May 2011

Ashley Cleek

nonfiction

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough

Undertaking a chronicle of the history of the people of the Caucasus demands not only a thorough knowledge of regional politics, but more importantly, a deep love of countries often unpronounceable and considered politically and socially opaque. Let Our Fame Be Great, the first book of Oliver Bullough, a reporter in Russia and the former Soviet Union, is the product of both empirical curiosity and personal attachment. Bullough carves a boulder of 300 years of history into a tableau of clearly sketched personal narratives rarely found in news stories.

The book begins like a travelogue, with Bullough recounting Caucasus mythology and tracing the historical outline of the Caucasus’ mountains and valleys, which have seemingly remained unchanged since the 18th century. According to Bullough, in such a remote part of the world, folklore acts as the philosophical marrow of society, while also informing the construction of a modern history. Bullough writes of the Narts, the mythical ancestors of the people of the Caucasus, a race of giants and horses made to choose between long lives of little consequence and short lives of great fame. The Narts chose the later. Bullough follows this myth in order to prove that in the course of modern history, the people of the Caucasus have been granted neither of the two: their lives nor great recognition.

Throughout the book, Bullough retraces his own path, showing how he, a British expat, developed more than a sterile journalistic interest in the Caucasus. He recounts the purges of the Chechens and Circassians by the Soviet government in the mid-20th century, tying their exodus to the towns populated by the diaspora he visits in Siberia, the Central Asian steppe, Europe, and the Middle East. While covering the Second Chechen War, which saw the siege of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Chechens, Bullough notes that once again the people are being forced to flee their traditional homeland. He follows the new exodus to immigration camps and diaspora communities in Eastern and Western Europe. At an immigration facility in Poland, Bullough meets a Chechen man, Musa, a good-natured rascal, who embodies the most glaring conflict of being an refugee from the Caucasus: he enjoys playing pranks and ridiculing the European Union’s bureaucracy, yet he still desperately wants to be part of a country, to be counted as a citizen of somewhere.

Through multiple stories, Bullough argues that for the most part, Circassians and Chechens have become patriotic members of their adopted countries, willing to serve in the military and defend their new homeland. Circassian and Chechen troops have fought for Turkey, Britain, not to mention the service they rendered the Soviet Union during World War II. However, Bullough worries about how Europe will accept this new surge of Caucasus refugees from the two recent wars in Chechnya. In the midst of a joke in which Musa shows Bullough around a purgatorial Polish immigration office, the Chechen man is told abruptly that he has been denied refugee status and can now face deportation. The story is uneasy, and Bullough to his credit does not wrap it up as a nice metaphor, but leaves his interlocutor after the man says, “I’m sorry, I’ve lost my mood. Can you go now?” For that is how the story ends, in a non-ending, echoing the uneasiness of a population of people who have been given few second options.

The scope and depth of Bullough’s research is stunning and brave. Approaching current history, he narrates the days before and after the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, when a group of Chechen and Ingush separatists held around 1,300 people hostage in a school in the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia. The hostage crisis ended when the Russian army stormed the school. Over 300 hostages died, as well as 31 terrorists. The sole surviving member of the terrorist group, Nurpashi Kulayev, was arrested by Russian security forces while attempting to escape from the school’s burning gym. In 2006, after a short, emotional trial, Kulayev was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on charges of terrorism, hostage taking, and murder. In the news stories published about the trial, the case seems linear with an obvious conclusion. As the only survivor, there was no question that Kulayev would be found guilty. Bullough, however, decides to reanalyze the case, parsing through court transcripts and interviewing Kulayev’s family and people in his hometown. The portrait he composes is full of gray. Bullough notes that throughout the trial, Kulayev, who was not provided with an interpreter and spoke faltering Russian, repeatedly denies being a member of the terrorist group and swears he killed no one. Kulayev, Bullough shows, wasn’t even particularly religious -- his wife did not wear a veil -- and neighbors tell Bullough that Kulayev was pointedly not taken into the confidences of men who belonged to the insurgency. But the most glaring testimony comes from the hostages. In a courtroom full of victims’ families, hostages remember that Kulayev was sat on the floor by masked men and treated like just another hostage. When asked if he had a weapon, the court transcript shows the witness clearly saying “No” or that they had never seen him with one. With simple detective work, Bullough plants a seed of doubt. And while he does not argue for Kulayev’s total innocence, Bullough’s retrial of a condemned man deftly walks the line between doubting the Russian court system, while not questioning the serious heartache and fear caused by the tragedy.

Towards the end of Let Our Fame Be Great, Bullough’s passion for the Caucasus, leads to a preaching tone that sounds less like a nonfiction narrative and more like an editorial. Imprecations and a gray cloud of foreboding dominate the finale of the book, in which Bullough warns that the protracted presence and violence of the Russian military in Chechnya as well as the closed eyes and ears of the West, will continue to be met with louder, more jarring attacks by separatists. Such heavy-handed words are unnecessary in the shadow of conviction carried by such adventurous research and reconstruction.

Let Our Fame Be Great gives roots to a region of peoples, history, and languages long thought to be too distant, too foreign and finally, too complicated to be understood. It is an achievement of curiosity, proving that passion and a good idea lead to captivating storytelling.

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
Penguin Books
ISBN: 0141037745
512 Pages