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

Book review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony

the horse, the wheel, and language - coverThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language — How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

David W. Anthony

Princeton University Press, Princeton
November 2007
566 pages
ISBN: 978-0-691-05887-0

Probably the first great achievement of historical linguistics was the discovery of the Indo-European language family. We now know that Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian and Indic languages all descend from a common source: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Most Indo-Europeanists today think that the speakers of PIE lived in the steppe north of the Black Sea, that the different sub-branches were formed when the speakers of PIE started to spread out around 4000BC, and that this process was fueled by the domestication of the horse.

However, there are alternative theories, the most prominent of which claims that the speakers of PIE lived in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and that the split occurred around 7000BC, propelled by the spread of agriculture. Proponents of both scenarios agree that while many of the sub-families of PIE formed around the same time, one branch split off first: the now extinct Anatolian languages, the best known member of which was Hittite. Either the speakers of Anatolian moved to Anatolia from the steppe, or the remaining speakers of PIE moved out of Anatolia before splitting up into the other branches.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony explains in detail why most Indo-Europeanists favour the first option, using both linguistic and archaeological facts and showing how they reinforce each other (thus demonstrating the benefit of close cooperation between the two disciplines). The initial argument is linguistic. The reconstructed vocabulary of PIE contains terms that indicate that its speakers lived in a steppe environment. More to the point, it contains terms related to horses and chariots. We know from archaeological excavations that the horse was not domesticated until about 4000 BC, and before that it lived in the wild only in the steppes.

Anthony also provides a direct argument against the Anatolian origin-hypothesis. The speakers of Anatolian (attested around 2000BC) appear to have constituted a relatively small elite living among a mass of peoples that spoke non-Indo-European languages, including Hattic (possibly related to the North-West Caucasian languages). This makes sense if they were relatively recent newcomers, but it does not if they were the 5000 year old remainder of the culture that brought agriculture to the region. Furthermore, we know that agriculture came to Anatolia from the Middle East, but there is no trace of Indo-European there.

In themselves, these arguments may not appear insurmountable. But Anthony buttresses them by tracing the spread of Indo-European in the archaeological record, making use of many new excavations from recent years, published in Russian-language literature. In particular, he shows how Indo-European languages could reasonably have spread into Europe without directly replacing the population, through a series of patron-client relationships, in which successive groups of non-Indo-European speakers adopted Indo-European language alongside Indo-European culture and technology. Another highlight is the correspondence between funerary customs described in the Family Books of the Rig Veda, the oldest extant Indo-Iranian literature, and those practiced in archeaological sites of Sintashta and Arkaim, to the south-east of the Ural Mountains.

Anthony’s command of the archaeological literature is impressive, sometimes overwhelmingly so. The middle of the book contains a number of chapters that are filled to the brim with statistics of archaeological finds, alas leaving the reader struggling for guidance as to their significance with respect to his main argument.

The author also gives a good account of Indo-European linguistics, despite not originally being a linguist. There is a quibble to be had with his Indo-European language tree, which is unbalanced: very specific in some branches (Germanic, Slavic, Celtic), very coarse and incomplete in others (Romance, Greek, Armenian, Indo-Iranian). There is one moment of confusion when he suggests that there exists an empirical question (the ‘Indo-Anatolian hypothesis’) as to whether perhaps Anatolian should be considered a sister-language to PIE, rather than its eldest daughter. But this is purely a matter of definition: do we define PIE as the most recent common ancestor of the Indo-European languages with or without Anatolian? In either case there is a stage of PIE before and a stage after the split of Anatolian, and both stages are relevant. There may well be a real linguistic issue here but Anthony fails to make clear what it is.

Essentially, The Horse, the Wheel and Language is one long argument to substantiate the steppe-origin of Indo-European. What leaves most to be desired is that more time is not spent on competing explanations of the facts as Anthony presents them. It would have been satisfying to be informed at various junctions of the narrative whether alternative accounts exist at all, and if so, why they are to be discarded. That said, Anthony has succeeded in constructing a convincing history of the Indo-European languages and peoples, which is a great accomplishment. In particular, he shows how linguistic knowledge can open up prehistory, allowing us to learn about the history of peoples before it is written down.

