Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: Let Our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough

let our fame be great - coverLet Our Fame be Great — Journeys Among the Defiant Peoples of the Caucasus

Oliver Bullough

Allen Lane, London
March 2010
508 pages
ISBN: 978-1-846-14141-6

Let Our Fame be Great takes its name from an episode of North Caucasus mythology. In the tale, the Narts — the heroes of these stories — are offered the choice between long, comfortable but uneventful life, and a short but heroic life and eternal glory. Naturally, they choose the latter, with the words let our fame be great.

The book is about the various peoples of the Caucasus who during the last two centuries were confronted with Russian injustice and, because they dared to stand up to this, horrendous punishment. According to Bullough, they have been cheated by history — they chose the path expressed by the book’s title, but their fame is anything but great.

More specifically, the author discusses the fate of three groups of peoples, and with them, three lowpoints of Russia’s involvement in the Caucasus. The book’s first part is devoted to Russia’s Nineteenth Century conquest of the Northwest Caucasus in the face of the bitter resistance of its inhabitants, and their subsequent expulsion to the Ottoman Empire, if not to death. In the second part, Bullough looks at Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Karachays, Balkars, Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia, each collectively deemed ‘guilty’ of supporting the German enemy, carried out with enormous cruelty and additional loss of life due to disease and famine. Finally, the last two parts of the book are devoted to the conflict in Chechnya that has been ongoing since the early 1990s, and that has to some extent been exported to Russia and to the rest of the North Caucasus, but it also extensively discusses Russia’s Nineteenth Century conquest of the Northeast Caucasus, and Chechen and Dagestani resistance to it.

While the three conflicts covered in Let Our Fame be Great have in common the fact that they originate in Russia’s desire to subjugate the North Caucasus, they are not the same scenario played out thrice. Stalin’s deportations are perhaps the most straightforward, because they were largely unprovoked — people were accused of collaboration with the enemy despite living in areas not even reached by German troops.

Bullough looks in detail at one episode where a few hundred local troops did rise up against Soviet authorities. These troops had been part of the Kabardino-Balkarian cavalry division that had been sent into battle against German tanks and consequently masacred. They subsequently deserted and withdrew to the Cherek valley, where they resisted Soviet troops ordered to subdue them. More drastic measures where then taken, as the NKVD sent in a unit of 152 soldiers led by Captain Nakin, who, encouraged by his superiors, killed everyone they encountered — men, women and children — systematically moving from village to village. During the lingering days of Glasnost in the early nineties, the Karbardino-Balkaria Parliament declared the event a genocide, but before and since it has mostly been ignored and hushed over by authorities.

In contrast, the war in the Northwest Caucasus started out like many others. It ended in genocide because of the enormous social and economical differences between Russia and the Circassians, and the blank refusal of the latter to compromise with injustice. Its primitive economy meant Circassia had great difficulty to sustain its war effort and had to sell off men of weapons-bearing age into Ottoman slavery. Its lack of central government and its otherwise admirable tradition of consensual policy making prevented the planning and execution of any effective long term strategy. Nevertheless, for decades the Circassians resisted, eventually leading Russia to conclude that it had to permanently destroy the Circassians’ way of life.

Bullough illustrates the Circassians’ ineffectual war effort with one episode where for once, a large number of Circassian fighters had taken the initiative to stage a surprise attack on Russian troops accross the frozen river Kuban. The decision to proceed with the plan required much deliberation and the Russian troops received advance warning of it. When the Circassians arrived at the Kuban and it turned out that the ice was fracturing, most withdrew, but a significant number of young horsemen went ahead anyway, rather pointlessly, and right into a waiting Russian ambush.

Finally, the war in the Northeast Caucasus initially started out similarly to the war in the Northwest, but it soon took a different turn when Chechen and Dagestani forces were united by a number of successive political-religious leaders, of which the most famous is Imam Shamil. On the one hand, Shamil managed to organise resistance against Russia much more effectively than the Circassians. On the other hand, his ideology of Muslim reform represented itself a new force in the region, setting him apart from the more traditional population of Chechnya. His ultimate defeat did not require the physical elimination of all Chechens, only the abandoning of their support for him. In two very interesting chapters, Bullough describes Shamil’s life after his capture, and his surprising appreciation for Russia’s efforts to pacify the Caucasus.

