Saturday, May 08, 2010

BOOK: Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. By Oliver Bullough (

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West by Ronald Asmus

David Hearst on Russia's role in the long and troubled history of conflict in the Caucasus

The man who sent two young women to blow themselves up in the morning rush hour on the metro in Moscow styles himself the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamic state that exists only in the minds of the very few. It has not even existed in Doku Umarov's mind for that long. The construction engineer from Moscow confessed he did not know how to pray when Chechnya first tried to break away from Moscow in 1994, and neither did his leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former major general in the Soviet airforce, who asked journalists which way Mecca faced. Such is the pull of history in this ravaged part of the world that Umarov's journey of self-discovery has only one destination. When his predecessor Shamil Basayev staged the mass hostage-taking at Beslan school in 2004, Umarov said that if they resorted to such methods, none of them would be able to retain "a human face". Around 330 hostages died in the siege, half of them children. A few years down the track, with his sons dead, Umarov announced he too had changed his mind. "For me there are no civilians in Russia," he said. "Why? Because a genocide of our people is being carried out with their tacit consent."

Umarov is not the first to style himself an emir. The Imam Shamil and his murids – the "committed ones" in Arabic – kept the might of the tsar's army at bay for two and a half decades, before surrendering in 1859. He spent the rest of his life, first as an exotic celebrity in St Petersburg society and then as a prisoner in Kaluga. According to a family anecdote, Shamil said, as he was being transported through the steppe: "If I had known Russia was so big, I would never have fought against it." There is a naivety in this remark that is true of the bloodshed today. However, there is a dilemma to be faced, a 180-degree turn of the moral compass, in linking the past and the present in one continuous narrative of Russian oppression. Are there really two forms of struggle – morally defensible resistance to Russian rule, be it tsarist, Stalinist, or post-communist, to generals who have alternately conquered, ethnically cleansed, deported, or simply massacred communities in the north Caucasus; and a morally indefensible terrorist campaign whose targets are theatre-goers, schoolchildren, or commuters on the Moscow metro? At what point do the ends fail to justify the means?

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