There’s a concept I find myself coming back to again and again–“speciation.” It’s drawn from the vocabulary of evolutionary biology and means, roughly, the process by which new species arise. Speciation occurs when a species must adapt to new circumstances; the more new circumstances, the more new species. Thus one kind of Finch (to take a relevant example) becomes many kinds of Finches when those Finches are compelled to adapt to the circumstances presented by, say, a set of different Islands. To each Island its own Finch. The same process occurs in human history though we don’t really have a name for it (though “ethnogenesis” comes close). When people of one culture spread to many different locales, their cultures “speciate,” that is, become adapted to those new locales and thereby differentiate from the “parent” culture. This process can be very striking in places places where lots of different locales (however defined) are packed into a tiny geographic area.
So it is in the Caucasus. Its geography is remarkably diverse, the result being a plethora of what are (to continue the analogy) separate ecological islands. As people moved from island to island, they speciated: their cultures adapted to local conditions and differentiated. To each island its own culture. This is why the Caucasus, though small, is so remarkably complex: it presents huge variety in a small space. And it is this complexity, together with the fact that the Caucusus stands at the nexus of three major empires (the Persian, Turkish, and Russian), that make its story so complicated. There are just a lot of moving parts in the “system.” Happily, we have Charles King to help us make sense of it all. In The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford, 2008), he draws together the many threads of Caucasian history into one rich, dense, though supple cloth. Much of the considerable beauty of this book is found precisely in Charles’ ability to weave many complicated themes into one easy-to-follow story, and all in artful but not arty prose. This is a book you can read. Charles also pays considerable attention to the imaginary Caucusus, that is, the one that lived in the heads of the Persian, Turkish, and Russia imperialists who dominated the place for centuries, and the one that, at least in my case, continues to lead and mislead today. Suffice it to say that what you think you know about the Caucusus, you probably don’t. So I suggest you pick up this book and let Charles remove the scales from your eyes. It’s an enjoyable experience.
Please become a fan of “New Books in History” on Facebook if you haven’t already.