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Five Things Worth Knowing about the Caucasus

May 16, 2013|

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Pre-1917 Russian Postcard of the Qasara Gorge. Image by paukrus/flickr. Caucasus, 2011.

(Editor's note: James V. Wertsch, vice chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, is a specialist on the Caucasus. Washington University is a member of the Pulitzer Center's Campus Consortium.)

The Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged bombers of the Boston Marathon, are ethnic Chechens. One of them spent several months in Dagestan. Those connections have thrust those obscure places into the news (although confusion on social media sites between "Chechnya" and "Czech Republic" suggests that for most Americans these remain unfamiliar places). As we struggle to understand the violence in Boston it's worth noting some things we do know, about the places and history associated with the Tsarnaevs.

Chechnya and Dagestan are the names of two small neighboring areas in the larger region known as the Caucasus. It is not really part of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, or the Middle East. Instead it’s an area the size of Montana at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, wedged between Russia to the north, Turkey and Iran to the south, and between the Black Sea to the West and the Caspian Sea to the east. During the Soviet years, the entire Caucasus area was part of the Soviet Union, with Chechnya and Dagestan as semi-autonomous regions of the Russian Republic and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan as separate Soviet republics.

Here are five things worth knowing:

1. The Caucasus is mountainous. In this part of the world geography is destiny. The Greater Caucasus Range, with its spectacular peaks including Mt. Elbrus at 18,510 feet, divides the region into the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus; other mountains split the area further. The North Caucasus includes Dagestan, Chechnya, and other small republics that are part of today’s Russian Federation. The South Caucasus is comprised of the independent states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In the old Soviet Union Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were among the 15 national republics, whereas Chechnya and Dagestan were so-called “autonomous regions” within the Russian Republic. In today’s terminology Chechnya and Dagestan are referred to as republics, meaning they are non-Russian ethnic areas in the Russian Federation.

2. The Caucasus is culturally diverse. A glance at a political map of the region suggests that simple borders separate the political entities in the Caucasus, but in fact crossing from, say, Georgia to Chechnya involves traversing high mountain passes that are open only part of the year or using one of a few strategic tunnels. Such natural barriers mean that many groups in the region have existed in isolation for millennia. In fact, this compact region with its population of around 20 million includes upwards of 50 ethnic groups, and its linguistic variety is second only to that of New Guinea. A few languages like Azerbaijani are members of the Turkic language family, and others like Armenian and Ossetian are part of the Indo-European language family (which includes Russian and English). Most, including Chechen and Dagestani, are part of three distinct language families found nowhere else in the world. This linguistic diversity is accompanied by religious and political variation. The focus on Islam in current discussions of the Caucasus might leave the impression that the entire region is Muslim, and to be sure there are many Muslims there. But many in nominally Muslim regions such as Azerbaijan are quite secular, and Armenia and Georgia have been Christian since the fourth century. In terms of political systems, the regions of the Caucasus range all the way from the brutal, Kremlin-backed, dictatorial regime in Chechnya to the slowly loosening authoritarian system in Azerbaijan, to a fairly democratic Georgia, which recently celebrated the region’s first peaceful transition of political power after free and fair elections.

3. There are deep historical roots for just about everything in the Caucasus. When discussing Chechnya and Dagestan, Western commentators often refer to conflicts that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. People from the region find this superficial, almost humorous, and instead tend to see things from a much longer historical perspective. Historical roots in the region are indeed impressive: Petroglyphs from 10,000 years ago can be found in Azerbaijan and Georgia is the site of the world’s first cultivation of grapes for wine, some 8,000 years ago. In “recent” medieval times the Caucasus was overrun by Arabs, Mongols, Persians, and Turks as they tried to control this strategically important area. And for the past two centuries Russia has been the major player in the region. The peoples of the Caucasus have a reputation of being fiercely independent, and some highland groups were never conquered—or even discovered—by invading powers. The result is a set of competing national narratives that extend much further back in time than what we are accustomed to. In Georgia, for example, twelfth century king “David the Builder” retains a living presence in politics. Any Georgian knows what supporters of President Misha Saakashvili mean when they call him “Misha the Builder.”

4. The Caucasus is in a “dangerous neighborhood.” Throughout their long history, Caucasian clans and nations have engaged in warfare, and this continues today. In some cases the hostilities are between local groups. Just two decades ago, for example, more than 30,000 people died in a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But most major hostilities since 1800 have grown out of Russian efforts to subjugate the region, especially the North Caucasus. Today, hardly a week goes by without bombings or shootings that kill a dozen people in Dagestan, and in the 1990s a brutal war in Chechnya between militants and Russian forces left well over 70,000 dead. This sort of violence stems from the time of tsars’ efforts to expand the Russian empire into the region and subdue the local populations. Authors like Lev Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas described both the romantic and brutal sides of the Caucasus War, which dragged on from 1817 to 1864. In many respects, it is a war that continues to this day.

5. Russian suppression of national resistance in the Caucasus has encouraged fundamentalist movements. Russian efforts to suppress local groups have often led to radicalization. Numerous conflicts in the North Caucasus started out as ethnic or national resistance, but when brutally suppressed by Russia, morphed into extreme reactions, often with Islamist overtones. Time and again Russia’s heavy-handed efforts have had this result, and as violent resistance emerged the unfortunate Russian response has been to double down on the use of brutal force. Today discussions of autonomy or non-violent acts of resistance in the Caucasus are often labeled as terrorist and ruthlessly stamped out by Russians or their proxies. In an age of instant global communication, one ominous result is that the fundamentalist identities that have emerged locally are tied to worldwide networks. In addition to fighting against Russia, for example, radicalized Chechens can now be found fighting with Islamists in Afghanistan and Syria.

The North Caucasus is a place of spectacular beauty with most people wanting nothing more than to live in peace and see their children prosper. The cycles of violence continue to be very hard to break, however, and occasionally the targets of revenge go beyond Russians to anyone taken to be an enemy of Islam. The Tsarnaev brothers of course bear full responsibility for what they did. But for young men who may have lost their way after being disappointed in life, the powerful myths of revenge and identity nurtured in the Caucasus may have been too seductive to resist.