A satisfying blend of history and travel memoir, set in the tortured, contested landscapes of the Caucasus Mountains.
English novelist Griffin (The House of Sight and Shadow, 2001, etc.) is a devotee of such wild places as Chechnya, Armenia, and Georgia. Why he is attracted to these venues we never quite learn, but his quest has an interesting basis: Griffin travels into the Caucasus to try to “measure the effect one man can have on his region’s history 150 years after his death,” the man in question being the anti-Russian cleric and political leader Imam Shamil, who made life difficult for the Tsar’s empire-builders and provides inspiration for nationalists today. That quest provides a useful thread to hold together this sometimes madcap narrative as Griffin travels from one dreary Stalinist-era city, one snow-shrouded mountain pass to another, gauging the memory of Shamil and, more important, the spirit of resistance that holds Chechens, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and other denizens of the mountains so firm in their hatred of all things Russian save rubles and vodka. There are plenty of reasons for these people to dislike their Russian neighbors. The Muslim Chechens, for instance, were deported en masse into Siberia and Kazakhstan by Stalin, who claimed they were conspiring with the Nazis. They were permitted to return only in 1957, a quarter of their number lost in exile. By the time rebellion flamed into war in 1994, writes Griffin, “Many Russians could not place Chechnya on a map, yet the Chechens had forgotten nothing about Russia.” Today the Russian army is busily destroying every building in the land capable of sheltering a sniper (that is to say, every building in the land). And so it goes, the only thing dividing the Chechens in their unified hatred of Russians being the new class system emerging from the thriving black market—enough, one might think, to scare away the equally tenacious Russians.
Lively, thoughtful, and a big help in elucidating bewildering struggles in faraway mountains.