The Caucasus Beyond the Mythical White Person
From the vantage point of the peoples colonized by Russian rule
High in the mountains running along the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia, in the garrison town of Zaqatala, former outpost of the famed Imam Shamil who in the mid-nineteenth century led the longest resistance to Russian rule, I meet an elderly woman crossing the street.
“Come inside and drink some tea with me,” she said. “I have lived in this town all my life,” she explains. “I have pictures to show you. I will tell you the history of everything.”
When conflict in the Caucasus leads journalists to turn to literary sources in search of new perspectives, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy are always ready at hand. Yet, for every Russian source that is invoked, a source indigenous to the Caucasus is neglected. Narratives in non-Russian languages and based on non-Russian experiences are suppressed.
What does the Caucasus look like from the perspective of these suppressed narratives? What do the stories that never traveled to Moscow or St. Petersburg, let alone to Europe and North America, tell us that Russian sources alone cannot convey? While visitors to the Caucasus endlessly circulate their own representations of the region, and there is no end to scholarship on external representations of the Caucasus, in the view of many outside observers, writers from the Caucasus are either absent or silent.
This absence might seem surprising in view of the tremendous growth of postcolonial studies in the last several decades. In one of the key manifestos of this movement, the influential anti-colonial polemic Orientalism (1979), Edward Said gave new life to Karl Marx’s comment on the 19th-century French peasantry: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” Following Said’s invocation of these words, Marx’s fateful dictum has stimulated reflection on postcolonial representation around the world.
Marx diagnosed a condition in which the oppressed are trapped in representational prisms manufactured by their oppressors. In order to overcome this paralysis, it is necessary to go beyond colonial representations and to recover the perspectives of the colonized.
Marx’s insight, as adapted by Said, has transformed the way in which we study the formerly colonized world. But it has yet to make its mark on the Caucasus, a world region where Russian representations continue to dominate the imaginations of outside observers.
The impression of silence is misleading. Generations of regional Caucasus writers have variously contested and complicated Russian and European accounts of colonial conflict, mountaineer barbarity, and religious fanaticism. Although each of the literatures in which they wrote, in Georgian, Chechen, Avar, Arabic, Persian, and Azeri Turkic, has its own distinct trajectory, these literatures share common themes. Writers from these traditions continually enrich and debate the trans-ethnic solidarity that is one of the Caucasus’ most enduring legacies.
There is a long and vibrant history of anti-colonial insurgency shaped by Russian, Chechen, Georgian, and Arabic writers, many of whom were also rebels against the colonial regime. As I documented in my first book, historical journey of the Chechen social bandit — known locally as the abrek — shifts from social outcast in the precolonial period to popular insurgent and religious leader under colonial and, subsequently, Soviet rule.
Tea in Zaqatala
I follow the woman past the wrought iron gates opening onto her garden. A peach tree is in bloom.
White blossoms cover the ground, resembling petrified snowflakes. My host closes the gate and extends her hand to greet me: “My name is Svetlana.” She is a pensionerka, an elderly woman surviving on a pension, living out her final years in northern Azerbaijan. Her ethnic origins is as mixed as that of nearly everyone local to this region.
“My father was Lezgi,” Svetlana explains. “He met my mother, a Russian Cossack, in Krasnodar. They traveled together to Zaqatala, fell in love with the place, and decided to stay here forever.”
Svetlana begins sifting through her belongings that lie scattered on a garden table. The first item she shows me is a tattered copy of a literary weekly published in Russia soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Literaturnaia Gazeta (Literary Gazette), dated 12 August 1992. She points to a headline and nods to me to as she reads it aloud: WE WILL NOT MAKE WAR ON OUR TERRITORY.
The headline references an interview with Dzhokhar Dudaev, the president of the breakaway Republic of Ichkeria (otherwise known as Chechnya), who would be assassinated by a targeted Russian missile in 1995.
She delights in the message: Russia’s literary elite will not accept a war with the self-proclaimed Republic of Ichkeria. Like Svetlana, Dudaev embraced Soviet culture during his career as a pilot in the Soviet air force. Svetlana has preserved this text, like a sacred scroll, fourteen years after its original publication, on the wobbly table in the garden of her provincial Azeri home.
I ask why she kept the article for so long, and why she was showing it to me now. She tells me that she still has faith in the Soviet Union and is unwilling to give up on its ideals.
We then visit a statue of Imam Shamil that has been erected by Daghestanis on the outskirts of the Azeri town. As Svetlana bends down to the ground to kiss the feet of Shamil, her Lezgi, Soviet, and Russian identities merge.
Half Cossack and half Lezgi, Svetlana’s way of life epitomizes Caucasus cosmopolitanism. Multiple identities stirred within her. She admired nationalist icons like Dudaev, who fought and died for the cause of independence.
