I have been writing about the Caucasus for years but when I started in 2009 to research a short book about the region - which became The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010) - even I was surprised by how some of the historical facts I learned challenged many of today’s dominant political narratives. Three examples make the point.
First, in Russia’s wars of 1820s against the Ottomans, Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought side by side in the Tsarist army. At that historical juncture, the Shi’a-Sunni divide overrode any notions of Turkic brotherhood. Alexander Pushkin himself witnessed the “Karabakh regiment” composed of Azeri cavalry in action outside Kars, and wrote an admiring poem dedicated to one of its officers, Farhad-Bek. That should caution against making any instant assumption about an eternal Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance, which often fuel political attitudes over the Nagorny Karabakh conflict (and which the Armenian-Turkish normalisation process, albeit thus far unsuccessful, has also somewhat shaken).
Second, the way that the Abkhaz-Georgian-Russian interrelationship has reshuffled since the 1850s challenges conventional wisdom. In the decades after Georgia fell was annexed by Russia in 1801, and increasingly throughout the 19th century, the Russian authorities ensured that Georgian aristocrats became loyal servants of the Tsar by allowing them to ascend the imperial career-ladder while keeping their noble status. At the same time, the Russians regarded the Abkhaz as wild pro-Turkish tribesmen and implacable enemies.
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“Why should we care?”, you may ask. “Aren’t these historical examples merely interesting but irrelevant anecdotes when set against the immediate tensions and problems of the region?” I don’t believe so, for two reasons.
[... T]hese historical shifts suggest that there is nothing culturally determined about the smouldering conflicts of the Caucasus. It shows that they have nothing to do with “ethnic incompatibility” or “ancient hatreds”, but rather arise - and can fade - according to changes of interest or calculation; and it usefully refocuses our attention on the Soviet period and the two decades immediately preceding it.
[... T]he roots of the Caucasian conflicts lie here (or so I believe): not in the distant past but in the way the Soviet system stored up problems by smothering the political grievances amongst its constituent peoples with bribes and the threat of force, rather than genuinely arbitrating between them (which might have led to a culture of accommodation and flexibility). When the policeman from Moscow abandoned his post, everyone was left in a chronic sense of insecurity - and some saw the opportunity to grasp hold of deadly historical narratives that Soviet Caucasian intellectuals had been nurturing for decades. Bad history became the ammunition for feuding regional elites.