Read an Excerpt
By Nicholas Griffin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Nicholas Griffin
All rights reserved.
The Caucasus is a jagged land. Imagine powerful neighbours: Iran to the south, Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, hemmed by the Black Sea on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other. If the Caucasus didn't already possess the highest mountain range in Europe, the political pressure exerted from all sides would have forced the land to crack and rise. Now elect a conqueror. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, a caravan of Persian kings, Peter the Great, Hitler, Stalin have all claimed conquest of the Caucasus. Choose a religion. Shiite Muslims to the south, Sunnis to the north; three schisms of Christianity push from separate fronts.
To attempt to unravel the history of the Caucasus would force the presumption that history would cease moving long enough for a considered look. Perhaps this would have been possible if the most recent conqueror of the region had been anyone but the Soviet Union, and though the Soviets were kind enough to leave behind enough power lines and vodka to keep people drinking deep into the night, they were not so direct with the histories of their satellite states. Soviet Russia did not hesitate to rewrite history, not just once, but repeatedly.
Even before the Soviets this was a land of myths and tales as tall as the peaks themselves. 'All Caucasians are great liars,' said one of our hosts in the three competing countries of Transcaucasia. In Armenia, Noah's Ark lies on the borders. In Azerbaijan, the Garden of Eden is said to lurk somewhere in the south. Georgia is not to be outdone. If her neighbours boast of the genesis of man, Georgia claims to have been home to the gods. Prometheus was bound to one of her great peaks, his liver torn daily by the circling birds of prey.
Everything shifts in the Caucasus, blown by some of the strongest winds on earth. Even the ground moves, splintered by fault lines. In early Georgian myths, it is said that when the mountains were young, they had legs – could walk from the edges of the oceans to the deserts, flirting with the low hills, shrouding them with soft clouds of love. History, of course, is the greatest shape-changer of them all. The further back you peer into the stories of the Caucasus, the more likely you are to be confounded by webs of contradiction and myth.
Head north in the Caucasus and the hordes of languages will confuse you. Imagine walking around the Eiffel Tower on a busy summer's day and hearing the sounds of dozens of nationalities. Now imagine that no one has travelled more than fifty miles to get there. This is the problem: everybody is more or less at home and everybody is more or less in some kind of conflict. Not necessarily bloody, but often political, often territorial.
According to Brzezinski, America's former National Security Adviser, there is no more important area in the world than the Caucasus. Geopolitically, it is the pivot about which everything sways: American economic interests, Russian territorial interests, Islamic religious interests, all factors in the oscillating local politics. It was considered just as critical 150 years ago, a narrow but vital bridge.
The Caucasus Mountains form a natural border to the Russian empire. By 1859, at the end of a war conducted throughout the Caucasus, Russia's influence only stopped at the Persian court. Some 140 years later, the tide of Russian empire was receding with the fall of the Soviet system, once again pausing at the foot of the mountains. In the summer of 1999, Boris Yeltsin, then President of Russia, made a statement: 'The single biggest problem facing Russia today is Chechnya.' Leading his country to a humiliating withdrawal from Chechen soil in 1996 had not affected Russia's phantom pains of the lost empire. The Caucasus was the testing ground for Russian strength as she expanded. It is also proving to be the testing ground of her strength as she contracts. One thing cannot be changed: Russia borders the Caucasus. No one can move mountains.
What was, what is, everybody after? Influence, power, land, of course. But what brings the lands of the Caucasus above simpler questions of nationalism and self-determination is oil. There is an estimated 100 billion barrels of crude oil in the Caspian Sea, great quantities of which belong to Azerbaijan, which, like its neighbours Georgia and Armenia, has been independent of Russia since 1991. Russia is not resigned to seeing this potential source of revenue go.
* * *
I am heading to the Caucasus to trace the legacy of one of its greatest heroes. Not the most famous – that would be the Georgian Stalin – but Imam Shamil, a figure revered throughout the region, yet virtually unknown to the West. It wasn't always so. Immediately preceding Britain's involvement in the Crimean War the Imam (a Muslim term for a religious and political leader) was a front-page regular of the London Times. By the time Britain went to war with the Tsar in 1854, Shamil had been fighting against the Russians for over twenty years, desperately trying to maintain the independence of the Caucasus Mountains. The land he defended was both minuscule and thinly populated when compared with Russia. In the London newspapers, Shamil was presented as a noble savage, a literary creation guaranteed to appeal to both sexes. Sitting astride his horse, black banners and beard blowing in the mountain gales, he was depicted as a man of impeccable honour resisting the greedy southern push of Russia. Tales were reported with suitable exaggeration. Shamil, it was said, often fought the Russians alone, beheading the opposing cavalry, leaping chasms and plunging off cliffs to escape. The Times interpreted Russian movement in the Caucasus as a threat to India, Britain's prize possession. Lose India and Queen Victoria would never become an empress.
