Two centuries ago, the Russians pushed out of the cold north towards the Caucasus Mountains, the range that blocked their access to Georgia, Turkey, Persia and India. They were forging their colonial destiny, and the mountains were in their way.
The Caucasus had to be conquered and, for the highlanders who lived there, life would never be the same again.
If the Russians expected it to be an easy fight, however, they were mistaken. Their armies would go on to defeat Napoleon and Hitler, as well as lesser foes, but no one resisted them for as long as these supposed savages.
To hear the stories of the conquest, I travelled far from the mountains. I wandered through the steppes of Central Asia and the cities of Turkey. I squatted outside internment camps in Poland, and drank tea beneath the gentle hills of Israel. The stories I heard amplified the outrages I saw in the mountains themselves. As I set out, in my mind was a Chechen woman I had met in a refugee camp. She lived in a ragged, khaki tent in a field of mud and stones, but she welcomed me with laughter and kindness. Like the mountains of her homeland, her spirit had soared upwards, gleaming and pure. Throughout my travels, I met the same generosity from all the Caucasus peoples.
Their stories have not been told, and there fame is not great, but truly it deserves to be.
In this grim exploration of some of history's less publicized tragedies, Bullough, who has reported for Reuters from the Caucasus, covers two centuries of conflict between a remorseless Russian military machine and the proud, warlike, anarchic peoples of the Caucasus Mountains. The crimes he chronicles are vast the 1864 expulsion of a million Circassians; Stalin's deportations of "Mountain Turks" to Central Asia; Putin's "war of complete savagery" in Chechnya. Bullough tries to convey both their epic scale and their impact on individual victims. His firsthand reporting of the Chechnya conflict is especially evocative, and he adds softer interludes that humanize the material: a survey of Russian Romantic writings about the Caucasus, a vivid profile of 19th-century Chechen guerrilla leader Imam Shamil, visits with Caucasian expatriates. Nevertheless, this overstuffed saga of suffering and injustice can grow dreary. The brutality of Russia's army and officialdom is eternal, while the many ethnicities they oppress blur together, and we get no vivid sense of the cultures that inspire their dogged resistance and nonconformity. 16 pages of photos, maps.