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The Caucasian Peoples

Published by Hessenhuis, Antwerp and the Russian Museum of Ethnography, St Petersburg.
Out of Print
Book Review | Cornucopia 28

The Peoples that Time Forgot

By Robert Chenciner

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.

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