Three books on the Caucasus from St. Martin's Press.

Robert Chenciner Daghestan: Tradition and Survival (1997; $49.95)

B. G. Hewitt, ed. The Abkhazians: A Handbook (1998; $45.00)

Peter Nasmyth Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry (1998; $45.00)


reviewed by Kevin Tuite, Université de Montréal

to appear in the Annual of the Society for the Study of the Caucasus


The Caucasus, after a long exile on the peripheries of Western scholarly and public attention, is beginning to draw the interest it deserves. Much of the current focus on the region, to be sure, is the result of misfortune — war, ethnic conflicts, political instability — and may well diminish as circumstances improve. At the same time, a handful of foreign scholars and writers have taken a less ephemeral interest in the peoples and cultures of the Caucasus, and the fruits of their inquiries are beginning to appear in print: whence the three books under review, published by St. Martin's Press in the last couple of years. All three volumes are handsomely bound, printed on thick paper, and contain numerous photographs. The similarities end there, however …


I. CHENCINER. I will begin with the book I enjoyed the most, and which I endorse the most enthusiastically: Robert Chenciner's Daghestan: Tradition and Survival. Although not formally trained in anthropology, RC has more useful talents to draw upon: a gregarious nature, sufficient command of Russian, good taste, a sharp eye and a vivid and witty writing style. The result is a rich and intelligently-composed portrait of post-Soviet Daghestan, of interest to the general reading public as well as to area specialists. The book opens with a conversation between RC and an individual identified as his "Soviet ex-collaborator", as they drive into a Daghestanian village. "There is no ethnography here", says the ex-collaborator, by which he meant, of course, the sort of exotic and allegedly primitive local color of interest to Brezhnev-era folklorists. As it turned out, RC did indeed find "ethnography" — in both Soviet and modern senses of the world — in that village and in many others throughout Daghestan. He is to be commended for his attention to details of the meeting of contemporary culture and traditional beliefs that many professionals might well have passed over: shopkeepers selling pictures of Shamil, Indian film stars and Schwarzenegger;  a photo triptych in a bus driver's window, composed of Stalin, the Virgin Mary and a female body builder; dog-fights, sexual behavior, drunkenness and much else besides. On some of his excursions RC was accompanied by Irishwoman Niamh O'Mahony, whose gender accorded her privileged access to the womenfolk (to whom we owe the detailed description of sexual practices, contraception, menstruation, etc., on pp 56-65).


The book comprises chapters on the strongman cult; women and gender roles; weddings and funerals; agriculture, feasting, food and recipes; homes and villages; textiles and rugs (RC's specialty, on which he has published a book); clothing and masks; dog fights; religion and atheism; Soviet and post-Soviet politics, nationalism and ethnic relations. RC's research uncovered a number of facets of Daghestanian culture which were not widely known hithero: the Men's Unions and special Men's Houses (29-32); the practice of female circumcision, said to have been widespread in Daghestan up to the 1970's (48); the custom of unmarried couples sleeping together (without having sex), reported for Tsunta-Akhwakh, "the most traditional district in Daghestan" (52-53) — this latter practice, incidentally, resembles an institution known until relatively recently among the Georgians of the nearby districts of Pshavi and Khevsureti. The book is generously illustrated with first-rate photos taken by the author, of people as well as mountains and buildings. Although an excellent ethnographer, RC is on less sure ground on a handful of occasions when he shifts to ethnological or historical mode. It strikes me as a bit far-fetched to interpret 1st-millenium BCE cast-bronze statuettes of women as "evidence of matriarchal (or at least equal) societies" or that "Daghestan was a possible homeland for the legendary Amazons of classical antiquity" (40). There is equally scant support for the hypothesis that Daghestanian endogamy "was probably of Mazdaic Iranian (that is pre-Islamic) origin, to preserve purity of blood" (55).


