Category Archives: history

The Udi village of Zinobiani

IMGP0015

House in Zinobiani

In late Febuaruy, we (the Sayat Nova Project) got on a marshutka headed for the town of Kvareli. We’d heard that a small village called Zinobiani just outside the town had a small population of Udi, a Christian people who are descendants of the early Caucasian tribes of Azerbaijan.

To prepare for most of  our recording sessions we’ve been really careful to make as many contacts as possible and to do a lot of research beforehand so we have some idea as to exactly what and who we’re looking for. In this case, we couldn’t make any contacts because no one we asked had ever heard of Zinobiani, or for that matter, the Udi people and although we searched and searched, we found only a few examples of Udi music. So, we decided to wing it and just head out to Zenobiani and see if we could find any musicians.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost everywhere I’ve been in the country of Georgia has been incredibly beautiful. Achara, Kazbegi, Algeti, Gardibani, Kutaisi, you name it. Each region has its own unique landscape, whether its snow capped mountains, tropical forests, rolling green hills, or craggy desert rock formations. But as we sped toward Kvareli in the packed marshutka, the towns and villages we passed looked like shots from a black and white film that couldn’t be kept in focus. To my left and right,  everything was a different shade of grey or brown, each town lifeless and full of fog.

We entered Kvareli but of course didn’t know where to get off. As more and more people exited the van, the driver seemed increasing confused by our continued presence. Our driver, a middle-aged man with graying hair, a puffy black vest, and an abrasive personality questioned us:

“So where are you going? What do you want?”

“We’d like to catch another marshutka to Zinobiani.”

 “Why do you want to go to Zinobiani? There’s nothing there!”

“We’re studying different musicians so we want to go and meet the Udi people who live there and see if they know any songs.”

” Udi people? Me! I’m Udi. Me! I’ll take you there. It’s where my mother lives.”

So we stayed in the van and drove back out of town. Foggy fields to our right, foggy fields to our left. After about 10 minutes, we slowed down, took a right, and stopped on a thin road with a few stone houses on either side. We had reached Zinobiani.

The school in Zinobiani houses a museum (Here’s a great set of photos of it taken by  Georgian photographer Sandro Shanidze). Its dedicated to preserving the Udi language and culture but unfortunately for us, it was closed until May and its director was out of town.  So we had no option but to walk around asking people if they spoke the Udi language and if so, did they know any songs? Unfortunately, our driver did not help.

“Nobody here knows anything! You won’t find anything. You should just go look on the internet.”

The school’s English teacher saw us on the street and brought out a couple of books for us:

IMGP0002

IMGP0001

And the longer we stayed in the street talking to our driver and the English teacher, the more attention we attracted.  A man in a rusty Lada stopped, pulled out his cellphone, and used its distorted little speaker to play us some songs in Udi accompanied by synthesizers (there is a slightly larger population of Udi people living in Azerbaijan and these songs were recorded there).  But it was looking like we weren’t going to find any musicians. Our group of Zinobianians kept growing but no one was aware of any musicians or knew any songs in the Udi language.  Finally, an old woman wearing what looked like a traditional black dress and blue shawl walked up to our group and claimed she knew Udi songs. And of course, true to his role in the story so far, our driver exclaimed:

“You don’t know Udi songs!”

To which she angrily responded :

Of course I do! I’m UDI!

So we asked her name (Olia), told her about our project, and she agreed to sing for us at her home at six that evening. And in the meantime it turned out that, although our driver was a bit heavy handed, he was perfectly happy to take us to his mother’s house and show us how Udi bread is made.

And after getting all our accomadation settled in nearby Kvareli, we returned to Zinobiani that evening. We weren’t sure where Olia lived but assumed that given the size of Zinobiani, it wouldn’t take us to long to find her home. We passed a man burning a large pile of hay on the side of a dirt road and he told us  “keep going straight, then take a left”. At that corner we passed a man chopping wood in his yard and he told us to “go straight and its the last house on the right”. But then he said to us “Ah, you’re the Russian ethnographers! Welcome back.” It turns out that during the Soviet Union some anthropologists had interviewed Olia about Udi folklore. This was in the 70’s.  Forty years ago. Either this man was a little crazy or time passes in a very peculiar way in Zinobiani.

