August 11, 2008


Where Europe Vanishes: Civilizations have collided in the Caucasus Mountains since the dawn of history, and the region's dozens of ethnic groups have been noted for "obstinacy and ferocity" since ancient times. Stalin was born in these mountains, and it was also here that the Soviet empire began to crumble. The story of the Republic of Georgia illustrates that the peoples of the Caucasus may prove as incapable of self-rule as they were resistant to rule by outsiders (Robert D. Kaplan, November 2000, Alantic Monthly)

EUROPE and Asia fuse along the shores of the Black Sea, but the Caspian Sea is all Asiatic. Between these two bodies of water is a land bridge where Europe gradually vanishes amid a 750-mile chain of rugged mountains as high as 18,000 feet. This is the Caucasus—Russia's Wild West. Here Russian colonialists since the seventeenth century have tried unsuccessfully to subdue multitudes of unruly peoples. To the west and southwest of the Caucasus lie the Black Sea and the most undeveloped part of Turkey; southeast lie the mountains and tablelands of Iran; east, across the Caspian Sea, are the desert wastes of Central Asia; and north lies Russia, shattered like much of the Caucasus by poverty and chaos following seven decades of communism. The northern slopes of these mountains, properly called the North Caucasus, contain various ethnic chieftaincies that are now part of the Russian Federation; the region to the south of the highest ridges is called the Transcaucasus—the land of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Balkans border Central Europe. The Caucasus has no such luck.

Even before it did in Mesopotamia, civilization may have taken hold in the Caucasus, where there is an abundance of both water and vegetation, allowing for domesticable animals and agriculture. The mountainous terrain shelters miniature tribal worlds lost in time. The Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-A.D. 23) noted that in the Greek Black Sea port of Dioscurias, now in the northwestern-Georgia region of Abkhazia, seventy tribes gathered to trade. "All speak different languages," he wrote, "because ... by reason of their obstinacy and ferocity, they live in scattered groups and without intercourse with one another." It was on Mount Caucasus, in Georgia, that Prometheus, punished by Zeus, was chained to a rock so that an eagle could continually peck at his liver. Prometheus, who created man out of clay, represents the pre-Olympian authority that Zeus toppled; the very antiquity of the Prometheus story, which is part of the creation myth of the Greek world, could be further evidence that the Caucasus was a cradle of civilization. One theory holds that the word "Georgia" comes from the Greek word geo ("earth"), because the ancient Greeks who first came to Georgia were struck by the many people working the land.

Today the Caucasus is shared by four countries and about a dozen autonomous regions with as many as fifty ethnic groups among them, each with its own language or dialect. Some are well known and numerous, such as the Georgians, the Armenians, the Azeri Turks of Azerbaijan, and the Chechens. Others are smaller and obscure, such as the Ingush, the Ossetes, the Avars, the Abkhaz, the Balkars, the Kalmyks, the Mingrelians, and the Meskhetian Turks.

In 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which all of the Caucasus had belonged, set off a gruesome pageant of warfare, anarchy, and ethnic cleansing that engulfed the region for years and simmers still, with 100,000 dead and one and a quarter million refugees. No other region of the Soviet Union equaled the Caucasus in demonstrating how bloody and messy the death of an empire can be.

In the 1990s the American media and intellectual community embraced the causes of the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovar Albanians, but they virtually ignored similar instances of ethnic cleansing in the Caucasian regions of Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. [...]

Georgia is a small country by American standards, with 5.5 million people, comparable in area to West Virginia. But it is the most sprawling and ethnically various state in the Caucasus, with a long, complex, and bloody history. Situated in the geographic and historical crucible where Russia meets the Turkic and Persian Near East, the mountain ranges of the Caucasus have allowed the Georgians to remain linguistically intact over the millennia. Though they make up only one one-thousandth of humanity, the Georgians created one of the world's fourteen alphabets. Its crescent-shaped symbols emerged around the fifth century B.C., possibly from Aramaic, the Semitic dialect spoken by Jesus. Saint Nino, a slave woman from Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, brought Christianity to Georgia in A.D. 330, when she converted the Georgian Queen Nana after curing her of an illness. The Greek colonies around Batumi may have been converted as early as the first century, making the Christianity here among the world's oldest forms, combined as it was with the Greek pantheon, Iranian Zoroastrianism, and various Anatolian cults.

