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July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
  
19 April 2013
Annie Grunow




A Kisti girl dances a Chechen dance during an exhibition of Chechen-Kisti culture. Kists are ethnic Chechens who have lived in Georgia for several hundred years and inhabit the valley of Pankisi Gorge near the Chechen border. War in Chechnya brought thousands of refugees into the region. (photo: Justyna Mielkikiewicz)

Early reports indicate that the two suspects in the Boston marathon bombing have roots in Chechnya.

Several years ago, we profiled some of the cultures that make up the region:

The Caucasus is a place of imprecise boundaries and identities. The borders dividing its land and its people vary from indiscernible to impenetrable. Diaspora and migration further complicate matters. Its strategic location and valuable resources have made the Caucasus the object of desire for several empires. Accordingly, its many ethnic and linguistic groups have developed strong identities by adapting to change while adhering to tradition.

Broadly speaking, the Caucasus is the size of Spain. Anchored by the Caucasus mountain range, it lies between the Black and Caspian seas, with Russia to the north and Turkey and Iran to the south. Its mountains feature Mount Elbrus, which is located on the Russian side of the Georgian border. It was there that, according to Greek mythology, the gods exiled and chained Prometheus as a punishment for stealing fire. On that mountain, he was tortured every night by an eagle that pecked at his liver. Indigenous Georgian mythology features a similar tale. Mount Ararat, sacred to the Armenians but located across the border in Turkey, lies in the far south of the Caucasus. According to tradition, Noah’s ark rested on its slopes after the great flood. These myths and traditions have helped perpetuate the allure and significance of the Caucasus.

Geographers often divide the region by north and south. Today, the North Caucasus usually refers to the republics of the Russian Federation. These include Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Krasnodar Krai and North Ossetia. The independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are often referred to as the South Caucasus. Distinctions between east and west persist, too. There is a more Persian flavor in the east than the Turkish-influenced west. …

Militant Islam is also an ingredient in current conflicts, notably in Chechnya, where the struggle for independence from Russia has attracted radical Muslim fighters from throughout the world. For the United States and its allies, the geographic proximity of the Caucasus to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf commands attention. …

Most Chechens are Sunni Muslims. There is a large Sufi minority. Chechens have been seeking independence from Russia since the 19th century. A significant diaspora fuels the ongoing conflict. Chechens also share cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties to the predominantly Sufi Kist in Georgia and Ingush in Ingushetia (a Russian republic bordering Chechnya). …

The almost incomprehensible diversity of the Caucasus contributes to its persistent allure and mystery. Historically, the location of the Caucasus at the nexus of Asia and Europe has generated imaginative mythology and romantic exoticism. The struggle of its people to define their distinct identities reveals the complex syncretism that continues to shape these populations and this region.

You can find the full story, Where Europe Meets Asia, in the November 2009 issue of ONE.



Tags: Cultural Identity Russia Georgia Caucasus