We found Olia’s house, a two story stone building with a muddy yard. She greeted us at the door and we sat down together at her kitchen table at one end of a narrow room. Her sons and grandchildren were sitting around the wood-fire stove at the other end, watching TV next to the stove and talking loudly. (Grandchildren have quickly become The Sayat Nova Project’s worst enemy. We record many elderly musicians and there is nothing worse than when our subject is just about to complete a beautiful, unique piece of music and their grandchildren scream, hit someone, break something, or knock over our equipment, essentially ruining the recording).

Olia was a fantastic host and excellent story teller. She was shy to sing initially and spent almost an hour talking to us about the history of the Udi people, reciting poems, telling folk tales, and explaining different marriage traditions (when an Udi women first enters her new home after being married, she breaks a plate on the floor). She also told us some of her own history, how she had moved to Georgia to be married in Zinobiani when she was young, how she still has some family living in Azerbaijan. Anna is still working to translate our hour long conversation from Russian and I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Eventually, Olia sang two songs for us. We were able to make video and audio recordings but this was a very lively room and they are a bit noisy. Still, we are really happy with the examples. There are an estimated 200 Udi people living in Georgia, all of whom reside in Zinobiani. We hope these aren’t the last examples of Udi songs recorded in Georgia, but given the dwindling population of the town and the decreasing number of people who speak the language, this is a definite possibility. Here’s an audio example a and a couple videos.

 

 

 

And while researching we were able to find this clip of Udi singing:

 

We also discovered that the Udi people play a pivotal role in what Thomas De Wall calls the “History Wars.” In the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, historians on both sides have tried to use their research to make a claim as to “who was there first.”  The Udi people are used by some Azerbaijani historians to explain the presence of Armenian churches and Armenian inscriptions in Karabakh. Here’s an excerpt from Wall’s “The Caucasus”:

“…To mitigate this, a curious theory was launched in the 1960’s by the Azerbaijani historian Zia Bunitov. It centers on the fate of the ancient Christian people, called Caucasian Albanians by the Romans, who mostly lived in what is now Azerbaijain. Only a few fragments of their writing survive. The historical consensus used to be that the Albanians were almost completely assimilated by other local peoples, including the Armenians, from around the tenth century. A tiny ethnic group, the Udi or Udins, mainly concentrated in two villages in northern Azerbaijan and now numbering fewer than ten thousand, appear to be their direct descendants…”

Essentially, Bunitov believes that the Armenian churches in Karabakh are actually Albanian.  One of our project’s aims is to use culture as a way of overcoming conflict, so I don’t want to emphasize the use of the Udi in these “History Wars.” I just find it incredible that the diversity of culture in the Caucasus can be utilized in so many ways, both good and bad. If you are interested in this particular topic, Here is a video that was aired on Azerbaijani television in 1993 explaining this interpretation of the Udi peoples place in the history of the Caucasus.  I should emphasize that we at the Sayat Nova Project do not support or agree with all of the historical interpretations presented in this film, but it contains some footage of Udi folk songs and rituals.

Anyway, here are a few photos from our trip taken in  Zinobiani and Kvareli:

Udi Bread

Udi Bread Shack

Kiln

Kiln

IMGP0006

DSCF1378

DSCF1392DSCF1367DSCF1368DSCF1371DSCF1386

Kvareli's abandoned Theater

Kvareli’s abandoned Theater

IMGP0020DSCF1407DSCF1419IMGP0017DSCF1413

Stefan and  I are heading out to the town of Oni, in Racha in just two days. More updates to come!

