they are important, and that the guests respect their position and status. When you are working on a project in some region, a courtesy visit to the local authorities can help you in accelerating the works.

Travelling

Travelling across the Caucasus is not very problematic. The most convenient way to get around is to take a marshrutka, a small bus that can take you to practically any place in the Caucasus. Marshrutkas are also a basic means of transport in larger cities. At the same time they are the safest one, much better than taxis. All locals use them, and that’s where you can get advice on how to get to a particular place or where to stay for the night. You can trust the marshrutka drivers, who have no vested interest in cheating or misleading you. Another convenient albeit slower way to get around is to take a bus (buses usually run between cities and larger villages).

You can reach the Caucasus by train – there are trains running to the region from Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Astrakhan or Kyiv in Ukraine, among other cities. The major train connections in the region are Moscow-Makhachkala (it runs further to Baku, although you have to bear in mind that foreigners cannot cross the Russian-Azerbaijani border), Moscow – Vladikavkaz, Moscow – Adler, Moscow – Kislovodsk, Rostov-on-Don – Vladikavkaz, Moscow – Nazran, Adler – Vladikavkaz and other. You can also get to Grozny and Gudermes by train, although you will need a special permit. In the South Caucasus, the train network is not expanded. The major train connections are: Yerevan – Tbilisi, Tbilisi – Baku, Tbilisi – Zugdidi, Tbilisi – Batumi, and Baku – Astara. The train that run in the region are usually slow and rather dirty (except for the Tbilisi-Baku connection). The ticket prices are affordable, although you may find it hard to buy a ticket on the day of departure (especially in the North Caucasus), so you’d better do it in advance.

You can also get to the Caucasus by plane. There are direct plane connections to Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi from Frankfurt, Vienna, Istanbul, Prague, Minsk and Moscow. Recently budget Air Baltica airlines have offered flights to the Caucasus via Riga, Latvia, which is currently the cheapest way to fly there. If you want to fly to the North Caucasus, you can take a plane from Moscow and St Petersburg. There are many large airports in the North Caucasus, including Mineralnye Vody, Makhachkala, Nazran, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, Nalchik, Cherkesk, Sochi, Krasnodar, and Stavropol.

You can also travel by taxis or rented cars, although that would not be advisable: local drivers often take advantage of foreigners, who are not familiar with local prices and situation. Moreover, in the North Caucasus taxis and private vehicles are more often checked by the police. Having said that, taxi drivers may be an excellent source of information. Another good source of information are bazaars. You can have some problems with exchanging money in the North Caucasus (in places such as Makhachkala, Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk), but in larger cities you will find many cash machines. If we decide to take currencies, it is much better to take US dollars than Euros.

The easiest way to communicate is to speak Russian, although the command of Russian is not equally good everyone (it might be a problem in the South Caucasus, especially in the country). The ones who may have problems with Russian are the young people, who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the elderly or women in remote villages. The knowledge of English is still an exception, although it is becoming more common among young people (especially in Georgia). You should also bear in mind that Armenia and Georgia have their own alphabets, completely different to the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Azerbaijan uses the Latin alphabet, while the North Caucasus for obvious reasons sticks to the Cyrillic one.

In big cities you may find it hard to find a proper place to stay the night. Hotels are usually expensive, and people rarely invite you to stay at their place. There are also state-owned hotels in the North Caucasus that do not admit foreigners. On the other hand, in popular tourist locations (Georgia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkess republic) there shouldn’t be any problems with finding a place to stay. You will find rooms for rent there as well as the tourist centres (Russian: turbaza). In some regions (such as the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and in the south of Azerbaijan) there are agritourist farms (see e.g. www.pankisi.org). In places that are not frequented by tourists, the locals often offer free stay at their house. However, you should not take advantage of it too much, as the people in that region are usually very poor.

An interesting thing to see while travelling, especially across Muslim regions, are the so-called sacred sites (ziyarats, pirs) located along the roads. Drivers usually stop by, so that the passengers can pray, get some water and leave some loose change. When passing by cemeteries or temples, the drivers also turn the music down, and some passengers say short prayers. At such moment you should remain silent to show your respect for these people’s faith.

Be yourself

While in the Caucasus, behave naturally, do not pretend to be someone you aren’t or force yourself to conform to the surroundings. People in the Caucasus respect those who are proud of their own culture, religion, their country and who have their own firm beliefs and opinions.

A most crucial trait, which you will not be taught by any savoir-vivre handbook, is tact. If you watch the people you meet in the Caucasus with attention, talk to them, take interest in their culture, you will know what is the right thing to do, and what isn’t.

Maciej Falkowski

Translated by Jadwiga Rogoża