A history and travelogue that features great suffering and some remarkable people.
There is a passage in Oliver Bullough’s book that so brilliantly encapsulates the 19th century tragedy of the Circassians that it is unlikely ever to be surpassed.
The author is in Akçakale, a mountain village on Turkey’s Black Sea coast where a century-and-a-half ago tens of thousands of Circassians perished from starvation and disease after being exiled by tsarist Russia from their homeland in the northern Caucasus. Scouring the base of a seaside cliff, Bullough finds human bones in a rock fissure. Stunned, he asks locals about Circassian graves in the area, about what they learned from their ancestors about the Circassians’ plight. He said the villagers either had no idea what he was talking about or looked at him as if he were a lunatic.
This episode neatly summarises the story of the Circassian genocide: bones all around, and ignorance too. In Sochi, now a Russian Black Sea resort and formerly a Circassian bastion, Bullough searches a local history museum for information on the region’s original inhabitants or, more to the point, how in 1864 a quarter of a million Circassians were shanghaied onto small cargo boats and dispatched to Ottoman shores. Many never reached those shores (many of the younger women who did were sold off into slavery). But he finds only a single picture showing a column of refugees. “There was no suggestion that anyone actually died,” writes Bullough.
No one book can hope to capture the mind-twisting mosaic of the northern Caucasus – Avars, Karachais, Ubykh, Dargins, Adygeans are just part of the mosaic – but Bullough’s historical travelogue expertly illuminates some of the pieces. It is a region that, as it has done for centuries, confounds ethnographers and, more importantly, conquerors.
As the author shows, Russia’s leaders continue to repeat the mistakes of arrogant tsarist and Soviet generals, as a result of which two horrific wars have been fought in the past two decades (three, if we count the Georgian conflict). The soil of the Caucasus is soaked in blood, and news reports from the region evoke a perpetual inferno: terrorist attacks, gang killings, insurgents, assassination, suicide bombers.
Bullough is indefatigable in his research. In the quest for survivors and first-hand testimony of atrocities, he travels to Kosovo and Israel to visit small Circassian communities, and to Jordan and Kazakhstan to interview Chechens. He climbs mountains to examine the ruins of Balkar villages that were annihilated by Soviet forces during the Second World War and, in one of the book’s most harrowing tableaux, he counts the bodies in the Beslan morgue after the 2004 school massacre.
Generous and hospitable
With this kind of material, one can regard “Let our fame be great” as an exercise in endurance: readers’ tolerance of injustice will be tested. Thankfully, the depressing subject matter is softened by the remarkable people Bullough interviews. Despite their sufferings, many remain generous and hospitable. One cannot help feeling a rush of hope at the scene of a large Circassian crowd, numbering in the hundreds, singing wistful songs at a memorial service in Turkey for the approximate half-million ancestors killed as a result of the 19th century war and deportations.
Will the world ever recognise the Circassian genocide? Any progress depends on the Circassians’ approximately five-million strong diaspora, who have apparently taken a lesson from the Armenians and begun lobbying politicians in European capitals. The goal is to win support by 2014, the year Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Given the ongoing cataclysm of the northern Caucasus, there is some chance the Circassians will find attentive listeners.
But hopes clash with reality. If anything, Bullough’s book is a sobering testimony to the inextirpable culture of lies that plagues not only Russia’s ‘official version’ of history, but nearly everything that has to do with the Caucasus. For the West, acknowledging the tragedy of the Circassians will inevitably lead to a direct confrontation with the insidious culture of lies whose roots begin in the Kremlin. It is unlikely either Brussels or Washington will have the stomach for that.
Gary Peach is a journalist based in Riga.