Saturday, August 25, 2012

Volatile Borderland

Russia is a huge, multi-ethnic country.  I only vaguely grasped this during my time in Russia as a missionary; we sometimes ran into Muslims on the street (incidentally, they were usually much more willing to talk to us for a few minutes than the Russians), we bought watermelons from Azeris, I knew an Armenian missionary and Armenian members of the Church.  The Second Chechen War had a very indirect impact on me because all apartment buildings were put on lock-down for a few hours after the Russian apartment bombings in September 1999.  We walked around the streets of Pskov not knowing much and wondering a little bit about our safety.  Since my mission, I have continued to be intrigued by the many ethnic groups living in Russia, but the romanticism surrounding the Caucasus has also exerted a certain pull, even though it is usually far from the modern-day truth.

Front cover of the book.The collection of essays contained in Volatile Borderland: Russia and the North Caucasus (ISBN: 978-0-9830842-1-1), edited by Glen E. Howard, is an attempt at shedding some light on the movers and shakers of the Russian North Caucasus, what the future holds, and what is driving current reforms, repressions, and realities.  The authors are experts on Russia and the Caucasus, all either professors, journalists, or similarly qualified experts and policy advisors.  Chechnya, Dagestan, Krasnodar, and Sochi and the various peoples that inhabit them are prominent players in the analysis, but exotic-sounding places like Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria also garner significant attention because they form a buffer zone between the explosive and more Islamic eastern North Caucasus and the rest of European Russia.  As with most places in the world where high unemployment, Islamist thought, and rampant corruption have mixed, the North Caucasus is a tinderbox.  The Russian authorities have tried a mixture of ridiculously high federal subsidies and oppressive, totalitarian-style control, which seems to be tenuously holding things under control, but most of the essayists agree that this situation could go at any time.

The book was interesting because it touched on a subject that doesn't normally get a lot of ink.  There were a few differing opinions, but there was a definite trend in the thinking, largely anti-Putin and anti-Russian.  Interestingly, on the few occasions when an author decided to stray into foreign countries' policies or responses to the North Caucasus situation, it was typically anti-Western and definitely anti-United States.  I found the journalists' essays to be the least coherent and least informative.  The scholars' essays were much more well argued and could provide someone with a basis for formulating a policy.  Overall, I was disappointed with the lack of policy and over-abundance of dossiers of North Caucasian officials, most of which was set in the mid-2000s, which is kind of old news by now, with much of what was being discussed having already been overtaken by more current events.  I was also disappointed by the obvious lack of a proofreader that resulted in typos, mis-set type, and other distractions.  If one is interested in the topic, the book will still prove interesting, but is otherwise quite skippable.
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Papa Tom said...

You said "set in the mic-2000;s". I assume you ment the mid 20th century or 1900's since it is now only 2012.

John said...

So, actually I didn't mean either of those.  What I meant was the middle few years (2004–2006, give or take a year) between 2000 and 2009.  In my mind I was thinking one would say, "Mid-1980s," if talking about that decade, so maybe that would work for the first ten years of the 21st century.  I guess it doesn't. :-(