Let Our Fame be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver BulloughTimes Online -- A sensitive, painstaking history of the peoples of the north Caucasus, ravaged by hundreds of years of uprising, conquest and deportation

The Sunday Times review by Wendell Steavenson

The Caucasus is a frontier land of high, jagged snow peaks, ruined flint fortresses and pine forests that have hidden centuries of bare-rock rebellion by warrior nations. Waves of uprising, conquest, deportation, exile and resettlement have pitted the peoples of the north Caucasus against Russia for hundreds of years and continue to do so still. Oliver Bullough’s book is a ­painstaking, sensitively reported eff­ort to knit together their lost history.

It’s a complicated tale. It’s not an easy task to separate, for example, the overlapping ethnicities of, to name just a few, the Abkhaz, the Abadzekhs, the Adygei and the Azeris. Bullough begins by piecing together the tragic story of the Circassians, who fought the Russians from Peter the Great until they were driven into exile in the latter part of the 19th century. In eastern Turkey, where many fled, he finds the beaches still littered with their bones. In a Circassian village in Israel he begins to fathom the spartan tenets of the highlander code of honour: blood feuds and hospitality. And he meets with Circassians in Jordan, where their martial reputation means they still make up the core of the royal bodyguard. To my knowledge this is the first attempt to put together the history of the lost Circassians in any whole account.

The Circassian tragedy is one of many. Imperial Russia subjugated the proud highlanders during the 19th century, but it was the Stalinist deportations during the second world war that sowed another generation’s worth of rancour. Bullough retraces the agonies of forced deportations between 1942 and 1944, of the Chechens, Ingush, Karachais, Kalmyks and Balkars, to the harsh central Asian steppe, through the recollections of old men and women who were herded onto trains as children. It is an unrelenting litany of massacre, burning barns and broken lives. Afterwards, Soviet propaganda ­airbrushed them out of history. What little hope of a cultural resurgence that the fall of the Soviet Union brought was shortlived.

Bullough is perfectly adept at reconstituting history from second-hand sources, but the book really comes to life in the final section on the Chechen wars of the past 20 years. There are several wonderfully told, bitter stories: the family who return from exile in Kazakhstan and build a house in ­Grozny, only to have it demolished under Russian bombardment three months later; or a profane, old, bandit grandfather who spent most of his adult life in Soviet prison and lost two sons fighting beside him. ­Bullough also excavates the pathos of the continuing exodus that he documents in Poland, the first European port of entry for many Chechen asylum seekers, and among the new diaspora trying to make sense of new lives in Prague, Warsaw or Vienna.

Chechnya is currently run by a brutal proxy; one Chechen exile tries to muse that this represents a measure of self-determination — the Russian settlers, after all, have been expelled. Travelling up the Crimean coast, where once the Circassians lived, Bullough finds a heaving Russian tourist resort. Not far away, up in the mountains, in Sochi, founded as a Russian garrison, preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics are well under way. History in this part of the world, he shows, is tram­melled and doomed to repeat itself.

Let Our Fame be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
Allen Lane £25 pp496

Available at the Bookshop price of £22.50 (including p&p) on 0845 271 2135

Source: Times Online