Reviewed by Will Gourlay
For years Will Gourlay has been skirting the southern Caucasus, from Trabzon to Tbilisi and Tabriz. He is a writer with a particular interest in the Muslim communities of Eurasia.
According to legend, the gods once offered the Narts, the mythical ancestors of the peoples of the Caucasus, a choice between a short life of freedom and glory, or a long life of servitude. They chose freedom over longevity. The Narts obviously didn’t bank on tsarist imperial ambitions or Stalinist deportations. Oliver Bullough’s Let Our Fame Be Great outlines just how fate swindled the various peoples of the Caucasus, the most linguistically and ethnically complex place on earth. On the southern fringe of Russia, the Caucasus, is a domain of snowy peaks – including Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe – and lush forests that meander to the Black Sea. The breathtaking landscapes of the Caucasus have inspired Romantic poets and attracted mountaineers, but the region is best known for the Chechen war of the 1990s. It was in Chechnya that Bullough cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent, but as he points out this was just the latest tragedy to have befallen the peoples of the Caucasus over the last 150 years. In 1864, the Circassians were ejected from their capital in Sochi, which, ironically, will host the Winter Olympics in 2014. During WWII, entire nations of Mountain Turks and Chechens were deported at Stalin’s command, wrongly accused of collaborating with the Nazis and ending up dispossessed in Kazakhstan. Bullough’s book is an effort to trace the remnants of these communities. He delves into historical accounts, and travels extensively, from Istanbul to Israel and Kosovo to Almaty, meeting with members of the various diasporas, and also retelling his experiences in Chechnya and at the siege of Beslan, where he witnessed ‘horrors beyond my imagining’. Everywhere he encounters remarkable hospitality – something for which the peoples of the Caucasus are renowned – and teases out memories, reminiscences and family sagas. The majority of the stories are frankly heart breaking. The Caucasus, now thoroughly Russified, may be a realm of physical beauty but it is also one of human tragedy. Bullough’s book means that while the peoples of the Caucasus have had neither fame nor glory at least their stories may be told.