Review of The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
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.]
Myth has it that before he became king of Athens, Theseus went to Crete and slew the Minotaur, a creature half-man and half-bull that roamed the labyrinth in Knossos. According to Homer’s Iliad, Idomeneus, King of Crete, was one of the top-ranked generals of the Greek alliance in the Trojan War. But long before the legends and the literature, Crete hosted Europe’s most advanced early Bronze Age civilization—dubbed the Minoan—which was then overrun and absorbed by the Mycenean Greeks that are later said to have made war at Troy. Minoan Civilization flourished circa 3000 BCE-1450 BCE, when the Myceneans moved in. What remains of the Minoans are magnificent ruins of palace complexes, brilliantly rendered frescoes depicting dolphins, bull-leaping lads, and bare-breasted maidens, and a still yet undeciphered script known as Linear A. The deepest roots of Western Civilization run to the ancient Hellenes, so much so that some historians proclaim the Greeks the grandfathers of the modern West. If that is true, then the Minoans of Crete were the grandfathers of the Greeks.
Unfortunately, if you want to learn more about the Minoans, do not turn to A History of Crete, by former educator Chris Moorey, an ambitious if too often dull work that affords this landmark civilization a mere 22 pages. Of course, the author has every right to emphasize what he deems most relevant, but the reader also has a right to feel misled—especially as the jacket cover sports a bull-leaping scene from a Minoan fresco! And it isn’t only the Minoans that are bypassed; Moorey’s treatment of Crete’s glorious ancient past is at best superficial. After a promising start that touches on recent discoveries of Paleolithic hand-axes, he fast-forwards at a dizzying rate: Minoan Civilization ends on page 39; more than a thousand years of Greek dominance concludes on page 66, and Roman rule is over by page 84. Thus begins the long saga of Crete as a relative backwater, under the sway of distant colonial masters.
I am not certain what the author’s strategy was, but it appears that his goal was to divide Crete’s long history into equal segments, an awkward tactic akin to a biographer of Lincoln lending equal time to his rail-splitting and his presidency. At any rate, much of the story is simply not all that interesting the way Moorey tells it. In fact, too much of it reads like an expanded Wikipedia entry, while sub-headings too frequently serve as unwelcome interrupts to a narrative that generally tends to be stilted and colorless. The result is a chronological report of facts about people and events, conspicuously absent the analysis and interpretation critical to a historical treatment. Moreover, the author’s voice lacks enthusiasm and remains maddeningly neutral, whether the topic is tax collection or captive rebels impaled on hooks. As the chronicle plods across the many centuries, there is also a lack of connective tissue, so the reader never really gets a sense of what distinguishes the people of Crete from people anywhere else. What are their salient characteristics? What is the cultural glue that bonds them together? We never really find out.
To be fair, there is a lot of information here. And Moorey is not a bad writer, just an uninspired one. Could this be because the book is directed at a scholarly rather than a popular audience, and academic writing by its nature can often be stultifying? That’s one possibility. But is it even a scholarly work? The endnotes are slim, and few point to primary sources.
A History of Crete is a broad survey that may serve as a useful reference for those seeking a concise study of the island’s past, but it seems like an opportunity missed. In the final paragraph, the author concludes: “In spite of all difficulties, it is likely the spirt of Crete will survive.” What is this spirit of Crete he speaks of? Whatever it may be, the reader must look elsewhere to find out.
In the aftermath of a clash in Turkistan in 1221, a woman held captive by Mongol soldiers admitted she had swallowed her pearls to safeguard them. She was immediately executed and eviscerated. When pearls were indeed recovered, Genghis Khan “ordered that they open the bellies of the slain” on the battlefield to look for more. [p23] Such was the consequence of pearls for the Mongol Empire.
As this review goes to press (5-12-21), the value of a single Bitcoin is about $56,000 U.S. dollars—dwarfing the price for an ounce of gold at a mere $1830—an astonishing number for a popular cybercurrency that few even accept for payment. Those ridiculing the rise of Bitcoin dismiss it as imaginary currency. But aren’t all currencies imaginary? The paper a dollar is printed on certainly is not worth much, but it can be exchanged for a buck because that United States government says so, subject to inflation of course. All else rises and falls on a market that declares a value, which varies from day-to-day. Then why, you might ask, in the rational world of the twenty-first century, are functionally worthless shiny objects like gold and diamonds (for non-industrial applications) worth anything at all? It’s a good question, but hardly a new one—long before the days of Jericho and Troy people have attached value to the pretty but otherwise useless. Circa 4200 BCE, spondylus shells were money of a sort in both Old Europe and the faraway Andes. Remarkably, cowries once served as the chief economic mechanism in the African slave trade; for centuries human beings were bought and sold as chattel in exchange for shells that once housed sea snails!
The point is that even the most frivolous item can be deemed of great worth if enough agree that it is valuable. With that in mind, it is hardly shocking to learn that pearls were treasured above all else by the Mongols during their heady days of empire. It may nevertheless seem surprising that this phenomenon would be worthy of a book-length treatment, but acclaimed educator, author and historian Thomas T. Allsen makes a convincing case that it does in his final book prior to his passing in 2019, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, which will likely remain the definitive work on this subject for some time to come.
