Crimes in the Caucasus

Documenting a great historical tragedy unknown to most, Oliver Bullough's new book is a fascinating and groundbreaking work. Thomas de Waal reviews "Let Our Fame Be Great"
Thomas de Waal
21 May 2010

A century and a half ago the Circassians were a people no less familiar to educated Europeans than Armenians. Rather like the Marsh Arabs or the Kuwaitis, they were caught up in a geopolitical fight much bigger than themselves, in this case the mid-19th century imperial struggle between Britain and Russia for control of the Black Sea and trade-routes to India. The romantic Russophobe Islamophile Tory MP (it is not often that these words are put together) David Urquhart supported the Circassian warriors in their struggle against the advancing Tsarist Empire. He invited a delegation of Circassian chieftains to visit England and Scotland and even used a Circassian flag as his banner in his electoral campaign for the parliamentary seat of Stafford. In this Urquhart found common cause with another Russophobe, Karl Marx. Urquhart’s and Marx’s hatred of Russian rule and support for the oppressed peoples of the Russian empire transcended their ideological differences.

After the Crimean War, when the exhausted Circassians failed to open a second front against the tsar in North-West Caucasus, Britain and the world forgot about them. But it was not until 1864, a full five years after the surrender of the much better known Islamic warrior Imam Shamil in Dagestan, that Tsar Alexander II completed his conquest of the north-west Caucasus and his main resisters there, the Circassian mountain tribes. Hundreds of thousands of them were subjected to brutal deportation to the Ottoman empire.


Oliver Bullough
Let Our Fame Be Great

Allen Lane, 2009
£25, 478 pages



In his fascinating and ground-breaking book on the North Caucasus, “Let Our Fame Be Great,” Oliver Bullough estimates that of the more than a million Circassians who were deported from their homeland in 1864 and subsequent years, around a third died. Yet this great historical tragedy is barely known to the world. Only in recent years have Circassians begun to mark May 21, the date in 1864 when the Russian army celebrated its victory, as their own Genocide Day.

Bullough, who used to be the main reporter in the North Caucasus for Reuters news agency, has got plenty of dust, snow and mud on his boots from his travels recording the forgotten tragedies of the North Caucasus. On bone-crunching buses, ships and trains, he has traversed the length of this region and he also travelled to see the diaspora Circassians of Israel and Turkey and watched Chechen Sufis dance the ecstatic zikr dance in the plains of Kazakhstan. In the process he unearthed many priceless nuggets of historic truth. No one else to my knowledge has recorded in English the story of the deportation in 1944 of 40,000 Balkars, “Mountain Turks” in the north-west Caucasus whom Stalin decided one day were enemies of the Soviet state. Two years earlier they were the victims of a hideous massacre in the Cherek Valley that Bullough reconstructs meticulously. The Karachais, a somewhat larger Turkic group, met the same fate. Bullough tells their story through a vignette about a little boy and his wind-up gramophone, provided him by an old man living in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Sixty years before, Osman Korkmazov and his family endured occupation by the German army and had his red gramophone restored to him by a German officer who caught two of his soldiers trying to steal it from the boy. Then, when the Soviet army retook the mountainous area, the Karachais were accused of being collaborators. The family fled into the mountains; at first there was no room on a donkey for the gramophone but the little Osman screamed and his aunt relented. Then in November 1943 the Karachais were the first ethnic group in the North Caucasus to be subjected to mass deportation. A kindly lieutenant named Misha allowed him to take his gramophone with him as he and his entire people were sent into exile:

“With the straightforward acceptance of a child, he waited for the next excitement and chatted to Misha and the driver, also called Misha. He did not realize that he was seeing the destruction of his nation, or that he would never live in these mountains again. He was just glad to have rescued his gramophone.”   

This poignant cinematic scene is priceless, one of several episodes that make Bullough’s book a really important document. Many people—including myself—have written about the tribulations of the Chechens. Asne Seierstad’s “The Angel of Grozny” is a recent worthy addition to that literature. Few have bothered with the smaller peoples of this region. That means that I, for one, became less interested when Bullough travels more familiar ground. There are plenty of other books that can tell you, at greater length, the stories of Pushkin and Lermontov or Imam Shamil or the first Chechen war.

The geographical progression of the book, moving across the North Caucasus and switching back and forth between the tsarist colonial past, the Soviet era and the present also has its drawbacks. Bullough wants to argue that the Russian history of the North Caucasus is an arc of colonial brutality stretching back two centuries: “The Circassians, the mountain Turks, the Ingush and the Chechens have all suffered horribly just so the map of Russia could be the shape the tsars, the general secretaries and the presidents wanted it to be.” There is plenty of evidence corroborating this, much of it impressively marshaled in this book. But the deviations from the norm add nuance to the picture and a more chronological approach would have brought that out. Russian policy towards the North Caucasus has been marked not just by brutality but also by chronic inconsistency. In some ways it is a typically confused colonial story in which efforts to co-opt and modernize have gone hand in hand with oppression and killing. The Russian regimes murdered some and gave literacy and opportunity to others.

We do not read here about the way that within years of the ferocious deportation of the mass of the Circassians from the Russian Empire, many of those who stayed behind had begun to assimilate into the tsarist hierarchy and study in St Petersburg. Circassian horsemen formed the backbone of the tsar’s “Wild Division” that fought heroically for the empire in the First World War and for the Whites in the Civil War. The Bolsheviks also did the lower classes favours. Their experiments of the 1920s, which saw the formation of what Terry Martin calls “the affirmative action empire” briefly encouraged native language learning and autonomous structures for the small peoples of the Soviet Union, those of the North Caucasus.  In 1933, the writer Isaac Babel, visited Kabardino-Balkaria and befriended its larger-than-life party boss Betal Kalmykov. In her memoirs Babel’s widow, Antonina Pirozhkova describes “a region of what seemed to be unimaginable plenty. The markets were overflowing with goods, the horses well-fed, the cows and sheep nicely fatted.” Within a few years, the Great Terror had begun. Kalmykov was shot and Stalin singled out some nations for mass punishment, among them the Karachai, Balkars, Chechen and Ingush. Others escaped deportation including—on this occasion—all Circassians and Dagestanis. One day I would like to read a convincing analysis of why some previously rebellious ethnic groups, such as the Circassians and Avars, were spared deportation, while others, such as Chechens and Karachai, were exiled en masse.

Following the hideous violence of the two wars in Chechnya, Moscow now seems to have swung into one of its more consensual phases in dealing with the North Caucasus. The appointment of Alexander Khloponin, an experienced economic manager from Siberia, as the new official troubleshooter in the region and President Medevedev’s conciliatory visit to Dagestan after the Moscow metro bombing, were both signs that the Russian government knows it needs to spend money in the region and win consent, if it is to keep its hold there. The trouble is that the social picture of the North Caucasus—young, poor, Islamic, non-Russian—is increasingly divergent from that of the rest of the Russian Federation. In another generation, the people of the region could find themselves freer than ever before of rule by Moscow. My fear is that the legacy of the past in this deeply unfortunate part of the world is so heavy that they will find that freedom very hard to deal with.

Thomas de Waal is a Senior Associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. His book “The Caucasus: An Introduction” will be published in September by Oxford University Press.  

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