Dealing with the Past in the Caucasus [Frederick Corney]

The bewildering array of now independent republics and of autonomous or semi-autonomous regions that have either unilaterally declared independence or are now vying for independence defies a simple or straightforward discussion of their relationship to their pasts. For centuries a more meaningful distinction could be made between ‘highlander’ and ‘lowlander,’ or between adherents of Islam, Orthodoxy, or Sufism, than among national identities. Still, in some parts of the Caucasus, older nation-states, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, even Dagestan, very quickly invoked after 1991 now quite familiar historical tropes and precedents in the service of their new-found independence. This process presupposes the existence of primordial national identities. It also argues for the representation of the post-1991 period as the age of the reassertion of these ‘ancient’ identities after centuries of domination by Russian tsars and Soviet commissars, and of covetous attention from the Ottoman and Persian Empires, and the modern Turkish and Iranian states. Within this context, the possibilities of heroicization or demonization in the service of present-day independence aspirations were never greater than with the figure of General Yermolov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army in the Caucasus responsible for ‘pacifying’ the region in the first quarter of the 19th century. Processes that were witnessed in the post-independence Baltic and Central Asia states were witnessed in the Caucasus too, as mythic heroes from the past, such as Sheikh Mansur or Imam Shamil, could be used respectively to suggest long-standing military, cultural, even national resistance against the Russian Empire, or the commonality of interests of the disparate Caucasus peoples in the face of Russian aggression. Attitudes to the recent Russian and Soviet past among the more fragmentary regions of the Caucasus, many of them historically caught between competing empires, and more recently trapped politically between newly independent states, are complicated by the wars that broke out almost immediately after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Chechnya, under such individuals as Johar Dudayev, provides the most obvious example of an extraordinarily conflicted relationship to its Soviet past in particular, although shorter but still bloody conflicts have torn apart AbkhaziaNagorno-Karabakh, North Ossetia, and South Ossetia not just militarily but conceptually as well. These new national storytellings by states that are still very unsure of their future existence or independence from their more powerful neighbors means that the past is still very much in the service of the present in this region.

From Empire States to Nation-States [Chris Burks]

The Caucasus holds a special place in Russian discourse, representing a scintillating combination of beauty and exoticism with barbarity and fear. This representation is the product of centuries of interaction among indigenous Caucasians, Cossacks, and Russian settlers; sedentarization of nomadic peoples; forced deportation of ethnic groups; and assimilation into Russian language and culture that have significantly reshaped the Caucasus (King, 11). At the same time, the history of the Caucasus is not uniquely part of the Russian expansionist narrative, and there is nothing inherently natural about the region’s eventual fall absorption into its empire. The story of the Caucasus is one intimately tied to the affairs of Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Western Europe, and even America (King, 16).

Key to understanding the history of the Caucasus is exploring its geography and peoples. To the north of the Caucasus stretch the Eurasian Steppe, while river lowlands, the Mughan plains along the Caspian Sea, and the Turkish and Iranian uplands lie to the south. The northwestern Caucasus is inhabited by the Circassians, traditionally engaged in farming and herding, and is now mostly within Russia’s borders. The central Caucasus, an area roughly correspondent with the current borders of North Ossetia and South Ossetia, is mostly occupied by Orthodox Christians and is generally sympathetic to Russia. In the East live the Nakh-language speakers, the Chechens and Ingush, noted for their devotion to Sufi Islam, and Dagestan, a mountainous and multiethnic region that has traditionally been among the most hostile to outsiders. To the southeast is the modern state of Azerbaijan, which geographically is a transitional zone between the inland mountains and the hills and plains stretching eastward to the Caspian Sea. This area is significant with respect to its particularly strong Turkic and Persian influence, and, perhaps more importantly, its adherence to the Shi’ia Islam prevalent in Persia. The western Caucasus is dominated by Georgians, primarily Orthodox Christians of the Kaetvelian language family. Finally, in the Southwest lies Armenia, unique in the region in terms of its significant Hellenic and indo-European influences (King, 9-11).

The Caucasus has been featured in the frontier in narratives of numerous cultures and at various times, including the Russians, Persians, Ottomans, and even Ancient Greeks. In the early 16th century it served as a battleground between the Persian, Ottoman Empires until the 1555 Peace of Amasya formally divided region into spheres of influence, with the Persians in the east and Ottomans in the West (King, 22). The first significant Russian involvement in the region came with the reign of Peter I, who captured the eastern Caucasus from Persia and built up a Caspian navy (King, 25). At this early stage, the Russians struggled to control territory in the Caucasus, and their presence was limited largely to lines of Cossack settlements which served the dual purpose of border outposts. Over the next two centuries, however, Russia emerged as the region’s dominant power, seizing large chunks of territory through a series of wars against the Ottomans and Persians, and the consolidation of power under the direction of administrator-generals such as Ermolov and Vorontsov (King, 26-52). The later task was not accomplished without resistance, most notably from the great Sufi murids Ghazi Mohammed, Hamzat Bek, Shamil, but, after years of struggle and numerous acts of brutality by all sides, major warfare had ceased by 1864, making the Caucasus a “Russian space” complete with economic and administrative assimilation, and the growth of Tiflis, Baku, and Batumi into major provincial centers (King, 71-99).