Filed under: Book reviews, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Wider Region, , , ,

Book review: Black Sea by Neal Ascherson

black sea - coverBlack Sea — The Birth Place of Civilisation and Barbarism

Neal Ascherson

first edition:

Jonathan Cape, London
June 1995
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-224-04102-7

second edition:

Vintage Books, London
October 2007
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-099-52046-7

Black Sea is a wonderful book. Not a conventional history that chronologically works its way through the centuries up until the present day, but a fragmentary collection of people, peoples and historic episodes, interspersed with accounts of visits on the ground by the author.

To say that the Black Sea is the main character in these stories would be a cliché, and not a very useful one. Rather, the common theme that Ascherson investigates is the question of national identity, of national belonging.

Black Sea covers such diverse subjects as Crimea and the (mostly tragic) fate of its Goths, Karaites and Tatars, 19th century Odessa, the Polish aristocracy’s belief that it descended from Sarmatian invaders (Sarmatism), Adam Mickiewicz and other Polish intellectuals who dreamt of restoring Poland’s independence, Wolfgang Feuerstein’s attempts to emancipate the Laz people and Abkhazia’s struggle for independence. It starts and ends with the Black Sea’s ecology.

Ascherson’s personal experiences include the sudden, chilling death of a handicapped girl during a nightly bus journey on the Turkish coast and a family reunion of descendents of Mikhail Lermontov, who did not really have a family.

With so much diversity, the reader could find themselves stuck in a topic of lesser interest — which they could easily skip.

Perhaps the largest part of Black Sea is devoted to the interaction of Greek colonists and Iranian steppe peoples (Scythians and Sarmatians, ancestors of today’s Ossetians) that started 3000 years ago, and that, Ascherson argues, gave birth to the contrast between civilisation and barbarism in the European intellectual tradition. A more superficial work would have contented itself with highlighting the many differences between Greeks and Iranians. Ascherson instead considers to what extent individual identities were actually fluid, finding that in particular cases (the Bosporan Kingdom) cultural distinctions were all but overcome.

But Ascherson is careful not to romanticise the past, arguing that the peoples of the Black Sea have in fact always lived together in distrust, and that they cannot serve as a multi-cultural ideal. However, he also points out that when violence erupts, it is often not instigated by the communities themselves, but by conationals living in far-away metropolitan centres. Thus, the sense of Greek ‘civilised’ superiority was not developed by the Ionian settlers who lived among Iranian ‘barbarians’, but by the famous Greek playwrights of Athens.

Ascherson also very keenly analyses the workings of diaspora identity, pointing out that for the most part, identifying as part of a diaspora is easy, as one can “remain in the relative comforts of Chicago, New York or Melbourne with the extra sentimental empowerment of a second passport and a flag to carry on the old country’s independence day parade”, while “the cultural gap between diaspora and ‘homeland’ coud widen very rapidly indeed”. But under exceptional circumstances, “these cheques on the Bank of Symbolism are presented for payment”, and diaspora members make use of their identity, like the Pontic Greeks, who “return home”, and “by ‘return home’ […] mean modern Greece”. Ascherson rightly notes that “even Zionist Jews cannot match the extravagance of this statement, as a remark about history”, since their ancestors emigrated almost three thousand years ago, from the Ionian coast (in modern-day Turkey). “And yet now their descendents head for Athens or Salonica as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

It is striking how straightforwardly the processes at work here seem to translate to other communities. For years, nothing seemed to indicate that more than a handful of the small Abkhazian diaspora in Syria would ever heed the Abkhazian government’s call to repatriate. Then came the Syrian civil war, and last year hundreds have ‘returned home’.

Ultimately, what makes the book such a pleasure to read is Ascherson’s learnedness and his well-written prose. The former manifests itself as a treasure trove of stories embedded in a nuanced narrative, the latter can best be demonstrated by way of more citation.

On Ascherson’s inadvertent witnessing, in the Crimean night, of Mikhail Gorbachev’s detention during the failed coup of August 1991 (p13):

What I had seen was the conspirators’ candle, the spark carried through the night by men who supposed that they were reviving the revolution and saving the Soviet Union. Instead, they lit a fire which destroyed everything they honoured.

On Stalin’s repression of the academic discipline of archaeology (p76):

Archeology tunnels into the deep foundations on which the arrogance of civilisations and revolutions rests. When the tunnellers enter foundations which should be rock but are merely sand, the floors of the state apartments high above them begin to tremble.

