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.