Thursday, April 01, 2010

Oliver Bullough book review

The Caucasus

Haunting history

Mar 31st 2010
From The Economist print edition

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. By Oliver Bullough. Allen Lane; 496 pages; £25. To be published in America by Basic Books in August.Buy from

WESTERN colonialists have often behaved abominably but they usually repent of it later. Move east, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Few now remember what happened to Circassia. As the Ottoman empire crumbled in the mid-19th century, Russia conquered the loosely held Turkish domains on the north-east coast of the Black Sea—and huge numbers of the anarchic, steely Circassian tribespeople died in what would today be termed a genocidal colonial war. Many more fled the killing grounds, crossing the Black Sea in leaky and overcrowded ships, many of them to die miserably in now-forgotten refugee camps on the Turkish coast. Around half the Circassian population of 2m perished.

Oliver Bullough’s first book marks him out as a distinguished researcher, observer and narrator. The opening chapters deal with a part of history wholly neglected in Russia. It is as if Americans had never heard of the Sioux, and Wounded Knee had become a tourist resort where the events of 1890 had faded from memory.

That is pretty much how surviving Circassians now see the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which 150 years ago was the site of their final and greatest defeat and massacre. Mr Bullough tracks down their remnants, determined and despairing by turns, in Russia and in exile. His quest takes him from dirt-poor villages in Kosovo to influential bits of Jordanian officialdom. He paints a haunting portrait of a people blown to the winds by a forgotten storm.

His research is formidable. He unearths long-buried contemporary accounts of the killings, and desperate pleas for help buried in old files in the British Foreign Office. He matches this with accounts of the contemporary diasporas, often both nostalgic for what they have lost and disgusted by what they find when they return.

The Caucasus will be blamed

If the tsarist conquest of the northern Caucasus was savage, what followed under communism was worse, including the Stalin-era deportations of whole nations to the steppes of Central Asia. A particularly harrowing account is of a wartime massacre in the Cherek valley in Balkaria (a Turkic-speaking district next door to the former Circassia). Like the murder of Polish officers at Katyn, this was carried out by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD—but then cynically blamed on the Germans. But whereas Poles have doggedly defended their history against falsifiers, the Circassians have been all but voiceless. One of Mr Bullough’s most powerful points is how little about the Circassians can be found even in works by specialist historians of the region.

The heirs to this history visit cruel, random destruction in terrorist attacks, bringing botched responses by the authorities. Mr Bullough unpicks the seizure, by terrorists claiming to be Chechen fighters, of the Beslan school in North Ossetia, a neighbouring republic in Russia’s Caucasus, in 2004. And he investigates the background of the women who have become suicide-bombers to avenge their husbands, sons and brothers—a tactic which, early indications suggest, was repeated in two attacks on the Moscow metro this week.

Russian and then Soviet rule brought literacy, electricity and roads to the region, and uprooted feudalism. But by Mr Bullough’s account, it would be a travesty to call that a civilising mission. It has come with a shocking mixture of brutality, incompetence and corruption, entrenching criminality on all sides.

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