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Let Our Fame Be Great

Journalist Oliver Bullough delivers a detailed, moving history of the too often overlooked people of the Caucasus.

By Bob Blaisdell / August 3, 2010

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus By Oliver Bullough Basic Books 528 pp., $28.95

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Perhaps the best way to begin is to be honest. What if we just admit we don’t know much about the Caucasus, that we’re confused by the term “Caucasian,” that we’re not sure who those defiant people are and why we should admire their long resistance to Russian invasion? If that’s our first step, then the second should be to pick a copy of Let Our Fame Be Great, a most compelling history of the region by British journalist Oliver Bullough.

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Bullough begins by explaining that this region, spanning the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, was, for more than a thousand years, like an inland island, little subject to outside influences.

Dagestan was not considered entirely Muslim until the late sixteenth century,” writes Bullough. “Chechnya was also late to Islam, and the last Chechens probably did not convert until the late eighteenth century. Some Ingush were still pagan until the 1860s.”

It even took bearish Russia until the late 18th century to break through the geographical obstacles and start attempting the takeover of the Caucasus piece by piece, meeting plenty of defiance from the poor, mostly illiterate, independent peoples – who, on the whole, grouped themselves within each people by family units, and understood nothing of what states or nations meant: “The long absence ... of a foreign ruler or a foreign religion allowed the mountain customs to continue largely unchanged into the modern age. Communities were governed by councils of elders, and land was held in common by each village.”

As for the recent, post-Soviet violent history, I cringe in reflex, but until now I must admit that I knew far too little except that Vladimir Putin in 1999 gathered national political power as he crushed the chaos in the Caucasus with military assaults. So the Caucasus are to Russia what the American southwest might have been had the various native American tribes converted to a common religion and been able to continue frustrating the US and Mexican invaders. From the czars to Stalin to Putin, resistance in the Caucasus to Russian governance and customs has resulted, Bullough argues, in exile or genocide of the natives.

As Bullough dashes and darts us through the amazing and forgotten episodes of the region, we see that this is a book of discoveries, not a textbook, a personally driven but impressively researched history-adventure. The “Fame” of the title? It’s ironic: the peoples, so conscious of themselves, so culturally and family oriented that their fame continues to speak loudly to themselves, have been dismissively written out of Russian history. This Russian obliviousness to its own history of repression used to surprise Bullough but now just really ticks him off: “Where once the Balkar and Karachai nations had been written out of existence, now the fact that they had been written out of existence was itself written out of existence.”

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