Interview: Oliver Bullough, author By David Robinson - The Scotsman

The Scotsman -- Oliver Bullough tells why the tragic history of the Caucasus is so relevant today. THE Times of London we know about. But the Times of Central Asia: Where's that based? Oliver Bullough, recalling the first newspaper he worked on, gives a soft smile. "Bishkek," he replies. I look back blankly.

"It's the capital of Kyrgyzstan." Another blank look. He must be used to them by now. In the days when he was working in Bishkek, his friends back in Britain used to pretend to get Kyrgyzstan mixed up with Azkaban, the prison for wizards in JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels. Even when he started researching the book about the Caucasus that I'm at his London publisher's to interview him about, their reaction must have been the same. Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria: these are all far-away countries of which most of us know nothing: their history, their culture, even – let's be honest – where they are on the map.

His book takes its title – Let Our Fame Be Great – from a myth in which the first people of the Caucasus were offered a deal by their god: either, they were told, they could live long lives with whatever they wanted to eat or drink but without ever knowing glory on the field of battle, or they could have short lives in which their courage would be celebrated by others. "If our lives are to be short," they replied, "then let our fame be great."

Yet, as Bullough shows time and again in a book that effortlessly mixes on-the-spot reportage and a wide-ranging history, though the Caucasian highlanders' suffering has been great, their fame has not. Whole nations have been either wiped out or forcibly ejected from their homelands without it hardly registering in the West. Even in their homelands, their story of resistance to the Russian invaders – sometimes their existence – has been all but wiped off the official record.

So what makes a genial 32-year-old who grew up on a sheep farm in mid-Wales want to put the record straight? How did he even find himself in the Caucasus in the first place?

It all started in Edinburgh, he explains. He'd done his history finals at Oxford and was acting in a friend's play on the Fringe. Visiting a bookshop in 1999, he bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Russia. He didn't speak the language, but it looked a more interesting country to work in than anywhere else he could think of. He took a cheap Russian language course, got a job on an English language magazine in St Petersburg and headed east.

After a year on the magazine, he moved again, this time to the Times of Central Asia. No, he corrects me, it wasn't as impressive as it sounds. "It's definitely one of the top three English language newspapers in Bishkek," he says with a grin. "There were two of us there and neither of us had a clue what we were doing. My colleague was a Ukrainian called Vasilina. When she told me her name I thought she was joking. It's just so much out of a James Bond film."

I'd quite happily read a whole book about the Times of Central Asia, Vasilina and the Italian supermarket owner who owned it, but that was only a staging post in the journey taking Bullough to the Caucasus. More important was the job he got next, working in Moscow for Reuters. And this is when the story switches from light journalistic farce to something altogether more serious.

The month after he started work there, Chechen terrorists seized a theatre in Moscow, where they held the entire audience hostage. The Russian attempt to retake the theatre using nerve gas resulted in 128 deaths among the hostages. Had the Chechens stuck to their original plans and attacked a different theatre, Bullough found out later, he would have been in the audience.

"Until the theatre siege, I'd been easygoing about most things, but that was a shattering experience. It was the first time I'd seen a dead body, the first time I'd seen anyone firing a gun trying to kill somebody, the first time I'd seen tanks and armoured personnel carriers in action.

"I'd read books about the Soviet terror, as I knew what the Russian state was capable of. But it's different when you actually see it. And so I became fascinated by the Chechen conflict, about how things had become so extreme, how all that bad blood between them and the Russians had built up and up.

"There was a bit of competition on the newsdesk for the Chechen stories, but I became quite sharp-elbowed about it. Whenever there was an atrocity, it was me who'd be sent. Yet at the same time, I'm not a war reporter by nature. I don't have that adrenaline-chasing urge. Theirs is a different skill, but not one that I want to have. When you're in a war situation, it's hard to find out what's happening: I much prefer to go in slightly afterwards and talk to people."

