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.
“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.”
Bullough divides the book into four sections, and each is compelling. The history of the Circassians, for instance, who had lived in the region along the eastern coast of the Black Sea for hundreds of years, began losing their independence and freedom in 1764 with the arrival of a Russian army. Thus began Russian policy, which through czars, dictators, and presidents, has been remarkably consistent. The native peoples were usually welcome to completely submit (“Why should we?” – “You’re under arrest for daring to ask!”) and be subject to exile to deserted regions or, if they insisted on defending themselves, they could taste the might of the Russian military.
It sends chills up Bullough’s spine that Sochi, in southern Russia, in the very region where hundreds of thousands of Circassians were exiled or killed, was granted the Winter Olympics in 2014: “It is not just Sochi that is insensitive to the Circassian claims of genocide, but the whole coast, which – if it remembers the nineteenth-century war at all – celebrates it as a victory, not as the squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter that it really was.”
The Chechen wars, the despicable Chechen acts of terrorism in Moscow and Beslan, the amazing Russian demolition in the 1990s of Grozny – it’s all reviewed by Bullough. He’s appalled by the Chechen terrorism, which he covered firsthand as a reporter, despite his great sympathy with the plight of the vast majority of the population. Since 2000, about 20 percent of the Chechens have applied for asylum. While they love their land, it is a literal minefield. Bullough fears, however, that European assimilation will not be easy for the anarchic Chechens: “The law-abiding, orderly Austrian system could not be more alien to a Chechen man raised on the concept that ripping off the state was a duty and a pleasure.”
As cultural history filtered through the eyes and heart of a bright and earnest young writer, the book most similar to this one – as fresh and vital, admiring and frustrated – is Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey,” about another group of variously associated peoples without a sovereign homeland. Bullough concludes:
“[T]he history of Russia’s conquest is one of tragedy for the people of the mountains. The Circassians, the mountain Turks, the Ingush and the Chechens have all suffered horribly just so the map of Russia could be the shape the tsars, the general secretaries and the presidents wanted it to be.”