Finally, it is worthy of note that Daghestan: Tradition and Survival contains some of the first discussion in a Western language of the forced resettlement of Daghestanian highlander communities during World War II and in subsequent decades. It is now becoming evident that the tragic expulsion of the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachays from their traditional homelands to Central Asia was but the first move in a series of relocations intended to empty the Central Caucasus of many of its indigenous inhabitants. The deportation of the Chechens and Ingush was accompanied by the resettlement of the Daghestanian Ginukhs and Didos in the spring of 1944 (on three-weeks' notice), to sites at lower altitude near Vedeno in Chechnia, where many died of malaria and flu (254-255). In the early 1950's, nearly the entire population of the Georgian district of Khevsureti, just south of Chechnia, was compelled to resettle in the near-desert lowlands near Azerbaijan; somewhat less brutal attempts to relocate Daghestanian mountain villagers to the coastal towns continued through the 1960's and 70's. I hope that in the near future these lesser-known deportations will be documented and analyzed, and their impact on the present demographic state of the Caucasus highlands assessed.


II. HEWITT. The Abkhazians: A Handbook is the first in a projected series of volumes on the "Peoples of the Caucasus and the Black Sea". It does not augur well for the remainder of the series. Under the heavy-handed editorship of linguist B. G. Hewitt, what could have been the first serious scholarly work on the Abkhazians to appear in English has fallen victim to the same one-sidedness and bias which unfortunately characterizes too much writing in the ex-USSR. Its rhetorical style resembles those adopted by sovereignist movements among many autochthonous peoples, the intellectual leaders of which have appropriated the essentializing discourse of 19th-century anthropology. The book is intended, according to Hewitt, to enable English-speaking readers "to understand the philosophy behind Abkhazian aspirations" to autonomy from the Georgian Republic (22). Thirteen authors, eight of them Abkhazian, contributed to the volume. Fairly straightforward and relatively untendentious treatments of geography and environment; archeology and prehistory; language, literature, art and architecture, historical demography and culture are set around ninety pages on Abkhaz history from the 18th century to the present — including 55 pages devoted to the Abkhazian-Georgian war (August 1992 to September 1993) and its aftermath — in which the Georgians are more often than not cast in the role of the bad guys. The chapters vary considerably in terms of style, level of scholarship and balance. I will comment of some of them in the following paragraphs.


In his Introduction to the volume, Hewitt takes aim at "anti-Abkhazian propaganda" by Georgian scholars. It is a sad but true fact that such propaganda has indeed been supplied in abundance by Soviet and post-Soviet Georgian writers, who seem all too willing to stint objectivity for the sake of a biased reading of the past [see the text of one such article by the linguist (and part-time politician) Tamaz Gamq'relidze, accompanied by Hewitt's detailed critique, in the Revue des études géorgiennes et caucasiennes #6-7 (1990), pp 237-263]. The chapter on Abkhaz "Origins" by Vjacheslav Chirikba contains much useful information, but some of his pronouncements on paleolinguistic and archeological matters go further than more cautious scholarship would allow. Chirikba asserts that the Northwest Caucasian language (to which Abkhaz belongs) is affiliated with Northeast Caucasian and the fragmentarily-attested Anatolian substrate language Hattic; the former hypothesis is rejected by many specialists, whereas the link to Hattic, although supported by a handful of typological and morphological parallels, remains doubtful. Chirikba associates the Bronze-Age Maikop Culture with "the ancestors of the Circassians", more on geographic grounds than anything else (40-41). Conversely, the so-called "Dolmen Culture", postulated to account for the hundreds of 3rd- and 2nd-millenium BCE cubical megalithic tombs found inland from the northeast coast of the Black Sea, and linked by most archeologists to Northwest-Caucasian-speaking communities, is claimed by Chirikba to have been introduced by migrants from Southwest Europe, subsequently "assimilated by the proto-Abkhazians" (41).