The continued presence of the Chechen nation in the Caucasus, their traumatic deportation by Stalin and the continued discrimination after their return made possible the renewed conflict since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although Russia started the war in 1994, Bullough does not fail to point out the spectacular failure of the Chechens to build their state, and the injustifiability of the invasion of Dagestan that triggered the second war in 1999. He also gives a nuanced picture of Akhmat Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Head Mufti who went over to the Russians at the start of the second war and whose son Ramzan now holds a sway of terror over Chechnya. (It is all the more surprising that he does not discuss the similar — although of course not identical — role played by Communist Party Head Doku Zavgayev during the first war, being dismissed from the narrative through the September 1991 revolution with the words that it “effectively ended [his] career”. He is currently Russia’s ambassador to Slovenia.) Most of all, however, Bullough condemns the way Russia has waged war, destroying Grozny and its mostly Russian inhabitants apartment block by apartment block and inflicting torture, rape and death on thousands, in turn provoking the transformation of Chechen troops into terrorists reduced to exploiting vulnerable women as suicide bombers and killing innocent Muscovites out of revenge and cold calculation, as exemplified by the very gripping story of Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, who in the last moment decided not to blow herself up. The final irony is that while for all intents and purposes, Russia has won a military victory, under Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya has de facto almost become independent.

Besides covering the main events of the three conlicts, Bullough also provides a few short excursions to related topics. These include an account of the British mountain expeditions to the Caucasus and the various attempts to scale the Elbrus, which is interesting, but somewhat unrelated to the rest of the book. Of more direct relevance is a very interesting discussion of Russia’s 19th century Caucasus literature. Here the only regret is that Bullough does not mention Lev Tolstoy. His absence is especially frustrating because Bullough provocatively (but otherwise persuasively) argues that Mikhail Lermontov‘s A Hero of Our Time is the only great Caucasus work, and because Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat is based on the eponymous real-life resistance fighter who repeatedly switched allegiance between the Russians and Imam Shamil.

Let Our Fame be Great is not a straightforward history book. Rather, Bullough approaches the subject matter by looking at individual lives, to demonstrate how catastrophic the various conflicts have truly been. To this end, the author has interviewed a large number of people, not staying in the Caucasus but seeking out elderly survivors of Stalin’s deportations in Central Asia, members of the Circassian and Dagestani diasporas in Turkey, Israel and Jordan and more recent Chechen emigrants in Europe, which results in a number of heart-wrenching stories. Among the interviewed are the Chechen Umar Israilov, who was first tortured by Kadyrov’s troops, then became one of his bodyguards, then fled to Vienna and then was murdered — not long after the interview. And the mother of Rasul Kudayev, a former wrestling champion turned Guantanamo detainee, eventualy extradited to Russia and released without trial. After the 2005 Nalchik attack that he was likely not involved in, Kudayev was again arrested by the Russian government — he has not been released since, nor faced trial. Bullough also courageously defends the mystifying case of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the only (known) surviving hostage taker of Beslan, whose claims that he did not have an active part in the operation, and that he did not know of it in advance, may in fact be true — although Bullough is careful to acknowledge that there is no hard evidence either way.

For the events of the Nineteenth Century where there is no one left to interview, Bullough instead carefully investigates the primary written sources available. Both approaches must have required a tremendous amount of work by the author, and the labour was not in vain — they make Let Our Fame be Great a genuinely authorative account. The written sources ultimately cannot rival the intimacy of the interviews, making the tragedies of the Nineteenth Century harder to imagine than the more recent ones. Bullough is not to blame for this, but curiously, it seems to affect himself as well, when he describes the Chechen conflict of the 1990s as “the most brutal war the mountains has ever seen”. The sheer death toll of the Northwest Caucasian Genocide at the very least means that Bullough should have provided an explanation for this claim.