On the initiative by Don Cossacks to occupy a pre-revolutionary Cossack industrialist’s city mansion and present it to his modern-day descendent (p105):

Madame Nathalie Fedorovsky was born in Belgium, raised in Katanga and now dwells in Roissy, near Paris. But her Russian is perfect. More important, this wise and polished lady possesses a French sense of proportion. She was aware of all the ironies: that Cossack male machismo should be constructing a cult round a woman; that pre-capitalist steppe horsemen should be making a shrine out of an industrialist’s city mansion. She walked through the streets of Rostov like a queen, with a small, fluttering retinue. Madame Fedorovsky was not to be manipulated.

On the ideology by the Polish nobility that it descended from Sarmatians (p234):

At the end of the eighteenth century, Sarmatism collapsed under its own stupidity. But in its fall, it also destroyed Poland itself, and the independence for which the nobility had fought so fiercely for so many centuries.

Only very rarely does Ascherson’s approach misfire, when introducing rather vaguely the thesis of the artist Krysztof Wodiczko on modern-day migration, without establishing its relevancy, or when introducing the Laz with a description that is overly romantic. Occasionally, an exceptional statement ought to have been supported by more details or references, such as the claim that a ring found near the mouth of the Danube belongs to the same Scythian prince Scyles who prominently features in a story by Herodotos, or the story that in October 1993, 3000 Ussuri Cossacks spontaneously began to patrol the Russian border with China. In one case, Ascherson is simply mistaken, namely when he states that the Empire of Trebizond was founded when the son of the Roman Emperor, Alexios Komenos, fled the Crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople. (In reality, Alexios Komnenos was the grandson of a previous Emperor, grew up at the court of his aunt, Queen Tamar of Georgia, after his grandfather was deposed and his father blinded, and declared himself Emperor (of the whole empire, but from Trebizond) a few months before the Crusaders entered Constantinople. That event meant that his claim for the throne was never resolved through civil war, but rather led to the establishment of a separate empire in Trebizond.)

While Black Sea was originally written just after the fall of the Soviet Union, a second edition has been published in 2007. The differences are relatively minor, and the fact that so little needed to be updated is a testimony to its lasting relevance. The one exception is the welcome addition of an afterword on the impact of post-communist transition on the state of the Black Sea’s ecology. The second edition of Black Sea also comes with a new, beautiful cover, although sadly it has only been published in pocket format (although a hard cover edition has since been released by the Folio Society, with yet another cover).

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Crimea, Lazistan, Poland, Pontic Greece, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Wider Region

Book review: Chechnya Diary by Thomas Goltz

chechnya diary - coverChechnya Diary — A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya

Thomas Goltz

Thomas Dunne Books, New York
October 2003
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-312-26874-9

The village of Samashki was the site of a massacre during the first Chechen war in which more than hundred residents were executed by Russian forces. Chechnya Diary is written around this event. The author, Thomas Goltz, was in Samashki in the weeks before the massacre to film a freelance report on the ‘Chechen spirit’, and documented the fighting that preceded it.

Still, Chechnya Diary is not so much a book about the Samashki massacre, but rather a book about Goltz’s report of the Samashki massacre and everything that preceded and followed it. It is a breathtaking account of war reporting. (Goltz has documented his prior experiences elsewhere in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan Diary and Georgia Diary.)

Throughout the book, Goltz is brutally honest, most of all about his own failings. That while he doesn’t condone their acts of killing, he sympathises with the volunteer fighters, that they have become his friends. That he is courting death, that he is often senselessly risking his life, his primary concern being merely to obtain spectacular shots. And Goltz admits that he is consciously blurring the lines between observation and participation — this is the declared theme of the book, dedicated to the Heisenberg principle.

We do learn things about the Chechen conflict itself, and about Samashki in particular. For instance, the tension stemming from the fact that while Chechen resistance was fueled by a desire to protect traditional society and morality (adat), recently arrived Chechens from the diaspora in Central Asia would at the same time hold a more hardline position regarding armed resistance against and cooperation with Russian authorities and put less value in adat and be generally more modern than local Chechens. In general, Goltz does his best to set the record straight whenever his observations on the ground belie contemporaneous media reports. Most importantly perhaps, he tries to do justice to the Chechens he meets, whether or not they pick up arms. The Chechen wars were largely fought by ordinary villagers with families, who would revert to being just that.

Nevertheless, Goltz somehow does not manage to convey the scale of the Samashki massacre implied by the number of dead. Here the book’s main strength — focusing on Goltz’s personal experiences — is also its principal weakness. Goltz was not present during the worst violence, and most of his friends and acquaintances survive, the fighters having retreated into the forest as a precondition from the Russian army for the ‘peaceful surrender’ of the town.

