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

Proposal: compromise in Crimea

How do you solve a problem like Crimea? The optimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, that the sanctions are right and that the West should continue putting pressure on Russia until it grudgingly relents and returns Crimea to Ukraine. The pessimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, but that this is seemingly what Crimeans want and that Russia won’t return Crimea to Ukraine, so we had best — grudgingly — accept it.

I believe there might be room for compromise.

Crimea has never been very Ukrainian. As Russians like to point out, it only became part of Ukraine by personal fiat of Khrushchev and most of its inhabitants don’t identify as Ukrainian. In this light, proclamations of Crimea as Ukrainian soil that must be restored ring hollow.

On the other hand, Russia’s campaign to frame Crimea as quintessentially Russian is imperialistic and colonial. If Crimea has a Russian majority now, then only because of successive waves of ethnic cleansing of its Tatar (and Jewish) population by the Tsars, Stalin, Hitler and again Stalin. Since annexation, Russia has suppressed the rights of anyone who disagrees with its Russianness, including most of the remaining Tatars.

Crimea is not just Ukrainian, not just Russian, and first and foremost Crimean. Therefore, the West should offer to recognise Crimea as an independent state and lift sanctions, if it adopts a constitution that enshrines power sharing between Tatars and Russians on all levels, as well as protection of Ukraine’s cultural and economic interests. In addition, this agreement should be contingent on Russia’s active cooperation towards the reintegration of the Donbass into Ukraine.

Both sides would profit from this compromise. Resolving the Donbass conflict is Ukraine’s principal medium-term concern. Crimea would become less of a financial burden for Russia, while it would retain a degree of control, allowing it to keep its naval base in Sevastopol. Both sides would be able to present Crimean independence as partial vindication.

Filed under: Crimea, Donbass, Russia, Ukraine,

Circassian returnees evicted from Russia

Last month, Liz Fuller reported that federal authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria have started evicting Circassian returnees from Turkey who don’t possess Russian citizenship. The immediate cause seems to be Russia’s present conflict with Turkey, but the measure is consistent with Russia’s resistance towards the return of descendants of those Circassians it expulsed in the nineteenth century — the survivors of the Circassian genocide.

Allowing members of the diaspora to return to Circassia would be historically just. Instead, while Russia encourages Russian expatriates to return to Russia by offering citizenship and financial reward, it has excluded the North Caucasus from this programme.

Even though there are three (partially) Circassian republics in the Russian Federation, these have little leeway for independent policy and no control over visas and residence permits. In particular, Circassians in Russia are weakest precisely in those regions to which most Circassians would ideally return: the lands which were most thoroughly emptied of Circassians in the nineteenth century.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, time can be said to be on the Circassians’ side. Reflecting trends throughout the North-Caucasus, the percentage of Kabardin has increased from 48.2% to 57.0% between 1989 and 2010, while the percentage of Russians has fallen from 31.9% to 22.5%. But Kabarda largely escaped the Circassian genocide, since it had already submitted itself to the Russian Empire at the time.

In contrast, in Adygea, the percentage of Adyge has also increased but was still only 24.3% in 2010 (up from 22.1% in 1989), with Russians a comfortable majority at 61.5% (down from 68.0%). This means that Russia could very easily sweep aside Adygea’s leadership. It would in all likelihood use the occasion to merge Adygea into Krasnodar Krai, which completely surrounds it, and where Circassians constitute less than 1% of the population. This would place the Adyge into a situation akin to that of the Tatars in Crimea.

Krasnodar Krai, where most of the diaspora originates from, remains the land where a Circassian renaissance is most distant.

Filed under: Adygea, Circassians, Kabarda, Krasnodar Krai, Russia,

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, , , ,

Reports of Abkhazia’s impending annexation are exaggerated

According to the most spurious headlines, Abkhazia’s annexation by Russia has just about already happened. And even some serious news outlets and commentators proclaim that the proposed Treaty on Alliance and Integration is a step in that direction and constitutes in terms of sovereignty a point of no return. But what exactly does the treaty say?

Many parts seem harmless. There is a common defence clause, similar to Article 5 of the NATO charter, and articles on economic harmonisation and financial and political assistance from Russia to Abkhazia.

The problematic clauses were exactly those that have met with most resistance by Abkhazians and that have now been addressed in a counter-proposal by the Abkhazian government, the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. These were the provision that in case of war, Russia shall provide the Chief in Command of the joint army, that a joint body will investigate crime in Abkhazia, that the two countries will coordinate their foreign policy and the relaxed procedure for Russians to obtain Abkhazian citizenship.

