For centuries, it has been common for men in Russia’s southern regions to kidnap the woman they want to marry, a ritual known as “bride stealing.” And despite amounting to a major felony, the local custom is still widely tolerated. That tension between Russian law and local tradition was on display on Nov. 4, Russia’s National Unity Day, when the Kremlin-appointed leader of the region of Ingushetia called on his tiny, mountainous republic “to preserve its historic traditions and cultural values.” What President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov failed to mention was how much trouble the tradition of bride stealing has caused his region (or at least its women) over the past week and a half.
On Oct. 26, two prominent family clans in Ingushetia staged a shootout in broad daylight over the repeated kidnapping of 21-year-old Khagi Yevloeva. Over the course of this year, Yevloeva had been abducted three times by a persistent suitor from a neighboring clan, the Aushevs, but each time her relatives had managed to find her and take her back. When the same man kidnapped her for a fourth time on Oct. 25, the two families started a gunfight in the middle of the regional capital, Nazran, which was shown on national television after a witness captured it on video. Among the incident’s other similarities to the Wild West, the meeting was reportedly scheduled for high noon.
According to local press reports, two brothers from the Aushev clan, both in their 20s, came to the meeting armed with automatic weapons and, after pulling masks over their faces, opened fire on a male relative of Yevloeva’s who happened to be a police officer. He returned fire, killing both men on the spot. In the video aired on Russian television, an unidentified brawler, presumably from the Yevloev clan, can be seen cracking one of the Aushev gunmen on the head with a baseball bat. Most tragic of all, several of their stray bullets went through the windows of a passing bus, wounding a young woman who was reportedly nine months pregnant; she later died at a hospital.
The police officer involved in the shootout, Magomed Yevloev, has been identified in the Russian press as either the father or the cousin of the kidnapping victim. He is now in custody facing charges of murder, while the would-be groom, whom local authorities have only identified by his surname, Bogatyrev, has not been arrested. “Our hands are tied due to the imperfections in the law,” which only allows police to arrest someone for kidnapping if the victim presses charges, the President told a meeting of the region’s security chiefs the day after the shootout. “Along with our spiritual leaders, we will think about what measures need to be taken to effectively fight this phenomenon.”
But Yevkurov did not mention the very similar pledge he made four months ago. In late June, he called a conference of cultural and religious leaders from his predominantly Muslim region, and they agreed that kidnapping women was a violation not only of Russian law but also of the tenets of Islam. (Although neither the local nor federal governments keep count of bridal abductions, Russian state television reported in June that around 100 of these kidnappings take place each year in Ingushetia alone.) However, the summit’s initial proposal to impose a fine of 1 million rubles — about $30,000 — for the offense was eventually cut down to about $10,000. (That is less than a third of the fine imposed on organizations in Russia for committing “homosexual propaganda” around minors under a vague law passed this summer.)
In Ingushetia, a region where the average monthly income is around $1,000, that fine would be a significant punishment if it were enforced. But the meaninglessness of this deterrence became clear after the repeated kidnapping of Yevloeva, and for many locals it did not come as a surprise. In the Russian Caucasus, such traditions have proved remarkably difficult to uproot. In 2010, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Russian region of Chechnya, which neighbors Ingushetia, imposed a million-ruble fine for kidnapping prospective brides. A year later, he admitted that the practice had continued apace.
In recent years, it has even spread to parts of the Russian heartland, where the ritual has no historical roots. Russian state media reported this summer that a “bride kidnapping” had taken place in the ethnically Russian city of Nizhny Tagil, leading federal security forces to start a manhunt for the abductor. But when similar incidents take place in the Caucasus, the Russian media, as well as the security services, tend to treat it as an exotic and even quaint peculiarity of southern republics.
The resilience of this ritual in the Caucasus has to do with the traditional gender roles and taboos that hold it in place. Across the region, a woman who has spent even one night in the home of her kidnapper is seen as unchaste, often forcing her family to disown her, according to a study of the practice in the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestiya. If her relatives do take her back, it is often difficult to find a man willing to marry a woman who has been kidnapped in the past. That makes it tempting for men to steal the object of their affection rather than risk getting rejected during courtship.
In many cases, especially when a woman wants to elope without telling her parents, she will arrange for her beau to kidnap her. According to Magomed Mutsolgov, the head of a local human-rights organization called Mashr, the vast majority of bridal abductions are arranged in this way, often with the consent of both families. “A bride-stealing in most cases ends in a good big wedding party,” Mutsolgov told the independent news service Kavkaz Uzel. But as last week’s shootout demonstrated, bridal abductions are not always a mutually agreeable affair. They are, however, part of a hallowed historical tradition, which may explain why the local government is still unable, or possibly unwilling, to stop them.