To write a coherent account of the peoples of the Caucasus in 500 pages, even for an author with fluent Russian, is probably impossible. This is especially so when focusing on the Circassians and Chechens, whose languages few foreigners have tried to learn, let alone succeeded in mastering. What Oliver Bullough has in fact done is, first, to relate encounters he has had with various descendants of the Circassians who were expelled from the Caucasus in 1864 and scattered all over the Ottoman Empire, and with Chechens who live in despondent exile in Austria or in terror in Chechnya. Secondly, he has rehashed classic nineteenth-century accounts – more condescending than illuminating – by British travellers (such as J A Longworth and James Stanislaus Bell) in the north-west Caucasus, Russian histories of the conquest of the Caucasus, and some extensive memoirs published by Caucasians in Russia in the 1990s of the genocidal treatment meted out in 1943–4 by Stalin to so-called ‘traitor’ nations of the Caucasus. He has also updated accounts of the Chechen wars and of the Beslan massacre, such as Timothy Phillips’s Beslan, including a properly sceptical account of the show trial of the alleged sole survivor of Beslan’s hostage takers. The encounters are sensitively managed and reported, and, insofar as a Circassian or Chechen will speak frankly and objectively to a foreigner, enlightening. The rehashes of classic travellers’ tales are also useful, for most of these accounts are now bibliographical rarities.
This book has the merits of good journalism: for instance, graphic conversations with survivors of catastrophe. It also has the defects of even the best journalism: despite his long residence in Russia and his travels, Bullough has not mastered his brief. True, he has limited himself to the