Saturday, August 06, 2011

Black Garden

It was probably during my first week in Russia as a missionary that I first met a Caucasian, but at the time I didn’t know it. I assumed that everyone I met was a Russian. I knew very little, if anything, about ethnicity and even about how citizenship worked. My companion, Elder Hall, and I, would often buy a watermelon from a guy, probably an Azeri, take it home, cut it in half, sit on the balcony and spoon out bite after bite. The balcony was very convenient because we could just spit the seeds out into the so-called yard below. Even by the time I got home from my mission I didn’t know about the many ethnic peoples of the former Soviet Union. I knew most Armenians had names ending in -yan (-ян), but I once asked a guy I bought tickets from on eBay if he was Russian because I noticed that his last name ended in -shvili (-швили). He was kind enough to respond and pointed out that such a suffix indicates a person of Georgian descent. Since then, in part because of the Russian wars in Chechnya that have put the Caucasus, more or less, on the map of more Westerners, I have become more familiar with the people, the customs, and the states of the Caucasus region, or Transcaucasia as it is sometimes called. Since I knew Armenians on my mission and while at BYU, my interest in the region was sparked a little more, and I have tried to learn about it and understand the complexities of the region.

The Caucasus is a complex region because it has traditionally been a bit of a crossroads and its famous mountains have always made it strategically desirable. This situation was the same during the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988–1994 (the uneasy cease-fire has more or less held since then to the present day). Like most anything in the Caucasus, a romantic region shrouded in mountain mystery, the truth about the current strife between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis (and the Turks) is not always easy to come by. Although the war was long over by the time of my mission, I was not alone in knowing nothing about Nagorno-Karabakh, and longtime Caucasus expert and journalist Thomas de Waal tried to solve that problem for people with his 2003 book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (ISBN: 0-8147-1945-7). De Waal’s book is an attempt to acquaint the Western reader with the region, its history, and the modern-day conflict. He focuses on XX-century history, and the reader is acquainted with how Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan came to be. Then, the majority of the books is spent dealing with the details of the Nagorno-Karabakh War. De Waal is meticulous in his presentation of the story of the war from Yerevan, Baku, and Stepanakert. The book concludes with an overview of the negotiations process since 1994 and how they have proved rather fruitless. De Waal, unlike many writers on the subject, offers no faultfinding, finger-pointing, or one-sided calls to action, just a simple overview of a historical subject.

I enjoyed de Waal’s book. It obviously helps that I have an interest in the region and an interest in the former Soviet Union as a hobby, but when the world is faced with many such so-called frozen conflicts (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria), potential candidates for frozen conflicts (Somalia, in my opinion), and regions that have technically ended such conflicts but where violence ever threatens to erupt (Kosovo), one should learn about them and understand them, especially because it seems that the U.S. is the only country with the determination and leadership to deal with these things in any even remotely effective manner. It is very hard to find objective information about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, so de Waal’s work was rather refreshing. He included information from his discussions with top political leaders, military men, and everyday citizens on the streets. Some were full of the over-the-top rhetoric one typically finds when researching the topic; others were more measured in their responses; still others were people who could see past their obvious pain and realize that continued enmity is not a solution to a problem that continues to affect millions of people. In other words, de Waal’s approach was very even handed and as free from bias as one could probably be after coming to know so many people on both sides of the conflict. Or, maybe that’s the point: he is able to be so even handed because he has met so many people on both sides and sees them for what they are — people, brothers and sisters — and not a far-removed, unfeeling, harsh, and cruel enemy.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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