AKHMED DOESN'T LOCK HIS GATE AT NIGHT. HE doesn't lock his doors, and he leaves his windows open to let the curtains twitch in the breeze. The night sounds with frogs and yipping dogs. Not so long ago, in his village of Baliiko * in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, you could hear the Chechen War exploding at night in the distant mountains. A few years ago Chechens kidnapped the brother of a rich man in Baliiko for ransom, along with his friend; the friend was murdered in the woods when he didn't run fast enough to keep up. In Nalchik, the Kabardino-Balkarian capital, roughly 20 miles away, violence in 2005 left scores dead in the city's tree-lined boulevards.
Akhmed doesn't lock his doors, but he is not a foolish man. He remembers being poor enough as a boy to experience the kind of hunger that drives children to eat grass while their parents toil on collective farms. In adulthood, he mastered the art of trade to sell the produce he grows. Now he works from before the sun rises until long after it sets to make a pretty home for his wife and daughters. Akhmed--a thick, strong man of 56 with an easy smile and a shock of white hair--knows what is important to him: his family. The endless conversation of birds and dogs and sheep and cows, the call to prayer that wafts from the local mosque at dusk, the flood of stars at night: This is the background of his life.
Akhmed's world is not defined by war or the baroque nuance of ethnic identification. In an offhand way, he has been known to say about the two chief ethnic groups of his region, "The Balkars and the Kabardians, they're pretty much the same." A Kabardian himself, Akhmed is simply not used to thinking of the world as divided into irreconcilable ethnic units. Many in his region--particularly in cities and capitals where power is parsed--do. Power grabs flared between Kabardians and Balkars in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there have been far more destructive clashes in other parts of the North Caucasus, such as Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.
The Kabardians trace their history to great Circassian principalities, and the Balkars to Turkic tribes. Perhaps the more important difference between these peoples is that the Balkars were the traditional inhabitants of high mountain villages-where they raised horses, herded sheep, and grew potatoes and cabbages--and Kabardians were herders and farmers in the rolling foothills and plains. Traveling between mountain aeries and grassy farmlands, Balkars and Kabardians--despite speaking different languages--have worked together and traded with one another for hundreds of years.
Akhmed doesn't spend his days fretting about who will get more seats in the local parliament, which languages dominate on television, or whether a particular dish his wife cooks is Kabardian or Balkar. He worries instead about his children's health and education and prospects for happiness in marriage. He wonders if the price fur cucumbers will rise if local government officials start selling cucumbers of their own. Or if some Chechens will come by and give a good price for radishes. Or if he will be able to trade tomatoes for potatoes and cabbages with the Balkars in the mountains. War does worry him, and he expresses concern about some of the more violent nationalist movements he's heard about over the years. But Akhmed--born and raised in the countryside, far from the passions that drive power struggles in urban capitals--doesn't define himself by how different he is from others. His first concerns, like those of so many of his compatriots, are deeply and intimately local.
Famous in history for the romance of its warriors and the diversity of its cultures and languages, lately the region around the Caucasus mountain chain--that magnificent topographic crush that marks the boundary between Russia and its southern neighbors Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan--has been "known best fur its troubles. …