Let Our Fame Be Great

Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus


By Oliver Bullough

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The jagged peaks of the Caucasus Mountains have hosted a rich history of diverse nations, valuable trade, and incessant warfare. But today the region is best known for atrocities in Chechnya and the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

In Let Our Fame Be Great, journalist and Russian expert Oliver Bullough explores the fascinating cultural crossroads of the Caucasus, where Europe, Asia, and the Middle East intersect. Traveling through its history, Bullough tracks down the nations dispersed by the region’s last two hundred years of brutal warfare. Filled with a compelling mix of archival research and oral history, Let Our Fame Be Great recounts the tenacious survival of peoples who have been relentlessly invaded and persecuted and yet woefully overlooked.


Author's Note
The North Caucasus is an area of great ethnic diversity, with dozens of native languages and dialects, none of which had a written form until the twentieth century.
As such, for centuries it was only described in the languages of foreigners: Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Georgian, Armenian, Persian, Greek and Latin. These have in turn been passed on to us through English, German and French, all of which have their own ways to transliterate the alphabets used by the others.
Thus, names are spelt in a bewildering variety of ways. The capital of Abkhazia, for example, can be Sukhumi, Sukhum, Sokhumi, Sukumi, Sookom, Soukum, and that's before we start on how to spell its name in Abkhaz. Many of these spellings have a political dimension. Anti-communist exiles have often refused to use the Soviet-created Cyrillic system for Caucasus languages, and employ complex Latin-based scripts of their own.
None of the imposed methods look satisfactory. They are full of superscripted letters, apostrophes, dashes and mysterious marks that convey minute but important varieties of pronunciation. To stick with Abkhaz, a student would need to master fifty-eight consonants – by turns bilabial, labio-dental, alveolar, alveolar-palatal, palato-alveolar, retroflex, velar, uvular and pharyngal, as one classification has it – before he could begin to speak like a native. And Abkhaz is relatively restrained. Neighbouring, but now extinct, Ubykh had eighty consonants.
The Caucasus traveller and historian John F. Baddeley explained in his epic The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, which was published in 1908, how Dagestan – at the opposite end of the mountain chain – was even more complex.
'The Avar language, like many others in the Caucasus, is extremely difficult of pronunciation to Europeans, in proof of which it may be mentioned that the "tl" so frequently occurring on the map is the only rendering the Russians have been able to find for four different sounds or clicks; while their "k" represents no less than six,' he wrote.
While researching this book, I puzzled over how I would fit this complexity into the familiar twenty-six letters of our alphabet. A system could presumably be created to harmonize all the different systems into one, but it would be a lifetime's work, and I am a journalist, not a linguist.
My revelation came when visiting the tomb of a Sufi holy man, born in Dagestan, but buried in Turkey. He and his family members were clustered together in an attractive building that doubled as a prayer-hall for pilgrims wishing to visit his grave. His own headstone was written in Arabic script, but three of his descendants had been commemorated in modern Turkey's Latin alphabet. The name he had passed down to them was spelt, on three adjacent graves, in three different ways: Serafuddin; Serafeddin; Serafetdin.
I puzzled for a while over how I could manage when even his family could not agree, then decided simply not to bother. If they did not care, it seems perverse to spend too long worrying about it. As a result, I have not even pretended to use a unified system of spelling, but have tried to create a book that is easy to read, in which names do not baffle the reader with clusters of consonants, strange apostrophes and clumps of ugly vowels.
I come to the Caucasus via the Russian language, so I have used the Russian version for most names, transliterated in the same simple system most British journalists employ. For people in the book who would have written in Arabic (primarily the nineteenth-century leaders of Chechnya and Dagestan), I have used a version of their name closer to Arabic, with the letter 'j' instead of the Russian 'dzh', for example.
I have also tried to use the form of spelling most likely to be familiar to readers. For example, I have called the capital of Chechnya Grozny, the Russian version, rather than Dzhokhar, as some separatists insist. In such cases, the decision on which name to use is as much political as linguistic, and I mean no recognition or rejection of the locals' positions by the choices I have made. I had to call the places something, and came down on the side of familiarity.
I know some readers will be offended by some of the choices I have made, and will feel I have sided with their opponents. I just hope they will take comfort from the fact that their opponents are almost certain to have been offended by something else in the book.
On a separate note, I apologize that throughout I have used the word 'Caucasus' as a rather clunky adjective as well as a noun: as in 'Caucasus peoples'; 'Caucasus wars'; 'Caucasus cultures'; 'Caucasus languages'. This at least is not my fault. I blame the German eighteenth-century racist Christoph Meiners, who gave his anthropologist colleague Johann Friedrich Blumenbach the idea to randomly assign the origin of the 'white' race to the south Caucasus.
To this day, the word 'Caucasian' remains a racial category and is thus not available to describe things and people actually from the Caucasus, which is extremely annoying.

