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The Story of the Caucasus - ARINDAM MUKHERJEE

“Daktar”, as I call Dr Aneek Saha, has been after me to track Yugoslavia and Caucasus for more than a year now. While he has a point; I happen to have an active interest in Eurasia, and these two patches are crucial in that emotion, but I have been habitually lazy to collate the info that is required to even think of attempting to write anything about them. But as they say, ‘you are never quite ready’; so here I am. This one is about that spot of land, forest, and mountain between BC - 😊 – the Black and the Caspian Sea that they call the Caucasus. This is where “Europe gradually vanishes amid a six-hundred-mile chain of mountains… mesmerizing in their spangled beauty, especially after the yawning and flat mileage of the steppe lands to the north. This is Russia’s Wild West, though the mountains lie to the south of Moscow and St. Petersburg… Here, the Russians encountered Islam in both its moderation and implacability.” (Robert Kaplan)

[A Fair Warning: Don’t think this to be an ‘effort’ to cover the incredibly complex and complicated history of the Caucasus. I simply don’t have the bandwidth to attempt that. Rather treat this as a very rudimentary, rough-lined item. And dig more on your own if this piques your interest levels. I have no training sessions lined up before Friday, so I thought honouring Daktar with this piece may be a good way to brush up my grappling skills with complex histories as I laze about.]

Okay, here we go. Few points that need to be mentioned here are that the Caucasus has been a transit for as far as one goes back to recorded human history. They have been peripheral to empires; a sandwich between two biggies and been used as a marching tract by kings and empire builders. As is the nature of crossroads then, there is that effect of multiple religions. The third factor – as Fred Reed had profoundly put while writing once about tribal behaviour in humans – is the plain people and the mountain people. Which is probably the result of very ancient human migration and conflict where the stronger tribe takes over the possession of the ‘easy’ plains and pushes the weaker tribes to the ‘tough’ terrain – the mountains. And then with time, the mountain tribe grows stronger, and wilder, and rougher – obviously; survival is tough up there. And the plain guys turn fat and lazy, and often remain at the mercy of the mountain raiders. Cycle of time.

The Peripheral Sandwich

Alexander marched through this region a long time ago. That means a lot of people having their way. He built ‘walls’ and/or ‘gates’ (argued by many, and I guess even included in the Quran), to keep the ‘barbarians’ (probably Scythians, or Jews, or Comanians) out. That means there were many tribes there already, around that area. This wall/gate later turned out to be a source of conflict between Byzantine and Persians (and even then, that wasn’t the first time Caucasus was a sandwich. That has to be the Rome-Persia sandwich). After Alexander, Rome raided, laid waste the Black Sea area (modern day Georgia), held the region for some time and turned neighbouring Iberia into a vassal state. That followed a period of territorial struggle between the Romans and the Persians for about 600 years. That’s a lot of fighting and I am guessing lot of mess.

Christianity came during 1st century. The local religions (Mithraic, Hellenestic, Pagan) continued side by side for some time. Then Byzantine and Persia divided the land between themselves. Christianity settled in Georgia region. Then came Islam. That was 7th century. Caucasus turned to an interesting mix: weathered nomads in the north, fat sedentary guys in the south, Greco-Roman to the west, and Persia to the east… and religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster faded – obviously, and the region turned out to be a battleground for the two missionary religions with Judaism trying to hold on to whatever tribe it could. It is an extremely complex account given the sheer number of tribes and sub-patches that the area had with their interest in the different religions ebbing and flowing with time (the political map is very complicated, even today) – and though there are remarkable similarities, it would make NWFP look like relatively simple. So anyway, it was a long-drawn strategy that eventually enabled the Seljuk Turks to Islamize the area significantly, and by the 11th century, not only had other religions taken a backseat, but also old-world alphabets like Aramaic, Pahlavi, or Albanian – used in the local languages, were completely obliterated as Arabic script took over. The final phase was accomplished by Langda Taimur s/o Langda Tyagi (kidding; it was Tamerlane). And that phase of religious alignment continues till today. Caucasus remains predominantly Islamic (there are many subdivisions there too), with Christianity sprinkled in between small pockets. Judaism has disappeared. So has other older ones.

