putin’s list

The manor house at Tsinandali, just outside the city of Telavi in eastern Georgia, is a small masterpiece of local design. Its raised wooden porch wraps around two sides of the brick structure. The roof is supported by pencil-thin columns and carefully mitred Oriental braces. On rainy days, the estate is covered by mist that descends from the Caucasus mountains, leaving the house and gardens adrift in a sea of blurry pines. Today, the manor house is a weekend retreat where tourists can sample the region’s sweet wines and explore the grounds. More than a century ago, however, Tsinandali was the site of what would now be called a terrorist incident, one of the most infamous in Russian history.
    In the summer of 1854, a raiding party loyal to the highland Muslim leader Shamil attacked the estate while the men of the house were away. Its mistress, Anna Chavchavadze, and her sister Varvara Orbeliani, both descendants of the last Georgian king, were spirited away, along with several relatives, servants and half a dozen children. For the next eight months, they were held captive by Shamil in his mountain redoubt. The Georgians were surrendered only with the payment of a substantial ransom and the return of Shamil’s son, who had been taken hostage by the Russian Government many years earlier.
    The captivity of the Georgian princesses was followed closely by the Russian public. It seemed to confirm the view that the highland Caucasus war was a place brimming with zealous Muslims devoted only to serving Allah and seizing Christian women from their beds. The public disgust at Shamil’s behaviour also had repercussions beyond the Russian Empire. Britain and France, soon to be bogged down at Sevastopol, had considered supporting Shamil and other Muslim highlanders as a second front against the Tsar. The Tsinandali raid made that impossible.
    Today, popular images of the Caucasus are not much different from those that were informed by the Tsinandali raid.[…]
    If current trends continue, at some point in the next century Russia will become a Muslim-plurality, perhaps even Muslim-majority, society, a fact that Russian intellectuals, policy-makers, and the Orthodox Church have yet to comprehend. So far, the Russian approach has been to fall back on the policies that defined engagement with its Islamic South in the Imperial period: to keep the Muslim periphery inside Russia but outside Russian consciousness. Today, the peoples of the Caucasus — especially Muslims — are routinely denigrated as thievish and inherently rebellious, blanketed with collective responsibility for everything from organized crime to terrorism, and portrayed as the chief threat to Russia’s internal security and stability. That fear, not just of terrorists but of all Southerners, has played no small role in Putin’s consolidation of power, and the growing chauvinism of Russian society.
    —Charles King, Putin’s list, The Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 2007

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