Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory

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9780374528126: Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory

The story of the region, told by an intrepid journalist

Many dire predictions followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, but nowhere have they materialized as dramatically as in the Caucasus: insurrection, civil wars, ethnic conflicts, economic disintegration, and up to two million refugees. Moreover, in the 1990s Russia twice went to war in the Caucasus, and suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a nation so tiny that it could fit into a single district of Moscow.

What is it about the Caucasus that makes the region so restless, so unpredictable, so imbued with heroism but also with fanaticism and pain? In Highlanders, Yo'av Karny offers a better understanding of a region described as a "museum of civilizations," where breathtaking landscapes join with an astounding human diversity. Karny has spent many months among members of some of the smallest ethnic groups on earth, all of them living in the grim shadow of an unhappy empire. But his book is a journey not only to a geographic region but also to darker sides of the human soul, where courage vies with senseless vindictiveness; where honor and duty require people to share the present with long-dead ancestors, some real, some imaginary; and where an ancient way of life is drawing to an end under the combined weight of modernity and intolerance.

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Yo'av Karny's remarkable memoir and historical study Highlanders opens with two telling, and subtle, epigrams. The first, by Lord Byron, states simply, "High Mountains are a feeling." The second, by the French historian Ernest Renan, rejoins, "It is good for everyone to know how to forget."

But in the high mountains of the Caucasus, where ethnic and religious divisions continue to atomize already tiny nations, forgetfulness is a rare thing. Instead, writes Israeli journalist Karny, the "highlanders" nurse memories of long-ago injuries and insults even as their cultures, sometimes numbering only a village's worth of inhabitants, are disappearing, swallowed up by time and the advance of more powerful ethnic and linguistic groups. Such powerful memories fuel conflicts that may at first glance seem nearly incomprehensible to outsiders--notably the long war in Chechnya, which has been raging for hundreds of years, even if it has only recently become a fixture of the news worldwide. Karny's explication of that war is essential for anyone with an interest in current events.

Some of the Caucasus's countries (notably Azerbaijan), Karny writes, show every promise of becoming rich and regionally influential; but most of the region seems condemned to endless bloodshed. It does not have to be so, he suggests, for "extraordinary diversity ... does not necessarily suggest hopeless division." Still, the "law of the mountains" seems to hold little room for clemency--or amnesia. Karny's revealing book tells why. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Yo'av Karny, an Israeli foreign correspondent, has covered conflicts the world over for more than two decades in The Washington Post and The New York Times and on public television and radio.

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