Some would argue that the precise moment that marked the beginning of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was February 20, 1988, when the regional soviet governing the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast—an autonomous region of mostly ethnic Armenians within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan—voted to redraw the maps and attach Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Thus began a long, bloody, and yet unresolved conflict in the Caucasus that has ravaged once proud cities and claimed many thousands of lives of combatants and civilians alike.  The U.S.S.R. went out of business on December 25, 1991, about midway through what has been dubbed the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended on May 12, 1994, an Armenian victory that established de facto—if internationally unrecognized—independence for the Republic of Artsakh (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), but left much unsettled. Smoldering grievances that remained would come to spark future hostilities.

That day came last fall, when the long uneasy stalemate ended suddenly with an Azerbaijani offensive in the short-lived 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that had ruinous consequences for the Armenian side. Few Americans have ever heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, but I was far better informed because when the war broke out I happened to be reading The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal, a well-written, insightful, and—as it turns out—powerfully relevant book that in its careful analysis of this particular region raises troubling questions about human behavior in similar socio-political environments elsewhere.

What is the Caucasus? A region best described as a corridor between the Black Sea on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other, with boundaries at the south on Turkey and Iran, and at the north by Russia and the Greater Caucasus mountain range that has long been seen as the natural border between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Above those mountains in southern Russia is what is commonly referred to as the North Caucasus, which includes Dagestan and Chechnya. Beneath them lies Transcaucasia, comprised of the three tiny nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, whose modern history began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and are the focus of De Waal’s fascinating study. The history of the Caucasus is the story of peoples dominated by the great powers beyond their borders, and despite independence this remains true to this day: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to support separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the first European war of the twenty-first century; Turkey provided military support to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

At this point, some readers of this review will pause, intimidated by exotic place names in an unfamiliar geography. Fortunately, De Waal makes that part easy with a series of outstanding maps that puts the past and the present into appropriate context. At the same time, the author eases our journey through an often-uncertain terrain by applying a talented pen to a dense, but highly readable narrative that assumes no prior knowledge of the Caucasus. At first glance, this work has the look and feel of a textbook of sorts, but because De Waal has such a fine-tuned sense of the lands and the peoples he chronicles, there are times when the reader feels as if a skilled travel writer was escorting them through history and then delivering them to the brink of tomorrow. Throughout, breakout boxes lend a captivating sense of intimacy to places and events that after all host human beings who like their counterparts in other troubled regions live, laugh, and sometimes tragically perish because of their proximity to armed conflict that typically has little to do with them personally.

De Waal proves himself a strong researcher, as well as an excellent observer highly gifted with an analytical acumen that not only carefully scrutinizes the complexity of a region bordered by potentially menacing great powers, and pregnant with territorial disputes, historic enmities, and religious division, but identifies the tolerance and common ground in shared cultures enjoyed by its ordinary inhabitants if left to their own devices. More than once, the author bemoans the division driven by elites on all sides of competing causes that have swept up the common folk who have lived peacefully side-by-side for generations, igniting passions that led to brutality and even massacre. This is a tragic tale we have seen replayed elsewhere, with escalation to genocide among former neighbors in what was once Yugoslavia, for instance, and also in Rwanda. For all the bloodletting, it has not risen to that level in the Caucasus, but unfortunately spots like Nagorno-Karabakh have all the ingredients for some future catastrophe if wiser heads do not prevail.

I picked up this book quite randomly last summer en route from a Vermont Airbnb in my first visit to a brick-and-mortar bookstore since the start of the pandemic. A rare positive from quarantine has been a good deal of time to read and reflect. I am grateful that The Caucasus: An Introduction was in the fat stack of books that I consumed in that period. Place names and details are certain to fade, but I will long remember the greater themes De Waal explored here. If you are curious about the world, I would definitely recommend this book to you.

[Note: Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.]