This book follows a workshop organised in March 2006 at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. Its epistemological purpose is to ask what the varied experiences in understanding the Caucasus might suggest for the related practices of ethnography and cultural history. The authors analyse the perception of this small space as a mountain of tongues, romance and violence: Generally understood as a place of “absent presence,” the Caucasus produces “paradigms” on his own “unknowability.” Using historical and anthropological studies, the authors have been trying to determine how the Caucasus has figured on the world stage through both politics and scholarship. After an introduction on Soviet and post-Soviet historiographies, three thematic parts reflect the book’s progression from knowledge to borders: “Archaeologies of Knowledge”, “The Remaking of a World Area” and “Mobilities and Borders.” In a set of parables on presence and absence, Paul Manning’s essay (“Love, Khevsur Style: The Romance of the Mountains and Mountaineer Romance in Georgian Ethnography,” 23-46) introduces the village of Shatili, situated in the Khevsur region of Georgia and forcibly evacuated in the 1950s. By the early 1960s, the picturesque landscape of the empty villages was used as a setting for a series of films about the lost life of the mountains. The region became the central focus of Georgian ethnography and the local tradition of pre-marital and endogamous relationships was pictured in several films (as Khevsuruli Balada in 1965). After a review of the film, the author introduces a book on mountain romance (Sts’orproba in Khevsureti, published posthumously in 1991) written by a native ethnographer, Natela Baliauri. When we discover that her own violation of the prohibition of endogamy led her to being exiled and to write an ethnographic description of the practice, ethnography reveals to be an autobiography. Without indication on his own experience, the author ends his article with sharp considerations on Baliauri’s hybrid position as authorial voice between two opposed worlds, the literate world of writing intelligentsia and the folk world of oral creation.
In his article (“Brides, Brigands and Fire-Bringers: Notes towards a Historical Ethnography of Pluralism,” 47-74) Bruce Grant deals with the complex grammar of exchange of bodies between Caucasus communities. Through an exploration of three of the most famous kinds of “traffic” (trade in famous ancestors, traffic in women and border crossing of “mountain pirates”), the author argues that each of them says more about the maintenance of boundaries between communities, than about the folklores of violence. Relying on classic anthropological question of exchange, Grant turns each of these realms into questions of personhood, property and local history. Nevertheless, his purpose to develop alternate readings of violence fails when he states that “little have changed over two millennia (p. 47).” For his part, Georgi Derluguian (“The Forgotten Complexities of the North Caucasus Jihad,” 75-92) presents a new view on the history of violence in the region. Arguing that the military superiority of a Kabard stratum of warlords came to an end with the gunpowder revolution in the mid-eighteen century, he insists on the tribal fragmentation and peasant democratisation that followed to understand the nineteenth century struggles in the North Caucasus. Islam spread in a context of struggles between élites and newly empowered peasants and, according to the author, the radicalisation of Islam came comparatively late, so looking for “jihad” requires the more careful attention. If going back to history can show useful for understanding the national epic of contemporary struggles, paying attention to social processes shows definitely necessary if one wants to turn back to the image of the Caucasus as a territory of “natural belligerence”.
The second part of the volume deals with scholar and public knowledge on the Caucasus, and begins with a case study presented by Shahin Mustafayev on the “The History of Sovereignty in Azerbaijan: A Preliminary Survey of Basic Approaches” (95-117). Familiar with controversies on the imagined historical status of post-Soviet countries, the author introduces the most influential views on Azerbaijani sovereignty as they emerge in scholarly writings. After the principle of territory that calls for integrity of the state’s historical development, the second approach relies on ethno-historical principle that interprets the history of Azerbaijan’s statehood as an integral part of a common Turkic history. The third is the ethno-territorial principle that equalises territorial and ethnic factors of sovereignty. Finally, despite the absence of any innovative statements, this article is a good illustration of the alternatives that are now available to former Soviet scholarship. Three archaeologists, Murtazali Gadjiev, Philip Kohl and Rabadan Magomedov carry on the issue. In an article entitled “Mythologising the Remote Past for Political Purposes in the North Caucasus” (119-41), they focus on three popular contemporary amateur historians, whose home-grown genealogies of Caucasus peoples have been feeding nationalist violence. They describe common features of politicised pasts and highlight their political implications. Myths of autochthonous development are illustrated on three groups: the Lezgis (and the appropriation of Sumerians as great ancestors by historian D. G. Abduragimov), Turkic-speaking peoples (with Murad Adzhiev, a famous myth-maker defending the idea that Christianity derived from the religion of ancient Turks) and Chechens (with S-Kh. M. Nunuev stating that Chechens are descendants of the Hurrians, who brought civilisation to ancient Rome).
