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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus
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on 29 July 2013
I am always very wary of reviewers telling their own story rather than providing useful comments for potential buyers/readers. However, here is what I believe is some necessary context.

In the early 1970s I took a Black Sea cruise with the travel firm Clarksons. Istanbul - Constanza (Rumania) - Odessa - Sochi and back to Istanbul. At Sochi the boat docked at a wharf alongside a main road. No fences or walls divided the town from the port. Russian soldiers put up low barriers around the boat and gangplank more to allow easy access to and from the boat rather than any secrecy. Sochi townspeople came to lean on the barriers and stare at us. The snow covered Caucasus mountains formed a dramatic backdrop to the town and port. Those of us with visas were able to go into the town. I returned with strange Russian cigarettes and chocolate. A short time later Clarksons went out of business and I gave no more thought to the Caucasus. I had no knowledge of the Circassians.

I came to this book with vague memories of the Black Sea, Sochi and the Caucasus but with a desire to further understand developments in and around Russia over the last 30 years. I had not appreciated how complex and important was and is the part of the world I had briefly visited over 30 years earlier. Oliver Bullough has written a wonderful book. In his book he is a travel writer, historian, political commentator and journalist. He has a sympathetic view of the peoples and cultures of the area, a detailed grasp of the history and a sharp assessment of the political involvement of Russia under the Tsars, Stalin and Putin with this mountainous pathway for Catherine the Great and the Tsarist dream of a warm water port.

He travelled far and wide to explore the stories of the Circassian families and others (Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, Karachais, Narts and Nogais to name a few) who suffered under Russian genocide, who fled in the various diasporas across the Black Sea to Turkey, Greece, Israel and further afield and those peoples who tried to maintain an independence from the Russian empire.

I compare this book with Misha Glenny's The Balkans. Both regions have a sustained impact on world affairs. Glenny gives a detailed but rather dry and turgid history of the region without the warmth, sometime humour and understanding that Bullough brings to an equally complex and unsettled region.

Of the 12 reviews only 1 is 1 star and that is because the Kindle version has no maps! Otherwise all are 4 and 5 stars. I recommend this for any student of history and any student of geo politics. I give it 5 stars.
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on 16 November 2014
Although Let Our Fame be Great is Oliver Bullough's first book, it is a masterpiece that clearly demonstrates his historical training and his journalistic background. Bullough tells the story of the people of the Caucasus by successfully combining historical sources and numerous interviews that he carried out during his extensive travel in the region. What stands out most about the book is his ability to emphasize to emphasize with his interviewees and still maintain a suitable distance in order to successfully analyse their perspectives. Bullough's writing is first class and his descriptions of people and places are magnificent. He is able to bring to life every story that he tells, no matter whether he's talking about the Russian Empire in the 18th century or the 1st Chechen war in the late 20th century. The breadth of this book is truly astonishing as it takes the reader on a tour de force of the history of the Caucasus in the last 300 years by looking at the lives of many of the most notable figures of Russian history such as the Russian poets Pushkin and Lermontov, various Russian emperors, the Soviet dictator Stalin and the current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At the same time he also gives us a view into the lives of many ordinary people, thus enriching our perspective of the events presented in the book.

Bullough begins his book with the tragic tale of the Nogai people who accepted Russian rule in August 1783 only to be rewarded with an order to abandon their lands and settle south of the Urals. This resulted in a rebellion in which the leaders who had signed the pact with Russia were executed and thousands of Nogai marched against the Russians. However, these rebels were no match for the Russian armies. This event resulted in the death of many Nogai and the capture of many heads of cattle as well as many women and children. Later in that month, August, more members of the Nogai people rose up to avenge the massacre but they were pursued by the Russians and mercilessly executed.

If you find this kind of story too gruesome, sad or interesting, then you'd better leave this book alone. Although it also contains many moments of mirth, Let Our Fame be Great is primarily a story of the gradual deportation and extermination of the many peoples from the Caucasus region. The book's title comes from a tale about the Narts, the mythical ancestors of all the Caucasus nation:

"Throughout the chronicles, the Narts delight in holding meetings and discussions to decide the correct course of action. But in this tale they do not do so. Without hesitation, they tell the swallow to take their answer back to his master.

