Mountain Megalomaniacs

By Norman Stone

New Statesman
Nov 6 2008

Between Russia and the Middle East, the Caucasus is one of the world’s
most diverse regions – and as recent fighting in South Ossetia and
Abkhazia showed, still boiling with ethnic tensions. Norman Stone
reviews a history which makes sense of this complexity

The surrender of the Circassian leader Sheikh Shamil to the tsarist
forces in 1859

The Ghost of Freedom: a History of the Caucasus

Charles King

OUP, 219pp, £17.99

A Georgian professor came to my (Turkish) university a few years ago
and said: "People who live in mountains are stupid." You probably hear
such things often enough in the Caucasus, but it is not the sort of
remark that you expect professors to pass. However, there is maybe
something in it, a point made by the crazy loyalism of the Jacobite
Highlanders of the Forty-Five, or for that matter of the Navarrese
Carlists: brave and romantic, certainly, with their own codes of
honour, but not very bright.

A French sociologist, Andre Siegfried, developed this theme a century
ago, because he had noticed that voting patterns depended on altitude;
in the valleys, people got on with normal lives, but, the further up
you went, the less this was true. The diet was very poor, the economy
was sheep-stealing or smuggling, resentment simmered against the valley
settlers, and religion of a wild sort reigned. The Caucasus also fits
Siegfried’s pattern, with the difference that, the further uphill you
went, the more weird languages you hit on. In Charles King’s words,
"the north-east harbours the Nakh languages . . . as well as a mixed
bag of disparate languages that includes Avar, Dargin and Lezgin".

He has missed out the Tats, who are mountain Jews, and he has
mercifully missed out a great deal else, because the whole region is
a kaleidoscope, and the ancient history is very complicated, with an
Iberia and an Albania in shadowy existence; the Ossetians, of whom the
world recently heard so much, are apparently what is left of the Alans,
one of the barbarian tribes that swept through the later Roman Empire
(and ended up in North Africa).

Charles King’s great virtue is that he is a very proficient simplifier
and misser-out; he writes well, and can read the languages that matter
(for some reason, quite a number of the important sources are in
German; Germans were especially interested in the Caucasus, and in
1918 even had plans to shift U-boats overland to the Caspian). All
the important themes are here, with some interesting additions.

King concentrates on the modern history of the Caucasus, roughly from
1700, when Russia began to take over the overlordship from Persia
and the Ottoman Empire. In 1801, she annexed much of Georgia. This
was relatively easy, since it is a very divided country (and the
language – so difficult that even Robert Conquest, writing his
biography of Stalin, found it impossible – itself sub-divides). It
was also Christian, the nobility on the whole glad to come to terms
with the tsar, and it could easily be reached from the sea, whereas
other parts of the Caucasus, given the very mountainous and forested
terrain, were much more difficult. The various Muslim natives of the
northern Caucasus were then generally known as "Circassians" (the
present-day Chechens are related) and they put up an extraordinary
resistance to Russian penetration.

Cossacks came in, as the 19th century went ahead, and a line of forts
was established; but a ferocious tribal-religious resistance grew up,
under a legendary figure, Sheikh Shamil. Combining mystical-religious
inspiration with an extraordinary astuteness as to guerrilla tactics,
Shamil kept the Russians pinned down for a whole generation. (King’s
bibliography is very solid and useful, but he might have mentioned
a classic book about this, Sabres of Paradise, by Lesley Blanch, who
went on to write The Wilder Shores of Love about the erotic Orient.)

In the event, the Russians "solved" the problem of the Circassians by
mass-deportation. About 1,250,000 of them were forced out, and King is
very good at describing their fate, as a third of the deportees died
of disease or starvation or massacre, and the rest scattered over the
Near and Middle East. Settling in eastern Anatolia, they encountered
the Armenians, and bitter conflict resulted. A generation later much
the same fate occurred to the Armenians of eastern Turkey. King quite
rightly makes the parallel.