The oversize footprint of the Mongols and their significance to global human history has been vast if too often underemphasized, a casualty of the Eurocentric focus on so-called “Western Civilization.” Originally nomads that roamed the steppe, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the transcontinental Mongol Empire formed the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, encompassing parts or all of China, Southeast Asia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. Ruthlessly effective warriors, numerous kingdoms tumbled before the fierce onslaughts that marked their famously brutal trails of conquest. Less well-known, as Allsen reveals, was their devotion to plunder, conducted with both a ferocious appetite and perhaps the greatest degree of organization ever seen in the sacking of cities. No spoils were prized more than pearls, acquired from looted state treasuries as well as individuals such as that random unfortunate who was sliced open at Genghis Khan’s command. Pearls were more than simply booty; the Mongols were obsessed with them.
This is a story that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unexpected. The author’s approach is highly original, cogently marrying economics to political culture and state-building without losing sight of his central theme. In a well-written if decidedly academic narrative, Allsen focuses on the Mongol passion for pearls as symbols of wealth and status to explore a variety of related topics. One of the most entertaining examines the Yuan court, where pearls were the central element for wardrobe and fashion, and rank rigidly determined if and how these could be displayed. At the very top tier, naturally, was the emperor and his several wives, who were spectacularly identifiable in their extravagant ornamentation. The emperor’s consorts wore earrings of “matched tear-shaped pearls” said to be the size of hazelnuts, or alternately, pendant earrings with as many as sixty-five matched pearls attached to each pendant! More flamboyant was their elaborate headgear, notably the tall, unwieldy boot-shaped headdress called a boghta that was decorated with plumes and gems and—of course—many more pearls! [p52-53]
Beyond the spotlight on court life, the author widens his lens to explore broader arenas. The Mongols may have been the most fanatical about acquiring pearls, but they certainly were not the first to value them, nor the last; pearls remain among the “shiny objects” with no real function beyond adornment that command high prices to this day. Allsen provides a highly engaging short course for the reader as to where pearls come from and why the calcium carbonate that forms a gemstone in one oyster is—based upon shape, size, luster, and color—prized more than another. This is especially important because of the very paradox the book’s title underscores: it is remarkable that products from the sea became the most prized possession for a people of the steppe! There is also a compelling discussion of the transition from conquering nomad warrior to settled overlord that offers a studied debate on whether the “self-indulgent” habit of coveting consumer goods such as “fine textiles, precious metals, and gems, especially pearls” was the result of being corrupted by the sedentary “civilized” they subjected, or if such cravings were born in a more distant past. [p61]
While I enjoyed The Steppe and the Sea, especially the first half, which concludes with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, this book is not for everyone. Academic writing imposes a certain stylistic rigidity that suits the scholarly audience it is intended for, but that tends to create barriers for the general reader. In this case accessibility is further diminished by Allsen’s translation of Mongolian proper names into ones likely unfamiliar to those outside of his field: Genghis Khan is accurately rendered as Chinggis Qan, and Kubalai Khan as Qubilai Qan, but this causes confusion that might have been mitigated by a parenthetical reference to the more common name. And the second part of the book, “Comparisons and Influence,” which looks beyond the Mongol realm, is slow going. It seemed like a better tactic might have been to incorporate much of it into the previous narrative, strengthening connections and contrasts while improving readability. On the plus side, sound historical maps are included that proved a critical reference throughout the read.
The Mongol Empire is ancient history, but these days a wild pearl of high quality could still be worth as much as $100,000, although most range in price from $300 to $1500. It seems like civilization is still pretty immature when it comes to shiny objects. On the other hand, this morning, an ounce of palladium—a precious metal valued for its use in catalytic converters and multi-layer ceramic capacitors rather than jewelry—was priced at almost $3000, some 62% more than an ounce of gold! So maybe there is hope for us, after all. I wish Dr. Allsen was still alive so I could reach out via email and find out his thoughts on the subject. Since that is impossible, I can only urge you to read his final book and consider how little human appetites have changed throughout the ages.
Review of A Tidewater Morning, by William Styron. Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a remarkable dinner for more than four dozen Nobel Prize winners and assorted other luminaries drawn from the top echelons of the arts and sciences. With his characteristic wit, JFK pronounced it “The most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” One of the least prominent guests that evening was the novelist William Styron, who attended with his wife Rose, and recalled his surprise at the invitation. Styron was not yet then the critically-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon he was to later become, but he was hardly an unknown figure, and it turns out that his most recent novel of American expatriates, Set This House on Fire, was the talk of the White House in the weeks leading up to the event. So he had the good fortune to dine not only with the President and First Lady, but with the likes of John Glenn, Linus Pauling, and Pearl Buck—and in the after-party forged a long-term intimate relationship with the Kennedy family.