'If our lives are to be short, then let our fame be great! Let us not depart from the truth! Let fairness be our path! Let us know not grief! Let us live in freedom!' The swallow took that answer away with him and, so the story goes, 'their fame has remained undying among people.'"

The book is divided into 4 parts and each of them focuses on a different period in the history of the region. The first part focuses on the tragic history of the Circassians who in 1864 were expelled from their lands following their final defeat and, according to Bullough, became victims of perhaps the first genocide of the modern era. Bullough charts the gradual Russian conquest of the Circassians and his description of the expulsion of the Circassians to the lands of the Ottoman Empire in 1864 is heart-breaking. He also makes ample use of interviews with descendants of the Circassians who proudly uphold their legacy today in the former territories of the Ottomans and within Turkey itself.

The second part of the book, called the Mountain Turks, focuses on the fate of several ethnic groups, including the Karachai-Balkar nation, the Kalmyks, as well as the Chechens and the Ingush. The displacement and killing of these people occured during one of the worst periods in the history of Caucasus - the rule of Stalin. In 1943-44 while the battle was raging between the Nazis and the Soviets, these groups suffered a similar fate to that of the Circassians as many of them were killed and the rest were transported in other, distant regions in the vast territory of the USSR.

Although the following quote by Ivan Velyaminov, chief of staff of General Alexei Yermolov, who was charged with continuing the conquest of the Caucasus begun by Suvorov, refers to the strategy that Russia utilised in the first half of the 19th century, I think that it also aptly describes the tragic events that occured in the 20th century as well:

"The Caucasus may be likened to a mighty fortress, marvellously strong by nature, artifically protected by military works, and defended by a numerous garrison. Only thoughtless men would attempt to establish such a stronghold. A wise commander would see the necessity of having recourse to military art; would lay his parallels; advance by sap and mine, and so master the place. The Caucasus, in my opinion, must be treated in the same way, and even if the method of procedure is not drawn up beforehand, so that it may be continually referred to, the very nature of things will compel such action, ' Velyaminov wrote."

The third and fourth sections of Bullough's book examine the conquest of the Chechens and the development of tensions in the region in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, which eventually resulted in the 1st and 2nd Chechen wars. Bullough once again skillfully combines interviews with historical resources to present a compelling tale of the fate of the Chechens who today have become the most common European refugee seekers. He is able to demonstrate the complexity of the Chechen wars and he adds a human dimension to a conflict that could easily be seen as a case of a modern country fighting a war against a group of backward savages that refuse to accept the benefits of its civilization. Although Bullough's account presents the dire circumstances of Chechens today, it also underscores the hardiness of the Chechens and the other inhabitans of the Caucasus. Speaking of a Chechen whose application for a refugee status has been refused, the author describes the situation with the following words:

"He was on his way to the clearing in the forest where he would park his car and sleep that night. And after that? He had said he might go to Turkey. Or perhaps he will try his luck in western Europe again. Whatever he chooses - and I never even found out his surname, so I will never know - it will be even further from what he dreamed of us as a boy.
Had he not been a Chechen, I would have called him a broken man."

In short, Bullough's book is an absolute triumph and I recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in the Caucasus, the Russian Empire, Eastern Europe or European history in general. The only criticism that I can direct towards him is that he seems willing to forgive the Chechens for their backward, by modern standards, attitude to women but he is less willing to consider the fact that like other people Russian citizens are influenced by the environment that they grow up in and, just as many British and French people are unrepentant about their former colonial empires, the Russians feel no regret about the military successes of their ancestors, despite the cost at which they were achieved. Nevertheless, this is only a small caveat and I heartily vouch for the high quality of this book. I look forward to reading Bullough's second book, which is titled The Last Man in Russia and seeks to examine in greater detail the story of this vast and in so many ways contradictory country.
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on 15 April 2010
This is an excellent book, written from a particular viewpoint, but none the worse for that. The author has clearly managed to gain the trust of the many people he visited and spoke to, and has an excellent background in Russian and Caucasian history. It is selective: the Northern Caucasus (very little about the fascinating history of the countries and peoples to the South - Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and so on), and primarily three nations of the Northern Caucasus. Despite being selective, it is a fine and thought provoking read. No-one will read it and fail to learn more about the interaction of Russia with these peoples.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 April 2014
This is a remarkable traveller's account of a journey among history's losers. I do not use that term pejoratively. The people of the North Caucasus lost out to Russian expansion in the 19th Century much as the Australian aborigines and indigenous Americans lost out to European settler expansion during the same century. For many in Russia, the Caucasus is either a romantic, wild backdrop to literary classics of Pushkin or Lermontov or cesspit of banditry and extremism. Most are oblivious to the region's dark history, and their country's contribution to it. But much of the outside world has no idea, either. Few realized that the Sochi Olympics were sited on a historical crime-scene, where hundreds of thousands of Circassians were massacred or expelled 150 years earlier. Circassian Diaspora groups protested the crass indifference of Russian officials in staging the Olympics in the place which for them is the equivalent of Auschwitz but their voices were barely heard. The scattered Circassian diaspora lacks the lobbying clout of the Armenian Diaspora. Even if their voices had been heard, who would even have known what they were talking about?