Accordingly, the figure of Shamil was raised to the British public as a paragon of resistance. They imbued him with what the Victorian era had decided were British virtues: endurance, intelligence and a natural nobility. So often did Shamil appear in The Times that copies of the newspaper finally ended up in his own hands, thousands of miles from London, in the airy crags of southern Dagestan, ten thousand feet above the sea.
Shamil may have found some truth in the newspapers interpreted for him. It was true he fought against the Russians, true he was vastly outnumbered, true he had endured year after year through tremendous displays of tactical ability. Yet he was not so insulated to ignore the certainty that his resistance would eventually falter without outside assistance. This prompted him to address Her Majesty Queen Victoria:
For years, O honoured Queen, we have been at war against Russia, our invader. Every year we must defend ourselves against the invader's fresh armies which pour into our valleys. Our resistance is stubborn, altogether we are obliged, in winter, to send our wives and children far away, to seek safety in the forests, where they have nothing, no food, no refuge against the severe cold. Yet we are resigned. It is Allah's will. He ordained that we should suffer to defend our land. But England must know of this – of our ceaseless struggle against Russia ... We beseech you, we urge you, O Queen, to bring us aid.
The Queen had already responded favourably to similar causes of independence. Garibaldi had been well treated on a visit to London just the year before, appreciated by all classes of society. Her Majesty was moved to order a report on the matter of Shamil. He had become Britain's hero of the hour. Large demonstrations gathered in Birmingham, heralding the resistance of the 'Lion of Dagestan'. What particularly concerned the Midlands also concerned the British Government, namely their cotton manufacturing being affected by a Russian presence so close to India. The Foreign Office eyed Shamil coldly, but the British press was busy stoking its own fires. The Times cried, 'Let the English resolutely declare themselves the generous defenders of liberty, and their moral influence will overwhelm the brutal forces of the Russian Empire.'
The Government refused to act. Britain, after all, had much more in common with invaders, rather than the invaded. While foreign policy remained frozen, sixty volunteer freedom fighters headed for the Caucasus. Sir Richard Burton was supposed to lead an expedition in aid of Shamil, but the idea was soon aborted. Guns were run across the Black Sea, but Shamil was looking for more than a gossamer gesture of support. Without outside assistance, the fight would always remain one of resistance. The mythical figure of the Imam conjured by the English press was to continue to fight, but condemned to fight alone.CHAPTER 2
Based in Baku
Today, the group who has come in search of Shamil's legacy has gathered in Baku. Beside me, in a lolling taxi with sharp springs, is John Boit, a gravel-voiced photographer from Maine. He is an outdoors man, a fisherman and a reporter who earns his living among the newspapers of Azerbaijan and by taking photographs for the premier American newspapers. It is John's voice that holds the attention, not the shaved head, not the beginnings of a goatee or the calmest blue eyes. His voice is a most versatile instrument. Between the airport and the city he is already bending it into exact impressions and caricatures.
Taran sits smoking in the front seat. His video camera is on his lap. He runs his hand through his long brown hair. It is unbearably hot, but Taran has directed films in the deserts of Central Asia and on the shores of Lake Baikal. The wind takes the ash from his cigarette, leaving the tip glowing with heat. Taran and I have known each other for half our lives. He told me of Shamil, of the film he wanted to make about the echoes of one man's life. Would I like to help dig for the half buried, for the traces of a man's effect a century and a half later?
Sitting on my other side is Ilya Suleymanov, an Uzbek Jew whom Taran met just south of the Karakum Desert while making his last film. A year later, Ilya turned up on Taran's doorstep in New York, six thousand miles from his native sands and cities. He already knows all about America, has been to Yankee Stadium, and around the five boroughs working in his limousine. Taran calls him the 'facilitator'. Ilya is also our translator, which is odd, since he speaks little English.
Earlier today, flying to Baku, I met Ilya for the first time. He came to sit beside me on the empty aeroplane. Uncomfortable, he brought his feet on to the seat and assumed a squat: feet flat, rear end suspended between his shins.
'Cat's legs look like carrot,' said Ilya.
'Seven, twenty-four,' he said, nodding his head, 'cats no got fat feet.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about,' I explained.
Ilya banged the back of the seat in front of him and laughed. 'My English. Fucked up. One hundred precent.'
For a moment Ilya disappeared, then jumped back into his seat, resuming his position with two small vodkas and two bottles of wine. They were offered to me. He poured one vodka and one wine into the same glass, mixed it with his finger and downed it, then repeated the process.
Taran was lying across from us, asleep. I closed my eyes in imitation of the director and when I opened them five minutes later, Ilya was gone. He didn't reappear until the very end of the flight when the plane descended with an ominous thump and veered across the runway. Overhead compartments popped open, as did the door to the bathroom and Ilya lurched down the aisle towards us, buckling his belt. We were still travelling at well over a hundred miles an hour. A flight attendant shouted from his seat: 'Sir, sir, sit down, sir.' Ilya paused and looked up, confused. 'You must sit down,' continued the flight attendant. 'You're endangering the lives of other passengers.'