About the only things about Let Our Fame be Great that leave something to be desired are the occasional use of hyperbole, and the fact that the book is structured a bit confusingly. It covers three eras and three groups of peoples, but these don’t completely correspond to each other. In fact, the western and eastern theatres of the 19th century Caucasus wars are relatively self-contained, giving us a total of four components, but these still don’t correspond to the four parts of the book. Moreover, of the four components, one stands relatively apart — the 19th Century war in the Northwest Caucasus, since it ended in genocide. Conversely, Stalin’s deportations and the Chechen conflict organically connect to each other, since the Chechens were one of the deported peoples and this has played a crucial role in their national awakening and desire for independence towards the end of the Soviet period. Moreover, as the second Chechen war fizzled out and transformed into a terrorist conflict motivated more by religion, it has also spread to Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachaya and Balkaria, the other territories affected by the 19th Century war in the Northeast Caucasus and/or Stalin’s deportations.

Ultimately then, Let Our Fame be Great tells two big overarching stories, covering on the one hand the Northwest Caucasian peoples, who were broken in 1864 with some finality, and who best exemplify the philosophy behind the book’s title, and on the other hand the Northeast Caucasian peoples and the Karachay-Balkars, whose conflict with Russia is ongoing to this day. (Inter alia, it is refreshing to read about the Karachay-Balkars, who — undeservedly — of all the peoples of the Caucasus perhaps least capture the imagination, because they only rarely make news headlines and perhaps because they are seen as not very Caucasian, being of Turkic stock, a fate that somehow less affects the Indo-European Armenians and Ossetians.) Since the book is quite long, it might perhaps profitably have been split into two, especially since Bullough makes it clear that his goal is not to give a comprehensive account of all Russian injustice ever in the Caucasus, leaving untold for instance Stalin’s deportation of the Pontic Greeks.

Splitting the book in two would also have left room for some minor expansions in other areas. As it is, Let Our Fame be Great is mostly about the peoples that did not compromise with Russia, but in each case, there were close neighbours that did. While most Northwest Caucasian peoples so bitterly resisted Russian conquest in the 19th Century, the East-Circassian Kabardians mostly acquiesced. This stark difference is especially interesting in the light of the generally accepted view that Circassians are one people divided by Soviet national policy. Moving to the present, Bullough visits the resorts on the Black Sea coast line and concludes that the remaining Circassians have been marginalised and Russified, but this begs for a comparison with present-day Kabarda, where Circassians still form a majority, and with Abkhazia, where for the first time since the 19th century, an independent Northwest Caucasian state has once more become reality. To what extent have they been able to preserve or resuscitate their traditional culture? In the Northeast Caucasus, Chechnya’s rapid descend in the late 1980s and early 1990s towards independence also strongly suggests comparison with neighbouring Ingushetia. Why did it not follow suit, given that its historical path had been roughly similar up until that point, and even formed part of the same Soviet Republic with Chechnya, necessitating a formal split when Chechnya declared independence?

These issues of a more conceptual nature demonstrate the ambitious scope of the project undertaken in Let Our Fame be Great. But the potential avenues not explored in the book do not diminish the worth of the material that is contained in it. Backed up by an impressive amount of research, the moral at the heart of Let Our Fame be Great is simple: Russian military interventions in the last two hundred years have more often than not had horrible consequences. The undesirability of a conclusion like this oftentimes makes people want to ignore it. But Bullough is right: the millions of people affected by smaller and greater tragedies deserve better. Most of all, the modern day inhabitants of the North Caucasus and Russia at large have a moral obligation to be aware of their shared history.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Balkaria, Book reviews, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Circassians, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Karachaya, Russia, Wider Region, , , , , , ,