She recognized that the world had changed since the end of the Soviet Union, yet she tried to keep the flame alive in order to insure its passage to subsequent generations. For Svetlana, Soviet solidarity transcended ethnic divides.
Svetlana was shaped both by Soviet experience and by the cultural diversity of the Caucasus. A mountaineer and a Soviet citizen, she was also a patriot and an admirer of those who had sacrificed their lives for their peoples’ freedom. Her heroes were Imam Shamil and Dudaev. She believed in the Caucasus, yet she knew it in a peculiarly Soviet form. Her sense of her place in the world was informed both by the transnational Soviet Union and the indigenous cultures of the Caucasus.
Svetlana was not concerned with high classical literature, but her cultural memories were inspired by the same histories and cultures that informed the authors to whom I have dedicated my research: the Georgian writers Alexsandre Qazbegi and Titsian Tabidze, the Persian writer Abbas Quli Agha Bakikhanov, and Hasan al-Alqadari, who wrote in Arabic, Persian, and Azeri Turkish.
When it comes to cultural difference, the cosmopolitanism of the Caucasus is in a class of its own. Diversity has an historical depth and weight in the Caucasus missing from the pluralism of many Western democracies, where Muslim immigrants are increasingly seen as a threat. The rise of right-wing movements throughout Europe and North America attests to tensions simmering beneath an ethnically plural surface.
Although war features frequently in Caucasus history, violence has most often resulted from colonial empires that ruled according to the principle of divide and conquer. When not disturbed by foreign invasions, Chechens, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, and Daghestanis have lived side by side, peacefully, for centuries. Within the Caucasus, peaceful coexistence has been the norm, not ethnic animosity.
One thing is for sure: the historical Caucasus has nothing to do with the pseudo-scientific theories that generated the myth of the “Caucasian” as an ancestor of white people. Not only is this scientifically untenable; it is aesthetically absurd, given that people from the actual Caucasus tend to be dark-skinned and black-haired. Caucasians — or as, I prefer to call them, Caucasus peoples, to avoid confusion with mythological white people — are a minority within Russia, and are often stigmatized for their divergence from the white Russian ideal.
Beyond Ethnic Polarity
The second story I have to tell about Caucasus cosmopolitanism relates to my Chechen language teacher, Mexa Xangoshvili, a Kist (Georgian Chechen) from the Pankisi Gorge with whom I studied at Tbilisi’s Caucasus House.
A rumor circulates to this day among Chechens that Aleksandre Qazbegi (1848–1893), the first professional Georgian writer, was Ingush by descent, the Ingush being a people closely related to the Chechens. When, one day in the middle of a Chechen lesson, I asked Mexa for her view of that legend, she rejected it emphatically and answered serenely in Georgian:
We prefer to think of Qazbegi as a Georgian writer, writing about Chechens, than as an Ingush writer, writing about his own people. In the Caucasus, we can only survive when we care about our neighbors.
Rejecting the identity politics inculcated by Soviet ethnic animosities, my Chechen teacher lived within a cosmopolitan Caucasus. For her, anti-colonial solidarity coexisted with a commitment to justice for all peoples of the Caucasus.
From the Georgian short story writer Qazbegi to the poets Tabidze and Vazha Pshavela, from Azeri historians who wrote in Persian like Bakikhanov to polymath Daghestanis such as al-Alqadari, and from medieval Persian poets like Khaqani and Nizami to Chechen poets like Magomed Mamakaev and Ingush novelists like Idris Bazorkin, writers from the Caucasus have created an eclectic literary canon that has a great deal to teach us all.
This literature is sublime and insurgent, lyrical and regal, countercultural and centrally embedded in political life. It has been shaped by cultural influences from across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia that parallel the indigenous cosmopolitanism I encountered while travelling from Baku to Derbent to Yerevan.
Although they have transformed the cultures in which they wrote of the greatest writers from the Caucasus are still unknown to the world outside. Their masterpieces remain untranslated into English, a situation I have done my best to correct.
In the quest to recover indigenous voices from post-Soviet violence, and to overcome colonial suppression, this rich literary heritage is an important resource. Texts indigenous to the Caucasus can teach us how to think different about cultural diversity, in the Caucasus and beyond.
More than the sublime Russian poetry of Pushkin and Lermontov, more than any text that views the Caucasus from an external point of view, more than the rich literature of Russian Orientalism, the indigenous literatures of the Caucasus offer an encounter with Caucasus cosmopolitanism in a world that is gradually — albeit all too slowly — moving away from imperial legacies.
Further reading on the Caucasus:
Introducing 17th century Daghestani Arabic treatise on jinns
As a taster for a forthcoming study guide on the literatures of the North Caucasus from antiquity to the present, I…
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