Chechnya Diary also contains some more minor omissions. Goltz speculates several times whether he might not be killed by either Russian or Chechen forces. In fact, when he returns to Samashki after the first war, his most urgent task is to convince people that he is not a spy, that his filming had not been reconnaissance work for the Russians. It is strange then that he does not mention Nadezhda Chaikova, who died under similar circumstances and who had also filmed in Samashki.

Likewise, when Goltz returns to Samashki, he finds that the commander of the local Chechen forces, Hussein — whose guest he had been — has been forced into exile back to his native village in Kazakhstan. Goltz is initially told that this is because the withdrawal of the fighters left the town defenceless before the Russian onslaught, but then hears that the real reason is that Hussein did not participate in the successful defence of Samashki when the Russians tried to conquer it a second time in March 1996. What is curious is that when Goltz visits Hussein in Kazakhstan, he does not address this rather incongruous development.

That being said, these open ends do not change the fact that Chechnya Diary is both an essential piece of war reporting and an important account of one of the lowest points of the first Chechen war.

Filed under: Book reviews, Chechnya, Media, Russia, ,

Book review: Kleine landjes by Jelle Brandt Corstius

kleine landjes - cover2Kleine landjes — Berichten uit de Kaukasus

Jelle Brandt Corstius

Prometheus, Amsterdam
February 2009
170 pages
ISBN: 978-90-446-1311-7

Kleine landjes is an account of a series of trips made by the Dutch journalist Jelle Brandt Corstius, generally stationed in Moscow, to Chechnya, Kalmykia, Abkhazia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Ossetia. It is not really an introduction to the Caucasus, in fact one learns more about Russia — police corruption, bureaucracy, drinking culture — than about these republics. (Although the particular selection is original and lends credence to Corstius’s professed love for small countries.)

The reasons for this are fourfold. First, Corstius intersperses his account with anecdotes from Moscow, and some of the action takes place in neighbouring Russian areas like Sochi.

Second, Corstius is not in the region to report on any dramatic events. The exception is his trip to South Ossetia shortly after the August 2008 War and his foray to some neighbouring Georgian villages, and this is indeed the most memoral part of the book.

Third, the excursions to the five republics are very short affairs, which only allow for superficial impressions and themes — hospitality, the impossibility of each of the languages and bride kidnapping. Corstius admits as much when he declares that a freelance journalist has no time to spend several days at a TBC-clinic in Abkhazia.

And fourth, Corstius’s semi-naive, semi-rebellious, deadpan approach succeeds in conveying to the reader the many incongruities a western visitor is faced with, but it fails to uncover some deeper connections. For instance, when visiting a community of old-believers near Sochi, Corstius remarks that some Caucasian peoples were deported from the region in the 19th Century, without mentioning the Abkhaz — which he has just before visited (the deportations do receive a little bit more exposition when he later visits the Cherkess). In another instance, the author mentions the mysterious Obozijnen settled throughout Karachay-Cherkessia. He probably means the Abazins, which are not all that mysterious (the Abazins are closely related to the Abkhaz).

Another downside to Corstius’s colourful style is that it leads to some assessments that are trite or even false, such as the assertions that time in the Caucasus has stood still since the middle ages, that pre-Soviet Russian painting was stuck in 1850 “well before impressionism”, that Garri Kasparov is an evil genius because Eduard Limonov and the National Bolshevik Party are part of his broad opposition coalition and that it is no surprise that the region has seen a lot of fighting given the abundance of oil and gas — about the only time that has ever been the reason for a war in the Caucasus was probably when Hitler tried to conquer his way to Baku — and Stalingrad took the brunt of that charge.

The key observation to make is that Corstius’s trips to the Caucasus were not undertaken for the purpose of writing Kleine landjes, but that the book serves as a convenient bundling of these episodes after the fact. One should read Kleine landjes then for Corstius’s adventures, including a drive over the Kalmukkian steppe, his attempts to escape from his minders in Grozny and talking himself onto a fully-booked plane to Moscow due to depart within 20 minutes — especially if one enjoys his work.