The two chapters written by historian Stanislav Lak'oba, on the Tsarist and Soviet periods, feature sharply contrastive portrayals of the Abkhazians, who "took from the land as much as was essential for life … [and] lived in perfect harmony with nature" (77), and whose "world of patriarchal traditions" rendered them somehow incapable of understanding Marxism (85); and the Georgians, represented as the main threat to Abkhazia since the forced exile of Northwest Caucasian Muslims by Russia in the 1860's (88). Lavrenti Beria, during his tenure as Communist Party boss of the Georgian SSR, undertook particularly intensive anti-Abkhazian repressions, and is said to have ordered the assassination by poison of the Abkhazian political leader Nest'or Lak'oba. No one doubts that Beria was capable of this and much worse; readers might balk, however, at the blanket assertion made by Daur Bargandzhia in his chapter on the Abkhazian economy that "over many decades, for ever new generations of Georgian politicians, increasing the numerical predominance of the Kartvelian population over the native Abkhazian population in Abkhazia, and indeed the complete 'Kartvelianisation of the population' remained the main strategic goal of their actions" (160).


The chapter on "Religion" by Rachel Clogg is a broad overview, including coverage of contemporary religious movements, but lacks the depth an acquaintance with the extensive ethnographic and historical literature (Inal-Ipa, Akaba, Adzhindzhal …) would have afforded. Vasilij Avidzba's contribution on Abkhaz literature reads a bit too much like a Soviet-period essay machine-translated from the Russian, e.g.: "Striving to understand and portray spiritual values in their historical dynamic, on the one hand, and, on the other, to state their eternal and absolutely positive properties and merits, all this represents the problems which Abkhazian literature seeks to determine" (183). The book as a whole, and especially its final chapter on "ethnic culture", is lavishly illustrated with photos of folksingers, basket-weavers, dance ensembles and similar Intourist-brochure stuff.


Throughout the book Georgians are referred to as "Kartvelians" or more specifically as "Mingrelians", "Svans" etc. This practice reflects Hewitt's long-standing belief that ethnicity is a monolithic and unchanging facet of individual identity, and furthermore one that is to be equated with native language, regardless of what the individuals concerned might have to say about it. In his role as editor of the volume, Hewitt felt entitled to impose this policy on the texts submitted by his contributors, as when journalist Viktor Popkov refers to "Georgian (actually Mingrelian — ed.) social reformer Tedo Sakhok'ia" (122).


If carefully read, with the more heavily-slanted anti-Georgian propaganda filtered out, The Abkhazians: A Handbook comes close to being that long-overdue introduction to the Abkhazians Western readers have been waiting for. Those who know Russian, of course, have access to Shalva Inal-Ipa's masterful 700-page ethnography (Abxazy. Ètnograficheskij ocherk. Sukhumi, Alashara, 1965), which the volume under review does not even come close to supplanting. I would like to end my comments on a positive note, with a look back to a less-troubled period in the history of Georgian-Abkhaz relations. The Abkhazians of the first millennium of the Christian Era, as contributor Oleg Bgazhba reminds us, were major players in the Transcaucasus. As a result of what business writers might describe as a "guppy-swallows-whale" merger engineered by the 8th-century King Leon II, all of West Georgia became part of the Kingdom of Abkhazia. Indeed, after the unification of the latter with East Georgia two centuries later, the name "Abkhazia" was occasionally used to designate Georgia as a whole. It is reasonable to conclude, as Hewitt writes at the end of the critique of Gamq'relidze mentioned above (p. 262), that "the great Queen Tamar [sovereign of Georgia during its Golden Age at the end of the 12th century — KT] chose to endow her son Giorgi IV with the nickname Lasha "which is translated in the language of the Apsars [= Abkhazians] as 'enlightener of the world' … to give recognition to the Abkhazian ethnos which had played such an important role … in bringing together the whole of Western Georgia". It is fervently to be hoped that the simplistic and dangerous ethnonationalist rhetoric deployed by so many contemporary politicians and their intellectual backers will not cause today's Georgians and Abkhazians to forget this gesture, nor the age-old interconnection and interdependence among the peoples of the Caucasus which made it possible.