When his friends stopped joking about him working in Azkaban and started asking him about the roots of Chechen terrorism, at first he didn't know how far back he should go to answer their questions. Stalin's eviction of the Chechens from their homeland in 1944? The modernising reforms of Peter the Great in the 18th century? In the end, he decided to start with the story of the genocide of the Circassians, the people who inhabited the north-east of the Black Sea. Between 1783 and 1864, 300,000 Circassians died on a "trail of tears" to other lands, their culture all but extirpated, in what may be the first modern genocide on European soil and is certainly the most ignored. Once 1.2 million Circassians had been dispersed to other people's lands, the way was clear for the Russians to push south to the Caucasus.

Like the Circassians, the people of the Caucasus had not belonged to any empires. The Russians like to claim they were part of Turkey, not a separate people, but the writ of the Ottoman empire never really ran there and it certainly didn't in the small, ill-defined, government-free nations of the high Caucasus. And so the Circassians tiptoe out of the pages of official Russian history, not a people wiped out by genocide so much as casualties of the clash between the Ottoman and Tsarist empires.

To Bullough, Russia's refusal to face up to such historically unpleasant facts lies at the core of its problems in Chechnya and the Caucasus as a whole.

Travelling in the land that was once Circassia, in the resort that is now Russia's Biarritz, in the town already limbering up to host the Winter Olympics in four years' time, he finds no trace of any acknowledgement that it all once belonged to a people deliberately evicted by Russian edict.

"It's this contempt for the past that I find worrying," he says. "You have to come to an understanding of what once happened if you are ever to move on."

For the Chechens, the Ingush, the Karachais and the Balkars – four entire Caucasian nations whose citizens were deported to the Russian steppes on Stalin's orders at the height of the Second World War – Russia's failure to apologise, to explain and to seek reconciliation has had consequences we are still living with. Although they were allowed back home in the late 1950s, memories of their deaths and ill-treatment on the long journey to internal exile run deep.

When some Chechens turned to commit atrocities of their own in their struggle against Russian power– as in the Beslan school massacre of 2004 – they had already been conditioned to extremism. "We concluded that only diamond cuts diamond," one of their leaders bleakly explained.

The story Bullough has to tell is complicated enough – as he points out, the Caucasus is one of the most ethnically complex parts of the planet; even in such a relatively small place as Dagestan, the inhabitants speak 40 different languages – yet wherever possible he tries to humanise it by telling it through case histories.

Doing that has taken him into places – especially in Chechnya – most of us, lacking his contacts, would be unable to go and places we probably wouldn't think of going to in the first place, such as tracking down Chechen refugees in Austria or the Circassian diaspora, so keen to keep their culture alive, in Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

"All the time I was trying to tell these big stories through other people's lives. Sometimes that meant that I was making things harder for myself, because it really is quite hard to find someone whose life is a neat fit with their nation's story. Yet the ones I've got are good, I'm happy with them."

The most moving one is the story an elderly Chechen woman told him about how, in February 1944, when she was a young girl, she and her family were forced to march kilometres through the mountains in winter towards the place where they, along with 450,000 other Chechens and Ingush, were to be transported into exile on the Russian steppes.

Those who couldn't keep up – the elderly and the infirm – were shot. The woman's dog accompanied them on their three-day walk through the snow. When they finally reached the lorries transporting them to the railway and the last stage of the journey into exile, one of them reversed, running over the dog and killing it.

The woman was on that train for 26 days, a hellish journey on which many died from typhus, but when she told the story it was the dog's death that made her start crying at the memory.

When she told him that story, in her house at Almaty, a city on the plains of Kazakhstan that she and the exiled Chechens built, it seemed to sum up a lot of what Bullough was trying to say about the Caucasus tragedy.

The girl, now an old woman, had never been back, because the Chechens from her village in the mountains were never allowed to return. Their village died the day she left it in 1944. Soon there may be no sign that it ever existed.

Except, of course, for Bullough's book. Let its fame be great.

Let Our Fame Be Great, by Oliver Bullough, is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Source: The Scotsman

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Circassian World.