Magazine article The Spectator

Thorns in Russia's Side

Magazine article The Spectator

Thorns in Russia's Side

Article excerpt


by Oliver Bullough

Allen Lane, £25, pp. 496,

ISBN 9781846141416

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Once known for its honour-loving bandits and rugged scenery, the Caucasus is the narrow wedge of land between Russia and the Middle East.

Rippling with wooded gorges, its ethnic and linguistic complexity - 40 languages in Dagestan alone - has long intrigued outsiders. These days the Caucasus is better known for separatism and scenes of bloody violence, which Oliver Bullough puts into vivid historical focus. More crucially, he sheds a telling light on contemporary Russian political thinking.

Bullough, a companionable ex-Reuters journalist, bypasses independent Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - which for some collectively define the region - and instead goes in search of three peoples in the North Caucasus: the Circassians, Karachai-Balkars and Chechens. This is really a book about Russia's relationship with its unruly southern flank, its dogged attempts to subdue it, and bitter incomprehension when the locals bite back. And he tells a brilliant story, interweaving personal reportage with impressive reading, both in the Caucasus and its far-flung diaspora.

The book begins with the tsarist army which, flush with the imperialist dream, first breached the region in the late 18th century, slaughtering the Nogay people to a man. Once Russians had tasted Caucasian resistance, however, success would be patchy, and the romantic Kavkaz would soon be redubbed a land of jihadist savages.

One wonders how much these warlike peoples knew of their northern adversary. Imam Shamil, the aged warrior-king of the Eastern Caucasus, who surrendered to the Russians in 1859, stared through his train window as he travelled north and said, 'If I'd known Russia was so big, I'd never have fought against it.'

Circassians were one of the first peoples to suffer Russian ethnic cleansing. Prized throughout history as bodyguards for the Ottoman sultans - and their pale, blueeyed daughters sought for the harem - Circassians cling in exile to a code of honour called habze, so pervasive that one Circassian gangster in Istanbul was reportedly shot dead after an argument when someone else paid his bill, a mark of deep disrespect. Their historic sin was to resist Russian encroachments. Circassians were hounded and finally massacred into exile in 1862-4, their homeland sliced into three districts, and their coastline turned into a spa retreat. With appalling irony (deliberate or not) Krasnaya Polyana, the site of the Circassians' last stand, is to hold the Winter Olympics in 2014, the 150th anniversary of the genocide. …

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