Swiss explorer, photographer and historian of Eurasia Christophe Baumer has produced the second volume of his History of the Caucasus, splendidly illustrated with his large format, color photographs of imposing castles, fortified villages, and majestic monasteries and mosques. It looks like a coffee table book, but the dense text speaks to a higher purpose. Baumer has set himself the challenge to unthread the interwoven histories of peoples whose settlements once interlocked like so many lozenges of a Caucasian carpet. To chronicle a thousand years of history of Georgians, Armenians, Chechens, Circassians and a host of much less well-known peoples like the Kamuk, the Avars, the Balkars and Tats, could, without a guiding theme, drive a reader to despair. Baumer’s approach is a deft blend of detail with a clear overarching theme.
The clue is in the subtitle: “In the shadow of the Great Powers”. Volume One told how the peoples of the Caucasus coped with Rome and Iran, and then Byzantium and the Caliphate. In this volume, the Ottomans replace the Romans, Iran remains a player, but they are joined by new forces, including the Latin kingdoms of the Orient, the Mongols, and ultimately, Russia. The great tragedy of the peoples of the Caucasus is how they have been successively courted, betrayed and often erased by one of these powers.
Baumer reminds us that history is the memory of a nation.
In the Middle Ages, both the Georgians and the Armenians succeeded in creating extensive realms, figuring as some of the most advanced and enlightened states of the era. Dynastic marriages connected them to the Kievan Rus, the Latins, the Hungarians, and even, when convenience overwhelmed conviction, to the Muslim Seljuk and Danishmend dynasties. Though great works of piety in writing and in stone characterize this era, rulers changed religion rather easily when offered a throne or a royal bride. Leading families tended to have long tenures. They could be captured, blinded, but rarely killed, and often returned from exile or monastic life to rule again. Yet one is surprised by the number of times guests are invited to feasts, only to be massacred, or indeed the number of times a guest pulled his khinjal (dagger) on his host to kill him on the spot. Common people often suffered extermination.
This epoch came to an end when the Mongols chose the Caucasus as their invasion route from Iran into Eastern Europe. Their need to pasture their horses encouraged them to simply destroy the local populations and turn their farms over for grazing. Tamerlane followed the same policy, 200 years later, and the medieval glories of the Caucasus kingdoms flickered out. The Ottoman-Iranian wars, nine of them, further reduced the Caucasus to a depopulated and impoverished backwater. For long, the biggest business was the slave trade, delivering military-age youths to serve as mamluks in Egypt and nubile girls to harems. The North Caucasus, once nominally Christian or pagan, converted to Islam in these dark centuries as a shelter from the Muslim, Black Sea slave traders.
Many of today’s conflicts in this region originate in the painful process of modernization that took place under the Russian empire.
For the Christians of the South Caucasus, Russia proved to be as destructive a savior. Although the Armenians and Georgians frequently sought Russia’s support against the Turks and the Iranians, Russia was content to let them bleed to death before imposing rule on their own terms. Baumer draws the parallel with Stalin’s decision to halt his advance on Warsaw until the Germans had destroyed the Polish uprising. Such is the cruelty of big states versus small ones. Later Russia aligned with the Turks to oppress the Armenians, lest this nation rise up against both empires.
Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus cost about 2 million casualties and added only 4 million souls to the empire. According to Baumer, the real calculus behind Russia’s advance was to turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake, and seize Constantinople. At the same time, Russia’s advances into Iran aimed to keep the British in India on their toes and reduce Britain’s support for Turkey. Baumer reminds us that the British sent arms and agents to the Circassian resistance, a little like the aid provided to the Mujahedin of Afghanistan a century later. That the resistance, in turn, oriented the northern Caucasus towards a harsh form of Islamism, in an echo of the modern Taliban.
Readers will be daunted by the heft of this book, but will be well rewarded to plunge in and learn from Baumer’s thorough and insightful narrative.
Many of today’s conflicts in this region originate in the painful process of modernization that took place under the Russian empire. That regime was unable to tame the demons of nationalism as peoples, once separated by ecological frontiers found themselves competing for a livelihood in the Dickensian poverty of Baku and Tbilisi. Why did the Soviet Union only freeze, not appease these conflicts? The harshness of Soviet rule, collectivization, famine, deportation and purges, did not forge a single, Soviet people, but reinforced old historical identities, along with an understandable sense of victimhood. Endemic corruption and gangsterism in the Soviet Union ensured that clans and families counted more than party or state. This has led to the reemergence of ancient feuds, after 80 years of deep freeze.
Baumer reminds us that history is the memory of a nation. The states of the Caucasus today exist because of, and understand the world, through their reading of history. What is admirable about Baumer is his ability to examine dispassionately recent events without polemics. Atrocities perpetrated by hard men on both sides explains the difficulty of reconciling the Caucasian peoples, precisely what the perpetrators intended. The great powers, now including the United States and the EU, continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of these peoples. In a thought-provoking insight, Baumer argues that NATO’s flirtation with Georgia arose from an attempt to clear Afghan mercenaries out of Southern Ossetia, but that there was never any wide enthusiasm in the Atlantic alliance. Similarly, much of Russia’s interference in their near abroad is based on old, personal ties between siloviki and local strongmen, though Baumer is somewhat more critical of Russia than he is of NATO.
Readers will be daunted by the heft of this book, but will be well rewarded to plunge in and learn from Baumer’s thorough and insightful narrative. I would not plan to take it with me on a trip to Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia, but I would certainly reread this excellent text before I go.