Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.1 (2006) 111-122
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The Caucasian Tangle
University of Cincinnati
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Cincinnati, OH 45221-0373 USA
No one knows exactly how many people have been killed, abducted, or turned into refugees as a result of the Russo-Chechen Wars that began in 1994, but the estimates run in the hundreds of thousands.1 Bombs [End Page 111] continue to explode in Dagestan. There are murderous raids in North Ossetia. The only thing clear about "the North Caucasus problem" today is that nothing much seems to change. The missed opportunities accumulate. The poverty continues, as do the corruption and the despair. Despite Putin's so-called "normalization" process, no one has come up with any alternative to Chechnya's grim "Kalashnikov culture."2 Many, in fact, seem content to let Kalashnikovism continue—the Chechen terrorists and warlords for one, and, according to Anna Politkovskaya, members of the Russian high command as well.3 Most depressing of all, many Russians outside the region have written off the Kavkaztsy (peoples of the Caucasus) in general and the Chechen war in particular. Television censorship, terrorism, and cynicism have taken their toll. On a recent trip to Russia, every cab driver I spoke with in four cities between Chita and Moscow told me, in one version or another, that the people of the North Caucasus are "not normal," have never been "normal," and that the only person who ever knew how to make things work down there was Stalin. The war, I was told, will never end.
Things did not have to be this way. The most overlooked fact of Russia's relationship with the North Caucasus is that, like all relationships, it amounts to many relations at once, all of them overlapping and intertwined. There is a relationship of Russian conquest and native resistance, of Soviet deportation and Caucasian exile. Yet there are also links of intermarriage and cohabitation and of borrowing, trading, common patriotism, and shared citizenship. Russians (including Russian serfs) have gone to the mountains to find freedom.4 Avars, Ingush, and Ossetians have migrated to Moscow to find jobs. Victimization has come in national forms, but not always and not exclusively; and victimization, in any case, is not the only story. Telling the history of Russia in the North Caucasus (and of the North Caucasus in Russia) requires in the first instance choosing which history to talk about.5 In the midst of conflict, the most natural thing to do is to emphasize the narrative of hostility, betrayal, and estrangement. Warriors and their supporters must be rallied, after all, and all sides have predictably done much of that. Exploring the fuller range of [End Page 112] entanglements—that is, acknowledging the existence of a more complex history—is decidedly less popular.
The first two books under review stress the history of conflict from a Russian point of view. Both are reprints of 19th-century publications. Russkie na Kavkaze is a hodgepodge containing articles on the Caucasus from the 1894 edition of the Brokgauz and Efron encyclopedia; selections on the Caucasian policies of Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov and Ivan Fedorovich Paskevich from General Vasilii...