- Writer, Rebel, Soldier, ShaykhBorder Crossers in the Historiography of the Modern Caucasus
For nearly a century and a half, the Caucasus found itself under Russian and Soviet rule, and kavkazovedenie—Caucasology—fit into the rubric of “domestic social sciences” (otechestvennoe obshchestvovedenie). Under one state with a lingua franca in administration and scholarship, the Caucasus thus lent itself to study as a region. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, the emergence of strictly controlled national boundaries, armed conflict, and hermetic academic institutions made it not only more difficult to move around the Caucasus but also to study the region as a whole. Today structural, disciplinary, topographic, ideological, and linguistic hurdles remain too high [End Page 345] for most scholars to write histories of the Caucasus that traverse geographic and temporal boundaries. Studies generally remain confined to ethnic and national histories, to one side of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, or to one side of the events of 1917. Quixotic attempts at writing a grand unified history of the Caucasus, meanwhile, run the risk of producing unwieldy quasi-encyclopedias based by necessity on unreliable secondary sources—compare James Forsyth’s recent 938-page Caucasus: A History.1
Three scholars have recently taken up the challenge of traversing these seemingly insurmountable geographic and temporal boundaries of Caucasian historiography. Collectively, these authors invite us to find elements that define the Caucasus as a region. Rebecca Gould collects literary works from both the North and the South Caucasus and finds a common aesthetic vector of insurgency pointing from the mid-19th century to the Soviet period and beyond. Jeronim Perović crosses the temporal boundary of the 1917 revolutions, too, giving us a longer-scale perspective on state-society relations in the North Caucasus across regimes. Finally, Reinhard Nachtigal shows how new transportation infrastructure across physical barriers turned paths of local import into integrating networks that consolidated the Caucasus and connected the region to the Russian heartland. As this essay hopes to show, such scholarly border crossing helps make debates about colonialism, violence, and modernity in the Caucasus relevant for scholarship beyond the confines of area studies as well.
Gould’s Writers and Rebels is an anthropology of “the literary Caucasus”—the Caucasus as imagined in locally produced texts, primarily dealing with the topic of violent insurgency.2 Her corpus consists of literature written in Arabic, Chechen, Georgian, and Russian, mostly between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries. Gould is not concerned with establishing a chronology: Writers and Rebels is explicitly not a history but a literary analysis, and Gould considers literary forms valid even if they “invert the historical record.” The ethics and aesthetics reflected in Caucasian literature, she argues, help us understand and explain violence better than a strict historical analysis, since the latter’s singular focus on causality ignores nonhistorical experiences (like [End Page 346] miracles, mourning, or personal acts of redemption) that nevertheless shaped lifeworlds and framed violent acts. Yet Gould slides into a causal mode as well, arguing that “literature shapes history and experience … by giving birth to new ways of conceiving political life [and] generating new idioms of resistance and new and ever more complex languages of accommodation” (23). The glue holding these modes of analysis together is an aesthetic of violence Gould calls “transgressive sanctity.”
In a frequently cited article published in this journal in 2007, Gould defined “transgressive sanctity” as “a particular form of religiosity that is constituted through its violation of the secular...