Caucasia is a mountainous region located between the two continents of Europe and Asia. While it’s not the Nazi-imagined homeland (a concept invented by 18th century craniologists) to the blond & blue-eyed, it is home to some of the oldest human populations in the world as well as the birthplace of wine. It’s also one of the most culturally varied regions in the world, where tiny populations of little-known peoples have somehow existed between some of the biggest, baddest imperialists of world history. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that they seem or persevere by clinging tightly to cultural expressions like music and dance, as well as deeply-embedded xenophobia, mistrust, mutual hostility and self-preservatory instincts.
Just to name a few, in this tiny global neighborhood you’ve got Abazins, Abkazians, Adjarians, Adydhe, Aguls, Archins, Armenians, Avars, Azerbaijanis, Balkars, Bats, Chechens, Cherkes, Cossacks, Dargins, Georgians, Greeks, Ingush, Kabardins, Kalmyks, Karachays, Khinalug, Kists, Kumyks, Kurds, Laks, Laz, Lezgins, Mingrelians, Mountain Jews, Nakh, Nogais, Ossetians, Rutls, Svans, Tabasarans, Talysh, Tats, Trukhmens, Tsakhurs, Ubykh and Udins… my apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone… also my producer, my wife and so forth. I just know I’m forgetting someone!
In the Greek religion, the Kaukasos (Caucasia) was where one of the pillars supporting the planet was found. It’s also where Prometheus was chained by Zeus, having one of his organs picked at by a buzzard, if memory serves…just because someone duped Prometheus by slyly asking for “a light.” Because of that, it was considered by the Greeks to be sort of like hell for Titans.
They also thought it was a place populated by magical and barbaric women. It’s also where Jason met Medea in a story perhaps constructed to give a taste of Caucasian women’s famous ferocity. When he left her for another woman, Medea killed the girl, her dad, and the two kids she’d had with Jason. I’m on her side. Get it how you live it.
The non-human, non-Titan life is diverse too. The Caucasus is home to bears, bison, wolves and leopards, which probably all scrap just like their human neighbors in their geopolitical cage match.
Because of the sheer number of teams and shifting alliances, Caucasia can seem confusing to outsiders, especially if you’re one of those people who though the Ruskies were taking the Crunk Capital when you heard about the invasion of Georgia. But a pattern is evident in almost all events of the last twenty years. Nations formerly conquered by the Soviet Union used its collapse as a springboard to self-determination whilst ignoring it for any of the nations located within their borders. Those unrecognized nations have mostly attempted to pursue their own independence, which Russia then uses as an excuse to punish its former possessions. It’s happened in almost every one of these republics and yet the media, for whatever reason, is acting like the current situation in Georgia is setting some sort of dangerous precedent. It probably has something to do with Western powers’ alliances, biases and business interests more than any moral absolutes with which they frame their arguments.
Anyway, you should check out Amoeba’s world section if your interest in any of these diverse cultures is piqued by this post.
Abkhazia was colonized by the Milesian Greeks in the 5th century BCE. It was conquered and ruled by Rome from 110-63 BCE. It was an independent kingdom from 700s to 1000s. It was invaded by Georgia following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 which resulted in liberation struggles fought until 1921. In 1931, it was re-defined by the Soviets as an autonomous republic within Georgia and was heavily re-settled with Georgians to compromise its cultural identity. Georgia then deported many of its indigenous people. Georgia banned the Abkhaz language and closed Abkhaz schools. In the 1990s, Abkhazia fought and won independence, although not officially recognized by any other countries. In 2008 it was invaded once again by Georgia but repulsed the aggressors.
Adjara was colonized by the Greeks in the 5th century BCE. It was subsequently controlled by Rome beginning in the 2nd century BCE. Later, it was established as a small, Islamic, autonomous republic on the Black Sea. It became part of the Georgian republic in 1920 when designated by the Soviet Union. Due in part to religious discrimination of the nationalist Georgian government, which sought to forcibly Christianize the Islamic people, Adjara sought independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2004, the democratically elected leader was forced into exile in the face of a full-scale Georgian invasion and occupation.
Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (Chechnya)
The traditionally pagan peoples’ early clashes were with the Buddhist Kalmyks. Soon they were fighting against the militantly Christian Georgia and the Cossacks. They adopted neither of these faiths and instead converted to Sufism in 16th Century. Soon, the Russians started exerting themselves in the area and out-and-out holy war erupted in 1785, led by Sheik Mansur, who was captured and killed. The state was taken over by the Russian Empire in 1859. In the 1940s, there were mass deportations of Chechens into Central Asia by Stalin. They were allowed to return by Kruschev in 1956. With collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the former possessions declared their independence with little Russian resistance. Ichkeria declared their independence in 1999 but Boris Yeltsin‘s government held on tight out of respect for its “territorial integrity” (e.g., vast oil deposits). They clashed with Russia from ’94-’96. Russia launched a full-on invasion in 1999. Their democratically-elected President Aslan Maskhadov was assassinated in 2005. In 2006, UN Committee Against Torture reports illegal detention in unofficial detention centers, torture, inhumane treatment of prisoners, abductions and disappearances. A pro-Russian president was installed by Putin in 2007. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights chief, reports widespread Russian abuses including systematic torture based on his findings.
Adygea was never a unified, coherent nation, but they nonetheless persevered as a people throughout a seemingly endless string invasions the likes of the Huns, Khazars, Mongols and Pechenegs. This is perhaps owing to their reputation for ferocity. The men, traditionally, were armed at all times. Even in the 20th century, Adygea has received more than its fair share of Gold Medals for wrestling. Anyway, they came under the control of Russia when invaded in 1859 and they were subjugated by 1864, at which point most Adyghe (Circassians) took refuge in Ottoman Empire. In the 1940s, most remaining Circassians were deported to Central Asia and then subsequently allowed to return by Kruschev in the ’50s.
One of the relatively high-profiled Caucasian nations, the women of Adygea were widely famed for their attractiveness. Voltaire, Henry Fielding and Lord Byron all made reference in their writings to the famed beauties. This reputation lasted for hundreds of years and beauty products in the west were often marketed as having Circassian origins. P.T. Barnum even exhibited bushy-haired, supposed Circassian Beauties in his circus side show.
From the 9th to the 13th centuries, waves of Tatars entered the Crimea. There, they mixed with Turkic peoples like Bulgars, Cumans, Khazars and Petchenegs as well as non-Turkic peoples such as the Adygeans, Alans, Genoese, Goths, Greeks, Romanians, Slavs, Venetians. Today, their varied appearances bear out the diversity of their origins. They built Tatar Crimea in a strong power which persevered until 1783, when it was taken over by the Cossacks. In 1917-1918 approximately 1.25 million Tatars fled. In 1941 it was invaded by Germany and subsequently re-invaded by Russia who deported the entire remaining Tatar population, mostly to Uzbekistan. Around half died in the process of forced re-location. In 1988, the Tatars were allowed to return. As of 2008, 15 Crimean Tatar schools teach their language. This year some 200 Tatar graves were vandalized by Ukrainian racialists.
Tartar Sauce, while not eaten in Tatar Crimea, is named after them by French chefs who were probably trying to make Steak Tartare sound exotic.
The earliest accounts of Dagestan refer to it as Caucasian Albania. Dagestan has been occupied, at various points in history by Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Rome and ultimately, like most of the peoples in today’s story, the Russians, whom they fought for independence from until losing in 1921. Most of the population is made up of Avars, Dargins and Lezgins as well as smaller numbers of Azeris, Kumyks and Nogais. The multi-ethnic society was divided along ethnic lines into equally represented in a multi-ethnic government. In 2006, Russia abolished these ethnic districts in an effort to “de-enthicize” Dagestan.
