Monday 15 March 2010

Let Our Fame Be Great, Review by Justin Marozzi

March 15 - Financial Times

Let Our Fame Be Great: Struggle and Survival in the Caucasus
By Oliver Bullough Allen Lane £25, 478 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20

When Oliver Bullough sets out his store in the opening pages of this wonderful travel history, preparing the reader for a journey through the little-known Caucasus, I couldn’t help recalling the words of Winston Churchill to the Royal Commission on Palestine in 1937: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.

“I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, has come in and taken their place.”

For the native Americans, the Aborigines and subsequently the Palestinians, substitute the peoples of the Caucasus, giving way before the expansionist power of the Russians.

Bullough, who reported from Russia and the former Soviet Union for seven years before making this impressive debut as an author, begins his heartfelt and compelling history with a brief survey of the momentous events of July 1783. This was when the Russians first opened their way to the south, defeating the nomadic horsemen of the Nogai horde along the marshy eastern shores of the Sea of Azov, in southwest Russia, paving the way for the subjugation of an entire region. Within a century, what the author calls “the first modern genocide on European soil” had been perpetrated by Russian hands. In 1864, the Circassians were finally defeated, with 300,000 dead.

Today, the nomads have gone. Their descendants live in Turkey, Jordan, Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, leaving land rebranded with villages such as Bright Path of Lenin and the Revolutionary Wave that eke out an existence beneath the foothills of the towering Caucasus range.

The Crimean war provided a tantalising glimpse of a Free Circassia on the eastern lands of the Black Sea, south of the Sea of Azov, but the chance was lost through the bickering and indecision of the great powers. Henceforth, Circassians tended to enter western consciousness – and the Ottoman sultan’s blue-tiled harem in Constantinople – only in the form of blue-eyed, light-skinned concubines. Such indolent imprisonment was no doubt undesirable, but in an age in which supposedly free western women were no models of 21st-century emancipation, their lives were certainly less wretched than Bullough suggests. Harem life tended to be more nuanced than western writers often allow.

While sensitive as a historian, Bullough is also deft as a reporter. In Moscow he almost slips on a fatty piece of flesh from a female suicide bomber’s attack. He writes vividly from Beslan during the aftermath of the hostage tragedy in 2004.

Though he does not mention it, the judge, Tamerlan Aguzarov, presiding over the trial of a Chechen called Nurpashi Kulayev, is named after the great Turkic warlord who spent decades putting the Caucasus to the sword with his ferocious army of mounted archers. Kulayev, who can barely speak Russian (“I am not agree. I without translator, I cannot completely. I badly understand in Russia”), is denied an interpreter in a show trial that boils over with the fury of the Beslan mothers. The investigative reporting here suggests that Kulayev, sentenced to life imprisonment, may have been innocent.

Bloodshed and cruelty run through these pages with terrible regularity. Bullough goes back to 1721, the first encounter between the Russians and the peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, when one of Tsar Peter I’s cavalry detachments, seeking to grab the south-eastern shore of the Caspian Sea from enfeebled Persia, was wiped out by the mountain folk.

By 1817, the Russian general Alexei Yermolov, hero of the Napoleonic wars, was starting construction of a fort that would become the city of Grozny – whose name literally means “threatening”.

Yermolov’s policy towards the Caucasus was perhaps not so different from that of Moscow today: “I desire that the terror of my name shall guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses,” he said.

The campaigner in Bullough occasionally gets the better of him. It is not the case, as he argues, that the world has branded the entire Chechen nation as terrorists. The feeble west may have stepped swiftly by, as it so often does, but many commentators, including Bullough’s fellow reporters, have detailed Moscow’s shameful cleansing in Grozny and beyond.

The ethnic and linguistic mix of the Caucasus both fascinates and confuses. As an example, the 2m people of Dagestan speak 40 languages. Across the entire European Union, by comparison, there are 65 languages. Caucasus folklore tells of the people’s mythic ancestors, the Narts, being offered by their god the choice of a short and famous life or a long life without glory. Without blinking, they choose a life of freedom and fame. “Their fame is not great, and their stories have not been told, but truly they deserve to be,” Bullough writes. With this impassioned volume he has struck a blow for the glory of the Caucasus and helped to give voice to the voiceless.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World’ (HarperPerennial)

1 comment:

  1. The day before yesterday Friday 2 July 2010, I read the Arabic translation of this book in an Egyptian newspaper.
    Really, it is a wonderful work!