The Peoples that Time Forgot

How St Petersburg discovered the Caucasus

The Caucasian Peoples
Hessenhuis, Antwerp and the Russian Museum of Ethnography, St Petersburg.


The Russian love affair with the Caucasus has been long and cruel, though the outside world knows little of the multitude of ethnic groups who for millennia have inhabited this remote strip of land the size of France. In 2001, however, a remarkable catalogue was published. It reveals a unique collection of artefacts which for years have stood gathering dust in the vaults of a St Petersburg museum. Robert Chenciner examines the book and introduces a selection of its poignant photographs.

  • The young Crimean bride in the centre and her sisters-in-law wear silk dresses with lace ruffs and cuffs. Heavy jewellery is much in evidence.
  • A Kabardian prince and his daughters: the Kabardians were a Circassian people of the northwest Caucasus, numbering some 164,000 in 1939. They had their own language and their own republic. The girls wear almost medieval cylidrical headdresses topped with cones decorated in niello and sliver-gilt. The older girl is dressed in a military bodice.

On Moscow television, the tired eyes and zombie gestures of the soon-to-die Chechen girl hostage-takers reflected a lost hopelessness that over the centuries has become a hallmark of the Caucasus. The promise of racial harmony within ethnic diversity in a region whose mountainous geography has cradled more than fifty languages has moved further away than ever. What irony that the repressive Soviet period marked one of the longest times of peace that the region has known during the past 2,500 years.

The Caucasus, briefly, is the corridor of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, dramatically cut off by two great parallel mountain chains. For centuries Byzantines from the west and Russians from the north vied with Persians from the south and Turkic peoples from the east to control the city of Derbent, which commanded the narrowest point of the passage along the Caspian Sea. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Sassanian Persians, Huns, Armenians, Khazars, Arabs, Vikings, Georgians, Mongols, Kıpçak Turks, Selçuk Turks, Ottomans, Safavids and Qajars have all left their mark.

Azerbaijan on the Caspian coast is a candidate for the biblical Garden of Eden. But perhaps it is the very natural riches of the Caucasus that have made it a prize for so many invading armies. Its handsome, vital and creative people survived mainly as warriors.

The musical, rhythmic name Kavkaz‚ or Caucasus‚ has no discovered origins. Herodotus mentioned the Caucasian Mountains in his History about 440BC. The “White”

Indo-European races were first called “Caucasian” in 1775 by the ethnographer Johann Blumenbach for no reason other than the great beauty of fair-skinned women of Circassia. Later the philologist Nikolas Marr followed a Romantic biblical interpretation that all mankind (and their languages) were descended “from the three sons of Noah”. In a facile way that of course has stuck, he put forward the notion that Japhet was the father of the “White Caucasian” peoples, in contrast to Ham for the “Black” and Shem for the “Semitic”.

For Russians, the Caucasus is a mythical place, their land of noble savages, their Wild West. It is also a source of huge ambivalence. As a recent splendid exhibition and catalogue show, fascination with the area led Russia to form the finest Caucasian ethnographic collection in the world. There is evident admiration in the painstaking and loving assembly of collections centred on these exotic peoples. The Ballets Russes were inspired by Caucasian dance. Caucasian music, cuisine and design have made their mark beyond Russia.

On the other hand Russia appears intent on laying waste to the region in a medieval spirit of destruction. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, she has provided the weapons, and often the military forces, for what has become a roll of disaster: Azerbaijan and Armenia; Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia; North Ossetia and Ingushetia; and the two wars between Russia and Chechnya which have steadily sucked in Chechnya’s neighbours. The relationship seems to be redolent of the dark side of the human subconscious that makes us kill the thing we love.

The way south through the Caucasus mountains was first opened when Russian engineers built the spectacular Caucasian military highway in around 1785. Driving the 200 kilometres from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi at night, in fog, is not an experience I would choose to repeat. Dangerous, deserted, narrow, twisty and pot-holed, it seems endless.

Following the long-drawn-out Russian conquest of the Caucasus that this highway made possible – ending with the honourable surrender of Imam Shamil in 1859 – the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences undertook one of the greatest social anthropological studies ever. The objects and photographs collected on their annual expeditions formed the collections of the Russian Ethnographic Museum, built in St Petersburg in 1911. Between 1862 and 1929 it published some sixty substantial volumes of “Caucasian Materials”, as well as numerous notes in the Imperial Russian Geographical Society journals.

The peoples of the Caucasus are special and worthy of serious study and popularisation. In recent times, there have never been sufficient resources available to do them justice, especially outside Russia. So my heart soared when I heard in June 2001 that a major collection of Caucasian objects and photographs from the St Petersburg museum – carefully preserved, but normally hidden from the public in its cavernous stores – was to be exhibited at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp.

Entitled The Caucasian Peoples, it was accompanied by a substantial book of the same name. The first illustrated catalogue of the world’s best Caucasian collection, it is a great reference for anyone studying the area, as long as you know what to look for.

Superbly printed, with lavish use of colour, the book illustrates 280 of the 630 objects in the exhibition and includes ninety old photographs. Yet its starting point is a jolly, Flemish-language ethnographic map, with no scale and no census figures – a warning to the reader of the frustrating lack of detail to come.

The ideological hallmark of the book is limp colonial ethnography, which avoids historical or economic context – nineteenth-century Russian wars, twentieth-century transportations, the current inter-ethnic wars and anti-Caucasian racism in Russia. The excellent photographs are accompanied merely by museum numbers and scant captions – no information on dates, scale or provenance (except those of the carpets). The work of distinguished deceased scholars of the museum is quoted without acknowledgement – people such as Dr E N Studenetskaya and Dr E Schilling, who helped to create and understand the collection. The exception is an illuminating section on the Crimean Tatars, which probably marks the first time their culture has been shown outside the former Soviet Union – in fact, it has rarely been seen within.

For all their faults, both exhibition and book throw light into a chasm of contradictions in the attitude of the Russians towards the Caucasus. And for that alone we should be grateful.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 28
  • Cavalcade of Colour

    Few cities have been served so faithfully by an artist as Istanbul was served, in its twilight years as a great imperial capital, by Fausto Zonaro. By Philip Mansel

  • Golden Opportunity

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  • Peak Performance

    Turkey’s Kaçkar Mountains, a daunting extension of the Caucasus high above the Black Sea, are only for the intrepid. Ali Özgü Caneri and Kate Clow took advantage of the short trekking season to scale two of the saw-edged summits. Photographs by Kate Clow.


  • Trotsky on Prinkipo

    Exiled by Stalin in 1929, Trotsky went to live on the Princes Islands near Istanbul. For four years he fished, wrote and developed the doctrine of Trotskyism. Remarkable photographs from the David King Collection show a quiet, ordered existence. Norman Stone uncovers the plotting that lay behind it.


  • Georgia on my Mind

    Turkey’s northeastern neighbour, Georgia, is a fairytale country with a hard edge, and its entrancing landscape of isolated hilltop cathedrals and medieval monasteries just demands to be explored. By Minn Hogg

  • Dome from Dome

    Built as way-stations for Orthodox pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land or Mount Athos, the rooftop churches of Karaköy are a forgotten corner of the Motherland in the heart of Istanbul. By Owen Matthews. Photographs by Simon Wheeler



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