Introduction Let Us Live in Freedom
Russet and gold marshes choke the river Yeya. Its muddy waters merge into the stagnant pools that bubble and ooze through the reeds of its estuary.
Driving along the causeway from Yeisk towards Azov in a Hungarian-made Icarus bus, I failed to notice that I'd crossed the river at all. Only when the marshes ended, and the bus had climbed the tiny elevation to the steppes proper, did I realize I had passed the site of a battle that doomed the peoples of the Caucasus mountains to two centuries of carnage.
This muddy land, where Russia stares at Ukraine across the waters of the Azov Sea, is a strange place to look for the gateway to a mountain range, since all around the horizon is a flat line ruled dead-straight against the sky. To the west are the sea's turgid, grey-brown waters. To the east are the broad steppes that stretch to the Sea of Japan. And here is an in-between land of mud and reeds that struggle to lift themselves out of the water.
Yet in these marshes, in 1783, Russia opened its path to the south, to the land of the mountains. Here it finally extinguished the power of the steppe nomads that had held it in subjection for so much of its history. The muddy waters swallowed up the last descendants of the terror from the east that – according to Russian folklore – had held it back, kept it backwards and poor. The nomads had ruled the steppes by raiding and skill for as long as Moscow had ruled Russia, but the Muscovites had finally outgrown them. With the horse lords killed, Russia was free to fulfil its destiny: to march to the warm waters of the Black Sea and beyond.
Above the marshes on the north bank of the river is a tiny village, which still bears the name Yeya Fortress – Yei Ukreplenie – given to it by the advancing Russian army. To this fortress, in early July 1783, came thousands of the families that made up the Nogai horde, the last free descendants of the armies of Genghis Khan in Europe. The Russian General Alexander Suvorov had summoned them to swear allegiance to their new ruler, Catherine the Great, and the steppes were covered by their tents. Over three days of feasting, he cajoled, he persuaded, he charmed and he threatened, until eventually he had the agreement of the Turkic-speaking nomads. They would transfer their loyalty from the defeated Khan of Crimea to the great empress from the north.
According to the little museum in Yeya Fortress, in the course of the feasting Suvorov treated them to 500 barrels of vodka, 100 bulls and 800 sheep. A picture on the wall shows the scene. Oriental princes in pointed hats, beards and fur-trimmed caftans are interspersed with clean-shaven Russian officers in their full dress uniforms and epaulettes. In the distance, giant cauldrons steam over an open fire, while musicians play for a Russian and a Nogai dancing energetically together.
The picture is one of friendship and conviviality. On the far right, a Nogai man is upending a jug into his mouth. The white-haired Suvorov himself is raising his glass in toast, while another Russian is embracing a nomad lord, as they all sit on sumptuous carpets spread on the fresh turf.
Lyudmila, the museum's director, insisted on showing me the rest of her exhibits. She proudly pointed out jars of sunflower seeds, lentils, maize and wheat from the long-defunct collective farm. Photographs showed happy workers parading down the streets that still bear their communist names: Street of the Second Five-Year Plan, Street of the Soviets. As we looked out of the window, a long-legged girl cycled through the dust of Lenin Street, chased by her squealing little sister.
On that lazy August afternoon, as flies buzzed in the sunlight and swallows darted in the blue, it seemed nothing bad could ever happen here, as if time had stood still since that merry afternoon in the eighteenth century when Suvorov persuaded the Nogais that their future lay to the north.
But the picture was deceptive, like a photograph of a rock concert before it is suicide-bombed.
Suvorov had a surprise for his new friends. After they swore their allegiance, he told them that the first order of their sovereign empress was that they should gather up their belongings, cross the Volga and resettle on the plains south of the Urals. They must retrace the westward journey their forefathers took centuries before and leave Europe behind them. There was no place for headstrong and troublesome nomads on Catherine's steppes, and Russia's hard-working and obedient peasants had another use for the black earth, perhaps the richest land in the world, on which they grazed their horses.
To the nomads, the rule of Crimea – which itself had been annexed by Russia earlier that year – had always been light if felt at all. Government for them was a question of tribute, not of obedience. This order shocked, dismayed and then angered them. The rank and file rose up and killed the leaders who had signed this treacherous pact. Suvorov was suddenly faced not with 6,000 dinner guests, but with 6,000 armed, angry and warlike opponents. They marched on the Yeya Fortress, determined to avenge the insult and secure their lands.
But Suvorov was ready for them. Perhaps this was the outcome he had wanted all along. As would so often prove the case in the battles with its southern neighbours – the Chechens, the Dagestanis, the Circassians and the other mountain peoples – over the next 200 years, Russia's disciplined troops could easily destroy any angry mob that charged against them. Reinforcements arrived and pinned the Nogais back against the marshes of the river.