– Ben

6 Comments

Filed under history, music, Travel

Guitars of the USSR and the Jolana Special in Azerbaijani Music

During my first trip to Eastern Europe, I found an “Orpheus”  electric guitar leaning against a wall in the basement of a music shop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  Half of its parts were missing and dust was gathering on its sparkly-orange plywood body. I bought it for the equivalent of $20 and carried it around in two pieces in my bag for the rest of my trip. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with discovering, collecting, and playing electric guitars from the Eastern Bloc.  Besides the Orpheus, I’ve bought a 80’s era Tonika while living in St. Petersburg, A “Moni“-style Hungarian model while visiting Budapest, and just recently, at the dry bridge market in central Tbilisi, a Ural Tonika.

This was a particularly significant find for me; the Tonika represents a lot of what  is historically fascinating and strange about Soviet produced electric guitars.  Most noticeably, the shape of the guitar is unlike any other in the world. This wasn’t an accident or the result of a particularly creative guitar designer. The alien shape of this guitar was a result of the direction and specifications of Central Planning. Because this was the first model of electric guitar to ever be made in the USSR, it could not appear to be a copy of a American Strat or Gibson. It had to be a distinctly Soviet production. The direction given to those in charge of the production of the  first Lenigrad Tonikas must have been something like “I don’t care what it looks like, I  just don’t want to recognize it.”

The resulting guitar was indeed something “Soviet.” It was unreasonably heavy and made of cheap wood, with a neck like a carved baseball bat. The guitars were nearly impossible to play, with frets that could cut your hand and intonation that created sounds half and whole steps away from the intended tone. And, just for the sake  of contradiction inherent in just about anything produced in the USSR, the guitars had fairly complex and often very well made pickups.  It was like filming something in high definition that you didn’t want to see up-close. Luckily for musicians in Leningrad, the guitar makers  in Czechoslovakia were doing a fine job of making decent, playable guitars which quickly became the choice of musicians throughout the Soviet Union. This site has a long list of most of the guitars made in Czechoslovakia, including some really strange ones:

Jolana Big Beat, complete with short wave radio

While doing some research on Azerbaijani music, I found a couple of really incredible guitarists playing what seemed like a “modern” take on traditional Azeri music. My personal favorite was Remish. I couldn’t  find much information  in English or that was comprehensible when translated form Azerbaijani, just that he had attended a musical school and was a famous musician still living in Azerbaijan.

Remish

The best thing I found was the following video.

It is more than an hour and a half long. Most people don’t have time to sit around watching hours of footage ripped from an old VHS tape but, luckily for you, I am not most people. To save you some time, here a list of what i think are the best moments. Throughout the whole performance he does amazing things with trills and mimics vocal ornamentation by using bends with the left hand along with bends with the whammy bar. He is also using some heavy analog delay and overdrive. ALSO, his pick grip is identical to that of a tar player which leads me to believe that he studied this instrument as well:

5:20- some great slide guitar played with a glass bottle

10:40- back and forth with a clarinetist

11:30-13:12 ridiculous solo break

17:20- great melody and the tempo picks up

30:00-great one handed tapping and solo section, accordion exchange shortly after

34:00-ridiculous bends

42:40 some intentional bridge noise and another insane ornamentation

48:48-49:15* best part. just watch it.

53:28- nothing’s cooler than play and smoking st the same time

58:26- major and minor 3rd shifts

58:50- tempo change out of nowhere!

1:05:50- surf rock bend and neon sign

1:15:40- more smoking, eating, shredding, money being thrown in his face

These are my favorite parts but all through this performance he is relentless.

I also found a younger Azeri named Elman Namazoglu. Take a good look at his guitar in the video below:

This is the Jolana special- it seems that every famous Azeri guitarist uses this Czechoslovakian model.  This kind of virtuosic performance would of been impossible using a Tonika or Orpheus guitar. Even though western guitars, Strats and Les Pauls, are now available in all of the Caucasus, the Jolana special continues to be the favored model. I’ve found a few schematics of the Jolana Tornado, essentially the same guitar with a few minor changes:

And just in case you had any doubts as to the popularity of the Jolana with Azerbaijani guitarists, I also found this picture of a Jolana with the colors of the national flag painted over the red finish. This guitar is everywhere:

Here is a great post from a fellow Seatte-ite with more videos:

http://moodorgan.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/monsters-of-azeri-guitar-ramish-rehman-memmedli-elman-namazoglu/.

