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

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: 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

More border fiddling in the Soviet North Caucasus

In my post on the Prigorodny District I mentioned the fact that part of the District had been transferred from Ingushetia to North Ossetia following Stalin’s 1944 expulsion of the ‘guilty’ Ingush people to Central Asia. I’ve found a very useful map of the North Caucasus on Wikipedia (uploaded by the user Kuban Kazak) that juxtaposes the current administrative borders there with the internal borders of the Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic that existed from 1921 to 1924.

Administrative divisions in the North Caucasus in 1921 and in 2009

Administrative divisions in the North Caucasus in 1921 and in 2009

The map shows that part of Ingushetia was indeed transferred to North Ossetia, together with the city of Vladikavkaz, which in 1921 still formed its own administrative entity. In fact Vladikavkaz had been founded by the Russian empire on an Ingush village and it had a sizeable Ingush population until 1944. But Ingushetia in turn has gained most of what used to be the Sunzha Cossack District.

More towards the west, Kabarda (now part of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic) lost some of its territory to Karachaya (now part of the Karachay-Cherkess Republic), but gained some territory off Russia.

Overall, North Ossetia and Chechnya are the only nations that only gained territory, absorbing their current capitals of Vladikavkaz and Grozny and nibbling parts off of the Sunzha Cossack and Russia.

None of these other transferred territories however seems to have caused the Prigorodny District’s level of conflict.

Filed under: Balkaria, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Karachaya, North Ossetia, Russia, Sunzha Cossacks, , , , , , , , , , , ,

North Ossetia and Ingushetia sign agreement over Prigorodny District

Window on Eurasia draws attention to a story which RFE/RL seems not to have covered: on 17 December Taymuraz Mamsurov, President of North Ossetia-Alania, and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, President of Ingushetia, signed an agreement over the Prigorodny District.

The conflict over the Prigorodny District is one of the many conflicts due to Stalin’s meddling with boundaries. In 1944 the Ingush were deported by Stalin to Central Asia as one of the so-called ‘guilty peoples’. The eastern part of the Prigorodny District had been part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR up to that point, but was then transferred to the North-Ossetian ASSR. In 1957 under Khrushchev the Ingush were allowed to return to the Caucasus, but the Prigorodny District was not rehabilitated to the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, even though some Ingush returned there clandestinely.

Then under Glasnost, the Ingush demanded that the Prigorodny District should finally be returned to them, backed by the recently passed Soviet law on territorial rehabilitation. Tensions between Ingush and Ossetians slowly escalated culminating in a week of violence in October and November of 1992 in which some 600 Ingush were killed and some 65,000 expelled, versus just 52 Ossetian deaths and 9,000 Ossetian refugees.

The conlict has not been solved since. The current agreement provides in the return of the Ingush refugees to their homes (and not just to other accomodations within Prigorodny District) in return for the District staying with North-Ossetia. It would indeed be good news if the refugees could really return to their homes. But the fact that this hasn’t received wider coverage may indicate that the settlement is not yet final.

Filed under: Ingushetia, North Ossetia, , , , , , , ,

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