Friday, 22 April 2011

Let Our Fame Be Great, by Oliver Bullough

When journalists are good they are very, very good. Oliver Bullough is terrific. His combination of historical research and contemporary reportage is an extraordinary introduction to the history and continuing conflicts of the North Caucasus - that barrier of mountains and Muslims which once lay between Russia proper and its imperial ambitions in Transcaucasia and is now a mess of unhappy partlets of the Russian Federation: Kabardino - Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. Since the 2008 conflict with Georgia, add Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia comes out very badly from Bullough's stories.

Imperial Russia in the 1860s drove the Circassians of what is now Abkhazia into the sea - by the hundreds of thousand - and, if they were lucky, exile in Ottoman Turkey.

Stalin, encouraged by his fellow-psychopath Beria, deported whole Caucasian populations en masse in the 1940s in the kind of closed rail wagons which were as good at killing mountain herders as elsewhere city Jews.

Post-Soviet Russia bludgeoned the Chechens into a kind of submission in wars of appalling brutality - though Bullough acknowledges, on both sides.

I read this 500 page book with unflagging interest. It is beautifully crafted and puts to shame the kind of dull prose which academics still deploy. But I would want to enter one corrective of perspective, which does not exonerate Russia but places it as just another Imperialist power.

Uniquely, Russia - both Imperial and Soviet - built its Empire by expanding overland North, East, South and West. At no point did it have to cross an ocean. All the colonial brutality it perpetrated occurred on the Eurasian landmass. This is one reason perhaps why Bullough thinks particularly reprehensible Russians' ignorance of their own terrible history.

But I do not think Russia is unique in the horrors it inflicted or in ignorance of them.

The atrocities of a squalid Imperial bit player like Belgium occurred thousands of miles away in the Congo. It is probably still possible for Belgians to think that it is not part of "their" history.

France has a poor record in Africa up to the present day under Emperor Sarkozy. The civil war in Algeria is the one "we" know about. How different would it feel if Algeria had been attached to the south of France rather than separated from it by the Mediterranean? I think we might expect the French to be more apologetic than they are, which is in any case not very apologetic.

British subjects have until the past few weeks been shielded from much of the truth about the late colonial wars we waged in such countries as Kenya.

Probably the Germans have done most to acknowledge and deal with their own past.

What is notable about Vladimir Putin's attitudes, which figure significantly in Bullough's account of the Chechen Wars, is that he is determined that there shall be no accounting for the past or the present in his own backyard. What is perhaps most frustrating is that such an attitude is unnecessary to any sound project of ensuring Russia its rightful place in the world.

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