The story that might interest you is the one that began after Russia managed to end the rule of the Golden Horde and became a force to reckon. From one Ivan to the next (Ivan the Great, Ivan the Terrible), the Mongols were done and dusted, and Caucasus was the next big ground for religious conversion – this time Eastern Christian missionaries landed with the blessings of Russian Empire. The Russian army tried for a permanent piece of the territory too following that but were pushed back. The Ottomans and the Tatars then got busy trying to reconvert the Christian guys back into Islam.

This was an interesting game going on when two things happened simultaneously. One was Russia regrouping and attacking, emboldened after their annexation of Crimea in 18th century; two was the arrival of the Naqshbandi Sufi sect. These were eventually to become the intolerant jihadi type guys that looked down on Muslims of Caucasus that had been coexisting there with people from other religions. This is one of the roots of the beginning of conflict of the kind that persists even today, whether in Chechnya Dagestan or southern Caucasus. These guys initiated their struggle fighting Russia and a part of the identity of Caucasus remains as a legacy of someone called Shamil (an adherent of a different sect of Sufism) who rose to prominence during what we have come to call the Tournament of Shadows or the Great Game.  

The Great Game

The Caucasian chapter of The Great Game played out in Dagestan and Circassia. Peter Hopkirk is the best bet for this part, but I have taken portions out of his book for a quick grasp of the main idea. It so happened that when Russia was more or less in control of the Caucasus, only two pockets – Dagestan and Circassia, remained rebels. These two were mountainous regions, with a difficult terrain. The defenders were toughened tribal with great aptitude for mountain-forest warfare, and religious zeal. The icing on that cake was the leadership of Shamil. And that wasn’t all, for there was someone called David Urquhart – a young Scotsman and an avowed Russophobe who took it upon him as his personal mission to lodge a spanner in the Russian expansion machine.  

Russia then, during the beginning of the 19th century looked in great shape. Central Asia was turning into its playground as London and Calcutta looked like sitting ducks stuck in bureaucratic ‘masterly inactivity’, and so was the Caucasus along Near East. Persia was defeated in 1828; Ottomans in 1829. St Petersburg wrestled the rights of passage through Turkish Strait for their Black Sea fleet. That was considered an impending disaster frightfully close to the mainland, along a weak tract that could overrun entire Europe, as well as open-up simpler routes to India. It was ‘not for nothing had one Russian general described the Caucasus as the “greatest fortress in the world”’. And David Urquhart was in a way the first ‘Charlie Wilson’ of the Caucasus – hundred years before Charlie Wilson was born.

It would be quite a bit to write about his achievements, however, know this bit that it was primarily for David that Caucasus kept Russia frustrated for a long time. From manufacturing propaganda in his homeland, getting Britain to supply arms to the rebels, persuading a ship to sail through naval blockade in an effort to cascade a war between Britain and Russia, and inspiring fellow Englishmen like Longworth and Bell – two journalists cum spies cum weapons suppliers cum hustlers; guys who were to write later about their glorious adventures with the ‘mujahideen’… David and his genius kept Caucasus boiling, and out of reach of Russia for the next quarter of century.

This little tough lesson had the Bolsheviks refuse to integrate this into a single republic later, and keep them as smaller, separated artificial units that did not match their ethnic or linguistic patterns. Like it had prompted the earlier Imperial Russia to put in thousands of kilometres of rail track crisscrossing the Caucasus: Crimea, Krasnovodsk, Merv, Baku, Batumi, and so on.

[David Urquhart could be called a pioneer of sorts. Though there were Englishmen before him that helped plant seeds of defiance among different kingdoms and khanates in Asia against the Russian landward expansion, none of them had moved into an area that was already predominantly ‘Russian’; none of them had moved into an area that was ‘active’ in unrest; and none of them had been so successful. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some historian tomorrow uncovers the inspiration behind propping the Afghan mujahids of the 80s to have flowed from a case-study of Urquhart’s exploits by some obscured US bureaucrat who then narrated the whole deal to Joanne Herring.]

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