Lastly, Corstius has put up a number of short videos on his website of episodes throughout the book (noted with an *), a nice little addition which helps bring to life some of the characters he encounters.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Kalmykia, Karachaya, North Ossetia, Russia, South Ossetia

Book review: Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus by Georgi M. Derluguian

bourdieu's secret admirer in the caucasus - coverBourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus — A World-System Biography

Georgi M. Derluguian

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
July 2005
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-14282-1

A description of Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus must begin with an explanation of its somewhat unpractical, yet intriguing title. The admirer in question is Yuri Shanibov, or as he was known in his youth and again briefly during post-communist transition, Musa Shanib. Derluguian describes how when he first meets Shanibov during a banquet in 1997, he by accident discovers — upon uttering the phrase cultural field — that Shanibov is not just a Kabardian nationalist leader and a Professor of Sociology, but also a profound admirer of the great French sociologist Bourdieu.

As the subtitle indicates, the book gives the life story of Shanibov, but only as part of a larger sociological analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two main questions that Derluguian aims to answer are Why was the Soviet project abandoned? (or equivalently, Why in 1988–1991, why not earlier (around 1968) or later?) and Why did the end of the Soviet project lead to such different outcomes in different places?

Derluguian’s answers to these questions can be summarised as follows. de-Stalinisation under Nikita Khrushchev was embraced by nomenklatura members because it meant they no longer had to fear for their personal security, indeed, their life. But when Khrushchev started to fight corruption too forcefully, aided by junior nomenklatura members like Shanibov looking for opportunities to fill senior positions, now that the cadres were no longer periodically being purged, the upper nomenklatura stepped in and removed him from power, replacing him with one of their own, Leonid Brezhnev. Derluguian surmises that if not for this coup, the room for experimentation under Khrushchev would have led to an analogue of the Prague spring, although he admits he is sceptical whether the resulting revolution would have succeeded.

With the help of the increased revenue of petrodollars following the 1970s oil crises, corruption became institutionalised under Brezhnev and dissatisfaction was bought off with subsidised consumer goods. Derluguian argues that contrary to the pervasive image of the Soviet Union as an all-powerful totalitarian state, this essentially made the nomenklatura unaccountable, and local party heads all but irreplaceable, deriving their power from local patronage networks. Even in cases when party bosses were replaced, their successors would prove just as corrupt. The low quality of consumer goods was another effect of Brezhnev-era accommodation. Workers could not in general achieve better wages and working conditions through strikes, but they would also not be fired, and so resorted to putting in less effort. In general, Derluguian makes the point that the Soviet Union did not lack the economic capacity to keep up with the capitalist west, but that the allocation of resources was woefully inadequate.

When structural problems became so great that the top of the communist party under Mikhail Gorbachev did undertake serious systemic reform, it could not rely on the nomenklatura, but had to engender a revolution from below. This revolution then quickly derailed, in large part because the freedom of Glasnost was quickly employed to voice nationalist concerns. Many of these concerns hailed back to the time when a particular territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union, but the strongly territorial structural make-up of the Soviet Union served as an essential catalyst in their coming to the fore. Besides being in economic competition, the different national territories also each possessed their own elites, for while the Soviet Union managed in many ways to transcend the national, intellectuals in the humanities in particular were constrained to their territory by the nature of their education, and the patronage systems that governed economic life further penalised mobility into territories where a person had no contacts. Some nationalist causes, like those of the Armenians and Azeris, were incompatible and clashed, reinforcing each other in the process. These were particularly difficult for the Soviet leadership to appease, since any compromise decision would keep both sides unhappy. The rising tide of nationalism could in principle have been dealt with through a combination of forceful suppression and economic hand-outs, but these were exactly the tools that the reformist leadership intended to no longer employ. Instead, the crisis was deepened by the shortages caused by the economic reform of perestroika.

In order to explain the different outcomes of nationalist revolutions in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan (chaos) and the Baltic States (liberal democracy), Derluguian employs the concept of the social class. Broadly speaking, Soviet society consisted of three classes relevant for his analysis. The nomenklatura formed the Soviet bureaucracy, the ‘ruling class’. The proletariat consisted of everyone else whose primary income was the wage they received from the Soviet State. One of the great achievements of the Soviet project was to proletarianise almost all of society, ranging from professors to farmers. Nevertheless, there were still those who came by or at least supplemented their income through other means, the sub-proletariat. This class was relatively large in the sub-tropical Caucasus, where favourable agricultural conditions allowed for independent income both directly through family plots and indirectly, through a blossoming black market. Derluguian also points out that under Brezhnev, perhaps one in six Soviet males spent time in prison, a figure even higher in the Caucasus, and that prison thus became the central socialising institution for the sub-proletariat. In the industrialised Baltic states, the revolution proceeded orderly because it was supported by a highly educated and liberal proletariat, and because the nomenklatura was relatively competent, accepting regime change without too much resistance, while in the agricultural Caucasus, the proletariat was weak, the nomenklatura much more corrupt and the sub-proletariat strong, inducing nationalist leaders to mobilise the latter.