The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw a complete overhaul of the Caucasian administration, as Imperial viceroys were replaced with special commissions and local soviets (King, 160). The Bolsheviks quickly pulled Russia out of World War I with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918, and withdrew troops, leaving the Caucasus exposed. In response to the region’s vulnerability, it organized into the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia and continued the war against the Ottomans, only to break up a month later, along former provincial lines, into short-lived independent states. Armenia , Azerbaijan, and Georgia were officially recognized at the Paris Peace talks in 1920, but the previously, albeit briefly, unified region was beset with political tension, and even warfare among the new states.

None of the three, new states lasted more than a few years, however, and Bolshevik forces soon swept through the region, bringing the Caucasus under Russian control and establishing what would be known as the United Soviet Socialist Republic of Transcaucasia, and later the Transcaucasus Soviet Federative Socialist Republic after the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922 (King, 161-187). Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia became separate Union Republics in 1936 and undertook a series of administrative changes, through which the republics were subdivided, largely along legitimate ethnic/linguistic boundaries, into units closely resembling those present today (King, 187-188). Under Stalin, the Caucasus, like the rest of the Soviet Union, suffered through Beria’s purges and ‘demographic engineering’ programs that saw entire populations removed from their homes in response to alleged collaboration or presumed security threats (King, 196). The late Soviet period was characterized by stable republic leadership, resulting in marked modernization, industrialization, social change, agricultural innovation, infrastructural upgrades, and the construction of grand prestige projects such as the massive hydroelectric dam in Georgia (King, 201). However, by the late 1980s this generation of leadership was on the way out, and the climate of openness created by glasnost and a general weakening of the Communist Party contributed to the rise of opposition movements. Inferior bureaucrats couldn’t keep up with the pace of reform or maintain control (King, 212). Between 1990 and 1991, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all declared independence from the USSR, but the Soviet Union has left a lasting legacy (King, 211). Today, the populations of each state are overwhelmingly concentrated in the three major Capitol Cities: Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku, and many of the first leaders of Azerbaijan and Georgia were Soviet-era holdovers (King, 221).

Identity in the Caucasus [Aaron Chivington]

Transcaucasia has long been caught between some of the world’s largest imperial powers. Its diverse terrain and geographic position have continually made it a battleground for power in the Black and Caspian Seas. Today it is key to oil and natural gas interests for the modern states of the region. It has captured the minds of writers, poets, travelers and political leaders for centuries. It is home to the “exotically beautiful Circassian,” as historian Charles King notes, and “the tenor of writing about the Caucasus alternates between the triumphalist and the tragic” (King, 13). Indeed this craggy crossroads of civilizations and religions has generated its own subgenre of fiction and non-fiction writings.

The identity of the peoples of this region has been heavily constructed by those who were not part of it: “the collective categories that would eventually come to be used for ethnic groups, nationalities, and religions in the Caucasus were not present, fully formed, when the Russians arrived” (King, 100). Populations were worked and reworked into categories in order to make them more readily absorbable into the Russian Imperial system and thus more easily administered. Catherine the Great’s commissioning of Johann Anton Güldenstädt, a Baltic German, was the first semi-scientific approach to exploring the Caucasus. His observations provided the foundations for the beliefs that both Russians and the peoples of the Caucasus themselves be-lieved to be true about this region. His findings were published in German in 1787 and 1791 in the two-volume work entitled Travels in Russia and the Caucasus Mountains (King, 102).

Although others like Klaproth and Bronevskii followed Güldenstädt, his work had already in-formed the image of the Caucasus for most of Europe. It had become the barbarically beautiful, a land full of danger and the exotic. These tropes even arrived at the shores of America. “Circas-sian beauties” commonly filled the circus sideshow and “freak” museums in the late nineteenth century. One found her way into the show of Phineas T. Barnum, who was always looking for a woman with a “striking kind of beauty” (King, 136-7).

The Soviet era brought with it even narrower compartmentalizations of identities in the Caucasus. The turn of the century saw brutal conflicts in the Russo-Turkish wars, ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Anatolia, and religious uprisings in Baku. The transition from independent state to Soviet Republic was difficult for Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Lenin favored a delicate hand in dealing with the Caucasus, but Stalin took a starkly different approach. Addressing a group of Bolsheviks shortly after the Georgian takeover, he stated: “You hens! You sons of donkeys! What is going on here? You have to draw a white hot iron over this Georgian land!…Impale them! Tear them apart” (King, 189). Korenizatsiia (indigenization) was the policy, and the Communist ideology began to take hold in the region (King, 190).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, new independent states emerged in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, but severe problems persisted in regions like Chechnya and Ossetia, and land disputes arose between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the spoils of the formerly autonomous regions. The absence of Soviet rule has left the people of the Caucasus largely to their own devices. They are working with recent identities not forged by themselves, but imposed upon them by an outside power. Questions of identity, cultural memory, and common heritage are still being debated to this day.


Works Cited

  • Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (New York: Longman, 2001).
  • Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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