Where now the rushes whisper to each other, the cows blink against the flies, and the falcons hover, the Nogais were pushed back. Their ranks breaking under the strain, they began to sink into the mud, to feel the helplessness of their position. Their sudden attack had failed, and now they were trapped.
Even the great nineteenth-century Russian historian of the Caucasus, Vasily Potto, whose five volumes trumpet the achievements of his country's armies, allowed the Nogais some sympathy here.
'The Tatars were pushed into the marshy river and, seeing no salvation, in a fit of helpless anger, destroyed their own treasures, slaughtered their wives and drowned their infants.'
The destruction was terrible. Suvorov sent back to the Russian lines a living prize of 300,000 horses, 40,000 head of cattle, 200,000 sheep, as well as uncounted numbers of women and children – who were perhaps shared out as the animals were among the victorious soldiers.
But the group at the feast had not been the whole Nogai nation; others had been grazing their herds or camping elsewhere, and they rose up to avenge the massacre. Towards the end of August, a new mass of tribesmen attacked the Yeya Fortress, besieging it for three days before once more being beaten off. And now the Russians pursued them. Chased across the steppe southwards, the Nogais crossed the river Kuban and tried to flee up the river Laba into the mountainous land of their neighbours, the Circassians. The Russians left the valley choked with their dead.
In 1838, an old man called Mansour told an English traveller he met on the southern bank of the Kuban of how the raid had changed the complexion of the land. 'My beard is not yet white, still do I remember the day when, instead of yonder castles, there was nothing on the opposite bank but the huts of the Nogais – a people whose customs and religion were in unison with our own – with whom we could trade, associate, and war, it might be, all on a neighbourly footing, as we would do among ourselves; but these the Muscof [Muscovites] chased them from their rightful homes, driving some of them across the Kuban, where they found refuge among ourselves, and the rest to the devil or Krim Tartary [Crimea]. In their place they established these Cossacks – giaours [unbelievers] like themselves – and whose way of life is to us an abomination,' the old man said.
After this second suppression, the Nogai nation was truly no more. Although they had long since lost the dread reputation their forefathers had earned when Genghis Khan's armies were unrivalled between Korea and Ukraine, their military strength had still been formidable. They had traded with Russia for years, and were largely dependent on it for their commerce. As early as the sixteenth century, Russia was buying 50,000 horses from them a year. But the fact remained, while they roamed and raided lawlessly across the steppe, no Russian peasants could hope to settle, plant crops and live peacefully.
Suddenly, with them gone, to the south of the Yeya was an empty space, ready for settlement. And to the south of that space loomed something quite new for the Russians: a mountain range. Without the Nogais to plague them, the Russians, children of the forests and swamps of the cold north, could march onwards to warm lands of wine and feasting. By destroying the Nogais and winning the steppes, they had opened the door to the Caucasus mountains, and, after the Caucasus mountains, to the lands of Georgia and Armenia, and to Turkey and Persia too. And perhaps after that, they might march to India itself, the greatest prize of all. Russia had discovered its destiny, and the Caucasus peoples were standing in its way. For them life would never be the same again.
These peoples who lived to the south of the Nogais had, over the millennia, developed an astoundingly complex patchwork of free communities, of princes, of lords, of slaves and of freemen. The nomads had effectively secured their frontier so, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, where few armies had ever been, they had been free to develop in their own way untroubled by outside interference.
They had traded with the Turks, the Genoese and the Greeks. Turkish slave-traders had purchased their sons and daughters to serve as mercenaries and concubines in the Ottoman Empire. Some embassies had gone back and forth to Moscow, and occasionally an army had appeared from Persia to be defeated and sent scurrying home again. The religions of the Russians and the Turks had taken root here and there, but in the main the highlanders had been left alone to live their lives untroubled by the outside world.
In its isolated bubble, the Caucasus had become perhaps the most ethnically complex place on earth. Whole language groups exist here with no relations outside the region. The Circassian language is related to no other, save for neighbouring Abkhaz and now extinct Ubykh. The origins of Chechen and Ingush fascinate linguists. The two million people in Dagestan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, speak forty different languages. By comparison, there are just sixty-five languages native to the entire European Union.
An ethnic map of the region looks like an oil stain on a puddle. The yellow of the Circassians juts up against the light blue of the mountain Turks. The dark blue of the Ossetians touches the browns of the Chechens and Ingush. Then the purple of the Avars heralds the whole rainbow of the peoples of Dagestan. This Babel was a world apart, with its own traditions, many of them dating to long before the arrivals of Islam and Christianity. It governed itself without much interference from anyone.
