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.

1 comment:

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