Ankvab promises compromise on high-rise construction in Sukhum

Last Friday, President Alexander Ankvab addressed the protests that erupted in December (as covered by ApsnyPress and EkhoKavkaza) over the construction of a 14-storey mixed-use building in the Sinop neighbourhood of Sukhum, along the Kodor highway. Opponents of the plan, led by publicist Nadezhda Venediktova, pointed out that a previous convocation of the City Council had imposed a 16 metre limit on new edifices in historic parts of town, which Venediktova has forcefully argued Sinop qualifies as (the neighbourhood was named after the Battle of Sinop, and after the Second World War housed German scientists like Manfred von Ardenne, Gustav Ludwig Hertz and Peter Adolf Thiessen working on the Soviet project to create a nuclear bomb). They called upon the developers of the site to abandon the current plans and construct three 5-storey buildings instead.

The current controversy matches and provides a concrete target for existing anger in Sukhum that the peaceful, historic character of the city is being squandered, mostly through the illegal demolition and anachronistic renovation of historic buildings — although of course it does not help when historic buildings also burn down, like the 1915 Post Office Building in the night of 30 and 31 January 2012.

The issue became sufficiently acute that on 21 December, the Public Chamber organised an inquiry into the matter. In it, City Mayor Alias Labakhua declared that the City Council had not had the authority to limit new buildings to a height of 16 metres.

Now, in his press conference on 18 January, President Ankvab declared that he in general dislikes high-rise buildings, and that he has spoken to the builder, who has agreed to limit the height of the complex to 6 to 8 floors.

In a way, the current episode is typical for Abkhazian politics. When controversy breaks out over some issue, the government will step in and try to take away whatever has aroused the public ire. On the one hand, in cases like the current one, this is undoubtedly a good thing. On the other hand, it cannot compensate for the government’s general weakness in tackling deeper lying problems. In the case at hand, while the developers may have been convinced to scale down their plans, it would have been better if this had happened not so much because the public demand for a 16-metre building limit happens to coincide with the personal preference of the President, but because it had taken the form of a binding piece of legislation.

Filed under: Abkhazia, , , ,

Succession of Chavez also affects Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Reports about the condition of President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez differ widely, and one should be careful not to prematurely declare his days numbered — recall how often Fidel Castro’s imminent death has been announced, and yet still he lives. But Chavez was evidently not fit to be sworn in for his fourth Presidential term on 10 January, and speculation is rife as to who will succeed him. Broadly speaking, there are three scenarios and they have differing consequences for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On paper, the worst-case scenario for Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be if new elections are held and the opposition comes to power, as they may reject Venezuela’s support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a personal project by Chavez. At best, this may mean that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will subsequently be ignored, at worst, the new government could give in to U.S. pressure and ‘withdraw’ its recognition, even though this will involve more than simply signing a document, as Venezuela has ratified treaties and exchanged ambassadors with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other hand, in the less likely event that Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue to receive support by the new government, their recognition can be said to have become properly institutionalised.

If Chavez dies or is legally declared unable to fulfill his duties, and his allies subsequently maintain power, there are two politicians most likely to succeed him: Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Speaker of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello. It is of course impossible to predict what line of policy they would follow, but of the two, Maduro is the better known quantity, since it was under his tenure as Foreign Minister that Venezuela recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The best Abkhazia and South Ossetia can hope for is for Maduro (or Cabello) to actively promote their cause in Latin-America, which Venezuela’s Ambassador Hugo José García Hernández admitted in August has been hampered by Chavez’s illness. Previously high hopes in the region have been left unfulfilled, which means that there is still a lot left to gain. Certain countries, like Cuba, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, seem in principle prepared to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but currently don’t care enough to incur the diplomatic cost involved. Venezuela carries the necessary clout to sway them — much more so than Nicaragua, which recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia first. And once these countries are brought around, it could lower the controversy enough to convince further states to follow in their footsteps, like Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentine.

Filed under: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Venezuela, , ,

Abkhazia to no longer have Prime Ministers?

