04 October 2019

Bashkir beekeepers: a lesson for Appalachia?

Appalachian beekeepers

In the middle of Appalachia, a collective is currently undertaking to transition out-of-work coal miners toward a much more œcologically-friendly and durable line of work – and one which may also be more lucrative: beekeeping. What I instantly noticed about this story is how similar it was to the story of the Bashkirs in Russia.

The Bashkirs, who were one of the subject peoples of the Kazan Khanate (one of the fragments of the Altyn Orda – in turn one of the branches of the Mongol Empire), also found themselves having to adjust to changing œconomic conditions as a result of political shifts. Where before, it was a good model to engage in large-scale nomadic-pastoralist herding of sheep and cattle, the Bashkirs soon found that – as land grew scarcer and it became more dangerous and less profitable to herd livestock – herding bees in the mountains was a much better option. In addition, thanks to the multigenerational nature of the Bashkir project of beekeeping (the very ethnonym ‘Bashkir’ – from Qypchaq башлыҡ ‘head’, ‘boss’ + ҡорт ‘bee’ – may in fact refer to that method of subsistence), Bashkir honey is a highly-prised and sought-after delicacy, renowned for its medicinal qualities.

The Bashkirs, and their neighbours the Tatars, had a similar difficulty to the white folks in Appalachia when it came to adapting their martial cultural dictates to an industrialising society. They also developed a coöperativist consciousness as a result of a deeply-held suspicion of the élites (something which the residents of Appalachia also possess in spades) combined with their complex interactions with the Russian zemstvo apparatus and with their adaptable, traditional-but-not-fundamentalist Hanafî Sunnî form of Islâm. Interestingly, that same development in Appalachia is proceeding in reverse: it is a producers’ coöperative that is encouraging the working-class folks of West Virginia to take up beekeeping as a means of supporting themselves, rather than the beekeeping survival strategy producing a coöperative consciousness.

A serendipitous correlation? Probably. I doubt many West Virginians know or care that much about a non-white minority group on another continent, even ones engaged in the same trade. Even so, the parallels are fascinating to me, and I think if a few people got to know of them, the experience of the Bashkirs with their own coöperative movement working in the same sector of the œconomy, could be particularly instructive to our new West Virginia beekeepers. It might also be interesting to see if the same form of coöperative consciousness forms or deepens an explicitly-political connexion as it did for the Bashkirs in the early 20th century.

Bashkir beekeeper, collecting honey the traditional way

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