The Georgians were caught in that archetypal East-West conflict between the Persian and Greek empires that forms the subject of Herodotus' Histories. Later, in the early Christian centuries, Georgia became another East-West battleground, this time for the conflict between Persia and Rome. A pattern emerged that continues to this day: although Georgia was superficially influenced by the West (Greece and Rome), its political culture became profoundly Eastern. The difference between Rome and Persia (and later between Byzantium and Persia) was the difference between semi-Western imperial officialdoms that were nonhereditary, and thus early prototypes of modern states, and a Persian society underpinned by tribal and clan relations. In Georgia it was the Persian clan system that proved more influential, and that system's remnants are visible today in the power of regional mafias and warlords. Despite the influence of European Russia in the nineteenth century, Georgia can be considered part of the Near East.

Another pattern that emerged in classical times and continues is Georgia's internal disunity. After a millennium of conflict, in 1555 Georgia was divided between an Ottoman Turkish sphere of influence in the west and a Safavid Iranian one in the east, while the mountains to the north cut it off from its fellow Orthodox Christian Russia. Iranian oppression was so extreme that in the early seventeenth century the population of Kakheti, in eastern Georgia, dropped by two thirds because of killings and deportations. In 1801 Czar Alexander I forcibly incorporated Georgia into the Russian Empire. What happened next was more dramatic than much of the preceding history taken together.

The czars quickly put Georgia on the road to modernity. Its population rose from 500,000 to 2.5 million in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were costs, however. The Georgian Church and nobility became subservient to Russian institutions, and Russian absolutism sparked peasant revolts.

The Armenians played the role in Georgia that the Jews did elsewhere: that of urban middleman shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Under Russia's modernizing rule the division of labor between rural Georgians and urban Armenians was accentuated. At the beginning of the twentieth century Marxism became attractive to Georgians because it provided both an analysis of and a solution to their condition that were non-nationalist on the one hand and opposed to czarist officialdom and the Armenian bourgeoisie on the other. Georgia, not Europe or Russia, was the real historical birthplace of mass-movement socialism, with support not just from intellectuals and workers but from peasants, too.

Utopian rhetoric by local Marxists notwithstanding, the weakening of czarist rule at the start of the twentieth century led to ethnic conflict among Georgians, Armenians, and Azeri Turks—exactly what would recur in the late twentieth century, when despite universalist calls by dissident intellectuals for democracy and human rights, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to chaos and ethnic cleansing. And there is another frightening similarity. In 1918 a weakened and defeated Russia spawned three new states built on old ethnic identities in the Transcaucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. All were destroyed in the 1920s, as Russia reasserted itself under the Soviets. Were Russia to reassert itself again under a new autocracy, the West would have to prove as muscular here as in Bosnia and Kosovo to keep these states alive.

Georgia embraced Russia in 1801 because Russia offered an opening to Europe along with protection against Turkey and Iran. Had the czars and the Menshevik socialists, with all their flaws, been allowed to continue and evolve in power, the Caucasus today might be a model of civility. What nineteenth-century Georgian would have thought that the Turks and the Iranians, however fundamentalist, would prove less destructive than the Europeanized Russians?

Another lesson of this tragic story is that although history, culture, and geography are the only guides to the future, they are still not determinative—because of extraordinary individuals. Turkish influence would have been better for Georgia than Russian, because Ataturk took a backward Turkey and made it modern, while Lenin and Stalin took a directionless Russia and made it backward. [...]

GEORGIANS are a very old ethnic entity, but we have no experience of modern statehood," said Alexander Rondeli, the head of a research institute connected to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We are a quasi-state." Rondeli, the doyen of Georgian intellectuals, is fifty-seven but looks older. With a grave and sardonic voice, a large physique, striking white hair, and thick black eyebrows, he was like the voice of history itself. Rondeli's viewpoint was both wise and ironic, but also overburdened by the sheer accumulation of knowledge and events.

"Nations often get what they deserve," Rondeli told me with a slight smile when we met at his office, "so to see what kind of government Georgia will have in the future, it is merely a matter of dissecting our national character. We are nominally Christian, but we have never been fanatics. We know how to survive, but not how to improve. Our church is pagan, politicized, and thus unable to move forward."

"Remember," Rondeli went on, "we had seventy-four years of political-cultural-economic emasculation under the Soviet Union. Three generations of Georgians were spoiled. The West concentrates on the crimes of Hitler, but the Nazis ruled for only twelve years."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 11, 2008 9:58 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus