Unraveling the Caucasus: Two New Books Examine a Region’s Complicated History
A good rule of thumb for the Caucasus is: “If you think you know what’s going on, just wait a minute.” Then sit down and read recent releases by Thomas de Waal and Oliver Bullough: they provide welcome insights into this most fractious and unpredictable part of the world.
An expert on Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, de Waal worked at London’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting before coming to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington (hired, as rumor has it, in order to stir up new ideas in the reflecting pool of Caucasus analysis in DC). The Caucasus: An Introduction is an excellent resource for journalists and diplomats, or anyone who needs to learn fast. It is compact yet comprehensive, with maps and colorful “side-bar” sections about everything from Georgian wine to “Soviet Florida” (as Abkhazia was once touted).
The South Caucasus tends to be thought of in terms of distinct entities: Georgia with Georgians in it, Armenia with Armenians, and so forth. But reality is fuzzier: historian Ronald Suny has drawn attention to the fact that, until the 20th century the dominant urban culture in Georgia (especially in the capital) was Armenian. De Waal expands this point: during an earlier period, he writes, Tbilisi was essentially an Arab center for nearly a half a millennium. Whereas, in the 18th century today’s Armenia was mostly populated by “Tatars” and Kurds. Meanwhile, de Wall notes that “Persians colonized large parts of the Caucasus for a thousand years, far longer than the Russians did.” (And watch out: the Persian factor will re-emerge in the Caucasus, de Waal predicts, once the United States’ relations with Iran improve).
De Waal documents the centrifugal and centripetal forces behind what analyst Paul Goble has called the “sorting out of peoples” in the Caucasus. Such transpositions have been going on for a long time indeed, and not just with populations, but also with languages, scripts, religions, and cultural identity (which perhaps begins to explain why libraries shelve books about Georgia and Azerbaijan next to Russia and Ukraine, whereas Armenian tomes can get stashed in the Middle East section).
With enviable clarity and concision de Waal leads us through the quagmire of 1918-1921: a period replete with wars, massacres, revolutions, genocide, occupations, pogroms, espionage, and border-mongering. Other chapters cover the turbulent political events after 1991.
By the end of the book, readers may well wonder what “territorial integrity” and other such principles of international law can possibly mean in a topsy-turvy place like the Caucasus. It is hardly surprising that Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan today suffer from what de Waal diplomatically calls a lack of inclusive thinking. Nevertheless, he urges these countries to make an effort to get along and hang together as a region--perhaps with the EU as facilitator. De Waal is not optimistic that the lion will lie down with the lamb in the Caucasus, but he hopes for the best and presents it as a worthy goal.
Oliver Bullough, also a journalist, is de Waal’s replacement at IWPR. For years he reported from the former Soviet Union, where he fell under the spell of Russia’s wild-South. Let Our Fame Be Great is an exciting read about Russia and the north flank of the Great Caucasus Mountains. Weaving together reportage and history, Bullough focuses on the long-neglected saga of the Circassians and other North Caucasus peoples (including the Abkhaz).
He also provides a rare discussion of habze (or khabze, kebzeh)--Caucasus traditions of etiquette, honor and social mores--and its current manifestations. Bullough explains that habze evolved in a culture "without a government, organized religion, or a money-based economy" -- one in which finding shelter would be impossible without a strict code of hospitality, and where travelers without a roof for the night might be robbed, or worse.
Throughout the book Bullough uses a powerful literary device: first he transfixes the reader with a description of a recent suicide bombing, say, or a massacre—and then whisks us back in time so as to explore the root causes of this event. The technique works every time: one wants to jump up at the end of the chapter and cry: “This tragedy, this travesty must stop, now!”—only to realize that Bullough has been describing something that took place a hundred years ago or more.
During World War Two several villages belonging to the Balkars, a Turkic highland people, were wiped out, supposedly by German troops roaming the Cherek Valley in Kabardino-Balkaria. As Bullough tells the story, the Soviet military conducted an investigation and reached a most curious conclusion: one that implied that the villagers had been massacred by the German soldiers—after collaborating with them!
“The NKVD said it had already arrested 845 people from among the 40,909 Balkars living in their five valleys, but a lot of ‘bandits’ were still hiding in the mountains and being supported by their relatives…"
The official report was rubbish; it took years for the true story to emerge. The “German” murderers of the Cherek villagers turned out to be Soviet cavalry, ordered by the NKVD to liquidate the Balkar “bandits.” As it happened, the troops went on the rampage. But it didn’t matter who was truly at fault, Stalin had plans for the Balkars:
“The catalog of treachery, crime, violence and…defiance required a major punishment, and the report suggested one. ‘As a result of the above-listed, we think it is necessary to resolve the question of the possibility of deporting the Balkars…,’ it said. “The Balkars were going to pay for defending their homes against murder committed by the soldiers given the task of protecting them. The  deportation was at hand.”
Deportation, that is, of the entire remaining Balkar nation: About 38,000 souls dispatched to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and elsewhere.
It is ironic that in 1990 one of the survivors of the Cherek Valley massacres, a Stalin look-alike, appeared in a Soviet film—as Stalin on his death-bed. Also ironic is the fact that to this day, despite the exoneration of the Balkars, many Russians (and not a few Caucasus people as well) still maintain that Balkars collaborated with Germans during the Second World War.
The Caucasus and Let Our Fame Be Great are timely books, given that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will take place on Caucasian turf: the site of the last Russian-Circassian battleground, and near the spot from which hundreds of thousands of Caucasus peoples sailed to the Ottoman Empire, after being driven from their ancestral lands. Many died en route. (Comparing this to the Native American situation in the 19th century; one can only imagine the world’s response if the US government today were to erect an Olympic village at, say, Little Bighorn or Wounded Knee).
In the wake of the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, it might seem churlish to claim that Georgia owes anything at all to its northern neighbor. However, Bullough reminds us that 19th century Georgians gained valuable education in Russian institutions, as well as exposure to new currents of philosophical and political thought. It is also true that most westerners today first encounter the Caucasus through the perspectives of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. Bullough writes that nineteenth-century Russians also adored the action-packed and romantic adventure stories by Alexander Marlinsky: a daredevil Decembrist revolutionary who dashed about the Caucasus courting women and death in battle (succeeding on both counts). While today’s independent states of the South Caucasus insist, and rightly so, that they live in new times, romantic narratives remain a potent force in the region.
Perhaps second only to the Russians, the British too were fascinated by the highlanders. Readers of de Waal and Bullough will encounter excerpts from John Baddeley (who wrote early classic accounts, such as The Rugged Flanks of the Caucasus, and The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus), not to mention exotic morsels from a 1913 Russian travel guide, an 1840s German travel narrative by the Baron August von Haxthausen, and much, much more.
There are many wonders described in these books and quite a few horrible things as well, but the authors never indulge in what Thomas Goltz (another impassioned Caucasus-watcher) calls “boom-boom” reportage of violence for its shock value alone. On the contrary, these are thoughtful accounts about a beautiful yet frustratingly self-destructive region—one in which Thomas de Waal and Oliver Bullough themselves have encountered danger and have lost friends and colleagues. In short, it has marked their lives. These books will certainly inspire readers to learn more about the Caucasus—and perhaps even go there.
Alex van Oss is the Chair of Caucasus Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.