Shamil was at long last captured, but the Russians treated him well,
and part of his family faded into the tsarist aristocracy. This is
incidentally a dimension of matters that King could have explored:
the relations of Russia and Islam. He has a good chapter about the
image of the Caucasus in Russian literature (Lermontov and Tolstoy
especially) but both Pushkin and Dostoyevsky were fascinated by Islam,
and the Russians, whether tsarist or communist (and even nowadays)
were quite adept at dealing with Muslims. The Tatars have turned into
rather a plus: Nureyev and Baryshnikov, whose names mean "light" and
"peace" in Turkish, being a case in point.

In fact, as the 19th century went ahead, the Caucasus was opened up,
and many of the Muslims became loyal subjects of the tsar. Tiflis,
the Georgian capital (why must we use these wretched "Tbilisis"
and "Vilniuses" for places so well marked on the historic map?),
was the seat of a viceroyalty that stretched from Kars in eastern
Anatolia to the Caspian, and the railways, or the military roads,
snaked ahead. Oil was struck on the Caspian side, and Baku, the
capital of today’s Azerbaijan, grew up as a boom town, much of the
architecture rather distinguished in late- Victorian style. One of the
great mansions has been spectacularly restored as a historical museum.

To this day, the solid architecture of Kars, now in eastern Turkey,
is impressive, and though the town went through a very bad period,
when the Cold War was going on, it is doing much better now, as
the oil pipeline to Baku pumps away, and the old railway links are
restored. Even now, despite the gruesome climate, the inhabitants of
Kars are notably sharper and better-educated than those of Trabzon
or Erzurum, which remained under Ottoman rule. According to Orhan
Pamuk’s novel on the town, Snow, its theatre was very good, but if
you needed Islamic female costumes you had to send off to Erzurum,
which was (and is: the calls to prayer are frequent and deafening) very
provincial-pious. In its way, Kars shows in miniature that pre-1914
period which is the great might-have-been of Russian history: 1914
aborted a period of growing prosperity even, if you like, a bourgeois
revolution. The revolution of 1917 finished all of that.

There was a pathetic episode, as the three nations of Transcaucasia –
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – established a shadowy independence,
even though the peoples of each were (and to some extent still are)
intermingled. Baku and Tiflis had large Armenian populations, and
Yerevan, the territory of today’s Armenia, was roughly half Muslim,
whether Azeri or Kurdish. "Ethnic cleansing" then went ahead, the
Armenians especially becoming megalomaniac, and even, as a first act
on independence at Christmas 1918, invading Georgia. To this day, much
of the Armenian diaspora seems never to have forgiven the west for
failing to support their cause: hence these strange and persistent
demands for the tragedy to be recognised as genocide. Perhaps it
was, but as King shows, Armenians were not the only victims – not by
any means – and it is rather to the credit of the Circassians’ (and
others’) descendants that they are not demanding similar recognition
of genocide from Congress or the Assemblee Nationale or Cardiff City
Council or the Edinburgh City Fathers etc.

Sovietisation of the Caucasus then happened, and it was the communists’
turn to find out just how difficult the national question was going to
be: eventually, it destroyed them. Communism had a very strong appeal
to begin with when it came to the national question: who, looking at
the Caucasus (as with Yugoslavia) would not be desperate for anything
that would stop the rise of vicious tinpot nationalism? Many stout
communists, beginning with Stalin himself, came from the Caucasus,
and Stalin in the end had recourse to deportation (of the Chechens
and many, many other peoples) as the only solution. That created the
counter-hatreds that have made post-Soviet life so difficult. The
Armenians repeated their fantasy of 1918 and invaded a neighbour
– Azerbaijan – in pursuit of a fantasy. They victoriously set
their standards afluttering over Karabakh, with much swelling of
diaspora bosoms. The effort, and the isolation it brought them,
caused nothing but economic trouble to what was already a poor,
land-locked little place, and the original population, three million,
is now, from emigration, below two: independence, in other words,
having done more damage than ever the Turks did. The Georgians had
an 18th-century ruler who described himself as "The Most High King,
by the Will of Our Lord King of Kings of the Abkhaz, Kartvelians,
Kakhetians and Armenians and Master of All the East and the West":
more megalomania with a contemporary ring, in other words. Charles
King has written a very instructive and interesting book about it all.

Norman Stone’s most recent book is "World War One: a Short History",
now available as a Penguin paperback (£7.99)

–Boundary_(ID_YQvZUvSdPnCNEqXsDpUtM A)–

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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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