None of this amounts to anything near annexation. Yes, a treaty can take on significance beyond its literal content. But there was no particular reason to believe that was the case here, and so the annexation rhetoric is if anything a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, there is a real threat, which has long been known: the near total economical and political dependence of Abkhazia on Russia. But Georgia and the West have themselves to blame for this. Moreover, they cannot protest Russia curtailing Abkhazia’s sovereignty as long as they don’t recognise this sovereignty in the first place. Naturally, Georgia has used the threat of Russian annexation to try to win over Abkhaz hearts and minds. But a) this is not credible in light of the fact that the alternative it is offering to possible annexation by Russia is certain annexation by Georgia. And b) most Abkhaz would consider annexation by Russia by far the lesser evil.

That being said, the West and Georgia should try to defend Abkhazia against overbearing Russian influence. Unfortunately, there may not be much they can do, without explicitly appealing to Abkhazia’s independence. The current rhetoric, framed negatively against Russia, may have the counterproductive effect of weakening Abkhazian resistance to (parts of) this treaty. And the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that silent diplomacy may no longer stop Russia from overstepping certain boundaries.

Abkhazia is in the difficult situation that it needs economic and political support from Russia, and has little to offer in return but its sovereignty. The West should start to provide serious economic and governmental assistance to Abkhazia to undercut this logic.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia,

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, ,

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian crisis

For what it’s worth:

  • There can be no doubt that Viktor Yanukovich and his government are autocratic and corrupt, and that the opposition has faced harassment and worse. Simultaneously, Yulia Timoshenko in particular has been unduly martyrised by some. Her trial was politically motivated, but that does not in itself mean that she is innocent accross the board. She should receive proper medical care and a fair retrial, but not immunity from all future prosecution.
  • Ukraine is a deeply divided country. Despite the enormity of the protests, it cannot be taken as a given that the opposition enjoys the support of a majority of Ukrainians. Therefore, the most desirable outcome is not a change of government per se, but good elections and a political system that is not winner-take-all.
  • Strangely, as popular uprisings go, the protesters do not have an overly strong case. Occupying and damaging government buildings (indeed entire city centres) has a revolutionary quality to it, which can be acceptable as a protective measure when the government is itself acting illegally, for example in the case of election fraud or police violence (like on 30 November). But failure to sign an international agreement, however symbolic, does not legitimise revolution. At the same time, the protests are hugely important for planting the seeds of structural reform.
  • Given the economic choice Russia presented him with, Yanukovich’s decision not to initial the association agreement with the European Union may have been rational. The European Union must itself avoid presenting the issue as a choice between being a European country and being with Russia. Ukraine is European even if it never associates itself with the EU. If it wants to associate Ukraine, the ultimate goal for the EU should be to sign (the equivalent of) an association agreement with Russia itself.

All open to correction by anyone better informed.

Filed under: European Union, Russia, Ukraine, ,

Why is the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics led by TI Georgia and ISFED?

Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia) and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) are spearheading a petition that calls on the Georgian government to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. This not on account of the corruption and rights violations during their preparation, but because TI Georgia and ISFED consider that the Russian government is breaking the cease fire agreement that ended the August 2008 war. (A particular source of ire is the fact that one of the Russian pilots of that war who has received the title of National Hero has been chosen to carry the Olympic torch. While he is only one among thousands to be bestowed that honour, his run was prominently shown on Russian state TV.)

Regardless of whether one agrees with the cause, neither should be involved, let alone organise this campaign. Organisations like TI Georgia and ISFED hold the moral high ground because they focus on single ideals (fair elections, no more corruption) that are above debate, so that even governments generally have to pay lip service to them. By branching out into political issues, these organisations become themselves politicised. Instead, they should try to avoid giving the government any sticks to beat them with.

In this particular case, TI Georgia and ISFED also risk distracting from the Georgian Presidential election due in less than two weeks, which deserves all their attention.

Filed under: Elections, Georgia, Human Rights, Russia, , ,

Limited Caucasus Emirate presence in Abkhazia reconfirmed

Abkhazia’s Prosecutor’s Office has at long last finalised indictments in the investigation of several attempts on the life of President Alexander Ankvab (and Pitsunda Mayor Beslan Ardzinba). The investigation took shape and several people were arrested after the most recent attack in February 2012, that killed two of Ankvab’s guards. In line with previous statements, the Prosecutor’s Office says the attacks were ordered by crime boss Pavel Ardzinba, who is still on the run, and also involved former Interior Minister Almasbei Kchach, who committed suicide when police came to arrest him.

There seems to be no mention now of the spectacular claim made previously by the Russian National Counter-Terrorism Council that of the people involved in the assassination attempts, Rustan Gitsba and the Chitanava brothers were also planning an attack on the 2014 Sochi Olympics as part of the Caucasus Emirate. However, according to the Prosecutor’s Office, Edgar Chitanava and Rustan Gitsba were working to further the goals of the Caucasus Emirate in staging a bomb attack on the Sukhum railway on 9 August 2009.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Chechnya, 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

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