In this book, Bullough travels among the various North Caucasian lands (those parts of the Russian Caucasus bordering modern-day Georgia and Azerbaijan) and their scattered Diasporas. He is a wonderfully vivid writer, evoking a great sense of place, of people, and of those peoples' experience of their space. He relates the stories of a plethora of characters, Chechen Sufi mystics, stranded in exile in Kazakhstan; exiles in Turkey, Austria, and Poland; lonely, heroic survivors of the massacres and deportations of the 1940s and their unavailing efforts to extract justice and compensation from the teeth of an indifferent or hostile Russian state. Many of the stories are heart-breaking - the Chechen elder who, after fifty years of exile in Kazakhstan, returned to Grozny in 1994, only to have war force him out once again, back into exile into Kazakhstan. His story speaks for hundreds of thousands of experiences suffered by the people of this region of eviction and exile.

Bullough relates the tale of the violent incorporation of the North Caucasus into the Russian Empire in the 19th Century, and subsequent traumas, the greatest of which was the series of mass deportations of whole peoples by Stalin, collective punishment for suspected or actual collaboration on the part of individual members of those communities with the Nazi invaders. He also documents the impact of two of Russia's most recent wars in Chechnya, one of which arguably launched Vladimir Putin's career. His chapters on Chechnya are especially good, and reveal something about why the sorts of martial virtues that make Chechens excellent guerrilla fighters also made it impossible for them to form a coherent state. It was this failure of the quasi-independent Chechen republic from 1996 to 1999 to contain banditry and extremism which gave Putin the pretext to crush the mountain insurgents with great violence (Putin's recent declamatory rhetoric about Ukraine's Euromaidan's `war' on ethnic Russians sounds especially hollow to anyone who knows his own war-record in Chechnya).

If there is only one mild criticism of the book, it is that his impassioned advocacy for the victims of the Russian/Soviet empires sometimes lacks nuance. Some of the colonised identified enthusiastically with their masters - a fact overlooked in anti-colonial narratives generally, not just ones condemning Russian imperialism. The North Ossetians for instance served in Tsarist and Soviet armies in great numbers - per head of population, more of their fighting men were decorated `Heroes of the Soviet Union' than any other ethnic group. Having said that, the book succeeds in doing justice to those who have been denied it, by allowing the victims to tell their stories. And it is done with great panache and verve. The mark of a very good writer is that he seems to unfold these stories effortlessly, and keeps himself in the background. Even if you know very little about the North Caucasus, it is likely that the author's narrative skills will engage you and make it a gripping, compelling read. Cynics say that the winners write history. But in this book, the losers have written it. If you want to begin to understand something about this neglected region, then this is just the book.
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on 18 March 2014
After reading the novel 'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena' a month or so ago, which is about the wars Russia brutally and relentlessly waged against the people of Chechnya, I realised how little, in fact nothing, that I knew about this region. Sitting here in the southernmost regions of the world, on an island surrounded by water I have no comprehension at all of being surrounded by other countries/nations/states. The closest I get to all that is my neighbours. I felt after reading that novel, in light of Russia hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and in the recent goings on in Ukraine/Crimea that it would be very useful to know a little more about yet another hot spot in our world. I was reading some reviews for this book, and was reminded that those who set off bombs at last year's Boston Marathon were also from Chechnya.

