A study of polygamy in Russia might not seem an obvious place to look for insights into how the financial crisis might play out in suburban Kent or rural Yorkshire. But Caroline Humphrey, Sigrid Rausing professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, says central Asia and Russia have much to teach us.
“In the 1990s, Russia and central Asia experienced huge economic change: what a bank was, how your career was going, what you could expect from life, everything changed overnight,” she explains. “And of course it had a huge impact on people’s lives, from family life to politics, and polygamy is part of that whole scene. So far, we haven’t had such dramatic change in the west, but you never know.”
Humphrey specialises in the anthropology of communities on the edges of the former Soviet Union, and has spent much of her career studying the Buyrat people who live north of the Mongolian border in Siberia. Humphrey says that anthropologists slowly build a deep knowledge and understanding of a place and culture, but nevertheless, her discovery that there is a polygamy lobby was a surprise.
“Friends of mine in Siberia told me that their friends were lobbying parliament to legalise polygamy,” she says. “I always knew that there were men who like the idea of polygamy, but what I found fascinating was that women were also in support.”
So is the recession going to turn the good burghers of Tunbridge Wells into polygamists? It’s unlikely. But it remains the case that the reasons why men – and, even more interestingly, women – are advocating polygamy in Russia and Mongolia are as much about economics as they are about sex. The critical issue is demography. The Russian population is falling by 3% a year – and there are 9 million fewer men than women. Nationalists, such as the eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claim that introducing polygamy will provide husbands for “10 million lonely women” and fill Mother Russia’s cradles.
Elsewhere, in the former Islamic regions of Russia, men argue that polygamous marriage is traditional and will encourage men to take greater responsibility – thereby alleviating poverty and improving “moral” education.
Improbably, for both groups, this is polygamy as a solution to contemporary social ills – and, according to Humphrey, is appearing outside Islamic regions. In rural areas the “man shortage”, exacerbated by war, alcoholism and mass economic migration, is even more serious. But when it comes to polygamy, rural women have a quite different agenda from their nationalist male counterparts.
“A lot of women live on what were collective farms, which are often deep in the forest and miles away from the nearest town,” Humphrey says. “You live very close to nature, and life can be very hard – your heating is entirely through log stoves, there’s no running water and inside sanitation is rare. If you are lucky enough to keep animals, you must care for and butcher them yourself. So if you are looking after children as well, life can be near impossible for a woman on her own.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Humphrey’s investigations have uncovered women who believe that “half a good man is better than none at all”. “There are still some men around – they might be running things, with a job as an official, for example, or they might be doing an ordinary labouring job, but either way, there aren’t very many of them,” she says. “Women say that the legalisation of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”
Legalising polygamy has been repeatedly proposed and discussed in the Russian Duma, or parliament – and always turned down. For the urbanites of Moscow and St Petersburg it is a step too far.
In Mongolia, too, the legalisation of polygamous marriage is anathema. Yet in Ulan Bator, the thrusting capital city, well-educated women are combining traditional and modern to create something that looks suspiciously like a form of polygamy.
Surprisingly, it starts with the dowry. Eschewing the traditional gifts (horses, cushions, clothes), successful Mongolian families are increasingly giving their daughters a good education in place of a dowry. In contrast, their brothers often have to leave school early to either manage the herds or run the family business.
“In Mongolian culture, the bride’s family are the senior family; and a bride should be clever. And they had 70 years of communism, so the idea that women should be well-educated is not new,” Humphrey explains. “Since Mongolia, in common with Russia, also has a problem with alcoholism, there is an imbalance between urban educated women and the number of men these educated women deem to be suitable husband-material.”
The solution is simple: they just don’t get married. Instead, they take what is known as a “secret lover” – usually a well-educated man who just happens to be married to someone else. Any children resulting from the union are brought up by their mother and the maternal family.
“It is completely accepted. These women are among the elite of Mongolian society – they might be a member of parliament or a director of a company and they are tremendously admired,” Humphrey says. “They would be horrified by the idea of polygamous marriage because they don’t want to risk their independence.”
So what does this mean for marital relations in Russia and central Asia? Humphrey says it’s unlikely that polygamous marriage will ever be legalised in Russia – but perhaps that doesn’t matter.
“An insufficiency of men, educated women who want to realise themselves, rural women who want to protect themselves, all these things are going to give rise to arrangements like polygyny,” says Humphrey, “whether it’s called that or not.”