The southern portion remained in the hands of Persia for a long period and the north was taken over by the Huns. They were followed by the Avars who established the Christian kingdom of Sarir in the north, one of the first Christian states. When the Arabs took over the south, many Dagestanis converted to Islam. Sarir disintegrated and the new nation of Avaristan was established in its stead. They formed an alliance with the Golden Horde for protection but too many invaders and too many fights to mention followed over the next few hundred years. Most recently, in 1999, a group of Dagestanis and Chechnyans launched an insurrection in which hundreds died. Dagestan has since been the sight of frequent violent stuggle for independence.
In the 20th century, cultural expressions of Dagestan have flourished. Gotfrid Hasanov composed the first Dagestani opera, Khochbar, in 1945 and there are state dance ensembles and orchestras. Sanijat Sultanova and Zuhra Shandieva are two of the nation’s better known singers.
The Gagauz are a Turkic people who, unlike their Turkic brethren, mostly practice Orthodox Christianity. Their origins are lost in the mists of time. Some say they are descended from the Petcheneg and Cuman tribes who migrated to the area from Central Asia a thousand years ago. Others say that they’re descended from Greeks who were absorbed by Turkic-speaking people. Could be a little of column A and a little of column B. Anyway. the Gagauz established their own state in the 1200s. It was overrun and dissolved by the Ottomans in 1417. In the 1940s, Stalin confined large numbers to work camps where many died. After Moldova gained independence, the Gagauz declared independence in 1990 which Modolva wasn’t cool with, but was also powerless to really do anything about.
The history of the Ghalghai (Ingush) people begins almost 12,000 years ago when a couple folks from Mesopotamia moved to their current home in the hills in pursuit of the suburban dream. Their self-designation, Ghalghai, means “fortress habitants.” They established an Islamic state whose existence came to a screeching halt when taken over by Russia in 1810. In what’s customary practice for Russia, many were forcibly deported posthaste. The remaining population was deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia, under the false pretense that they’d collaborated with the Nazis. An estimated two thirds died as a result. Those that survived were allowed to return in 1956.
Made mostly up by Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is surrounded and claimed by Azerbaijan. It’s been disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia beginning with their gaining independence from Russian Empire in 1918. That dispute was put on hold when they were invaded five years later by USSR. After that entity collapsed, the free-again Azerbaijan and Armenia immediately resumed fighting over it, picking up where they’d left off 70 years earlier.
Pridnestrovia is a thin strip of land situated along the Tiligul River. It was the ancient home of the Scythians and Thracians. It was also a crossroads for the Goths, Slavs and various Turkic peoples. In 1927, the working class people revolted against Russian rule in the city of Tiraspol. Moscow came down hard, as they always do, and killed about 4,000 Pridnestovians. Understandably, many subsequently fled to Romania as to live as refugees. The remaining declared independence in 1990. Moldova wasn’t having it, so Russia provided support in a pattern of reversal that defines Russia’s post-soviet view of the enemies of their enemies being used as pawns.
South Azerbaijan is currently controlled by Iran. Most of its inhabitants are Azeri. Formerly part of the Gajar state which was divided by Russian Empire and Persia in 1925, pretty much ensuring eventual tensions would surface. When they begin expressing themselves, over 100 peaceful demonstrators were imprisoned by Iranian government. An Iranian newspaper cartoon recently depicted Azeris as cockroaches. 100s more protested. Once again, they were detained and, in some cases, killed by Iran.
Talyshstan was divided between Persia and Russia in 1828. Talysh schools were closed by Russia in the 1940s and Talysh intellectual Akhmedzoda was deported to Siberia where he died in 1942. On June 24, 2008, Novruzali Mamedov (editor for a Talysh newspaper) was sentenced to ten years in prison for treason. The paper, Shavnisht (meaning “Nightly Gathering”), was devoted to “the history, culture, literature, folklore, traditions and life of the Talysh people… i.e. treason.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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