Nationalist revolutions did not occur everywhere. In some places, like Central Asia, intellectuals were so weak that the nomenklatura could easily re-assert itself, symbolically adopting a few outward attributes of nationalism (although, in Tajikistan, only after a lengthy civil war). In many autonomous republics, like Kabarda, nationalist groups did mobilise, but not rapidly enough. By the time that they would have been able to take power, the Russian government had already regained enough strength to allow the local nomenklatura to hold on to power. Moreover, when the pressure reached its highest point, Georgia invaded Abkhazia, provoking great sympathy for the latter among North Caucasian nationalists. (Derluguian points out that the war in Abkhazia was for North Caucasian nationalists what the Spanish civil war was for the western left or the war in Afghanistan for Islamists.) The leaders of the North Caucasian republics soon realised that it was in their own best interest not to prevent young men eager to take up arms from crossing the border with Abkhazia.

In Chechnya, however, the nationalist opposition did mobilise quickly enough to overthrow the communist elite. The driving force behind this mobilisation was the national trauma of Stalinist deportation, but it was able to proceed so fast also because the Chechen elite was not entrenched in and thus had no stake in existing bureaucratic structures, since after return from exile, Chechens had systematically been excluded from the ranks of nomenklatura.

What about the Ingush, who shared the trauma of deportation with the Chechens, but opted to remain with Russia, splitting the Checheno-Ingush republic? Appearances are deceiving, because this act of separation was in fact a nationalist revolution of sorts, of more radical local leaders against the conservative Ingush elite in Grozny, motivated by the fear of becoming a minority in independent Checheno-Ingushetia, and by the desire to regain the Prigorodny District, including half of Vladikavkaz, a territory that had been Ingush before the deportation but which remained with North-Ossetia even after the Ingush return from exile. The struggle to achieve this escalated into a short but bloody war, which the Ingush lost, burying with it the nationalist spirit.

The Ingush pattern of counter-mobilisation in reaction to the Chechen nationalist revolution was replicated elsewhere. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia — presumably more confident about its own independence than Chechnya — reacted with war, which it lost. In Kabardino-Balkaria, where the Balkar minority lost its representatives in the first competitive elections, no war broke out, because the Kabardian revolution itself failed, and because the Kabardian nomenklatura, which thus stayed in power, reached a power-sharing agreement with the Balkars, achieving in effect a return to the Soviet status quo.

Finally, Derluguian leaves some room for the influence of individual leaders. One additional reason why the nationalist opposition mobilised quicker in Chechnya than in Kabarda was probably that Jokhar Dudayev was simply more radical than the Kabardian national leaders. In Adjara, Derluguian goes so far as to credit Aslan Abashidze with a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the post-Communist transition. At first glance it might seem clear that the separate status Adjara was awarded in the Soviet Union should not impact on Adjarans’ self-identification as Georgians, albeit Muslim Georgians. But Derluguian points out that this outcome was in fact not so obvious, and that radical Georgian nationalists, emphasising the Christian identity of Georgia and taking over control of the economy, were quickly alienating large parts of Adjara, pushing it on the way of Bosnia. Abashidze managed to subdue these nationalists and appease the local elite, while not resisting Adjara’s entry into the new Georgian state, at least formally.

Derluguian’s account convincingly brings together structural conditions and historically accidental developments. Inevitably, however, some questions remain unanswered. For instance, why did the Ingush and Chechens not share a common national project, like the Georgians and Mingrelians, and even the Circassians, spread out over several Soviet republics? Was there Karachay independist mobilisation like in Chechnya, which one might expect given that the Karachay shared with the Chechens the trauma of deportation, and the privilege of constituting the largest non-Russian group in their republic (unlike the Ingush and Balkars)? There is also something unsatisfactory about the binary division between the outcomes in the Baltic states on the one hand and in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan on the other. What about Armenia, Abkhazia, Belarus and the Ukraine? They seem to exemplify a middle way, where nationalists and members of the nomenklatura did come to an arrangement, but which ended up short of liberal democracy. Perhaps the answer lies in the nature and relative strength of the local nomenklatura.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus successfully supplements a ‘journalistic’ account of conflict with a proper scientific apparatus. But Derluguian also explicitly positions the book as a contribution to the field of sociology. The theoretical discussion, concentrated in Chapter 2, is rather dense for the layperson, and regardless of its merits, feels a bit overblown, considering that the most important outcomes for the case at hand seem to be the insight that an analysis should combine long-term structural developments with short-term historical accidents, the concept of social capital and the realisation that the Soviet Union had a sub-proletariat that played a crucial role during the collapse of communism. The sociological charts at the back of the book are somewhat superfluous, as they require a proper understanding of the text to be themselves understood and don’t add much new information. At best, they may help some readers recall the essence of Derluguian’s arguments.

