The Caucasus region is known "as a place of both unimaginable beauty and everyday barbarity". This volatile borderland has long been an object of fascination; it was immortalised by Tolstoy and Pushkin and even made famous in the circus sideshows of America.
The Caucasus is a place where mountains reach the sky, where continents meet, where empires used to intersect and where a multitude of languages mix. It is an area of great strategic importance, and the unresolved conflicts in Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia have kept the Caucasus on the international agenda. Yet very little is known or understood about this region, and Charles King's enthralling exploration of the history of the Caucasus fills an important gap. As the publisher points out, this is the first general history of the Caucasus in English. Its appeal is further enhanced by its immense readability; I would even characterise it as a page-turner, which is rare praise indeed for a scholarly work. The Ghost of Freedom is beautifully written and seamlessly combines personal anecdotes, literary quotes and thorough research.
The central theme of the book is the search for the "elusive ghost of freedom", which has often been the driving force for the peoples of the Caucasus as well as for the outsiders who ventured into the region. This pursuit has frequently had tragic consequences, and a history of the Caucasus will necessarily also be a history of violence. But King successfully demonstrates that it would be a mistake to reduce the Caucasus to this alone. He sets out "to make sense of a part of the world that has seemed, during the past 20 years, the epitome of senselessness", and by and large he succeeds in this endeavour.
The Ghost of Freedom provides an excellent analysis of the region's turbulent history since the late 18th century; offers a rich exploration of how the Caucasus has been imagined by outsiders; and gives a good overview of contemporary conflicts and developments in the region. While illuminating, this is also highly complex and those unfamiliar with the Caucaus may at times find it difficult to grasp. As King points out, "the Caucasus has never been one place but many", and he charts the shifting alliances, fluid identities and contrasting ideas that have characterised the region.
Yet in some ways this complexity is exactly the point, and King should be commended for not resorting to easy simplifications; no straightforward explanations are available to make sense of the seeming senselessness, but King's analysis helps point us in the right direction. The history of the Caucasus should not be reduced to reified categories such as ethnicity or to the myths of beauty and barbarism. The Caucasus is not static but evolving and it is, for example, highly significant that identities in a region infamous for its "ethnic conflicts" have always been slippery. As King puts it, "only a century ago ... there were Russian-speaking Buddhists, Orthodox Christians who spoke Chechen, Armenians who considered Turkish their native language".
I would have liked King to have emphasised this point further. Such analysis appears to form the basis of his discussion of contemporary conflict, but it could perhaps have been more explicit: what happened to the fluid identities? Were they made rigid by the violence or did this happen earlier? If the wars were indeed elite-led, then where did this leave the general population? These are, however, only minor points that do not detract from an important and enjoyable book that deserves a wide audience.
The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus
By Charles King. Oxford University Press 320pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780195177756. Published 20 March 2008