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

Photography: railway stations in Abkhazia

Despite the fact that trains are once again running from Sukhum to Adler, Sochi and Moscow, many railway stations remain abandoned and/or in disrepair and it is possible to walk along the single track.

The slideshow below shows a selection of stations, between Psou at the Russian border and Sukhum. The photos are from 2010 and so the situation may have changed in the meantime.

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Filed under: Abkhazia, Photography, , , ,

Book review: Caucasus by Nicholas Griffin

caucasus - coverCaucasus — In the wake of warriors

Nicholas Griffin

Review, London
August 2001
256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7472-3630-6

(In subsequent years republished with a variety of different subtitles (A Journey, A Journey in the Crucible of Civilisation, A Journey to the Land between Christianity and Islam and Mountain Men and Holy Wars) and different covers (and various combinations of the two) by Review and other publishers (Thomas Dunne Books (and St. Martin’s Press, of which it is an imprint), University of Chicago Press). At one point I thought Nicholas Griffin might have written a whole series of books set in the Caucasus.)

Despite its apparent popularity in the West (as evidenced by its publishing history), I hadn’t heard too much good about Caucasus, yet was willing to be positively surprised. The book is primarily about Imam Shamil, but the chapters tracing his rise and fall are interweaved with the account of a trip the author made to the Caucasus in 1999.

As feared, Caucasus does contain a significant number of gaffes. When stating that in Yerevan “the European influence is obvious”, the first piece of evidence produced to support this is the observation that “everywhere there are people sipping coffee”. Other dubious assertions include that “what brings the lands of the Caucasus above simpler questions like nationalism and self-determination is oil”, that Stalin is the Caucasus’s most famous hero, that it was “only because of Shamil” that the Caucasus hadn’t yet been fully conquered in the 1870s (completely ignoring the war in the Northwest Caucasus), that the Parthians that defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae were ‘nomads’, that “in 1990 […] Armenia invaded the region of Karabagh” and that Zakatala in Azerbaijan is the unofficial capital of Avaria.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing moments however come when Griffin talks about language, characterising Armenian as “the oldest alphabet in the world, entirely phonetic”. And puzzled by the Caucasus’s linguistic diversity, he states that “There are such diverse explanations for the languages of the Caucasus that no single one makes sense”, “In neighbouring villages professors have found Turkic, Indo-European and Caucasian tongues. Quite how this happened no one knows.” and “Germans colonized a small portion of central Georgia. Christianity took root in Ossetian lands, bringing with it scraps of Latin.”

Caucasus should not be disqualified solely on the basis of these examples. Unfortunately, the rest of the book also disappoints. The account of Shamil’s life is at times exciting, but by its nature cannot be more than introductory. The writing suffers from overinterpretation and clichéd language, and Griffin at times verges dangerously close to making Shamil look like a saint, although he at least acknowledges that Shamil too committed atrocities, and does not fail to point out the fact that throughout the Murid wars, civilians were caught between a rock and a hard place. More worryingly — especially in the light of the mistakes illustrated above — there is no way for the reader to assess the extent to which the text is historically accurate. This because the account seems to be partially fictionalised (Griffin had written two novels before Caucasus), but the extent is not stated, and because references are provided extremely sparingly.

All this could still be compensated for if Griffin’s road trip provided any insights into Shamil’s legacy in present day society, or the state of the Caucasus in 1999. Alas, Griffin’s expedition, starting off in Baku, doesn’t make it to Chechnya (understandably), and Dagestan is only reached by one team member, who is sent across the border for two days. The closest Griffin gets to Shamil is when they visit the Georgian estate of Tsinondali, which Shamil famously raided (capturing Princess Varvara Orbeliani, her niece and her French governess, whom he was then able to trade for his son, raised at the Russian court), and when talking to Shamil’s great-great-granddaughter Tamara (whose family story is perhaps the single most interesting element of the book). The general geographic disconnect between Griffin’s journey and Imam Shamil’s legacy reaches a low point when in Armenia the author seems perplexed that Shamil does not occupy a prominent place in the national consciousness.

We also don’t learn too much about the people the travel party interacts with, apart from their general hospitality and its occasional limits. This is mostly because the varying tensions and companionship within the group require too great a share of the author’s attention. Griffin successfully convinces the reader that the expedition itself was deeply memorable for its participants, but the ultimate levity of the various incidents makes their description unmemorable for the reader.

Caucasus may still be enjoyable for individual readers for whom the Caucasus is a new topic, but there is a risk they carry away from it a shallow impression, and the generally high quality of Caucasus literature means there are better alternatives available.

Filed under: Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, , , ,

Book review: The Ghost of Freedom by Charles King

the ghost of freedom - coverThe Ghost of Freedom — A History of the Caucasus

Charles King

Oxford University Press, New York
January 2008
314 pages
ISBN: 978-0-19-517775-6

The Ghost of Freedom is not really a history of the Caucasus, but rather a history of the Caucasus and Russia’s involvement therein since 1800. Moreover, much of the events until the end of the 19th century are described from the Russian perspective.

King’s ambition to provide a general overview of the region invites comparison to Let Our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough and The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal, both published since and recently reviewed here. Luckily (since all three books are well worth reading), the books turn out to be largely complementary — all three cover events not found in the other books. And while Let Our Fame be Great treats the North Caucasus and The Caucasus the South, The Ghost of Freedom is devoted to both parts.

There is not much else to say about The Ghost of Freedom other than the fact that it is a good book. The best way to illustrate its contents is to list some of the most interesting issues and topics that King touches upon:

  • The military logic of the Caucasus wars, in particular life along Russia’s fortified lines in the North Caucasus.
  • The case of Polish soldiers who were sent to the Caucasus as punishment for rising up against the Russian state and who would often desert, either into the mountains or to the Ottoman Empire.
  • Ottoman slavery, in particular how it differed from American slavery, and how it could be preferable to Russian servitude.
  • The appearance of ‘Circassian’ women in American freak shows.
  • The disappearance of the climbing party of W.F. Donkin, Harry Fox and two Swiss guides on the slope of Mount Koshtan, and the subsequent mission sent out to uncover their fate.
  • The coming about of the first detailed accounts of the Caucasus written by Johann Anton Güldenstädt, Julius Heinrich Klaproth and Semyon Bronevsky.
  • The different rises of nationalism in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • The Armenian genocide and contemporaneous massacres of Turks.
  • The first Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani republics that existed between 1918 and 1921.
  • The fate of Caucasian leaders in exile after the Soviet takeover and militancy in the Armenian diaspora.
  • Soviet nationalities policy.
  • The GAI (State Auto Inspectorate) in the (former) Soviet Union.
  • The development of art, literature and scholarship in the Soviet Union.
  • The outbreak of conflicts when the Soviet Union unravelled, including the observations that the international community tolerated one kind of secessionism but not another, and that the decisive factor in the outbreak of war was the fact that unlike the Soviet government, elites on the republican level used force against regional claims to sovereignty.

Perhaps the most important quality of The Ghost of Freedom is the sound judgement King demonstrates in the many controversial issues that pass along. A rare mistake is the suggestion that it was Meliton Kantaria who first planted a Soviet flag on Berlin’s Reichstag (this honour probably belongs to Mikhail Minin) and that a spontaneous photo was taken (it was staged). Lastly, while its dramatic language may appeal more to some than to others, The Ghost of Freedom is also well written.

Filed under: Book reviews, Russia, Wider Region

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