In his annual end-of-year speech to Parliament, President Alexander Ankvab has proposed the abolition of the posts of Prime Minister and (First) Vice Premier. The announcement does not come completely unexpected, as the large number of ‘leading’ positions in the Abkhazian government has been an irritant for a long time. Currently, Abkhazia has a President, a Vice President, a Prime Minister, a First Vice Premier and two Vice Premiers. In the past, there were even moments when Abkhazia had two First Vice Premiers or four Vice Premiers. Of course, Abkhazia is not unique in this. When Vladimir Putin was Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia had two First Vice Premiers and six additional Vice Premiers. But then Russia is incomparably larger than Abkhazia.

In particular, people have called for the post of Vice Premier to be abolished before. Ankvab took a first small step in this direction by reducing their number from three to two upon his taking office. In contrast, the idea to abolish the post of Prime Minister is new and surprising. Previous suggestions (including by Ankvab himself) had been to abolish the post of Vice President, seen as wholly superfluous. Even if a President dies in office, as happened with Ankvab’s predecessor Sergei Bagapsh, the Vice President is not allowed to take over their term but becomes Acting President while a new President has to be elected within three months. This task could well be carried out by the Prime Minister or the Speaker of Parliament, and this is already likely to happen because if the Vice President wants to participate in the election, they have to in turn transfer Presidential authority while the election is ongoing (during the last election, both Vice President Ankvab and Prime Minister Sergei Shamba participated, so authority passed on to Speaker of Parliament Nugzar Ashuba).

Ankvab now justifies his decision to preserve the position of Vice President by claiming that the Vice President has a popular mandate. However, the validity of this argument is dubious, given that the Vice President is elected on the same ticket as the President and does not, presumably, play a decisive role in the choice of most voters. In addition, the Prime Minister can be given an indirect popular mandate if their position is subject to approval by Parliament — this is the foundation of most (semi-)Parliamentary democracies.

Abkhazia’s combination of both a Vice President and a Prime Minister is surprisingly rare. Within the former Soviet Union and Europe, only Bulgaria also has it. Perhaps the Russian Federation served as inspiration for the drafters of Abkhazia’s constitution, since it had a Vice President until September 1993, although that was not an experience that ended happily and Abkhazia only adopted its constitution in November 1994.

Worldwide, only some 16 countries other than Abkhazia and Bulgaria combine a Vice President and a Prime Minister. Of these, three are communist (China, Vietnam and Laos) and three (former) Ba’athist/Nasserist dictatorships (Egypt, Syria and Iraq), where the proliferation of offices is not really kept in check by their nominal relevance. In two cases, the combination of Vice President and Prime Minister came into being as a result of power-sharing deals after an election crisis (Kenya and Zimbabwe), and in two cases to accommodate the unification of two former countries (Tanzania and Yemen). In two countries (Mauritius, Nepal), the post of Prime Minister was retained and a post of Vice President introduced when the monarchy was abolished. The remaining countries are India, Peru, Uganda and Taiwan.

If Abkhazia now abolishes the position of Prime Minister, it will stand out even further from its neighbours. While it is quite common for American and African countries to have a Vice President but no Prime Minister, in Europe and the former Soviet Union, only Bulgaria has a Vice President and just about every country has a Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen whether and when the change will be implemented. Abkhazian leaders’ adversity to controversial decisions has also meant that the pace of reform has been very slow. The abolition of the post of Prime Minister should require a change in the constitution, which to date has only occurred once, when the term of judges was reduced from lifelong to five years in 1999. However, Ankvab has also called upon Parliament to carry through with another constitutional change already underway, the introduction of a Constitutional Court, and these changes may be bundled. According to the constitution, changes only require a two-thirds majority by Parliament. Nevertheless, the constitutional change of 1999 was subjected to a referendum, and if this will again be the case, it may only happen in 2015, simultaneous with the next Presidential election.

If the post of Prime Minister is really abolished, the question is what becomes of current Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia, one of the most senior politicians still active and a long-time ally of Ankvab. Perhaps he will take over as Vice Presidential candidate from Mikhail Logua in the next election, but it is too early for more than speculation on this matter.

Filed under: Abkhazia, ,

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