(Review – 240 pages)
Reviewer – Luke Brown
“Mountain Men and Holy Wars”
Ominously, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, in his book The Grand Chessboard, stated that, geopolitically, there is no more important area in the world than the Caucasus. His reasons, as cited in Nicholas Griffin’s fascinating “Caucasus,” are American economic interests, Russian territorial interests and Islamic religious interests. It was an important historical figure pertaining to the latter that drew English author Griffin, in the summer of 1999, to travel to the Caucasus. He wanted to trace the life of the legendary Imam Shamil, originally from Dagestan but forever associated in the region with the 19th century struggle of the Chechen people for an independent homeland from Russia; a bloody battle that continues on today.
Part travelogue through Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Dagestan, and part retelling of history, both of the distant past and the more recent, Griffin manages to inform and entertain with his first work of non-fiction, his skills as a novelist ever present. He is accompanied on his travels by a filmmaker friend from New York who has previously made films in Central Asia, an extremely temperamental “facilitator” and at times unreliable translator (“Ilya is also our translator, which is odd, since he speaks little English”), a photographer from Maine who works in Azerbaijan, plus a local driver who once boxed for Azerbaijan. Over the course of the trip they slowly drive each other mad. Before the breaking point is reached though, they manage to get into enough scrapes, hear enough lies, gain sufficient insight from relatives of Shamil, gasp at the physical beauty of the region, indulge in exhausting drinking sessions, engage in strange conversations, be touched by human warmth and kindness, and be repelled by human weakness.
While one gets the feeling that Griffin is somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the Chechens, he treats their (past and more recent) history fairly, not reluctant to show his protagonist, Shamil, and his followers of then (and now), in an unflattering light, when they could be extremely brutal and cruel; whether their actions were justified is left mostly up to the reader. Shamil was the third Imam of Dagestan (following on from Ghazi Mullah and Hamzad Beg), as well as military leader against the armed forces of the Russians, overseen by Tsar Nicholas and Tsar Alexander II, and commanded by military officers who followed on from the brutal and legendary General Yermolov (who built a fortress that was later Grozny and who also coined the phrase, “the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen”). He was a formidable leader, who had the tough task of uniting the Chechen people behind him, tough because of, amongst other things, the blood feud mentality that runs deep in the Chechen tradition. He succeeded, not only because he was able to harness their common faith, Islam, to oppose the invading Christian Russians, but also because of his inherent toughness, bravery and a harsh view of weakness, these considered important traits amongst the Chechens.
A revealing event involving Shamil took place in 1843. The Russians had a firm grip on northern Dagestan and Shamil was attempting to loosen it. His headquarters were situated in an inaccessible spot (some of the parallels between his campaigns and those in Chechnya today are well made by Griffin, in particular the effective use of the terrain and surroundings as a weapon by the Chechens). Unfortunately some were left exposed in open plains and wanted to make a peace deal with the Russians. They drew lots to decide who would go on an expedition to Shamil. Once there they approached Shamil’s mother with their request, who they saw as the weakest link. She conveyed the proposition to Shamil, later leaving his quarters in tears. Shamil then stormed out and entered a mosque to see what Allah wanted him to do. Three days later he emerged with the message that the application for surrender was shameful, and indeed treacherous, as they had gone through his own mother. The punishment was 100 lashes for the person who made the submission, in this case his mother. He carried out the punishment himself but she was only able to take 5 lashes. Then Shamil ordered his men to lash him the remaining 95 times, any restraint leading to their death. Griffin describes the aftermath:
“It was theatre: an emotional, abusive three-day drama, a skilful conflation of tension, surprise and effect. Those Chechens who had doubted the Imam’s holiness were now convinced that he was Allah’s prophet on earth. The question of submission was not raised again, for only a direct order from Allah could ever persuade a Caucasian to raise a hand deliberately towards his own parents. The story of Shamil’s actions wound its way up the mountains, carried in whispers and half-truths from village to village.”
History it seems is but a close relative of the present, written in blood.