Book of the Week: ‘The Caucasus: An Introduction’ by Thomas de Waal

The Caucasus: An Introduction
By Thomas de Waal
Oxford University Press, 2010

As with Black Garden, de Waal’s magnum opus on the Karabagh issue, The Caucasus is not going to please everybody.

Everybody in the Caucasus, that is.

The book focuses more on the post-Soviet histories of the countries and, in particular, the changes in Azerbaijan and Georgia, including energy politics, the Rose Revolution, as well as the August 2008 war with Russia.

The presentation is balanced and comprehensive, offering a well-rounded overview and some insights into the details of the histories of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, including their territorial disputes, which remain unresolved. The book focuses more on the post-Soviet histories of the countries and, in particular, the changes in Azerbaijan and Georgia, including energy politics, the Rose Revolution, as well as the August 2008 war with Russia.

So, from an Armenian perspective, there may seem to be a lack of coverage, at least in terms of chapters devoted to Armenians outright. But, in fact, the history and involvement of the Armenian people, their relations with Russia and Turkey, as well as with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are dealt with quite adequately in the book.

Typos and grammatical errors notwithstanding, the attempt to discuss the complexities of the Caucasus extends into the usage of a capitalized “Armenian Genocide” in some sections, with simply “genocide” in others, or the term “Transcaucasia” in the chapter on Russia’s relations with the region. De Waal is trying to speak with the voice of all parties and to all parties, and that might seem facetious to the narrow-minded or the overtly nationalist. There is a call in the work for both the people of the region and the world to treat these three countries as just that—a region—considering it a single entity to whatever extent that may be helpful for its development.

Because of this humanitarian and globalist perspective, and because of the fact that de Waal has clearly heard everyone’s side of the story and is trying to re-tell it in its entirety, some of the things he has to say may seem arguable, but again, more from a single point of view, such as an Armenian one. But then, one of the points the book makes is the divergent narratives that the Armenians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis bear; the explicit lamentation of the prevalence of a “zero-sum game mentality” in the region (that is, the gains by one side can only be made with the losses of another) is maintained as an implicit undercurrent throughout the work.

Regardless, there are interesting details presented about the countries and peoples of the South Caucasus which are not often heard. The Caucasus paints an unusual portrait, for example, of Joseph Stalin and his mixed Caucasian-Russian-Marxist-Communist-proletariat identity. The book is clearly well researched, citing academic works and big names familiar to Armenians, such as Richard Hovannisian, Taner Akcam, and Ronald Suny, alongside the up-and-coming and more publicly accessible, such as the Armenian Weekly’s Khatchig Mouradian, and even articles from the Armenian Reporter, together with a host of Georgian, Azerbaijani, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Western sources.

All in all, The Caucasus is a book worth reading, easily capable of being turned into a quick few-hours’ read for a day. It could serve as a very good introduction to today’s Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, helpful material for students, for travelers, or for those residing in any of the Caucasus countries in the medium-to-long term, such as expats or repatriates.

Nareg Seferian is a doctoral student at Virginia Tech's School of Public and International Affairs in the Washington, DC area. After graduating with degrees in classical liberal arts and international affairs, he served for three years on the faculty at the American University of Armenia, designing and running elective undergraduate courses. Nareg has lived, studied and worked in New Delhi, Yerevan, Santa Fe, Boston, Vienna and Istanbul.

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  1. Oh, come on.
    De Waal is in essence a pro-Turk, pro-Azeri Brit.  Don’t be fooled just because he has some nice things to say and appears to be objective.
    We have seen his ilk before. Like who?  Tom Goltz, Hugh Pope, and Douglas Frantz.

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