Hopefully I will find some more Soviet guitars to add to my collection (after writing this I desperately want to find a Jolana special). When I do I will be sure to post some more pictures.

– Ben

UPDATE!

A lot has happened since I first posted this article more than a year ago! If you follow the blog, you will know that I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the Caucasus making field recordings as a member of the Sayat Nova Project.  While visiting the city of Quba in north-eastern Azerbaijan I was finally able to get my hands on a Jolana Tornado! Here are a few pictures:

JOLANA TORNADO IMG_2177 IMG_2178

9 Comments

Filed under history, music

Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

I have been working my way through Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea” since I arrived in Georgia. It’s taken me months, mostly due to laziness but partially because Ascherson has the ability to present multiple ideas in a single sentence, each one branching off into a new area of interest that warrants further research ( i.e. youtube and google  searches).

The book begins in the Crimea and tends to move clockwise (with stops in Russia, Abkhazia, and Turkey) but also jumps both geographically and chronologically, discussing the ancient Greek colonies on the Danube and Herodotus’ writings, Polish writers in the Crimea and Turkey before the Russian Revolution, Tatar Mongols and their effects on the genealogy of the peoples of the Black Sea. Its baffling the variety of topics covered in each chapter so I won’t discuss them all- I just want to discuss my favorite topics and post a few links to related articles and videos.

Earlier on, Ascherson discusses Barbarism and this concept’s origins in the works of ancient Greek writers. He writes:” The term ‘Barbarian’ began as an onomatopoeic Greek word about foreign language: the ‘bar-bar babble’ sound of an incomprehensible tongue. ”  He goes on to explain that while the term was initially used in the Illiad  but hadn’t yet obtained a cultural and political meaning. The term was used in reference to the unknown, the others.  The term began to take on a new meaning doing the time of the Persian Wars:

“but in the 5th century BC Athens, above all the Athenian tragedians, constructed a single barbarian world, squeezing people as distinct as the Scythian nomads and Mesopotamian city-dwellers into a single new species, and opposed it to the image of a single and united Hellenic world. All that the Athenian ideology found alien and repulsive was now transferred from the ‘monster’ to the ‘barbarian’….and from this new species were born other oppositions. It was not only the Scythian whose aporia was barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom and settledness. It was the Persian of Asian whose servility, luxuriousness, and cowardice were barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom, self-restraint, and valor.”

The discourse of Barbarianism seeped into the plays and other writings of numerous Greek writers. It was apparently difficult to cram such a diverse number of “non-greeks” into one category but this particular problem was overcome:

“The Scythians and other northe’rn peoples, for example, were supposed to be wild, hard and ferocious, while Persians were perceived as effeminate and undermined by easy living. Never mind! By swerving between two extremes, barbarians were only showing how far away they were from the Greek Ideal of mosotes (measuredness), or from the Greek ethic of nothing-in-excess.”

While this ideology was maintained (and arguably still exists in much of the Western world), the romanticism of the ‘Barbarian’ (and the discovery of Greek/Barbarin hybrids) began to seep into the writings of Greeks who were either banished to outlying colonies of the empire, or those who willing explored these outskirts and catologuged thier interactions. The Stoic Philosopher Dio Chrysotom (I’ve linked the name to his “ecomium on Hair” ) visited the Greek colony of Olbia (in present day Ukraine) in 95 AD and catalogued much of what he saw (a rarity at this point in history).Dio was visiting the city at a time when the ties between the Graeco-Roman world has not been severed but had been gradually fraying. The citizens seemed to be half Scythian and half Hellenic. They wore Scythian clothes and most spoke horrible, outdated Greek. Ascherson describes one of Dio’s interactions with one of the Olbians:

