Russian bombs, Georgian fragments


August 13, 2008

Russian bombs, Georgian fragments

A timely new book attempts the impossible: a history of the Caucasus
Donald Rayfield

It is a bold historian who writes a history of the Caucasus, as events
of the past week have made all too clear. The region may not be much
bigger than England and Wales, but its history involves three unrelated
indigenous groups of people – the Abkhaz and Circassians in the
north-west, the Chechens, Ingush and Dagestanis in the north-east, the
Kartvelians (Georgians, Mingrelians and Svans) in the south – and
representatives of many Eurasian groups (Iranian, Turkic, Armenian,
Semitic, Russian) who have settled there over the past 2,000 years.

Some forty mutually unintelligible languages, of which a handful are
established literary languages and several others have only a precarious
recent literary status, are spoken. Worse for anyone trying to present a
coherent narrative, these disparate peoples have very different
histories, and only two, the Georgians and Armenians (some would add the
Azeris), have a history of statehood consistent enough to be retold as
one would retell the history of a West European country. Worst of all,
the frequent ravages of invaders, from Arabs in the seventh century,
Mongols in the thirteenth, Iranians in the sixteenth to eighteenth
centuries and Russians over the past 300 years, have not only destroyed
and driven out whole states and peoples, but burnt the records of their
very existence. Even the year of death and the place of burial of the
greatest of Caucasian monarchs, the Georgian Queen Tamar, is uncertain.
Historians of the Caucasus have on the one hand to have at their command
an immeasurable range of expertise, from archaeology to the folklore of
dozens of different languages, and on the other the imagination and
verve to bridge the gaps in chronology and in any other verifiable
sources. It is a task that would daunt even the teams that produce the
Cambridge Histories of, say, Russia or India.

Charles King, a specialist in Romanian, with a good reading knowledge of
Russian, but not of any Caucasian language, has crossed the Black Sea
and fearlessly attempted the impossible. The focus of his book is
similar to that of Susan Layton’s Conquest of the Caucasus (1995,
republished 2005), in that King sees the Caucasus through the eyes of
Russian conquistadors and imperial dreamers, as they romanticize and
demonize the lands they occupied (or, in the case of Georgia,
"liberated") when the grip of Ottoman and Iranian empires weakened. Thus
the different reactions of Caucasian nations to the conquests of the
early nineteenth century – complicity and acceptance by the Georgians,
relief by the Armenians and Ossetians, desperate surrender or flight by
the Circassians, resistance to the death by Chechens and Dagestanis –
are the best insight that King can offer into the diverse cultures that
were incorporated into the Russian Empire or wiped out by it.

Equally interesting is the anthropological and linguistic research,
mostly by German scholars working for the St Petersburg Academy, that
preceded, accompanied, or followed Russian military conquest and which
aroused a respect for, and bewilderment at, the complexity and
scientific importance of the now vulnerable belief systems and languages
encountered. A Collection of Materials for A Description of the
Locations and Peoples of the Caucasus, some eighty volumes published
between 1884 and 1915 in Tiflis, show the extraordinary wealth of
information that was gathered. (Unfortunately, there is no complete set
of this Collection in any library in the United Kingdom, and it does not
appear in King’s bibliography.) Like the British in India, Russians
began to feel a perverse admiration for the tribes (whether Pathans or
Chechens) that hated them as conquerors, and contempt for the nations
(whether Tamils or Armenians) that decided to integrate with them.
Today, of course, as the southern Caucasus has achieved some sort of
statehood and the north Caucasus has been crushed and demoralized,
Russians feel a paranoiac hatred for all "blacks" (or "persons of
Caucasian nationality").

If King’s narrative has a fault, it is over-simplification. His account
of the role of Islam in Chechnya and Dagestan ignores the fact that
pagan beliefs underlie all Caucasian codes of conduct, and that in the
highlands Islam in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was like
Christianity in the tenth century (as the ruins of Byzantine churches in
Chechnya and Circassia show), used as a rallying flag and a means of
gaining support from outsiders. Once the Caucasus highlanders were left
in peace, they reverted to animism: this is demonstrated by the Georgian
words for "icon" and "deacon" acquiring the meaning of "pagan shrine"
and "shaman" among the Khevsur clans.

Nevertheless, King offers new perspectives: for instance, Western
romanticizing of the Caucasus as a region for new mountaineering
exploits and as a source for a real supply of the Circassian maidens of
Byron’s poems. This romanticizing underlies attitudes to the new states
of the southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, where a
hard-headed desire to have a route for oil and gas that cannot be cut
off by Putin and Medvedev is glossed as an aspiration to encourage
European Union-standard human rights and democracy. The discussion of
Georgia’s emergence from "failed state" status under a tired Edvard
Shevardnadze, mired in corruption, like the account of Azerbaijan under
its dynasty of ex-KGB Alievs, and of an Armenia run by violent
nationalists and thinly disguised Soviet-style Communists, is more than
competent. One would wish only for a little more cynicism: Mikeil
Saakashvili may have the suave exterior of a Columbia University lawyer,
but there are a lot of questions not posed, let alone answered here. The
initial connivance of the Russians at the Rose Revolution, which got rid
of the Ajarian warlord Aslan Abashidze as well as of Shevardnadze, two
figures particularly hated by Putin, is unmentioned, and the mysterious
sequence of murders and unexplained deaths of Saakashvili’s rivals and
opponents needs to be discussed as proof of the continuity of a
specifically Caucasian way of politics.

In a book dealing with "the ghost of freedom" one would expect a more
thorough exploration of the Caucasus’s little Kosovos, where ethnic
groups such as the Abkhaz and South Ossetians try to break away from a
newly independent Georgia only to find themselves international pariahs,
whose only refuge is a return to the Russian embrace. Here Putin’s
salami tactics for reincorporating lost Soviet territory meet with no
adequate or even intelligent response by the principal victims, for
instance the Georgians, or from the European Union and United States who
have already tied themselves into knots over the former Yugoslavia, and
can only wring their hands as they see Russia, with the help of its
heavily armed "peacekeepers", turning Abkhazia back into its own private
recreation zone. King ends with a vague hope that Europe’s "inexorable
march" towards liberal values can proceed in the Caucasus, but not much
of the evidence supports him. For over a thousand years the Georgians
and Armenians have appealed to Europe for support as fellow Christians,
as Europeans by culture, if not by geography, and after being strung
along by Crusaders, by Louis XIV, by various Popes, by Presidents
Wilson, Roosevelt and both Bushes, can still not believe that the answer
they get will always be a perfunctory apology that deeper interests of
state force the West to take sides with its major trading partners, not
its cultural and spiritual brothers. Ghost of freedom, indeed. Given the
present crisis, as Russia backs Ossetia’s separatists with bombs and
shells, our politicians’ vacillations and our diplomats’ complacency may
not be remedied in time, even if a group of experts were hurriedly
assembled to follow up Charles King’s reconnaissance and produce and
analyse in full the history of the Caucasus.

Charles King
A history of the Caucasus

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS