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Mountain megalomaniacs

Between Russia and the Middle East, the Caucasus is one of the world's most diverse regions - and as

The Ghost of Freedom: a History of the Caucasus

Charles King

OUP, 219pp, £17.99

A Georgian professor came to my (Turkish) university a few years ago and said: "People who live in mountains are stupid." You probably hear such things often enough in the Caucasus, but it is not the sort of remark that you expect professors to pass. However, there is maybe something in it, a point made by the crazy loyalism of the Jacobite Highlanders of the Forty-Five, or for that matter of the Navarrese Carlists: brave and romantic, certainly, with their own codes of honour, but not very bright.

A French sociologist, André Siegfried, developed this theme a century ago, because he had noticed that voting patterns depended on altitude; in the valleys, people got on with normal lives, but, the further up you went, the less this was true. The diet was very poor, the economy was sheep-stealing or smuggling, resentment simmered against the valley settlers, and religion of a wild sort reigned. The Caucasus also fits Siegfried's pattern, with the difference that, the further uphill you went, the more weird languages you hit on. In Charles King's words, "the north-east harbours the Nakh languages . . . as well as a mixed bag of disparate languages that includes Avar, Dargin and Lezgin".

He has missed out the Tats, who are mountain Jews, and he has mercifully missed out a great deal else, because the whole region is a kaleidoscope, and the ancient history is very complicated, with an Iberia and an Albania in shadowy existence; the Ossetians, of whom the world recently heard so much, are apparently what is left of the Alans, one of the barbarian tribes that swept through the later Roman Empire (and ended up in North Africa).

Charles King's great virtue is that he is a very proficient simplifier and misser-out; he writes well, and can read the languages that matter (for some reason, quite a number of the important sources are in German; Germans were especially interested in the Caucasus, and in 1918 even had plans to shift U-boats overland to the Caspian). All the important themes are here, with some interesting additions.

King concentrates on the modern history of the Caucasus, roughly from 1700, when Russia began to take over the overlordship from Persia and the Ottoman Empire. In 1801, she annexed much of Georgia. This was relatively easy, since it is a very divided country (and the language - so difficult that even Robert Conquest, writing his biography of Stalin, found it impossible - itself sub-divides). It was also Christian, the nobility on the whole glad to come to terms with the tsar, and it could easily be reached from the sea, whereas other parts of the Caucasus, given the very mountainous and forested terrain, were much more difficult. The various Muslim natives of the northern Caucasus were then generally known as "Circassians" (the present-day Chechens are related) and they put up an extraordinary resistance to Russian penetration.

Cossacks came in, as the 19th century went ahead, and a line of forts was established; but a ferocious tribal-religious resistance grew up, under a legendary figure, Sheikh Shamil. Combining mystical-religious inspiration with an extraordinary astuteness as to guerrilla tactics, Shamil kept the Russians pinned down for a whole generation. (King's bibliography is very solid and useful, but he might have mentioned a classic book about this, Sabres of Paradise, by Lesley Blanch, who went on to write The Wilder Shores of Love about the erotic Orient.)

In the event, the Russians "solved" the problem of the Circassians by mass-deportation. About 1,250,000 of them were forced out, and King is very good at describing their fate, as a third of the deportees died of disease or starvation or massacre, and the rest scattered over the Near and Middle East. Settling in eastern Anatolia, they encountered the Armenians, and bitter conflict resulted. A generation later much the same fate occurred to the Armenians of eastern Turkey. King quite rightly makes the parallel.

Shamil was at long last captured, but the Russians treated him well, and part of his family faded into the tsarist aristocracy. This is incidentally a dimension of matters that King could have explored: the relations of Russia and Islam. He has a good chapter about the image of the Caucasus in Russian literature (Lermontov and Tolstoy especially) but both Pushkin and Dostoyevsky were fascinated by Islam, and the Russians, whether tsarist or communist (and even nowadays) were quite adept at dealing with Muslims. The Tatars have turned into rather a plus: Nureyev and Baryshnikov, whose names mean "light" and "peace" in Turkish, being a case in point.

In fact, as the 19th century went ahead, the Caucasus was opened up, and many of the Muslims became loyal subjects of the tsar. Tiflis, the Georgian capital (why must we use these wretched "Tbilisis" and "Vilniuses" for places so well marked on the historic map?), was the seat of a viceroyalty that stretched from Kars in eastern Anatolia to the Caspian, and the railways, or the military roads, snaked ahead. Oil was struck on the Caspian side, and Baku, the capital of today's Azerbaijan, grew up as a boom town, much of the architecture rather distinguished in late- Victorian style. One of the great mansions has been spectacularly restored as a historical museum.

To this day, the solid architecture of Kars, now in eastern Turkey, is impressive, and though the town went through a very bad period, when the Cold War was going on, it is doing much better now, as the oil pipeline to Baku pumps away, and the old railway links are restored. Even now, despite the gruesome climate, the inhabitants of Kars are notably sharper and better-educated than those of Trabzon or Erzurum, which remained under Ottoman rule. According to Orhan Pamuk's novel on the town, Snow, its theatre was very good, but if you needed Islamic female costumes you had to send off to Erzurum, which was (and is: the calls to prayer are frequent and deafening) very provincial-pious. In its way, Kars shows in miniature that pre-1914 period which is the great might-have-been of Russian history: 1914 aborted a period of growing prosperity even, if you like, a bourgeois revolution. The revolution of 1917 finished all of that.

There was a pathetic episode, as the three nations of Transcaucasia - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - established a shadowy independence, even though the peoples of each were (and to some extent still are) intermingled. Baku and Tiflis had large Armenian populations, and Yerevan, the territory of today's Armenia, was roughly half Muslim, whether Azeri or Kurdish. "Ethnic cleansing" then went ahead, the Armenians especially becoming megalomaniac, and even, as a first act on independence at Christmas 1918, invading Georgia. To this day, much of the Armenian diaspora seems never to have forgiven the west for failing to support their cause: hence these strange and persistent demands for the tragedy to be recognised as genocide. Perhaps it was, but as King shows, Armenians were not the only victims - not by any means - and it is rather to the credit of the Circassians' (and others') descendants that they are not demanding similar recognition of genocide from Congress or the Assemblée Nationale or Cardiff City Council or the Edinburgh City Fathers etc.

Sovietisation of the Caucasus then happened, and it was the communists' turn to find out just how difficult the national question was going to be: eventually, it destroyed them. Communism had a very strong appeal to begin with when it came to the national question: who, looking at the Caucasus (as with Yugoslavia) would not be desperate for anything that would stop the rise of vicious tinpot nationalism? Many stout communists, beginning with Stalin himself, came from the Caucasus, and Stalin in the end had recourse to deportation (of the Chechens and many, many other peoples) as the only solution. That created the counter-hatreds that have made post-Soviet life so difficult. The Armenians repeated their fantasy of 1918 and invaded a neighbour - Azerbaijan - in pursuit of a fantasy. They victoriously set their standards afluttering over Karabakh, with much swelling of diaspora bosoms. The effort, and the isolation it brought them, caused nothing but economic trouble to what was already a poor, land-locked little place, and the original population, three million, is now, from emigration, below two: independence, in other words, having done more damage than ever the Turks did. The Georgians had an 18th-century ruler who described himself as "The Most High King, by the Will of Our Lord King of Kings of the Abkhaz, Kartvelians, Kakhetians and Armenians and Master of All the East and the West": more megalomania with a contemporary ring, in other words. Charles King has written a very instructive and interesting book about it all.

Norman Stone's most recent book is "World War One: a Short History", now available as a Penguin paperback (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come