” He (Dio) met a handsome lad on horseback called Callistratus and started a conversation. Callistrus was a real museum piece. He was wearing ‘Barbarian’ trousers and a cape, but on seeing Do he hopped off his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like the other Olbains, he turned out to know Homer by heart and to be immensely proud of it, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. At the age of Eighteen, he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, for his interest in philospy and for his beauty, ‘and he had many lovers’. Dio read this not as some fact about sexual orientation, but as a wonderful survival from a lost age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Greek veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual and spiritual experience. the Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea homosexuality was still the height of fashion”

I especially enjoyed this excerpt because of what it illustrates about cultural hybrid-isms  and the strange ripple effect that comes as a result of larger empires abandoning or losing territory or their control over a population. I’ve read of other instances of the same phenomena, in another book that took me even longer to read (about 6 months). In Rebecca West’s gargantuan book of Yugoslavian travel writing “Black Lamb Grey Falcon,” she describes a scene in which the representatives of Ataturk’s new government in Turkey come to Bosnia to meet with Muslims living in the former Ottoman Empire. Citizens of the town come to the train station dressed in their traditional attire, wearing their Fez and other Eastern dress, and are shocked when the representatives appear, dressed in button down shirts and Western attire–a trend encouraged by Ataturk. Both of these illustrate the way history lingers and transforms in different environments, creating something ultimately new and distinct, but forged from the old and what was once commonplace. It’s a concept I’d like to explore more in the field of ethnomusicology, examining the music of border regions or searching for Ottoman influences in places like Bulgaria and Serbia, or Persian influence on the music of Armenia and Georgia.

I know very little about Polish history and was surprised to find that, even though its shares no borders with it, much of its political and literary history has ties to the Black Sea. Mickiewicz , Poland’s greatest poet, was sent into exile at the age of twenty-four. Odessa is supposedly where he “let himself go,” visiting brothels and describing himself in his poems “as a ‘pasha’ with a harem.” He also had a love affair Karolin Sobanska, a Russian informer and collaborator, who was the wife of the man who essentially served as his parole officer, Jan Witt. It is also where he also wrote his “Crimean Sonnets” of which there are eighteen.  These poems are still widely known and quoted in Poland.

Ascherson also discusses the Sarmatians.  It is an extremely strange, backwards, and contradictory example of class ism. In the sixteenth century, Polish writers started to claim that the Polish people were actually descendants of a tribe Indo-Iranian pastoral nomads called the Sarmatians. Supposedly this was for political reasons, allowing the Polish nation to lay claim to lands to the East.

“But then, in the next hundred years, the Sarmatian myth took an extraordinary, freakish twist of its own……..In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish nobility came to believe that it was they – not the Polish population at large- who were the exclusive descendants of the Sarmatians. ”

This helped to create a kind of caste system in which peasants were believed to be a ancestors of the Sarmatian’s slaves. This ideology also helped promote new forms of fashion:

” The style was also, and famously, about dress and decoration. Here, all of the ironies of Sarmatism were concentrated. By the early eighteenth century, the Polish-Sarmatian noble was a startling, unmistakable figure. He shaved his skull, cultivated long, dropping mustaches and wore a long kontusz caftan held in over his paunch by a sash. His sword would be a curved scimitar, its hilt probably encrusted with gold and jewels. In short, he looked like a Turk – or possibly a Turkified Tatar…..This  neo-Sarmatian outfit was actually the clothing of Poland’s enemies, the oriental gear of Turk and Tatar warriors appropriated by those who boasted that they were the bastion of Catholic and European Christianity against the pagans.”

Ascherson also travels to eastern Turkey, to an area populated by the Lazi people. They are not turkish; The Lazi speak a language that is in some ways similar to Mingrelian and falls into the Kartvelian language group. The Lazi language is at some risk of extinction, partially due to the fact that is had no written alphabet up until the German Scholar Wolfgang Feurstien began sending textbooks with an alphabet he had helped create using his previous linguistic research in the area and with help from Lazi people living in Germany. This attempt to catalog and encourage the usage of this language got him in trouble with the Turkish government. The editor of a Lazuri journal in Istanbul was arrested after its first issue was published. Ascherson details the complexities of being a Lazi and having the option of multiple identities Turkish, Lazi, or some combination of the two. He also talks briefly about a language called Ubykh, which is now extinct. The last speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died in 1992. Dr. George Hewitt, the Caucasian Languages professor at London University, is quoted briefly discussing the need to catalog and encourage the use of all of the smaller Kartvelian languages:

“I regard myself as immensely privileged to have met and worked with Tevfik Esenc, in 1974, and ever since I have not deviated from the belief that it behooves all of us with an interest in the languages of the Caucasus to do all we can to prevent any of the rest suffering the same fate as Ubykh, whether by language-death through accidental or deliberate neglect of by the threat of physical annihilation….”

