Monday, 19 April 2010

Complicated histories haunt the Caucasus, by Jonathan O'Brien

April 18, -- Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien

Let Our Fame Be Great
By Oliver Bullough

Some of the photographs of the Caucasus countryside featured in Let Our Fame Be Great would make you want to jump on the next plane and go there for your summer holidays.

The region looks like a Timotei ad filmed on a superhuman scale, all lush green meadows, glorious sunshine, endless forests and jagged, massive peaks framed against an implausibly blue sky. Even in still photos, it radiates a serenity as old as time itself.

You can’t do anything of the kind, of course, unless your desire to gaze upon some mind blowing scenery vastly outweighs your regard for your own physical safety.

Only the most hard-bitten of travellers, or those rich enough to afford personal bodyguards, can even think about it. The Caucasus should be another Switzerland, but instead it’s one of the world’s most dangerous places.

The local bandits and the notoriously trigger-happy Russian army would both quite easily shoot you just for the hell of it. Say the word ‘Caucasus’ and most people will think of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Those equally fascinating nations, however, are not the subject of Let Our Fame Be Great (the title comes from a prayer by the Narts, the mythical ancestors of the region’s current inhabitants) - this book is strictly about the patchwork quilt of the north Caucasus.

The places Oliver Bullough visits and writes about are technically on Russian Federation soil, but everything else about them is distinctly and stubbornly non Russified.

Geography is the key to understanding the Caucasus. Its dizzyingly steep mountains, many of which even now are unreachable by road, are home to thousands of tiny communities whose cultures and customs evolved in isolation from each other over the centuries.

It’s often the case that two villages several miles apart speak totally unrelated languages. To get an idea of the linguistic diversity of the region, consider the fact that Dagestan’s two million inhabitants use 40 languages between them; the entire European Union has 65.The place is an ethnographer’s dream.

Bullough, a former Reuters journalist, has written two-thirds of a great book - the sections where he obsessively retraces the narratives of 19th century battles between the Russian occupying forces and the local tribes people are the exceptions, tending to get bogged down in minutiae and sameyness.

Perhaps that’s unavoidable. The Caucasus being the kind of place it is, everything carries a deeper historical resonance.

Bullough notes in passing that in Sochi, the spa resort which will host the next Winter Olympics, the helipad used by Vladimir Putin when holidaying in the area is on the very spot where the Russian army paraded after finally forcing the local Circassian-Ubykhs to surrender in 1864.Today’s Circassians are enraged about the Winter Games being staged there on the 150th anniversary of their defeat, but no one really cares what they think.

If you’ve never heard of the Circassians, and you probably haven’t, that’s because they were subjected to a brutal dispersal and genocide two centuries ago, some 300,000 of them dying while being forcibly pushed off their land near the Black Sea in the mid-1800s.

In Israel, Bullough meets some of their descendants and learns about habze, the curiously antiquated moral and cultural code by which they still live.

The Chechens received similar treatment a century later, suffering deportation en masse to the steppes of central Asia because Stalin thought they were collaborating with the Nazis, and being allowed to return only after he had died.

The definitive story of Russia’s mid1990s onslaught on the place has already been written by Carlotta Gall and Thomas deWaal. Wisely, Bullough attacks the subject at a micro level instead, telling the shockingly bleak stories of Zarema Muzhakoyeva, a would-be ‘‘black widow’’ suicide bomber who lost her nerve at the last moment and turned herself over to the Moscow police; and of a family who returned home to Grozny in 1994, four decades after being sent to Kazakhstan, only to have their newly-built house flattened by the Russian air force within three months. (Light relief is provided by an encounter with Khasan ‘Dedushka’ Bibulatov, an old man with a colourful criminal past whose swearing would embarrass Bertie Blunt’s parrot.)

One quibble with the book is its slightly arbitrary selections of topic - in contrast to the many pages devoted to the Circassians, the Ossetians are mentioned only a tiny handful of times.

The final section of the book (about the Beslan massacre of 2004) is set in North Ossetia, but looks at the event rather than the people.

Bullough attends the depressing show trial of the one surviving hostage-taker, who is given life imprisonment despite severe doubts over the extent of his involvement.

With the EU having no huge desire to cross swords with Putin, and the Americans interested only in Georgia’s potential Nato membership, the north Caucasus peoples remain an object of near total indifference to western governments.

Their story is both truly heartbreaking and exceptionally complex. Bullough has done a good job of getting it down in this fine, if occasionally sidetracked, book.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Russia scientist fears arrest over Olympic warnings, by Richard Galpin - BBC

By Richard Galpin - BBC News, Moscow - April 16

A senior scientist has told the BBC he has fled Russia to avoid arrest after warning of a possible disaster in the run-up to - or even during - the next Winter Olympics.
Sergei Volkov

The games are due to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi in 2014.