No organized power had ever tried to conquer the northern slopes of the Caucasus, since no organized power had ever had a secure route there before. To the west, where the Black Sea washes the mountains' roots, the cliffs plunge straight into the water. A single traveller would struggle to pass from south to north here, let alone an army. Very few genuine passes traversed the high mountains, and those that did were threatened by savage tribesmen, vicious weather, wild beasts and avalanches. Only to the east, along the Caspian shore, could foreigners hope to pass into the North Caucasus: and there the Dagestani and Chechen warriors were more than a match for almost any invader.
But suddenly, with the destruction of the Nogais, a whole new route was created: across the steppes, from the north. The mountains that had served as a wall to defend the highlanders from the aggressive south became a trap that blocked their retreat.
The Russians swept across the newly conquered steppes quickly. The Cossack colonizers built their fortified villages in the river valleys, and – together with the regular army – they were fighting the tribes all along the range within less than a decade. If the Russians expected it to be an easy fight though, they were mistaken. Over the next two centuries, their armies would defeat Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, as well as almost every single one of their neighbours, however mighty. No one resisted them for as long as these supposed savages in the valleys of the Caucasus.
The outside world did not notice the clashes on the marshes of the Yeya in 1783, since it had other things to think about. The Americans were building their democracy, while the French were preparing to build theirs. The British were spinning textiles and digging coal. Communications within Russia were notoriously bad, so it is possible that few Russians even realized the significance of what had happened. But had anyone noticed the little campaign, they would have gained a sneak preview of how the Russian army would fight all the tribes to its south.
Like the Nogais, enemies would be slaughtered if they did not submit. Like with the Nogais, the slaughterer would be honoured. Suvorov received the Order of Vladimir First Class, and has streets still named after him in Moscow and St Petersburg. He went on to fight in Poland, Turkey and Italy, and died having never lost a battle. Few of those battles would be as easy or as brutal as these ones had been, however.
And as with the Nogais, the slaughter would be forgotten by its perpetrators. No one I spoke to in Yeya Fortress knew their little village had once witnessed a battle that decided the future of Russia. In the larger town of Yeisk, a bargain-basement holiday resort an hour's journey along the coast in the rickety bus, the museum staff reacted with disbelief to the suggestion. The only hint that Suvorov might have done something morally questionable was a quote attributed to him on the museum wall: 'Never has vanity, especially that fuelled by momentary passion, directed my actions, and I always put aside personal ambition when it came to serving the nation.' Perhaps here he was apologizing for the destruction of the Nogai nation: 'I was just doing my job.'
For the Nogais are gone. A few villages in the foothills of the mountains remain. But here, in their heartland, no trace survives. I left Yeisk the next day, heading south on a bus towards the distant Black Sea coast, and looked for a Turkic name or a felt tent, anything that might suggest a nomad influence.
There was nothing.
In fact, there was less than nothing. It took me a while to spot the absence, but by the time we had reached the foothills of the Caucasus range, I had realized what was wrong. Where the Nogais had herded horses, cattle and sheep, these Russians farmed only wheat, sunflowers and maize. In the 300 or so kilometres between Yeisk and the hills, whence Suvorov took the hundreds of thousands of stolen livestock, I saw only two cows, a gaggle of geese and one pig. Where the nomads moved their tents with the herds, now the Russians are huddled into compact villages of two or three thousand people, their right-angle streets identical to every other settlement along the highway. The Russian-language village names showed the curse of the colonialist by being either crushingly dull – Sandy, Jolly – or totally over the top – Progress, the Bright Path of Lenin, the Revolutionary Wave. The very culture of freewheeling movement and lordless life was extinguished with the nomads, to be replaced by the blind obedience of the Russian state.
But not every nation would vanish as readily as the Nogai, although Russia was equally merciless to all those who did not accept its troops with the bread and salt of friendship.
The Russian troops of Alexander II – hailed today as the great reformer of the tsarist empire, but for the Caucasus tribesmen the biggest murderer of them all – could only defeat the Circassians by driving them en masse from their lands on the Black Sea coast.
In what was the first modern genocide on European soil – fifty years before Turkey's Armenians were butchered, ninety years before the Holocaust – perhaps as many as 300,000 Circassians died from hunger, violence, drowning and disease when Russia expelled them from their lands on their final defeat in 1864. Scattered pockets of their descendants still cling to the slopes of the North Caucasus, but the vast majority of the nation now lives in Turkey, Israel, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. What was once their country is now home to Russians, Armenians, Cossacks, Ukrainians and all the other loyal nations of the empire.