I found a short documentary called ” Son Sesler” which means “last sounds” in Turkish. It footage of interviews with the last speaker of Ubykh.

There is also this short video of a french linguist describing his lessons with Tevfik Esenc- 2:00 into it he discusses the variety of consonances, of which Ubykh has 84.

And these three topics are a small portion of Neal Ascherson’s book. I could write more but this post is too long already. If read it this far, thanks, I appreciate it.

– Ben

1 Comment

Filed under Books, history, Travel

Sayat Nova Pt. 2 – Alaverdi, Armenia

SANAHIN MONASTARY

This weekend we traveled south of the Georgian border to the small copper mining town of Aleverdi, Armenia. We saw multiple churches, ancient bridges, monasteries, as well as your less typical tourist fare; multiple dead dogs, bee hives, and Soviet-era abandoned gold mining factories. Its a great coincidence, and in no way a result of planning on my part, that on the hills above the town of Aleverdi are the Sanahin Monastery and the Haghpat Monastery. Seeing these two Monasteries turned out to be a good follow up to one of my previous posts. Sanahin Monestary, pictured above, is the place where the poet and musician Sayat Nova trained to become a monk. The Haghpat Monestary is where he served and died. He was killed in 1795  by the invading army of Mohammad Khan Qajar, the Shah of Iran, for refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam. I wrote about him and the movie “The Color of Pomegranates”  in this early post:

https://caucascapades.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/sayat-nova-and-the-color-of-pomegranates/

It turns out that multiple scenes from the movie where filmed at the Haghpat Monestary. After coming back home to Tbilisi, I rewatched Sergei Parajanov’s film and recognized a few shots:

Here’s a photo I took this past Saturday:

And here are a few still shots from “The Color of Pomegranates” :

I also took this photo of Anna cooling off in this fountain outside the Monastery:

And then found this in the movie:

The Church also has a plaque commemorating Sayat Nova:

 Anna translated the Russian portion of the plaque above (and learned some interesting new volcabulary- did you the Russian verb постригать – “to become a monk”, also means “to cut your hair”?)

” 1775-1795 The great Armenian poet and musician Arutyun Sayat Nova was forced to become a monk. He stayed and kept watch in this monastery in the capacity of senior priest. ”

THE COPPER MINE

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town meeting Armenians, all of whom were friendly and even more hospitable than they as a people are renowned for. One woman stopped us as we were walking up to some ruins and made us coffee, gave us treats, talked with us about the financial situation in Armenia and the US, and let me take pictures of all her bee hives:

Another man and his son’s friend made us coffee at their apartment and the younger one taught me to play the Armenian version checkers, a game I still do not completely understand. I lost every time, even though he would switch pieces with me when I was about to lose. They had a music room with a piano and a Saz, which I was very excited to find. This is one of the instruments Sayat Nova was supposed to have played, according to my guide at the Tbilisi Museum of Musical Instruments and Folk Music.

   Finding this instrument was perfect  because a few weeks ago I discovered a short documentary on one of the last Turkish Saz luthiers and have wanting to post it, but had no justifiable reason to until now.

– Ben

1 Comment

Filed under Film, history, music, photo, Travel

Georgian Rough Riders

To Russian authors, explorers, and artists at the turn of the 19th century, the Caucasus symbolized a “New Frontier” and the region was romanticized in a  fashion similar to that of  the “Wild West” in the United States. It turns out that American Cowboys actually borrowed some moves (and fashion tips) from Georgian rough riders who appeared in the U.S. in 1893 as a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling circus. Mislabeled “Cossacks” (most likely done as a publicity move given the Cossacks’ colorful reputation),  the Gurians traveled throughout the country, starting shows by dressing up in traditional chokhas, carrying their weapons and singing. Western historian Dee Brown writes: “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.”

