Friday 18 January 2008

Tracking the Complexities of the Caucasus

Alex van Oss 1/18/08
A Book Review by Alex van Oss

Most Caucasus writing these days is either journalistic or academic, obsessed for the most part with conflicts or oil. The Ghost of Freedom manages to break the mold: Charles King, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, has produced a work that is at once informative, eclectic, and immensely satisfying.

In fewer than 300 pages King provides a comprehensive and gracefully written account of the South and North Caucasus, plus Black Sea regions of Russia, such as Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus
By Charles King
2008 Oxford Press, 291 p.
ISBN: 978-0-19-517775-6

Excellent maps by Chris Robinson depict political boundaries of 1780, 1890, and 2008, showing dramatically how Persian or Ottoman territory one century became Russian the next, and now, independent. The title, "The Ghost of Freedom," comes from Pushkin’s 1821 poem "Captive of the Caucasus" whose Byronic protagonist, tiring of Mother Russia,

"...quit the confines of his native land, and flew away to a far off strand with freedom’s cheerful apparition..."

… Or its illusion. The hero gets captured by locals, finds romance, and then escapes. The poem inspired sundry other stories, operas, a ballet, a book, plus a film or two--all with the same title; and it prompted thousands of restless Russians to "go West" (go south, that is) and seek love, profit, epiphany, and adventure in the mountains.


So much for Pushkin. When pondering this seductive part of the world, it is useful to keep a couple of points in mind; first, the Caucasus is not Russia, and second, Russia is not the Caucasus. The Ghost of Freedom explains why the region is no longer the "jewel in the crown," or a proving ground for a Big Brother; nor can it in any way be considered a single political entity. Rather, its extremely variegated terrain also harbors distinct cultural ecosystems that at various times have been called a "museum of mankind," a "mountain of tongues," and even a "sculpture" (see below), with a bewildering array of languages, ethnicities, and views of history.

Indeed, the Caucasus can be likened to the classic children’s finger-puzzle in which 15 little sliding squares, enclosed in a frame, must be reconfigured in correct sequence. This is devilishly hard to do. In the living puzzle of the Caucasus there are of course many more pieces, which King rearranges in various illuminating ways, while neatly summarizing vast amounts of history.

King begins at the beginning, 25 million years ago, with the collision of continents that forced up most of the mountain ranges of Eurasia, including the Caucasus and its deposits of oil and gas. (By the way, this geological train-wreck is still in progress, albeit in extremely slow motion.) There has been much cultural as well as tectonic grinding in the Caucasus over the centuries. Scores of indigenous peoples and invaders have collided, traded, and genetically intermingled, leaving remnants and pockets of themselves in valleys, among alpine meadows, and in isolated auls (aerie-like highland villages) between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Caucasus has paid the price of being a cultural crossroads, and has weathered incursions from every quadrant: Persians from the southeast; Greeks and Romans (plus Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and Turks) from the southwest; Huns, Avars, Mongols (and Russians, British, Germans, and so forth) from the north. The result--as cartographers soon discover to their dismay -- is what King describes as "borders on the move" (a concept reminiscent of certain ancient Caucasus legends that describe a time when the mountains could actually walk around...on ’legs’ of clouds!)

Maps are never the territory, of course, but King’s "surfeit of borders" precisely describes a neck of land historically chock-a-block with feudal clans and feuding vassalages, suzereinties, satrapies, and client states--and their shifting alliances. Add to this the poking and prodding by great powers and no wonder Caucasus politics displays a certain operatic quality (Bolshevik Revolution here, Rose Revolution there, charming folk dances and drinking songs over yonder, while oil wheeler-dealers and ’frozen conflict peacekeepers’ wait in the wings). Readers of The Ghost of Freedom will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the maneuvering continues, the United States being but the latest partner (or padrone) active in the South Caucasus. Tomorrow--who knows?--that role may revert to Russia, Turkey, or even China, and once again we would need to redraw the maps.


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