A tour de force of historical research and contemporary reportage on one of the world’s most hotly contested corners.
Israeli journalist Karny recounts a decade’s worth of travels into a “museum of civilizations,” the high country of the Caucasus, where tiny, splintered ethnic and religious groups battle ceaselessly for land, power, and autonomy. Some of their struggles have been heavily reported, but rarely so thoughtfully; the author’s illuminating analysis of the long, brutal, and (from an outsider’s perspective) confusing war in Chechnya, pitting the Russian empire against a people united only in their hatred for Russia, is worth the purchase-price on its own. The Chechens are not unique in their determination to be left alone to rule their tiny pockets of rock and ice; Ubykh and Shapsug, Armenian and Azeri, Abkhazian and Daghestani have all played their parts in battles large and small against foreign invaders and mountain neighbors alike, burying generations of kinfolk while never, it seems, drawing closer to a resolution. The author holds out little hope for peace in the region, although he is full of praise for the reformers who want to put an end to the savagery; he writes, for instance, that although oil-rich Azerbaijan may “become a Kuwait-on-the-Caspian,” it will likely spend its resources and people feeding fights over borders that will never be drawn. And as those wars drag on, Karny says, the less powerful cultures of the Caucasus will inevitably decline as they’re bled dry by more powerful foes: “Spotted owls may survive deforestation in the American Northwest, rare plants may be saved in the rainforests of Madagascar or Brazil,” he writes, “but the rare human species of the Caucasus may be gone in just a few decades with only scant attention paid to their plight to the outside world.”
An extraordinarily helpful contribution toward understanding a region that, although far away, figures in so many headlines—and obituaries.