The book contains a few minor details that are somewhat problematic. When the author mentions that before or during the Abkhazian war a number of mosques had been built by volunteers from the Middle East that were subsequently abandoned and even in some cases blown up, some more specification or references would have been welcome. In another instance, Derluguian describes how Aslan Abashidze shot the nationalist leader of Adjara, while he was at the time his deputy, but accounts elsewhere suggest that the person shot — Nodar Imnadze — was in fact Abashidze’s Deputy, Abashidze himself having been appointed leader of Adjara by Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Nonetheless, the overall judgement must be that the reader profits tremendously from Derluguian’s personal experience in the region, and the many notes and references invite follow-up reading.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus is also beautifully published — although only the paperback edition features the cover image of Shanibov on a green background advertised online — elegantly written and virtually free from typographical mistakes. Most importantly, while it is a difficult book, it is well worth the effort, since it succeeds to a very large extent in exposing the logic behind not just the descend into chaos in the early 1990s Caucasus, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in general.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Balkaria, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Russia, Wider Region, , , ,

Book review: Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets

eight pieces of empire - coverEight Pieces of Empire — A 20-Year Journey through the Soviet Collapse

Lawrence Scott Sheets

Crown Publishers, New York
November 2011
336 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-39582-5

The publication of Eight Pieces of Empire is good news, because Lawrence Scott Sheets — currently South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group — is one of the few Caucasus journalists deployed on the ground during the conflicts of the early nineties. Unlike his close colleague Thomas Goltz, Sheets has decided not to issue separate monographs for each conflict area — Eight Pieces of Empire is Sheet’s memoire of the whole of his reporting days.

As the title makes clear, Eight Pieces of Empire is also an overview of the fall-out of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The chapters cover the following ground:

  • Saint-Petersburg in 1989 to 1991, the coming apart of Soviet society
  • Early 1990s Georgia and the war with Abkhazia
  • Early 1990s Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • The two Chechen wars
  • The reburial of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family; the conversion of (former) security service members to Christianity
  • Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in late 2001
  • Eduard Shevardnadze during the Rose Revolution; a visit to the Ultas of Sakhalin; current day residents of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl; the Beslan hostage crisis

This amounts to seven chapters, and it is not immediately clear why the title speaks of eight pieces (the number of territories covered is actually greater than eight).

It is possible that Sheets considers himself to be the eighth piece. Throughout the book, the number of corpses accumulates steadily, some those of Sheet’s friends. Sheets more or less became a war reporter by accident, and in a moving passage at the very end of the last chapter, he expresses the damage inflicted upon himself due to his work, comparing the process to the sustained exposure over a long period to low-level radiation. This is the Faustic pact of war reporting: the most gripping parts of the book are those where Sheets is most deeply involved himself — besieged Sukhum, Beslan, and especially the shocking, surreal and deeply intense chapter on Chechnya.

Eight Pieces of Empire gives neither a full overview of the unraveling of the Soviet Union, nor of Sheets’s work — he alludes to several events he covered as a journalist that are not included in the book, like the Orange Revolution and the hostage crisis in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre. This is a pity for the mere reason that Sheets would surely have had sensible things to say about them. But on the premise that Eight Pieces of Empire should cover precisely those events that Sheets can bring a unique perspective to, the selection of episodes may have been exactly right.

Thus the book includes the final days of the Georgian army in Sukhum before the Abkhaz reconquest in September 1993. Sheets even has the tenacity to return to Sukhum via Russia mere days later, to witness the full-scale looting then underway. In February 2004, he is present during the handover of Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s body to a Chechen delegation taking it for reburial in Grozny, catching a last glimpse when the coffin is briefly opened for the purpose of double checking the corpse’s identity. Sheets is also in the Presidential Office of Chechnya in November 1994, when TASS reports that Grozny has fallen to the opposition and that the same Presidential office is on fire. He is then connected by phone by Movladi Udugev to President Jokar Dudayev, who is sitting at home, eating borscht prepared by his wife. And Sheets is in Mazar-i-Sharif at the time of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi in November 2001, the prison uprising with the first American casualty of the Afghan War, which ended in the massacre of a couple of hundred Taliban prisoners.