III. NASMYTH. While reading Peter Nasmyth's Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry I could not help recalling a description I had once read of the misadventures of another well-meaning but clueless Brit, who wandered through Georgia over a century ago. In volume II of his Ist'oriul-etnograpiuli c'erilebi, Bessarion Nizharadze (pp 12-13) recounts a story heard from his friend Gegi, an experienced Svan hunter, who was assigned as guide to an adventurer named Phillip Wolsley. Despite all of Gegi's efforts to lead the Englishman to the best hunting spots and even direct his aim at an ibex within easy shooting range, Wolsley continually shot wide of his mark. When it comes to his stated goal of compiling "the first comprehensive cultural and historical introduction to modern Georgia" (so stated on the book's dust jacket), PN seems equally unable to hit the broad side of a barn, despite the patient efforts of his Georgian hosts. A large proportion of the misinformation and misconstruals abounding in Nasmyth's book results from his lack of the linguistic skills and cultural background needed to evaluate and contextualize accurately the statements communicated to him by a handful of English-speaking Georgians. As anyone who has lived among them knows well, Georgians offer widely divergent interpretations of their history and culture when asked for them by foreigners. Some of these interpretations meet the standards of the best-quality scholarship, others have filtered down through Soviet-era ethnographic publications or the popular press, yet others seem to have been cobbled together on the spot from half-remembered readings and things heard from other people, with a dash of exoticizing spice to make them intriguing to the listener. Poor gullible monolingual Nasmyth passively takes in anything he hears from his Georgian friends, or for that matter a tipsy "schoolteacher from Moscow" (who functions as one of his principal sources on ethnic relations in Abkhazia), or various foreigners he runs into here and there in Georgia, and who seem no better informed on matters Caucasian than their interlocutor. The Svan language, for example, is said to be "similar to the Georgian language of the 4th century AD" (147), and "two Svanetian villages bear the name of the Sumerian water god Lakhamu" (156). The description of Khevsurian traditional religion (pages 227-236) is hopelessly garbled. On page 114, the rounded dome of Jvari monastery is likened to "an erect nipple, 150 metres above Mtskheta, ready to be suckled by the re-invigorated Christian eye of independent Georgia". One unintentionally comic scene features PN, now making his first efforts to acquire Georgian, asking three highland boys for their names with the question "Ra kviat?" (= "What are they called?", instead of the correct 2nd-plural form ra gkviat? ). He seems genuinely perplexed when he receives in response "three silent stares, as if I had been the invader from outer space", and concludes thereby that "they obviously had met very few foreigners" (240). These and a dozen other such cases are amusing, if a bit sad, and can easily be picked out by the alert reader. More insidious are the half-truths, or even falsehoods, about other Caucasian peoples that PN, usually without specifying their source, passes on uncritically to his readers: On page 20 he baldly asserts that in 1941 "the highland Balkars chose to side with the Germans in the hope Hitler might free them from Soviet domination", thereby concurring with Stalin's justification for the deportation of an entire people to Central Asia. At several points he refers to the "ethnic cleansing" of Georgians by Abkhazians during and after the 1992-93 war; in the 1860's  "Abkhazia's Muslim highland tribesmen repatriated themselves in Turkey" (258), as though this had been a voluntary act rather than a painful and costly exile forced by the Russian conquest of the Northwest Caucasus.


It is difficult to imagine who could possibly profit from reading this book. Those who know Georgia and the Georgians well will find it irritating at best; those who do not will find it of little help, and possibly misleading. All in all, Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry is far more informative on the musings and (mis)adventures of an Englishman far from home than it is on the people, places and phenomena to which he was exposed.


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