Dr Sergei Volkov, a former consultant to the Sochi Winter Olympics, is in hiding in southern Ukraine because he fears being detained by Russian authorities on trumped-up criminal charges.

He says he refused to keep quiet after discovering that the massive construction programme was forging ahead without essential research into the region's complex geology and ecology.

"It's a potentially dangerous area," said Dr Volkov, a geologist by profession.

He gave the interview in a small room where he now lives with just a laptop, an internet connection and a few books and files.

"There have been big landslides in the past and there are large deposits of mercury, uranium and other potentially dangerous minerals. But all scientific advice is being ignored," he said.

He believes the government took the political decision to hold the games before they had thought through how much preliminary work was needed in the area.

Shortly after arriving in Ukraine, Dr Volkov wrote an open letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warning him of the dangers.

He sent his letter after a storm destroyed a new cargo port being built in Sochi for the Olympics.

"Not a particularly strong storm destroyed this important infrastructure project," he wrote.

"At least $14m [of work] was washed away by the sea, to say nothing of the lives of [three] seamen.

"And this serious catastrophe with the loss of human life is just the start of similar accidents which will follow," he warned.

The Olympic stadium at Sochi is being built to tight deadlines

Warnings 'ignored'

What happened at the port is evidence, Dr Volkov believes, of his worst fears coming true.

He says building work began last year without basic research into local geology and weather patterns.

He had warned that it was not a suitable place for a port, but says he was ignored.

Now one of his biggest concerns is an $8bn (£5bn) project for a new road and rail link between Olympic venues being built on the Black Sea coast near Sochi and venues in the mountains.

It is supposed to be a centre-piece of the infrastructure development in the area.

Pile-drivers, cranes, bulldozers and cement-mixers are transforming a long, beautiful valley containing the Mzymta River into a frenetic industrial landscape.

It is one of the main reasons the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned in February that "preparation for the Olympics is out of control, construction is of poor quality and vast damage to the environment has already been done".

But Dr Volkov's main worry is not for the environment.

He fears the builders are cutting a swathe through the valley up towards the mountains without taking into account how unstable the area is geologically.

He refers to a massive landslide in the late 1960s and warns there could be a repeat.

"The road is being built and tunnels dug in this same district," he says.

"This is seriously affecting the mountains."

Active landslide

Driving along the old road between the coast and the high peaks, we found an active landslide being cleared by excavators to protect traffic passing beneath.

Higher up next to the ski slopes Sergei Avdeev, mayor of Krasnaya Polyana - the village nearest the Olympic sites - told us he shared Dr Volkov's worries.

He said he had considered resigning over the issue.

"When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the games to Russia, they knew full well that Russia did not have enough time to do proper research and build all the facilities in line with international environmental and construction standards," he says.

"I pray to God that there will not be any consequences. The only thing we can do is pray and hope."

In answers e-mailed to the BBC, the IOC dismissed these concerns.

"Construction of the facilities, related infrastructure, and safety issues are the responsibility of the Russian organisers and the government," it said.

"We are confident in the research they did prior to the start of construction and the work they are undertaking now."

Allegations that corners are being cut in the rush to meet deadlines are also strongly denied by the main state-owned Olympic construction company, Olimpstroi.

"It's not a secret that Sochi has a very tough geological landscape," says Alexandra Kosterina, the main spokesperson.

"But all necessary research has been done... and we are building everything in line with international standards and with recommendations from the IOC."

The Sochi 2014 project is Russia's first experience of hosting the Winter Olympics.

The prestige of the country is at stake and it cannot afford to make any mistakes.

-- In pictures: Sochi Olympic preparations (Pics and text: Artyom Liss, BBC)

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Can the 2014 Sochi Games Be Saved?‏, by Paul Goble

Window on Eurasia

Vienna, April 13 – Even before the International Olympic Committee, after intense lobbying by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, it was obvious to many that Russia would face serious challenges in getting the venue ready for the Olympics and ensuring that they passed off safely.

Now, all the problems they warned about– violence in neighboring areas, environmental concerns, objections to holding such a competition on the site of a nineteenth century genocide, and both paying for infrastructure and finding workers to build it – have become more obvious, and as a result, some in Moscow are casting about for possible solutions.

Last year, opposition figure Boris Nemtsov suggested that the name Sochi Games be retained but that the competitions take place at existing sports facilities in other Russian cities, but now, the editors of have proposed saving the day by creating new federal subject directly subordinate to Moscow (

“Many of the administrative problems which are having a negative impact on preparations for the Games are the result of the subordination of Sochi to Krasnodar kray,” they argue. Consequently, removing Sochi from that kray and creating a separate Black Sea kray could “allow the securing of a more effective relationship of the center and the region.”

Such a new federal subject, the editors say, would not have to coordinate with Krasnodar and could receive subsidies directly from the federal budget and thus get all the money the central government intends them to have, thus bypassing the “power ‘filters’” of the existing kray.