Originality is also the factor that warrants the inclusion of the more tranquil episodes: Sheets’s experience in late-Perestroika Leningrad, his investigation into ‘virginity reparation’ doctors in early 1990s Georgia, and his visits to the Ultas of Sakhalin, whose traditional livelihood of reindeer herding has become unprofitable after the end of communism, and to the inhabitants of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, for whom resettlement is a worse fate than exposure to relatively low levels of radiation.

All in all, Eight Pieces of Empire recalls Vladimir Putin’s infamous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. It has rightfully been criticised, because, well, WWII and all that. And WWI. Not to mention communist terror the world over. Moreover — popular sentiments in the region notwithstanding — the consensus says that it is a good thing that the Soviet Union no longer exists. But while that in itself may be true, what Eight Pieces of Empire shows is that the collapse of the Soviet Union — the way it played out — really was a tragedy in many different ways.

Eight Pieces of Empire is not a comprehensive historical account of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it does combine a thoroughly interesting and moving personal story with an invaluable insight into the situation on the ground during a number of key moments.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, North Ossetia, Russia, Sakhalin, Ukraine, Uzbekistan

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

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, , , , , , ,

Book review: The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal

the caucasus (de waal) - coverThe Caucasus — an introduction

Thomas de Waal

Oxford University Press, New York
August 2010
272 pages
ISBN: 978-0-1953-9976-9

It is always possible to find fault with a book if only one makes an effort. In the case of The Caucasus, Thomas de Waal’s new book, the most serious issue thus revealed is an off-hand remark about Abkhazia’s 2004 Presidential election. The author states that this “did not involve its Georgian population”, which is inaccurate, because unlike in the later elections of 2009 and 2011, the Georgian residents of the Gali District actually did participate. The reason why this is even worth bringing up here is that in the ensuing post-election crisis, the question whether their participation — without holding Abkhazian citizenship — was constitutional constituted the principal legal challenge against the narrow victory of opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh. Moreover, it is probably not an exageration to say that he would not have won without the Georgian vote.

If pressed further, one quickly enters the realm of the trivial, which to bring up would not do The Caucasus justice. In fact, throughout the book, Thomas de Waal’s extensive knowledge of the region is apparent as he lays connections and interjects delightful bits of extra information, like the wonderful anecdote that one member of the Georgian Mkhedrioni described it as a ‘paramilitary charity organisation’.

The book can be said to consist of two parts. The first three chapters give a very good overview of the history of the South Caucasus — the first chapter is devoted to the pre-Russian period and the development of the regions’ major religions and nations, the second to the period that the South Caucasus formed part of the Russian Empire and the third to the Soviet period. The second part of the book covers political developments since the unravelling of the Soviet Union, with two chapters on Georgia and its conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a chapter covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and a chapter about Energy politics.

Specific topics as diverse as wine, Rustaveli Avenue and Baku Jazz are fleshed out in dedicated sections throughout the main text. Controversial subjects like the Armenian Genocide, Stalin and the August 2008 War are treated deftly and with a lot of nuance. Furthermore, De Waal demonstrates that after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union was not the totalitarian, uniform dictatorship it is commonly believed to have been, as street protests were not uncommon and local governments did in fact determine local policy, with nationalism playing a significant role — historians propagated their nation’s version of history and thousands of people migrated — Armenians from Tbilisi to Armenia, Azeri from Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Overall, there are only two minor things left to remark, which Thomas de Waal may have had no control over. Firstly, the title, which is too general (and incidentally, exactly identical — subtitle included — to the October 2009 book by Frederik Coene reviewed earlier), because Thomas de Waal has limited himself to the history and the politics of the South Caucasus — a legitimate choice in itself. Even if simplicity was the primary aim behind the title, one could have simply chosen The South Caucasus — An Introduction.

Secondly, the book contains a number of small editorial mistakes. Frankly, this comes off as unprofessional for what is a major publication. Curiously, the mistakes start to appear only in the fourth chapter, as if error-checking had stopped there.

Neither of these issues should distract from the fact that The Caucasus is a wonderful book, which confirms Thomas de Waal’s stature as a leading expert on the region.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh, Russia, South Ossetia, Wider Region, , , , ,

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