Too Much History I

Our Global Partners group was given advanced reading assignments so that we would have sufficient background to understand at least partly what we would be encountering in the Kuban region, far in the south of Russia. These assignments included short stories and short novels by some of the greatest Russian authors, men who had done military service in the Kuban or who had lived there.

The themes were not uplifting: bitter warfare between the mountain peoples and those of the plain, warfare lasting for generations and conducted without restraint. The people of the plain were by and large Russian and Ukrainian, those of the mountains diverse tribal groups, but most importantly the Moslems of Chechnya. The Caucasus mountains are high, without easy passes for travelers or commerce, and inhabited by peoples who have defended themselves against all comers from time immemorial. The local peoples herded sheep, made fine rugs, and sang stories of their heroic deeds in the past.

The Russians approached the region in the 17th century, after driving back the Tatars from their borders, bringing to an end the ancient practice of those steppe peoples of rounding up slaves and booty for sale in the Turkish markets. The Turks came to the rescue of the Tatars, and it was another century before the army of Catherine the Great smashed the Turkish forces and took possession of the Kuban. Meanwhile, tsars had made alliances with the Christians of the Caucasus region, the Georgians and Armenians; also, a new ethnic group had formed on the steppe, the Cossacks, a brotherhood of warriors living in the Ukraine who herded animals, raised wheat, and defended themselves against Turks, Poles and Russians alike. They were a thorn in the side of Russian governments, but the tsars neither wanted to root them out (their military skills were too valuable, nor saw any way to control them. Catherine the Great found the solution: she moved them to the Kuban in 1793, granting them lands on the Taman peninsula, across the straits from the Crimea.

The Kuban looks a lot like central Kansas, and the weather is similar, too. The Cossacks spread out across the flat land, crossed the wide rivers, and ultimately came into contact with the steppe peoples living there. It was like the brief encounters between the Americans and the Native Americans on the Great Plains: quick and decisive. When the Cossacks reached the mountains, they found it harder going: the native peoples came down to take their cattle and horses, but could be attacked only with the greatest difficulty. It required many campaigns by tsarist armies to subdue the mountain folk, and even then success was often only fleeting.

The Cossacks, having learned to appreciate being paid by the tsar (and protected), eventually became the elite cavalry of the Russian army. With grim irony we note that these descendants of runaway serfs made themselves infamous by suppressing peasants and workers who only wanted freedom for themselves. They became especially notorious for their enthusiastic attacks on Jews in the government-sponsored pogroms late in the 19th century, murderous assaults that ultimately led to a massive flight of Jews to the United States and Central Europe. In contrast, the Moslem peoples of the mountains fought back fiercely. Tolstoi and Lermontov were personal witnesses of these wars.

These authors didnít have a clue what to do. Nor has the passage of time made us much wiser. Non-resistance and flight hardly saved the Jews, and those who made their way to Israel have copied the strategy of the Moslems of the Caucasus−God helps those who help themselves. A lot of Old Testament there. But resistance has not saved the Chechens and other minority peoples of the mountains.

You can look to college professors for many things. Information, insights, and a wide range of opinions. But donít expect us to do better than Solomon. He may have been wise, but his state collapsed shortly after his death. We came back from Russia wiser in many ways. We have some insights into economic policy. But we were smart enough not to try to resolve the problems of the Caucasus.