Book Review: Michael Khodarkovsky. Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus

We all remember Lev Tolstoi’s ‘Khadzhi-Murat’: a tragic story of double loyalties, love, challenged by fidelity and vice versa. Perhaps that would be no exaggeration to say that every reader of ‘Khadzhi-Murat’ must have gone through the same torturing feeling of curiosity and puzzlement trying to uncover the real incentives for Khadhi-Murat’s actions, and understand what this mysterious character really cared about and longed for.
Miсhael Khodarkovsky’s ‘Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus’ gives one the opportunity to do so. Khodarkovsky’s absolutely compelling read focuses on a character very similar to that of Khadzhi-Murat. Semen Atarschikov, of Chechen/Kumyk and Cossack/Nogai descent, is a mysterious figure in the annals of Russia’s North Caucasus quest. Raised as a Chechen, Atarshikov was rooted both in Russian and Chechen cultures, and it was his knowledge of both languages as well as Arabic and Tatar (think of Khadzhi-Murat again) that brought him quick promotion in the Russian army which he joined at the age of sixteen, in 1823 to serve as an interpreter. We come across Atarschikov’s portrait in v.5 of Vasilij Potto’s ‘Kavkazskaia voina: Vremia Paskevicha, ili Bunt Chechni’:

Стремясь обеспечить успех, Вельяминов нашел необходимым обратиться к услугам опытного вожака-лазутчика, которому мог бы доверить свои сокровенные планы. Но так как ни одного чеченца он не допускал к себе, то выбор его остановился на уряднике Моздокского казачьего полка Семене Атарщикове, – личности, прошедшей не бесследно в укладе быта нашего линейного казачества. Это был человек известный на левом фланге всем, от мала до велика, – человек, соединявший в себе все достоинства и все недостатки типа, созданного самой жизнью казака-порубежника. Смолоду он имел много кунаков среди немирных чеченцев, якшался с ними, вместе ездил отбивать ногайские табуны, переправлял во время чумы бурки на русскую сторону, вел ожесточенную войну с карантинной стражей, и за свои деяния ему не раз доводилось прогуливаться по “зеленой улице”. Однажды за какую-то чересчур уже крупную шалость, которая в глазах начальства показалась просто изменой, ему пришлось пройти сквозь строй через тысячу человек четыре раза. Но Семен Атарщиков, с его железной натурой, выдержал и это испытание. Быть может, другому давно бы уже быть на виселице, но Атарщикова спасала необыкновенная храбрость, удаль, сметливость и, наконец, та безусловная готовность, с которой он в равной степени бросался и на дурное, и на хорошее рыцарское дело. Когда, в критические минуты жизни, ему грозила петля, он выкупал свою голову, привозя из гор головы каких-нибудь известных разбойников, или оказывал услугу в качестве проводника, так как при своих опасных поездках изучил Чечню лучше любого чеченца. Вот этого-то человека приблизил к себе Вельяминов, доверил ему то, чего не доверял самым близким людям, и Атарщиков провел его отряд из конца в конец, предохранив от потерь и всяких случайностей.

(You can read Vasilii Potto’s ‘Kavkazskaia voina’ here.)

Caught in-between two cultures and seeing violence on both sides, Atarschikov struggles to define his loyalty and identity amidst the sweeping imperial move to suppress the freedom-loving highlanders. He deserts the army to join the highlanders; however, after two months he returns and receives clemency (general Zass personally petitioned for Atarschikov). A year later, though, Atarschikov flees again, this time adopting Islam, marrying a Nogai woman and bying back another deserted Cossack to serve as his valet. It is the latter who kills Atarschikov in 1845 who uses this as an argument when returning to the army to beg for forgiveness.

Atarschikov’s story is set in a rich background of the history of Russian relationship with the North Caucasus. One thing that struck me particularly was a simple fact I haven’t been aware of before: that the spending on Caucasian campaigns comprised up to one-sixth of the imperial budget. This is a fascinating proof of how persistent was Russia to maintain its presence in the Caucasus and how much importance they put onto it.

Parag Khanna suggested that ‘The Caucasus is where un-West begins’[1] – however, I reckon that the Caucasus is precisely (geographically) the place where East actually meets West, with everything they entice, turning the opposition of Orient and Occident from speculative concepts into physical reality. This borderline of the worlds, the space of contesting identities, with many regional and local discourses being in discordance with each other, which make Caucasus ‘an array of contrasting ideas – of liberty and lawlessness, of things both awe-inspiring and awful’ Caucasus has always been the Orthodox Russia’s fortress on the forefront of the Islamic world. So the story of Caucasus is that of ‘Russia’s push to the south, the ensuing conflicts with Persia and the Ottomans, and the enduring resistance of small nationalities caught up in the clash of Eurasia’s empires.’[2] Furthermore, not only is Caucasus the place of geopolitical tensions, with unclear boundaries and territorial claims, the ‘fractured playground of Russian imperialism’[3], as Parag Khanna said, but also a place of clash of various religious and ethnical discourses. The presence of common ‘other’, of the imperial Russia, did not have and have a unifying effect on the many ethnies in the Caucasus, which has led to incessant conflicts between different kins (which are so many that the saying says every valley in the Caucasus has a different language).

These, and many other conflicts and controversies find their place in Khodarkovsky’s book. One can definitely propose a few critical suggestions for ‘Bitter Choices’ – first and foremost, the lack of attention to the figure of Shamil’, which has had a definitive impact on Russian-Caucasian relationship at the time. However, it is by all means a valuable and insightful work which raises many of the questions this blog will further address.

[1] See P. Khanna. The Second World (New York, 2004), p. 47.

[2] See C King. The Ghost of Freedom. A History of the Caucasus (Oxford U. Press, 2010), p. 13.

[3] Khanna, p. 48.

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