January 23, 2017

Let Our Fame Be Great

"Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?

Going into this book, I was about as informed as Bridget Jones in the 2001 film, when she's preparing to meet Salman Rushdie and wants to sound smart, so practices asking, "Isn't it terrible about Chechnya?" Chechens came up for me again recently in the fantastic and frightening show Okkupert (Occupied), when the Russians want to extradite and kill a Chechen man for terrorism.

But who does know that much about the Caucasus, that in-between region east of the Black Sea?

Oliver Bullough, for one. He grew up in Wales, chased a passion for Russian into the field of journalism, and pursued his curiousity to write this massive mix of history and personal stories, published in 2010 as Let Our Fame Be Great. Maps, long quotations, statistics, and some notes of travelogue make it into this book. He continues writing for The Guardian, most recently a profile of Putin, and is working on a book called Moneyworld.

The title

Apparently the original people of the Caucasus region were asked by their god if they wanted a life of plenty but in relative obscurity, or a life of absolute struggle in which they would be tested and damaged, but famous for their courage – held up as emblems of heroic humanity. "Let our fame be great," was their defiant answer. Their god failed on his end of the bargain, though, because how many people know the history, and the decimation by the Russians/Soviets, of the Circassians, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Chechens?


By one estimate, around the time of the 1864 exodus, 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 deported (a third or more likely died in transit or upon arrival, mostly in what is now Turkey), and only 80,000 allowed to remain.

Americans and Brits visiting Circassian villages were scandalized to learn about the widespread slave trade, of sorts, in which poor villagers would sell their daughters to Ottoman harems and their sons to the Ottoman military, in exchange for goods and weapons that they could use to defend the homeland. The foreigners wanted to be enraged, but couldn't help but notice that the children were largely comfortable with the arrangement and understood the necessity.

Did you know that Circassians make up the Jordanian royal bodyguard?

Hearty, unreliable, and good

A traveler to the Caucasus, Florence Grove, who may well have been the first to climb Europe’s highest mountain – Mount Elbrus – wrote of the Katachai-Balkars:

Strong, healthy men as most of them are, well capable of doing a long day’s work without the slightest distress, it is wonderful how they loiter on a journey, and what frequent and protracted halts they may. Most irritating, too, is their procrastination. It will be seen then that, though the Caucasians are not always to be relied on, and at times try the traveller’s patience largely, the good much predominates in their character, and I think that those who have sojourned among them cannot fail to carry away a most pleasant pastoral remembrance of this simple pastoral race...

The importance of a literary movement

Before the events of the 1990s and 2000s, including the hostage taking and killing in the school in Beslan, a literary and cultural development bubbled up in the city of Grozny.

The shows that Zakayev’s theatre in Grozny put on in the 1980s had titles like Freedom or Death or There is Only One God, and these were to become slogans of the nationalist movement that was to explode at the end of the decade. The generation that the literary movement was to create would stand on the barricades with them.

What constitutes, I wonder, the current literary movement that will create the generation that will stand on the barricades–real or metaphorical–to come? Not for a nationalist movement, but for a movement for a world that we and our descendants can survive or even thrive in? Who is jumping in? Naomi Klein? Micah White? Zadie Smith? 

Although the number of people involved in these groups was small – just a handful really, compared to the mass of the nation – their influence would be disproportionately large.

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