My first Styron was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read as a teen. Its merits somewhat unfairly subsumed at the time by the controversy it sparked over race and remembrance, it remains a notable achievement, as well as a reminder that literature is not synonymous with history, nor should it be held to that account. I found Set This House on Fire largely forgettable, but as an undergrad was utterly blown away when I read Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel and a true masterpiece that while yet indisputably original clearly evoked the Faulknerian southern gothic. I went on to read anything by the author I could get my hands on. Also a creature of controversy upon publication, Sophie’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, remains in my opinion one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
I thought I had read all of Styron’s fiction, so it was with certain surprise that I learned from a friend who is both author and bibliophile of the existence of A Tidewater Morning, a collection of three novellas I had somehow overlooked. I bought the book immediately, and packed it to take along for a pandemic retreat to a Vermont cabin in the woods where I read it through in the course of the first day and a half of the getaway, parked in a comfortable chair on the porch sipping hot coffee in the morning and cold beer in late afternoon. Perhaps it was the fact that this was our first breakaway from months of quarantine isolation, or maybe it was the alcohol content of the IPA I was tossing down, but there was definitely a palpable emotional tug for me reading Styron again—works previously unknown to me no less—so many decades after my last encounter with his work, back when I was a much younger man than the one turning these pages. The effect was more pronounced, I suppose, because the semi-autobiographical stories in this collection look back to Styron’s own youth in the Virginia Tidewater in the 1930s and were written when he too was a much older man.
“Love Day,” the first tale of the collection, has him as a young Marine in April 1945 yet untested in combat, awaiting orders to join the invasion of Okinawa and wrestling the ambivalence of chasing heroic destiny while privately entertaining “gut-heaving frights.” There’s much banter among the men awaiting their fate, but the story of real significance is told through flashbacks to an episode some years prior, he still a boy in the back seat of his father’s Oldsmobile, broken down on the side of the road. War is looming—the very war he is about to join—although it was far from certain then, but the catastrophe of an unprepared America overrun by barbaric Japanese invaders is the near-future imagined in the Saturday Evening Post piece the boy is reading in the back of the stalled car. Simmering tempers flare when he lends voice to the prediction. His mother, stoic in her leg brace, slowly dying of a cancer known to all but unacknowledged, had earlier furiously rebuked him for mouthing a racist epithet and now upbraided him again for characterizing the Japanese as “slimy butchers,” while belittling the notion of a forthcoming war. Unexpectedly, his father—a mild, highly-educated man quietly raging at his own inability to effect a simple car repair—lashes out at his wife, branding her “idiotic” and “a fool” for her naïve idealism, then crumbles under the weight of his words to beg her forgiveness. It is a dramatic snapshot not only of a moment of a family in turmoil, but of a time and a place that has long faded from view. Only Styron’s talent with a pen could leave us with so much from what is after only a few pages.
The third story is the title tale, “A Tidewater Morning,” which revisits the family to follow his mother’s final, agonizing days. It concludes with both the boy and his father experiencing twin if unrelated epiphanies. It’s a good read, but I found it a bit overwrought, lacking the subtlety characteristic of Styron’s prose.
Sandwiched between these two is my own favorite, “Shadrach,” the story of a 99-year-old former slave—sold away to an Alabama plantation in antebellum days—who shows up unpredictably with the dying wish to be buried in the soil of the Dabney property where he was born. The problem is that the Dabney descendant currently living there is a struggling, dirt-poor fellow who could be a literary cousin of one of the Snopes often resident in Faulkner novels. The law prohibits interring a black man on his property, and he likewise lacks the means to afford to bury him elsewhere. On the surface, “Shadrach” appears to be a simple story, but on closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a very complex one peopled with multidimensional characters and layered with vigorous doses of both comedy and tragedy.
I highly recommend Styron to those who have not yet read him. For the uninitiated, (spoiler alert!) I will close this review with a worthy passage:
“Death ain’t nothin’ to be afraid about,” he blurted in a quick, choked voice … “Life is where you’ve got to be terrified!” he cried as the unplugged rage spilled forth. … Where in the goddamned hell am I goin’ to get the money to put him in the ground? … I ain’t got thirty-five-dollars! I ain’t got twenty-five dollars! I ain’t got five dollars!” … “And one other thing!” He stopped. Then suddenly his fury—or the harsher, wilder part of it—seemed to evaporate, sucked up into the moonlit night with its soft summery cricketing sounds and its scent of warm loam and honeysuckle. For an instant he looked shrunken, runtier than ever, so light and frail that he might blow away like a leaf, and he ran a nervous, trembling hand through his shock of tangled black hair. “I know, I know,” he said in a faint, unsteady voice edged with grief. “Poor old man, he couldn’t help it. He was a decent, pitiful old thing, probably never done anybody the slightest harm. I ain’t got a thing in the world against Shadrach. Poor old man.” …
“And anyway,” Trixie said, touching her husband’s hand, “he died on Dabney ground like he wanted to. Even if he’s got to be put away in a strange graveyard.”
“Well, he won’t know the difference,” said Mr. Dabney. “When you’re dead nobody knows the difference. Death ain’t much.” [p76-78]
NOTE: To learn more about JFK’s Nobel Dinner, check out this outstanding book, which contains a foreword by Rose Styron: Review of: Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito