High Caucasus: A Mountain Quest in Russia’s Haunted Hinterland by Tom Parfitt - review by Nick Holdstock

Nick Holdstock

From Chechnya with Love

High Caucasus: A Mountain Quest in Russia’s Haunted Hinterland

By

Headline 352pp £25
 

One of the lures of travel writing is the possibility of vicariously experiencing places without cost or risk; the downside is that the narrator is a travelling companion you cannot fully escape. Some writers, such as Colin Thubron, try to efface themselves, while others, of the Bill Bryson variety, make themselves the centre of the journey. My general impression is that in publishing these days there’s a bias towards the latter, the reason being that modern readers want a ‘personal story’ as well as to be told about unfamiliar locations.

Tom Parfitt’s High Caucasus is an account of multiple journeys through the North Caucasus, starting at the Black Sea and ending at the Caspian. This mountainous region, which borders Georgia and Azerbaijan, contains many small republics and districts – all of which are governed by Russia to some degree – including Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, and North Ossetia-Alania. From the 1990s up until recently there were major conflicts between Russian forces and various insurgencies in many of these places.

Parfitt’s narrative is very much an example of travel-writing-as-memoir, in which the author’s own life story and reasons for travelling are foregrounded (the journey proper doesn’t start until chapter three). In 2004 Parfitt, a Russia correspondent for The Times, covered the Beslan school siege, in which over three hundred

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