I found some pictures and  biographies of famous Georgian Rough Riders, as well as a short documentary that I’ve posted below.

–    Ben

1 Comment

Filed under history

Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan

Surrender of Shamil, Theodor Horschelt

Imam Shamil was an Avar who heralded from present day Dagestan. He united the traditionally warring North Caucasian tribes in defense against Russian expansionism and led the Caucasian Imamite from 1834-1859. Shamil escaped from the Russians after his forces were defeated in the 80 day seige at Akhoulgo and continued to raise troops from the diverse tribes of the region, waging an Islamist holy war against Russia until his surrender in 1859. At this point, his story takes a strange turn.

The Imam was transported to St. Petersburg, where he was treated as an honored guest of the tsar and before settling on a well-appointed estate outside of Moscow toured the country (“By the will of the Almighty, the Absolute Governor, I have fallen into the hands of unbelievers … the Great Emperor … has settled me here … in a tall spacious house with carpets and all the necessities”), where he was greeted with near fanatical enthusiasm by the Russian public. After 12 years of exile in Russia, he requested and was granted permission by Tsar Alexander II to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he died.

Thomas M. Barrett discusses the significance of Shamil in exile to Russian attitudes towards imperial expansion and developing notions of empire in his article “The Remaking of the Lion of Dagestan: Shamil in Captivity,” writing “the celebration of the capture of Shamil was a mixture of entertainment and imperial boasting, of Romantic infatuation and national pride. Shamil represented the mixing of literary imperialism and state imperialism; he was both a hero of the Russian imagination and a striking example of the fruits of tsarist expansion.”

Imam Shamil’s treatment was a turnaround from the fate of other Caucasian rebels at the hands of the Russian empire, most of whom were either killed outright or sent into solitary exile in one of Russia’s many fortresses or prisons. Rather than strip rebels of their power through literal means or isolation, they began to wage what more resembled a PR campaign. Shamil assisted in the creation of harmonious relations by pledging loyalty to the tsar and repudiating the ongoing efforts of the Caucasian rebels. Bariatinskii, who was Viceroy of the Caucasus under Alexander II, developed a close and cooperative relationship with the former rebel, requesting official statements and dictating many of his political opinions, at least in the public realm. Military personnel were encouraged to visit Shamil and his family on their estate outside of Moscow, where their hosts would greet them in ceremonial dress in this “museum of the East in a Russian provincial town.”

The myth of Shamil proved harder to articulate than Russian authorities must have hoped. Before his capture, he had become a source of fascination in Western Europe, with Thomas Peckett Prest (author of Sweeney Todd)’s serialized story, Schamyl; or the Wild Woman of Circassia. An Original Historical Romance, appearing in London papers, complete with lurid woodcut illustrations. Due to the popularity of Western travel writers accounts of the Caucasus, more was perhaps known about Shamil in the West than in Russia at the time of his capture. Russian authorities hoped that their generous treatment of Shamil in captivity would soften Western attitudes to Russian expansionism in the Caucasus. But his capture and position afterward elicited a mixed response among Russian supporters of the conquest, who feared that Shamil’s new status in the Russian imagination would trivialize Russian exploits in the Caucasus. One anonymous letter writer to a St. Petersburg newspaper expressed outrage at his depiction as a “leader of bandit horseman,” writing:

“Shamil–an autocratic ruler of an enormous expanse of the mountains before whom hundreds of thousands of a warrior population trembled; Shamil–who fought the Russian army for 25 years, more than once getting the upper hand over large divisions led by foreign generals; Shamil–who from poor, wild mountain people has been elevated to the ranks of a university historical personage thanks to his intellect and energy; Shamil–in the understanding of Mr. Author, a leader of bandit horsemen?!?!”

– Anna

Leave a comment

Filed under history