More captivating is the work by Rebecca Gould (“Language Dreamers: Race and the Politics of Etymology in the Caucasus,” 143-66) who analyses the motives behind new nation centred literary productions. She explores the case of Suleiman Gumashvili, a Georgian author and one of the leading intellectuals of the Kist community. The language of this people living in the Pankiski Gorge being on the verge of extinction, Gumashvili places himself in Marr’s tradition and talks about the origin of all the human languages. To understand the motivations of this “language dreamer”, R. Gould has made the outstanding choice to live four months inside his family. The result is a vivid narrative on Suleiman’s attempts to look on facts toward a less accessible but no less significant story. Qualitative interviews reveal that Gumashvili’s purpose is not to translate history into a fixed schema but to keep it malleable so that he can shape his narrative according to the needs of the present. Concluding that ethnicity has conceptual resonance outside the West, Gould advocates a deeper understanding of the vernacular registers of Caucasian experience. Her ability to refrain from a priori judgments is welcome and when she presents “Gumashvili” as an “intellectual from which we can learn” (p. 156), R. Gould stands as a representative of the best western scholarship tradition. Written by Levon Abrahamian, the next chapter (“Dancing around the Mountain: Armenian Identity through Rites of Solidarity,” 167-88) deals with another way to write history, a symbolic way through popular spectacle: On May 28, 2005 on Armenia’s Independence Day, thousands of people gathered on the slopes of Mount Aragats to participate in a 15-minute dance around a mountain which is linked to Mount Ararat, located in Turkey. With a anthropological view of this modern mix of ritual and politics, Abrahamian richly chronicles an event orchestrated as close to mythic: The music for the dance which took place at an elevation of 1,600 meters was collected from sixteen provinces, 1,600 bonfires were prepared and 160,000 trees planted to commemorate the 1,600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet. The ethnic dimension of this encirclement of Mount Aragats by a line of dancers was obvious: Diaspora Armenians were invited when non-Armenian minorities were ignored despite their participation in the event. After the dance, the Prosecutor-General Hovsepyan, who had initiated the project, declared: “We have reached a point where we are united”.
The third part of the volume is devoted to external and internal borders and the means by which they are crossed. Seteny Shami’s chapter on “Prehistories of Globalisation: Circassian Identity in Motion” (191-218) is based on the juxtaposition of two life stories: that of a young Circassian woman sold into slavery in 1854, and that of another young woman, who migrated from Turkey to Nalchik in the 1990s. In a story reflecting migrations, memories and genealogies, Shami neglects the temporal gap and focus on the common experiences of exile. Part of Circassian identity, mobility and cultural hybridity emerge as essential dimensions of the globalisation process that is analysed here through an original thought. In his chapter, Anton Popov wonders “Are Greeks Caucasian? The Multiple Boundaries of Pontic Greek Life in Southern Russia” (219-45); he introduces his fieldwork on the Diaspora community of Pontic Greeks who live in the Krasnodar territory and Adygheia. Analysing the gradual shifts of self-identification among mixed populations, Popov concludes that multiple boundaries are drawn alongside the lines of citizenship, language and migrations. The idea of being direct heirs of ancient Greek civilisation is popular among Caucasian Greeks whence the phenomena of Greeks’s Turkophonie (Turkish language being the mother tongue of many Pontic Greeks) becomes a core issue for Pontic cultural identity in the Caucasus. Stating that cultural boundaries are floating, the author manages to introduce the reader in a complex reality.
In a chapter dealing with a topical subject (“Re-Crafting Georgian Medicine: The Politics of Standardisation and Tuberculosis Control in Post-Socialist Georgia,” 247-71), Erin Koch reminds us that nothing crosses borders more efficiently than epidemics. Relying on interviews with medical actors in Tbilisi, the description of the global crisis supported by the healthcare system in post-Soviet Georgia paves the way to uncompromising critics of the implementation of the World Health Organisation’s standardised protocol for tuberculosis control and treatment. The author relevantly demonstrates that the efforts to implement this protocol was framed by assumptions that the paradigms of Western biomedicine offer a necessary and “rational” response to what international organisations perceive as the “irrational” and “chaotic” nature of the Soviet approach to tuberculosis control. With a lot of demonstrative arguments, especially the rising practices of self-medication, E. Koch shows the chaotic effects of standardised health reforms at the local level. The last article by Lale Yalçin-Heckmann (“Openings and Closures: Citizenship Regimes, Markets and Borders in the Caucasus,” 273-98) is a reflection on the role of informal economies in the articulation of new national belongings and citizenship regimes across the Caucasus. Through the case study of Sadakhlo market (on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Armenian border), which is crucial for the economic survival of the region since connected with Turkey, Russia and Iran, the author explores how borders display instability, tensions and uncertainties. At the same time she reveals how false is the picture of the Caucasus as a region of closure. This is also the main point displays in the postscript. Relaying on previous articles of the volume, Sergei Arutiunov proposes in “Notes on the Making of a World Area” (301-6), his own remarks on how the notion of world area could be applied to the Caucasus. Finally this complete and serious study of the Caucasus as a mountain of paradigms is welcome and refreshing. The variety and the originality of the articles published in a well-illustrated and easy-to-read volume authorise the editor to renew our ethnographic and historical view on the Caucasus.