Suicide by Culture

At the end of 1950's my great-grandmother was the last inhabitant of the family farm. One day she locked the door and went away never to return. When we visited the place couple of years ago, the easiest way to get there was to drive to the closest village, then proceed by foot. We had to pass through some fields, then through a forest. Finally, we've descended into a swampy gorge overgrown with vegetation. The path was barely passable. Blackberries and nettles were growing everywhere. We've walked down along the stream. We've passed the cellars, carved into soft tuff rock, that once belonged to the farm. Now they were empty, with no doors and half-filled with water. Then we have arrived at the farm itself. The stone-and-adobe walls were reduced to almost nothing. You could see them sticking out of the thicket here and there and that was it. Eerily, in this country without people, there was an improvised goat shed built out of sticks and plastic foil among the weed, leaning against the remnant of a wall. There were no goats, nor people, to be seen though.

I've always considered this part of Slovakia, stretching roughly from the town of Krupina towards Veľký Krtíš and Lučenec, to be an enchanted land. It is wild and mostly empty, with hard-to-access depopulated villages and small farms all over the place. If you travel to the area you will experience a genuine post-apocalyptic feeling. Everything is seemingly falling apart. Nature is taking over. Unemployment rate is around 30%. The region has the highest support for neo-Nazi parties in the country.

I never knew much about the history of the region and it was just by a coincidence that I've stumbled upon an interview with a person who wrote a study about what happened to this once populous and prosperous region in the second half XIX. and the first half of XX. century.

It was so weirdly (but not entirely) reminiscent of some of the problems that developed societies are facing today that I'll try to recount the story in English to make it available to wider audience.

In XIX. century the trend of having a single child took hold among protestants of the historical regions of Novohrad, Hont, Malohont and Gemer. Quite obviously, it was a measure against getting impoverished by splitting the family property. However, that can't possibly be the full explanation. First, catholics faced pretty much the same economic pressures and yet they've survived unscathed. Second, the situation wasn't that different in other parts of the country but the trend of having one child haven't occurred elsewhere until much later in XX. century.

In fact, the reason of the trend is not known. If you ask me, it could very well be just been few families getting rich by retaining and merging their properties and everyone else mimicking them.

Anyway, it seems that if you had multiple kids back then you've got criticized and laughed at by your friends and neighbors. It may have been a sentiment similar to the one you can hear voiced about Slovak Roma communities today: "Oh, they are so unruly! They have no restraint! They are so poor and yet have so many kids!" except that it was targeted on the ingroup instead of an outgroup. In short, the whole thing was propelled by peer pressure rather than by an explicit policy.

In the end, the only sanctioned way to have a second child was when the first one died.

And the system have worked nicely for the first and the second generation. Families grew richer. Farms were consolidated. Living conditions improved. Old wooden buildings were replaced by new houses made of stone. More rooms were added. Plaster decorations and art nouveau elements appeared. Everyone wanted to show off.

But the progress came at a cost. Sexual abstinence brought in the familiar zoo of weird behaviors, ranging from coitus interruptus to having sex with animals. It was typically the oldest woman in the household who was charged with enforcement of the abstinence and so the strange custom of daughter-in-law sleeping with mother-in-law emerged. The interview mentions a wide range of magical rituals aimed at preventing conception. More importantly though, unwanted pregnancies were solved by amateurishly done abortions that have often left the woman with serious health issues or even led to infertility or death. I don't enjoy pointless cruelty so I'm not going to go into the details of the procedures that were used at the time.

The custom of having a single child survived even in the face of the risk of the child dying. And the children did die. The child mortality in XIX. century was high. If the child died and the parents were too old to have a new kid, or if the woman was rendered infertile by previous abortions, the family died out. Their names were preserved in the names of places where the family farm once stood, but as the region gets even more depopulated and remaining houses are bought by holidaymakers, even those faint memories gradually disappear.

That was not the only problem though. The farms grew enormous. People hadn't the strength to take care of them. While there are still old houses in good condition in other regions of Slovakia, in the regions with one child system the people resigned at maintaining them. The houses were abandoned, left to the mercy of weather and they gradually decayed. So did the yards. Fields were left uncultivated, overtaken be weed. Entire farms turned into a wasteland. There was nobody left to care.

This way entire lineages, hamlets and villages ceased to exist.

Having the protestant work ethic, people were reluctant to give up. They've tried to keep up but there wasn't enough labor available. With decrease in population hiring loborers to work in fields became ever more expensive. Children were overworked from a very young age. People in their twenties looked like forty-somethings. They've drank to escape the reality. Combined with the health issues caused by botched abortions it seems to have led to an extremely tiring and mirthless life. One contemporary author writes: "At the fair in Rimavská Seč I've observed young women, barely 22 years old, floundering around like mummies. Not one of them ever smiles."

Decrease in population led to shortage of partners. While it was inconceivable before for a protestant girl to get a catholic husband, suddenly it became an option. Things that were unthinkable before became inevitable. It even happened sometimes that a rich girl married a manual laborer at the farm. That have in turn, strangely, led to emancipation of women. The property was owned by the wife and all important decisions were done by her. The husband acted only as a front.

Although child marriages were generally frowned at the shortage of potential partners led to a race of securing a (preferrably rich) spouse as soon as possible. Often, girls as old as 13 or 14 were wed to boys of 17 or 18. That have led to unhappy marriages, psychological problems and, again, excessive drinking.

The evidence from archives and newspapers points at yet another phenomenon: Young people at the time were beginning to have sex before marriage. This is still the same strict protestant community and yet it seems that they were encouraged by their parents: "They are the only children. They can do whatever they want."

More unforeseen consequences: Protestants in Slovakia were, on average, better educated and more forward-looking than the catholics. To give one example, the leaders of nationalist movement of 1848 came mostly from the milieu of the protestant clergy. (Being a nationalist in 1848 counted as progressive!) However, in the regions with single child system it was the catholics who could afford the luxury of sending some of the kids to school and still have some who stayed at home and worked at the farm. If, on the other hand, a single protestant child left it was a tragedy and it often resulted in the family dying out.

The trend continued after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and establishment of first Czechoslovak republic. In 1929, contemporary author writes: "And this plague is eating away Slovak protestants more and more, and especially in the places where people are richer. During agrarian reform people got forests, grazing lands and meadows. They are still working hard to get even more earthly possessions but they don't want to have children. In one house there is a single kid, a boy. In another one, there's yet another single kid, a girl. Big farmers both. They marry those young people and then only one house remains, only one family to die out."

It should be said that there was an attempt by protestant intelligentsia to fight this trend. They've proposed to tax the families with one child or without children. It was even proposed to cede the property of the childless couples, after their death, to the state. But there was a problem there: The families of government officials had, as a norm, one child. They would never agree to higher taxes. All that being said, even protestant intelligentsia haven't fared much better. Looking at statistics for protestant priests, it turns out they used to have one child.

The original interview can be found here (in Slovak). The study itself is called "Tajní Vrahovia " by JÁN ALÁČ and is in the process of being published.

Martin Sustrik, December 2nd, 2017

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