I perused this book over the past week. It is authored by Oliver Bullough. This intrepid Briton wandered all over the Caucusus region. In the Caucacus people do not have much respect for the law – particularly if they are agents of the state. They seem to see the law as a weapon in the hands of the state with which to club insensible the least dissent and not a shield to protect the rights of the individual from the domineering power of the state. Anyway, down to brass tacks. However, the misuse of state power is a theme that this book returns to time out of number.
This book is highly readable although I cannot say unputdownable. The pen portraits are vivid and the prose is always engaging. The explanations of the historical context is lucid despite him having to tackle some very complex narrative. Sometimes the historical narrative became turgid. He leaves in much literature and folk lore along the way.
The book is partly travelogue, partly journalism and partly history. He worked as a journalist in Russia for several years in the early Noughties.
His description of the countryside shows his virtuoso descriptive powers. He makes the Caucasus come alive.
The Caucasus has always been a scene for power play between Russia and the Muslim lands to the south. This has been a horrific tragedy for the people of those mountains. Even now there is fighting in the Caucasus but we here precious little about it. The Caucasus are not considered to be of strategic or economic importance. The great bulk of the oil in the region is in Azerbaijan which is stable and not hostile to any country of significance. In saying that I do not count Armenia as a significan player on the world stage.
Colourful characters are brought back to life on Bullough’s pages. Shamil, the legendary warrior of the Caucasus, features strongly. I had not known that he surrendered to Russia and was treated in Russia as an honoured guest. He was much like King Cetewayo when he came to the United Kingdom. On the other hand Shamil committed horrific atrocities – as did some Russian commanders. Cetewayo did not – to my knowledge – order the slaying of unarmed people.
I had an irrational sneaking sympathy for Russia in these Caucasian conflicts. Perhaps because I was raised as a Christian I, in my naivete, assumed that Christians are somehow more benign. Of course that is utter tosh. I saw Russia as being ‘civilised’ as compared to the Caucasus – as bringing modernity and good government. That is largely false. Russia until 20 years ago was a frank dictatorship. The people of the Caucasus were fiercely independent and had hardly any state to speak of. Even though Russia did have better technology the people of the Caucasus did not appear to want it. Russian invasions were fiercely resisted in the hills.
Russia was attacking these people for several reasons. Partly it was because it could attack them successfully though it took decades to subdue them. Partly it was because they were Muslims. Russia attacked Christian nations too but not Orthodox ones. Partly it was because these countries sometimes paid lip service to the Sublime Porte. St Petersburg wanted to roll back the frontiers of its nemesis – the Ottoman Empire. These lands had minimal economic value. Their main export was slaves. Putting a stop to the slave trade was onwe of the few positive things Russia did here. However, Russia replaced this by enslaving people for being political dissidents. People were enslaved on a nakedly racist basis that they belonged to a criminal naitonality and were deported en masse for Siberia or Kazakhstan.
I remember hearing a British patriotic song from about 1880 – The Russians may not have Constantinople. The song mentioned, ”they murdered the Circassians.” I remember the lecturer saying the same thing was going on now with relation to the Chechens. I consider myself well informed about the former USSR. However, this tome was a revelation. I had not realised that there were a score of ethnic groups in the Caucasus – the USSR was to arbitrarily and artifically subdivide them going by the adage – divide et impera. The Circassians are not the same people as the Chechens.
The so-called Circassion Genocide was much worse than I had imagined. I am not talking about a soldier losing his cool and killing a civilian or two. Nor do I mean an officer seeing red and ordering a small group to be put to the sword. There was a policy to drive out Circassians by killing so many that the rest would flee. It was largely successful. There is a reasonable case to classify this as a Circassians. I knew that Circassians were in the Middle East but I assumed they just drifted there in dribs and drabs.
I am in no way anti-Russian. There are Russians I like and admire. There are good aspects in Russian culture. Russia has been the good guy in some conflicts. However, in the Caucasus it is hard not to regard the Russian Government as the villain of the piece.
Boris Yeltsin is seen as a hero in the West for his trenchant anti-Communism. Admittedly he rose up through that system. But that was the only way to bring it down – from within. However, in Chechnya he is widely reviled.
I am not necessarily in favour of Chechen independence. I realise that some of the Chechen independence fighters are religious fanatics and have committed atrocities. Some are outright gangsters who mouth some slogans to mask their base criminality. I must acknowledge that more than a few Russian soldiers have dishoured their flag in Chechnya. I do not say all or even even most Russian soldiers have done this. There is ample evidence that torture is used a lot in Chechnya. Suspects are arrested on the flimsiest of evidence and often are disappeared.
No army is perfect. Under the stresses of an irregular conflict chivalry and concern for humanity tends to fray. However, this is not your ordinary irregular conflict. The crimes committed by some Russian soldiers have been many and have been horrific. Civilians have been killed in great numbers. Moscow does very little to stop this.
Russian soldiers are often brutally treated when they are new conscripts. I am not talking about the toughness that any army needs. I mean way beyond that. Toughness and brutality are not the same thing. Some are severely beaten up and even die. Having being brutalised like this the teenage conscripts sometimes take it out on Chechens.
Russia suffers from a lack of self-analysis. Countries should be a little self-critical. The UK is much too self-critical. Russia has little sense that dissent is patriotic.
Just think if Russia had not invaded the Caucasus. Many lives would be saved on both sides. Russia would be stronger to defend herself against her enemies. She would have better relations with Muslim countries. She would be richer.
On several occasions in the book the author’s interlocutors called him an ”Englishman”. He never records correcting them that he is Welsh. He has a sensible Mid British attitude that people on the far side of the continent cannot tell Welsh and English apart if they have even heard of Wales. Being and Irishman I know the feeling. Why quibble that Ireland is not England? That is what people in the East of Europe ask me. They often lump Ireland in with Scotland. In the former Soviet Union they say to me, ”Irlandiya-Shottlandiya” nodding knowgingly.
I recommend this book.