'Sit down,' screamed the flight attendant.
Everybody turned to see Ilya. 'You,' he shouted back to the attendant. 'I fucking kill you.' The flight attendant sat down first, then Ilya collapsed in his seat.
'You're drunk,' accused Taran.
'Not drunk,' slurred Ilya, 'sleeping.'
This was how we had entered Baku, our gateway to the Caucasus. In the late nineteenth century, after Russia had annexed the entire region, the Caspian was the centre of the world's oil production and if the Caspian had had a capital, there is no doubt that it would have been Baku. Sometime boomtown, it began the twentieth century as the world's number-one producer of oil and ended it as a source of massive potential, drawing all of the world's oil companies to the shores of the Caspian.
Baku, now the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, is still a city set on the edge of wealth. It remains the richest city of the Caucasus, not a poor choice for a starting point to edge towards the mountains. You can look out from its harbour and see oil platforms rising lazily from the sea, common as shorebirds. Baku is supposed to be the city of winds, the Chicago of the Caspian, but gusts are not constant. Summer lulls of heavy humidity are broken by strong winds that sweep into the park-lined promenades, rattling swarms of discarded sunflower seeds along the streets. The wind blows through the Old City, a hive of narrow streets defended on three sides by a crenellated wall, then along avenues of stone mansions raised at the height of Baku's oil wealth. As the winds gust they reach the concrete suburbs, Soviet monoliths scattered with no seeming purpose other than to scar the landscape. Abruptly, the suburbs are followed by empty, arid land.
Baku's coast is a mixture of yellow sands and black oils. Nodding derricks gather like packs of donkeys in the oilfields. Up and down, up and down, heads shaking in perpetual agreement. Or rather they would nod if more than the odd one was working. With foreign investment came embassy staffs and oilmen who form the main body of the two thousand overseas workers in Baku. A man known as Doctor Tim has agreed to put us up. He lives away from the centre of town, away from the expatriates. At thirtysomething, Doctor Tim is an expat whose magazine good looks and well-cut suits are distinctly at odds with the dust and rubble of his neighbourhood, in which palatial oil houses rub shoulders with rundown shacks. There are pot-holes around that could double as trenches. After a few months in the gold mines of Tajikistan, the Doctor moved to Baku as a physician dealing almost exclusively with expatriates. Like so many, he now harbours schemes, projects and dreams of fortune.
'No problems with water here,' says the Doctor from the front porch of his walled and whitewashed home. 'We're on the same pipe as the President's house. Electricity, too.'
Doctor Tim is imparting the dos and don'ts of Baku, as we all stand around him, cradling cooling pinch glasses of tea. 'When the police stop you,' he says, 'just don't get out of the car. When they ask for your passport, don't give it to them. You've done nothing wrong, let them rant, they'll get bored. If you're really worried, get a cell phone and your embassy's number.'
'Why would they stop us?'
'Because you're here.'
An hour later, Doctor Tim tires of drinking tea. We lock the gate to his house, squeeze into a taxi and head towards an expatriate bar called Adam's Diner. Ilya stares at the streets we pass through, letting Doctor Tim and John carry the conversation. The buildings are soaked in grubby pollution, a pronounced air of yesteryear. I wonder where Ilya's mind has drifted to. Yesterday he had talked briefly of his first trip to Baku, a dozen years ago, to visit his uncle. Everything, he insisted, had changed beyond recognition, but nothing had shocked him more than the condition of the people. He had already found professors as taxi drivers, an Interpol agent moonlighting as a tour guide. But that afternoon Ilya's mood had lightened. I had seen him playing in the street with a gang of young boys, picking one up, swirling him around, delighting them all. Even the street curs had been petted and pampered.
Taran is also wrapped in silence. Occasionally he pinches his lip, lost in thought. Despite years of friendship, I realize that, thousands of miles from home, I have no idea what he is thinking. He has, to some extent, isolated himself from the rest of the group. Perhaps he is pondering his responsibilities, perhaps he is thinking only of his film, his eyes just an extended lens of his camera.
Adam's Diner is an odd place to begin the search for the legacy of Imam Shamil. It seems the further expatriates live from home the more familiar they like their environments. Adam's has dark wooden floors, red checked tablecloths, staff dressed in pressed white shirts and black trousers. We could be in any one of a thousand cities. At the bar is a Scotsman called Neil Wilson, celebrating his last night in Azerbaijan. He's heavily tanned, affable and extremely happy to be heading back to Edinburgh. He works for Lonely Planet and has spent the last six weeks scouring every dust-choked road and rocky outcrop for his forthcoming guidebook.
Excerpted from CAUCASUS by Nicholas Griffin. Copyright © 2001 Nicholas Griffin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.