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The best books on The Caucasus

recommended by Oliver Bullough

Author and former Reuters correspondent in Moscow chooses books on the Caucasus and says the only language Russia understands is unconditional surrender, whether they are ruled by the Tsars, the Communists or Putin

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is a former Reuters Moscow correspondent. His book Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, a travel and history book, was published by Penguin in 2010, and described his journeys to find the scattered peoples of the mountains. It was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in the UK, and won the Cornelius Ryan award in the US. His second book, The Last Man in Russia, was published in 2013.

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Your first book is The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus by John Frederick Baddeley, a military history of the Chechen and Dagestani resistance to Russian invasion in the early 19th century.

J F Baddeley was an English journalist and businessman who travelled extensively in Russia and the Caucasus in the 19th century. He knew the Caucasus as well as any foreigner and wrote a great deal about his experiences there. This is the more well known of his two books on the Caucasus which focuses on the resistance of the Chechens and Dagestanis to the Russian conquest.

Led by Sufi Muslim leader Imam Shamil, they fought very effectively and bravely for 40 years until they were finally conquered in 1859. The book is based almost entirely on Russian sources and accounts of events, since indigenous Caucasian languages were not written down until the 20th century. It’s a monumental piece of military history.

The Russian experience of the Caucasus is clearly central to books on the region. Your next choice is Nabokov’s translation of A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov.

Lermontov wrote this novella directly after the unsuccessful Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nikolai I in 1825 which led to savage repression and resentment amongst young members of the intelligentsia who lost the ability to express themselves in any way. Many troublesome young intellectuals were punished by being sent to the Caucasus, which turned out to be a much freer environment for writers. Having offended the Tsar with his poem ‘On the Death of a Poet’, which was seen as an attack on Russian society, accusing it of being complicit in Pushkin’s death, Lermontov was himself sent to the Caucasus in 1837.

In A Hero of Our Time, I think Lermontov is expressing the rage and boredom of young people of his generation with the stultifying atmosphere of bureaucracy and control in Russia at the time. Parallels have been drawn between Lermontov and Pechorin but I think we can see Pechorin as more of an everyman for his generation. Tsar Nikolai completely missed the point and thought that the rather boring stooge Maxim Maximych was the hero of our time and not Pechorin. It’s a short book and is structurally very interesting, and I really recommend the Nabokov translation.

There are so many different nationalities in the Caucasus and as many as 50 languages or dialects. Nart Sagas of the Caucasus is your next book. Probably not one that people would have heard of!

This is a collection of folk tales of the Circassians, Abkhaz and other peoples from Western Caucasus who had a corpus of legends that were their equivalent of Greek myths. I actually had one read at my wedding. They’re very peculiar stories with lots of parallels with the Greek myths. For example, there’s an Achilles character called Sosruquo who, instead of having a weak point in his heel, has a weak point in his knee. He was boiling hot when he was born and when they dipped him in the blacksmith’s water to cool down, they held him by his knee and so that was the bit that didn’t harden.

These stories are all the more compelling because of the brutal oppression of the Circassians under the Tsars. They’re a really fascinating people, a huge part of ancient Mediterranean civilisation, but they pretty much vanished after the Russian invasion of the 1860s. The Russians gave them a choice to move north of the mountains and settle as peasants under Russian law or leave. I think they were quite surprised when a million or so Circassians chose to leave, but about a third of this group died in the course of the exodus. These events have since been recognised to be the first genocide of the modern age and I think the parallels with the Armenian genocide of 50 years later are clear.

Let’s fast-forward to another cheerful book about the Stalin era.

I think The Nation Killers is a slightly neglected book in a way because in Cold War times what you thought about the Soviet Union was conditioned by what side of the political debate you were on. Robert Conquest’s experiences in Bulgaria after the Second World War and the way that the Communists had taken power there filled him with disgust and prompted him to take an anti-Stalinist stance. He ended up doing a lot of research into the purges of 1943-4 when Stalin deported natives of the North Caucasus to Siberia and Central Asia and it is this process of resettlement that is investigated in this book. The Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachais were forced out of their homeland for allegedly collaborating with the Germans in the Second World War. Though some did side with the Nazis, they were mainly opposed to the Soviet regime, which had ill-treated them for decades.

Conquest uncovered the kind of details of the Stalinist purges that make the book really compelling. For example, in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia published after the war, the population of Kabardino-Balkaria was listed as 60 per cent Circassian, 10 per cent Russian. There was no explanation for the missing 30 per cent. The indigenous Balkars had been deported, with about one third dying in the process, but no one had got around to editing the details in the encyclopedia.

I think it’s fair to say that, written as it was in 1969, Conquest’s study was before its time in its damning report on Stalin’s crimes. At the time, a lot of academics in the West were in denial about how bad Stalin’s purges were and it was difficult to get any facts because they tended to be ideologically tainted by one side or the other. In fact, Conquest retrospectively commented that, if anything, he had underestimated how bad it was.

Sadly, there has been a lot of death and oppression in the region in recent years too, as reflected in your last book by Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist assassinated in Moscow in 2006.

Yes. Politkovskaya’s book A Dirty War is about the way the Russians conquered Chechnya in 1999-2000. It’s a really powerful account written in the immediate aftermath of the events, bringing to life the brutal mistreatment of Chechens and the destruction of Grozny by Russian forces.

Politkovskaya was a very brave woman to write the book at the time and deserves a great deal of respect for what she did. It is pretty unambiguous that the Russian treatment of the Chechens was extremely violent. No matter how bad the Chechen terror attacks in Beslan and Moscow were, what happened in Chechnya was a hundred times worse and people sometimes lose sight of that. There has been a bit of a tendency in the international media to demonise the Chechens but the day-to-day trickle of horrors in Chechnya terrified and horrified far more people than the bigger scale Chechen attacks on Russia. The cumulative picture of attacks on Chechens means that they’re a traumatised nation. People rather forget that.

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is a former Reuters Moscow correspondent. His book Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, a travel and history book, was published by Penguin in 2010, and described his journeys to find the scattered peoples of the mountains. It was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in the UK, and won the Cornelius Ryan award in the US. His second book, The Last Man in Russia, was published in 2013.