The editors point out that there is a precedent for taking this step even in Sochi itself. Between August 1948 and June 1958, Sochi was “like Moscow, Leningrad [now St. Petersburg], Kyiv and Sevastopol, a city of republic subordination” because it served as a resort that was used largely by senior officials of the central government.

“In the Soviet Union,” the editors say, it was well understood that Sochi is a special place which one must not compare with any other region of Russia.” Consequently, “the return to Sochi of such a special status within the framework of the Russian Federation should help the revival of the region and the successful conduct of the 2014 Olympics.”

Not only does the Russian Federation have the recent tradition of amalgamating regions – another one of Putin’s pet projects – but, the editors say, “it is possible to provide a multitude of arguments in favor of the separating out of Sochi” from Krasnodar kray. “The main one is that Sochi and Krasnodar kray have radically different structures both economically and socially.”

Krasnodar is based on agriculture, while Sochi is based on tourism and now the Olympics. And after the games are held, the editors say, there will be even more reason to keep Sochi separate so that it will be able to promote itself rather than become yet another “company town” (

Sochi must not be allowed to fall back to the status of “a provincial resort, less attractive than Turkey and Egypt, with empty stadiums,” the editors say. Moreover, they suggest, “the establishment of a Black Sea kray will become for the city a real reward for the Olympics,” making into “a model tourist region” perhaps “on the model of the American Las Vegas.”

The editors helpfully attach an 800-word draft law that, if adopted, would lead to the creation of the new kray, a draft they say they will be forwarding “through deputies friendly to us for consideration by the corresponding commissions of the State Duma” after seeking support from the government, the National Olympic Committee and the Social Chamber (

Given how many problems the creation of such a new federal subject in the North Caucasus would cause and how few of the problems it would solve in advance of the planned games, it is unlikely that this proposal will receive widespread support. But it is a measure of just how desperate some in Moscow have become that such an idea is being floated at all.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Caucasus: Haunting history

Mar 31st 2010 From The Economist print edition

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. By Oliver Bullough. Allen Lane; 496 pages; £25. To be published in America by Basic Books in August. Buy from

WESTERN colonialists have often behaved abominably but they usually repent of it later. Move east, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Few now remember what happened to Circassia. As the Ottoman empire crumbled in the mid-19th century, Russia conquered the loosely held Turkish domains on the north-east coast of the Black Sea—and huge numbers of the anarchic, steely Circassian tribespeople died in what would today be termed a genocidal colonial war. Many more fled the killing grounds, crossing the Black Sea in leaky and overcrowded ships, many of them to die miserably in now-forgotten refugee camps on the Turkish coast. Around half the Circassian population of 2m perished.

Oliver Bullough’s first book marks him out as a distinguished researcher, observer and narrator. The opening chapters deal with a part of history wholly neglected in Russia. It is as if Americans had never heard of the Sioux, and Wounded Knee had become a tourist resort where the events of 1890 had faded from memory.

That is pretty much how surviving Circassians now see the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which 150 years ago was the site of their final and greatest defeat and massacre. Mr Bullough tracks down their remnants, determined and despairing by turns, in Russia and in exile. His quest takes him from dirt-poor villages in Kosovo to influential bits of Jordanian officialdom. He paints a haunting portrait of a people blown to the winds by a forgotten storm.

His research is formidable. He unearths long-buried contemporary accounts of the killings, and desperate pleas for help buried in old files in the British Foreign Office. He matches this with accounts of the contemporary diasporas, often both nostalgic for what they have lost and disgusted by what they find when they return.

If the tsarist conquest of the northern Caucasus was savage, what followed under communism was worse, including the Stalin-era deportations of whole nations to the steppes of Central Asia. A particularly harrowing account is of a wartime massacre in the Cherek valley in Balkaria (a Turkic-speaking district next door to the former Circassia). Like the murder of Polish officers at Katyn, this was carried out by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD—but then cynically blamed on the Germans. But whereas Poles have doggedly defended their history against falsifiers, the Circassians have been all but voiceless. One of Mr Bullough’s most powerful points is how little about the Circassians can be found even in works by specialist historians of the region.

The heirs to this history visit cruel, random destruction in terrorist attacks, bringing botched responses by the authorities. Mr Bullough unpicks the seizure, by terrorists claiming to be Chechen fighters, of the Beslan school in North Ossetia, a neighbouring republic in Russia’s Caucasus, in 2004. And he investigates the background of the women who have become suicide-bombers to avenge their husbands, sons and brothers—a tactic which, early indications suggest, was repeated in two attacks on the Moscow metro this week.

Russian and then Soviet rule brought literacy, electricity and roads to the region, and uprooted feudalism. But by Mr Bullough’s account, it would be a travesty to call that a civilising mission. It has come with a shocking mixture of brutality, incompetence and corruption, entrenching criminality on all sides.