What to Read on the Caucasus

Travel poster, 1930s. (Keijo Knutas / Flickr)

The Boston Marathon bombing this month sent people scrambling for maps and encyclopedias after it was revealed that the suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were ethnic Chechens with ties to Dagestan and the North Caucasus. Although the full dimensions of the region’s role in the incident, if any, are uncertain, concerns about the area’s Islamist underground, nationalism, and security are perennial themes in Russian -- and perhaps now American -- politics.

The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. By John F. Baddeley. First published in English by Longmans, Green and Co., 1908. (Now available in several reprint editions.)
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A Hero of Our Time. By Mikhail Lermontov. First published in English by Ingram, Cook and Co., 1853. (Now available in several reprint editions.)
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Haji Murat. By Leo Tolstoy. First published in English by Oxford University Press, 1904. (Now available in several reprint editions.)
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Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus, which spanned from 1817 to 1864, was the longest-running military conflict in Russian history. More than two generations of generals, professional soldiers, and peasant conscripts were consumed with the battle, and it had a monumental effect on Russian culture. Like the taming of American West in U.S. history, the fight for the Caucasus helped shape Russians’ views of themselves. The account by Baddeley, a British writer and traveler, is conventional military history, full of brutal battles, chaotic retreats, and daring raids. But there is no better treatment of the main lines of Russia’s long-running attempts to subdue its southern borderlands. Two classic literary works by Lermontov and Tolstoy played central roles in shaping Russian perceptions of the region. Tolstoy in particular is sensitive to the ill effects of the vicious fighting in the North Caucasus on both Russian politics and local communities.

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant Peoples of the Caucasus. By Oliver Bullough. Basic Books, 2010.
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Bullough, the Caucasus editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, has lived and worked in the North Caucasus for years. His book, a searching portrait of the national and cultural complexities of Russia’s most restive region, combines on-the-ground reporting and deep historical knowledge in a way that only British writers seem able to do. Bullough is particularly sensitive to the stories that the people of the North Caucasus tell about themselves -- their heroism, their cultural pride, their multifaceted religious beliefs. He emphasizes a point that often gets lost: many people in the North Caucasus today feel themselves to be in Russia but decidedly not of it. And Russians, as Bullough points out, unfortunately return the favor.

Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. By Thomas De Waal. New York University Press, 2003. 
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The Caucasus: An Introduction. By Thomas De Waal. Oxoford University Press, 2010.
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De Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is among the most experienced and respected analysts of Caucasus politics. No wonder, then, that Black Garden remains by far the best account of one of the region’s most intractable conflicts: the standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the small region of Nagorno-Karabakh. De Waal’s book is a painstakingly evenhanded treatment of the origins of the complex dispute, ranging from the Armenian genocide in the late years of the Ottoman Empire through failed state-building efforts after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dynamics it uncovers apply to many other conflicts in the Caucasus, both north and south of the mountains. His The Caucasus covers the main political developments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography. By Georgi M. Derluguian. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
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No one has had the range of experiences that Derluguian brings to bear on his analysis of the North Caucasus; he is a Soviet-trained expert on Africa, a military veteran, a sociologist, and now an American university professor. Despite the book’s imposing subtitle, it is an accessible analysis of what happened to the last generation of Soviet citizens in the Caucasus, the men and women who increasingly gravitated toward either nationalism or Islamist politics in the 1990s. Derluguian is particularly good on why Chechens rose in rebellion when other North Caucasus ethnic groups did not.

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. By Anna Politkovskaya. Translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
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Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s most intrepid and courageous journalists until she was murdered in 2006 in her apartment building in Moscow, a case that has never been solved. Her coverage of the second Chechen war, the one that transformed Chechen nationalism into jihad, is unparalleled. She brings a war correspondent’s sensitivity to the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike and, crucially, covers the long-term effects of the Chechen conflict on Russian society as a whole. It inured the country to violence, cemented the power of Vladimir Putin, and created an indelible image of people from the North Caucasus as inherently violent.

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. By Charles King. Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Readers with still more questions about the region might turn to my general history, which covers the main themes of the region’s past: the clash of empires, the power and weakness of ethnic ties, the role of Islam and Christianity, and the transformative experience of state- and nation-building under the Soviet Union and after its fall. It also situates that history in Europe and the rest of the world, tracing the impact of the region on popular culture, trade, and foreign policy over the last two centuries. There is more to the Caucasus than violence and rebellion, and The Ghost of Freedom tries to broaden the picture to encompass everything from local politics to the aspirations of the immigrants who now connect the Caucasus to the wider world.

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