Were my eyes opened in my reading of this book. Chechnya and Sochi are probably the only two places many people have heard of in this region of Europe. They are in the area of land known as the Caucasus Mountains which is a mountainous range part of Russia, separating the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea and by its rugged topography, effectively separating Russia from the countries south of the Caucasus - amongst others Turkey. This area of mountains has been fought over endlessly for hundreds of years between Russia, Turkey, and amongst the numerous and very diverse ethnic groups that inhabit these mountains. There is nothing pretty at all about any of it. Nothing. And it is likely to always be thus.

Oliver Bullough is a Welsh journalist who has developed a passionate interest in making sure that the many voices of the peoples of these regions are heard. From 1999 to 2006 he lived and worked in Russia for magazines, newspapers, and finally for Reuters. He saw first hand the ruthless efficiency with which the Russians dealt to the Chechens who were fighting for independence from Russia. He makes no apologies for the behaviour of the Chechens in their hostage taking tragedies of the Moscow movie theatre in 2002, and the Beslan school siege of 2004, but he does attempt to inform the reader as to the history of the whole region, the attempts by the Russians over the past centuries to control and wipe out by massacre or deportation whole populations and ethnic groups. The Black Sea resort of Sochi, for example, is the site of the wholesale massacre of the Circassion population in the mid-nineteenth century, or Stalin's wholesale evacuation of thousands and thousands of Karachais, Balkars, Chechens and Ingush to the desolate lands of Kazakhstan. Just to mention a few.

Bullough delves deep into historical material, manuscripts, he has travelled extensively through the area, speaking to those who were deported in the 1930s, those who were children and now elderly who survived the massacres and complete wiping out of their villages, those who have been victims of the wars of the last twenty or so years, those who are now economic refugees in Poland and Austria. This is a huge book, part travelogue, part history lesson, part current events. It is incredibly interesting, easy to read and short of going there, if you dare, will give you more knowledge and understanding of the land and the peoples than you could wish for. None of it is pretty, Putin is no different really from his appalling predecessors at suppressing resistance, and with the latest trouble in Ukraine, the future looks pretty hopeless for those who continue to live there and defy Russia. This is pretty depressing of course, but only makes it that much more important that we read and learn about these areas before they disappear forever.
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on 19 August 2010
For those of us who have travelled extensively in the region the rhythms of this text are unmistakable. It captures so well the spririt of those who have inhabited the Caucasus for centuries. The detailed reseach that Bullough undertook means that there is much here you will not read in comparable books.

However it speaks well to those with little knowledge as I then passed it onto my wife who knows little of the area and she adored it and could not put it down. The illuminating and unpatronising tone allows experts and novices alike to enjoy it.
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on 13 August 2013
The people who live in the Caucasus be it the Circassians or the Chechens amongst others have a remarkable story to be told, the author Oliver Bullough with his contacts in the region and his many years of journalism reporting from there tells us about the struggle, the wars that these defiant people have had to go through. Although written from his own viewpoint and for that Russia in the past or Putin in the present isn't looked favourably upon he has made the Caucasus and it's peoples history a great read. Recommended.
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on 4 August 2016
It is must for anyone wanting to learn of the hardships of indigenous peoples against the tyranny of super powers. None of us are innocent - but we don't know that until the truth is revealed after being squashed for so long. Oliver B is a very talented writer and sympathetic to struggling peoples. He is an obvious risk taker - i really look forward to more of his work.
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on 3 March 2011
I read this book during a hot summer in Russia; it was curious to think that 'Let Our Fame Be Great' is set in the same country. I'd recommend it, with the following points:

1) The book focusses on the North Caucasus, so don't expect coverage of Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan.
2) It takes a surprising (though welcome) turn in the last section, changing from a historical perspective, to reporting on events from the last decade. Overall, the book is a rich blend of history, reporting, with travel writing and folklore. The few pages of colour photographs add to the account, evoking the people and places that Bullough encounters.
3) It's not a complete, 'academic' account of the region - it's more like a colourful taster, leaving you wanting to read more about the Caucasus. That is the secret of this book's charm.
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on 16 December 2014
A mixture of modern history, travel and polemic, this is a very rich and enriching book, slightly inconsistent in tone and style, but always engrossing. Is this part of Europe or Asia?
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