Ethnicity and Conflict in the North Caucasus

Culture and History in Maps

The Caucasus Mountains jut abruptly from the narrow strip of land between the Black and Caspian Seas, forming a natural barrier between Europe and Asia. Reaching 18,000 feet of elevation, many of these mountains have been barely explored and never settled, but the passes between others have served as a refuge for hundreds of peoples fleeing Huns, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, and Russians. Even with modern transportation and technology, the mountains have stymied Russian pursuit of separatists, preserved isolated cultures, and provided a hotspot for biodiversity. The borders in the North Caucasus are political, between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and between administrative units of Russia and breakaway provinces of Georgia. They are religious, between Orthodoxy and Islam, and between Sufism and Salafism within Islam. They are cultural, between numerous ethnic groups in the most diverse region of Europe. They are historical, between the great empires of the Ottomans, Persians, and Russians. And lastly they are psychological, as residents are forced to choose between or blend traditional culture and modern technology, Russian rule and a tradition of independence, peaceful protest or violent jihad.

Caucasus Mountains

The Caucasus mountains rise over a deserted valley in Southern Russia

While dozens of empires have fought over and established rule over the Caucasus, it more often served as the home for many smaller, short-lived kingdoms of local ethnic groups who maintained a tenuous balance with their more powerful neighbors. The modern history of the Caucasus begins in the 19th century, when 50 years of war between the Russian Empire and various Caucasian peoples (especially the Circassians) ended with Russian victory in 1864, sparking a massive population transfer and the beginning of a century and a half of Russian rule in the region. While Russian governance brought some modernization and economic development (though it was never as pronounced in the Caucasus as in other parts of Russia), as well as providing improved infrastructure and eventually other services, the conflict between the Islam of the Caucasians and Russian Orthodoxy, the Caucasus' location on the Russo-Ottoman and Russo-Persian frontiers, and the continuing internal conflicts within Russia and the Soviet Union that succeeded it provided fertile ground for resentment and revolt to develop.

Map of the North Caucasus - 1845

A German map of the Caucasus region from 1845, during the Caucasian War.

The constant movement of peoples from around the world through the Caucasus in history and its fragmented terrain have allowed a cultural and linguistic diversity unmatched elsewhere in Europe or the Middle East to flourish in the Caucasus. Over 50 ethnic groups and nearly as many languages are found in the North Caucasus, some of with have no known links to outside tongues. Especially concentrated in Dagestan, this diversity and geographic diffusion of endemic languages makes the Caucasus a linguist's paradise, but also formed a wedge between different ethnic groups and made it more difficult for these peoples to integrate into Russia (though Russian is by now commonly spoken). Some languages are spoken by only a few hundred people, others by millions, yet their longevity testifies to the isolation and cultural pride of the Caucasus' inhabitants.  

Linguistic Map of the North Caucasus

Languages and language families of the Caucasus