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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, , , , , , ,

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