Eight decades later, Joseph Stalin – a communist who learned the lessons of his tsarist oppressors well – crushed the mountain Turks and the Chechens by ripping them from their homes and dumping them on the steppes of Central Asia. Tens of thousands of them died too.
In the 1990s, those same Chechens – far from being cowed by their treatment – fought a war more terrible than anything even the Caucasus had seen before. Grozny, their capital, was destroyed block by block. The fighting became so savage that children were targets for both sides. Tens of thousands of Chechens, tired of war, disgusted by the brutality, fled Russia with just a suitcase to seek peace elsewhere. They now live in France, Norway, Poland, Austria and throughout the world.
Through the horrors and joys of their shared history, and in the dozens of countries where war has driven them, the Caucasus nations have mingled and traded and fought, creating a rich shared culture of folklore, music, dance and costume.
That folklore includes a corpus of poems passed from generation to generation. They describe the Narts, the mythic ancestors of all the Caucasus nations. The stories are told in many different languages, but remain essentially the same. In one such tale, their god sends a swallow down as a messenger, and gives the Narts a choice.
'Do you want to be few and live a short life but have great fame and have your courage be an example for others for evermore?' asked the swallow. 'Or perhaps you would prefer that there will be many of you, that your numbers will be great, that you will have whatever you wish to eat and drink, and that you will all live long lives but without ever knowing battle or glory?'
Throughout the chronicles, the Narts delight in holding meetings and discussions to decide the correct course of action. But in this tale they do not do so. Without hesitation, they tell the swallow to take their answer back to his master.
'If our lives are to be short, then let our fame be great! Let us not depart from the truth! Let fairness be our path! Let us not know grief! Let us live in freedom!' The swallow took that answer away with him and, so the story goes, 'their fame has remained undying among people'.
But, in truth, their god did not keep his side of the bargain. Despite what he promised them, their lives have been cut short, fairness has passed them by, they have known endless grief, and their fame has not been great.
Like the Nogais, many of the peoples that listened to the tales of the Narts around their winter fires were to face slaughter, and have their fate forgotten. Who now remembers the Circassians? Or the Balkars? Or the Karachais? Or indeed the Nogais?
With a few honourable exceptions, the world has responded to the slaughter in the mountains with blank indifference. The Circassian exodus attracted headlines at the time, but the nation's fate has drifted out of history. While the deliberate destructions of Turkey's Armenians and Europe's Jews are remembered and taught in schools as bleak warnings of humanity's inhumanity, the Circassian genocide is not even known about in the land where it happened.
In Neal Ascherson's otherwise wonderful book Black Sea, for example, which traces the interaction of nations around the great inland sea, the Circassians do not appear even once in the index. He finds room for such diverse subjects as Pol Pot, Boudicca and Queen Elizabeth I of England, but a nation that once controlled the entire north-eastern coast of the sea that is the book's subject does not warrant a single mention.
Likewise, taking another book at random from my bookcase, Philip Longworth's Russia's Empires details at some length (in a chapter called 'The Romantic Age of Empire') how Russia subdued the Caucasus, but without mentioning that a major military tactic had been depopulation on a national scale.
Likewise, Stalin's destruction of the mountain Turks – divided by the Soviets into the Balkar and Karachai nations – has passed largely unnoticed. The deportations were perhaps overshadowed by the horrors that were happening elsewhere in 1943 – 4, but they are indicative of the approach of the Soviet Union to its subjects, and deserve far greater publicity than they have received.
The Chechens, meanwhile, have been victims of geopolitics. Some of their own leaders have been stupid enough to employ terrible brutality in the cause of their attempt to gain independence. The world has been able to effectively brand the whole Chechen nation as terrorists, and has been happy to avoid grappling with the dreadful strategy Moscow has followed in suppressing their self-rule. Ignorance has bred indifference, which in turn has bred deeper ignorance.


On Sale
Aug 3, 2010
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

Oliver Bullough

About the Author

Oliver Bullough studied modern history at Oxford University before moving to Russia in 1999. He lived in St. Petersburg, Bishkek and Moscow over the next seven years, working as a journalist for local magazines and newspapers and then for Reuters news agency. He reported from all over Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, but liked nothing more than to work among the peoples and mountains of the North Caucasus. He moved back to Britain in 2006, and now lives in Hackney, East London.

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