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The Caucasus

In writing last week about Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, I quoted a comment I wrote a month earlier after finishing Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War:

Time and again, as I read the book, I would recognize the ground being laid for conflicts of the twentieth century. The Balkans. The Caucasus. Afghanistan. Recent developments such as the Chechen War and the 2008 conflicts between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia all make more sense to me now. Not to mention that I know where they all are.

I then explained that since “I could finally picture the geographical relative positions of all the countries in Central Asia, it was time to learn more.” And that’s what led me to Thubron’s book.

Yet, I could just have easily have chosen to read more about the Caucasus. I was therefore delighted to open up the latest issue of The New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago and find Tim Judah’s review of Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction.

Unfortunately, Judah has nothing to say about the book. He takes the opportunity to write about his own travel in and views of Armenia — certainly a reviewer’s prerogative — but provides no enlightenment on de Waal’s work. Quite a ways in, Judah speaks of de Waal’s “excellent recent book,” including a quote to support his view. And the closing sentence returns to the book for another supporting quote. That’s it.

Nonetheless, interest piqued, and then making slow progress through the China portion of Thubron’s journey, I downloaded the free opening portion of the book (from Amazon) to read. Then, three mornings ago, after arriving with Thubron in Antioch (Turkish Antakya) and concluding what turned out to be an extraordinary journey, I downloaded the rest of de Waal’s book. I’m now two-thirds through it. Here’s the Oxford University Press blurb:

In The Caucasus, de Waal provides this richer, deeper, and much-needed appreciation, one that reveals that the South Caucasus–Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and their many smaller regions, enclaves, and breakaway entities–is a fascinating and distinct world unto itself. Providing both historical background and an insightful analysis of the period after 1991, de Waal sheds light on how the region has been scarred by the tumultuous scramble for independence and the three major conflicts that broke out with the end of the Soviet Union–Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. The book examines the region as a major energy producer and exporter; offers a compelling account of the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the rise of Mikheil Saakashvili, and the August 2008 war; and considers the failure of the South Caucasus, thus far, to become a single viable region. In addition, the book features a dozen or so “boxes” which provide brief snapshots of such fascinating side topics as the Kurds, Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, the promotion of the region as the “Soviet Florida,” and the most famous of all Georgians, Stalin.

The Caucasus delivers a vibrantly written and timely account of this turbulent region, one that will prove indispensable for all concerned with world politics. It is, as well, a stimulating read for armchair travelers and for anyone curious about far-flung corners of the world.

For someone ignorant, like me, de Waal’s book is indeed what Judah says: excellent. But it is no more than what it claims to be, an introduction. It provides a whirlwind tour through history, with the briefest of mentions of centuries before the nineteenth; a closer look at Russian dominance during the nineteenth; a bit of a pause in the 1918-1922 years, when the status of the South Caucasus entities was up for grabs; and a review of the changing status of the various republics during the Stalin years. From there, we get to the heart of the book, an examination of the conflicts just before and after the Soviet Union’s collapse (which I’m reading about now), then a jump to the more recent conflicts.

Mike King’s map accompanying Judah’s review gives some sense, if you don’t have a geographic picture in view, of the complexity of the region.

The account of the complexities of the political situation facing Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Soviet Union/Russia in the late 80s and early 90s is illuminating, as are the subsequent accounts of the war at that time between Georgia and South Ossetia, and the war that began just as that ended between Georgia and Abkhazia. The map doesn’t go quite far enough west. Missing is a view of the Black Sea coast, with Turkey, the region of Ajara, Georgia, and the region of Abkhazia. And the fact that there are all these regions, each with a history of independence as well as a history of consolidation within the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and Georgia only begins to suggest how complicated the mixing of peoples, languages, and cultures is. Sorting this out for the novice is de Waal’s principal accomplishment.

Still awaiting me is de Waal’s treatment of the 2008 war between Georgia and South Ossetia and the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict as well. Who can forget John McCain’s assurance to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at the height of the war in South Ossetia that we Americans are all Georgians? Oh, here we go. There was an op-ed piece in the WSJ on August 14, 2008, with the title, “We Are all Georgians.” And that same day, the Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe reported:

The United States should stand with the democratic government in Georgia, he said, adding that he had offered Americans’ prayers and thoughts in a conversation with Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

“He knows that the thoughts and the prayers and support of the American people are with that brave little nation as they struggle today for their freedom and independence. And he wanted me to say thank you to you, to give you his heartfelt thanks for the support of the American people for this tiny little democracy far away from the United States of America. And I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, ‘Today, we are all Georgians,’ ” McCain declared.

To think that McCain portrayed himself as the foreign policy expert. Like Romney now, he just wanted to posture that he would stand up to Russia, regardless of the actual history of the conflict.

Anyway, I’m finding this quite a useful primer. Now I need a companion for the North Caucasus. I wouldn’t mind knowing more about Chechnya and Dagestan. Plus, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will be upon us soon, with skiing in Krasnaya Polyana. I better bone up before then so I’ll have an understanding of the local tensions.

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Categories: Books, History
  1. May 8, 2012 at 10:23 PM

    Also interesting: Cristina Belgiojoso’s book about life in Turkey, Palestine, and Syria — all parts of the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Crimean War. I posted my translation of this work (from the French) in my blog (bookstranslator) Herb

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