Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917 by Austin Jersild

"Gunib is high. Allah is higher. And you remain below."

Yeah, so it's not from Orientalism & Empire and is actually just a quote from Shamil, who, by the way, was captured/surrendered at Gunib.But it does a good job of giving you a frame on how awesome the Caucasus are.

Jersild's book is hardly a history of the Caucasus, and reads more like a story of the end of the Tzars and the end of an Empire. If you don't know your Avars from your Ingush, your Cherkez from your Chechen, you'll probably get lost in some of the details. And I have to admit to not knowing my Georgian kings or really the history of Georgia at all, so there was some frantic wikipedia'ing at the beginning of this read. But kind of like how you can tell the truth better through a novel, this snapshot of the Caucasus does a better job than trying to fit in a thousand years of history into 160 pates.

There are lots of fun stories. There's the story of James Stanislaus Bell, an Englishman who fought against the Russians in the 1800's, less for Britain, more for the difference of it. He is sadly not on wikipedia, but he does make an appearance on Gustavus von Tempsky's page, who was something of a Central American, Prussian, less interesting Bell. There's fantastic stories of revenge and blood feuds. And this isn't even touching the actual academic stuff.

The actual academic stuff is, of course, very interesting.There's a chapter on Shamil in exile and how he was paraded around as Le Grand Kavkaze, including how the Russians tried to turn his children into good Russians, and were shocked SHOCKED that his son fought for the Ottomans in the 1900's. There's stories of how the Kavkaz muhajirs to Turkey then got Turkified by Ataturk and the Republic and became Turks, while the ones who stayed in the Caucasus kept their identity a bit stronger, which came to an interesting turn when the two peoples began to meet in the 1990's. Who was the "truer" Kabard, or something like that. And even though the book doesn't cover the Soviet times, there is a whole discussion on how the Russian Empire tried to get Kavkazi to turn back to their cultural roots, but not their religious roots. Because, y'know, they are two different things and all. And the Georgia stuff, well. If you've not been paying attention before 2006, you wouldn't realize that Georgians and Russians worked together for centuries. Long story short: the Kavkaz is COMPLICATED, yo. And it's hard to do real service to that.

So there's some great stuff in there. Also, it does a fun little bit on the legal system(s) of the Russian Empire, which you know I'm a sucker for. And everything is very well-cited and there's an immense bibliography. I read it for fun, sure, but it absolutely works as an academic book. It's well-written and can be breezy to read, but is jam-packed with information.

So if you're at all a nerd about the Caucasus, especially Georgia, it's worth a read. And to both of my readers, I have a question: I need to read more on the Caucasus besides this and Yoav Karny's Highlanders. So if you have any suggestions...please, let me know.

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