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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Book review: From Conquest to Deportation brings fresh insights into the Chechen and Dagestani peoples

Professor Jeronim Perovic tells the story of the masterful history of the Soviet-Caucasian relationship

'The Mountaineers Leave the Aul Before Approach of the Russian Army, 1872'. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images
'The Mountaineers Leave the Aul Before Approach of the Russian Army, 1872'. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Driving in the dark to Vladikavkaz, Tim Cranmer, the superannuated spymaster narrator of John Le Carre’s post-Cold War novel Our Game, is suddenly overcome by missionary zeal: “I … begged to be allowed to take the Caucasus into my protection”.

The collapse of the Soviet Union abruptly deprived the West’s engagé writers and intellectuals of the cause that shaped their politics, but the ensuing trouble in the Caucasus – emanating from the pending business of “self-determination” of its peoples in post-Soviet Russia – was a cause of hope for them: their job of rescuing the world’s oppressed would have to continue. Journalists dispatched to report from the Caucasus returned as advocates and admirers of its peoples. To “go among the Chechens”, Anatol Lieven wrote in Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, “is to go into a certain kind of morning”, to see “the face of Courage herself”.

To read Jeronim Perovic’s masterly history of the Russo-Caucasian encounter, From Conquest to Deportation: The North Caucasus Under Russian Rule, translated into English from the original German by Christopher Findlay, is to get a sense of the antiquity of the sport of simplifying the Caucasus. Soviet historiography at first valorised the (largely) Muslim Caucasians’ “heroic resistance” to the “imperialism” of Tsarist Russia, which had spent decades in the 19th century putting down the fierce uprisings of these “wild mountain people”, culminating in 1859 in the capture of Imam Shamil – the remarkable figure who brought Chechen and Dagestani peoples under the banner of Islam – and the mass expulsion of the Cherkess and other north Caucasian peoples.

But the communist attempt to portray the peoples of the Caucasus as early class warriors against imperial exploitation didn’t quite go to plan. And as the effort to conscript the region and its people for the project to create a new man faltered, the Soviet Union fell back on the same generalisations about the character of the Caucasians advanced by Tsarist Russia.

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An innate resistance to modernity among the Caucasians is an easy explanation for their refusal to go along. But Perovic, a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Zurich, has reconstructed the history of the Soviet-Caucasian relationship in such detail – excavating the suppressed voices of the non-Russian minorities – that there is enough evidence here of minor successes that wilted away, not because of irreconcilable “national” differences, but because of the actions of a “weak state”.

The wound inflicted by Stalin’s decision to abolish the republics of the north Caucusus and deport more than half-a-million people – all because he believed them to be Hitler’s spies and agents – has not healed.

Throughout the 1990s, the descendants of the deportees waged a war of secession against Russia that at one point resulted in Moscow’s clear defeat. The man who led the campaign, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was a former air force general in the Soviet military, and, invoking Russian cruelties, he succeeded in implanting a modern national consciousness in the minds of the Chechens.

Perovic’s argument that the support Dudayev received was powered by people’s unresolved feelings about their own past is not only persuasive, but may also aid in our understanding of other conflicts.

From Conquest to Deportation functions on one level as a rebuke to all those who reduce people in distant lands to causes. Perovic has made a major contribution to our understanding of the Russo-Caucasion relationship in this impressively researched, accessibly written and beautifully produced book.