In This Review

Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus
Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus
By Michael Khodarkovsky
Cornell Univ Pr, 2011, 216 pp

Tensions are once again boiling in Russia’s ragged, turbulent North Caucasian frontier, as they have been on and off since the sixteenth century. Although each era of trouble has had its own characteristics, the latest always recalls the earliest, a phenomenon that has never been better conveyed than in this ingenious history as biography. To tell the story of the region, Khodarkovsky weighs the life of Semën Atarshchikov. Born in 1807 and raised a Chechen, Atarshchikov enlisted in a Cossack regiment in 1823 to serve the Russian army as a language interpreter, like his father before him. He is caught between two cultures and witnesses the barbarity of Russia’s military campaigns against the peoples of the North Caucasus until his defection to the other side in 1841; his story ends with his murder in 1845 at the hands of his servant, who was intent on defecting back to the Russian side. Khodarkovsky leavens the tale with vivid details about the lives, cultures, and (often violent) fates of the different peoples in the region. One puts down this book with a much clearer sense of the challenge historically raised by this rebellious region for the Russians -- a challenge that, in essence, remains today.