5 things to know about North Caucasus

With over 50 ethnic groups, languages and several religions, Caucasus is a land of diversity. Uneasy therefore to summarise it in 5 key points, but describing all the details of Caucasus in its greater complexity would certainly require a PhD programme, so let’s start with a few basics!

I’d like you to know a little more about this beautiful region and its beautiful people; and certainly more than what you’ve probably heard about it in the news in the few past decades.

  1. Massacres, massacres, massacres

At the crossroads of many great empires, the Caucasus has historically always indeed been the theatre of massacres; and the list of those who invaded and destroyed it is endless (Mongols, Persians, Ottomans…).

In the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire settled in the region and stabilised it, using the help and protection of Cossacks to massacre a large amount of the Muslim population.

When Russia turned red and fought to impose a new Socialist ideal to the region, the Cossacks were in turned massacred.

Many North Caucasian people were deported in mass by paranoid Stalin in 1944. Here a memorial to Balkar villages that used to populate this mountain and have all disappeared.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, instability regained the region and a series of massacres and wars took place, with the wars in Chechnya mostly infamous in foreign media.

There are many memorials everywhere, and plans to build more. This stone in Kislovodsk marks where will be a monument to remember the “genocide” (word used) of the Karachaev people.

And it is true that the beautiful lands of Caucasus are scattered with sinister memorials. And if it weren’t for a few of the recent wars and massacres that made big headlines in the news, many people wouldn’t have ever heard about Caucasus.

Most of you will remember the traumatic school siege of Beslan in 2004 that ended in a massacre of over 800 kids and families. The gymnasium where they were held hostages is now a memorial.
  1. Where are the mountains?

When travelling to Caucasus, I expected Balkan-style geography, with hills everywhere, and walking in towns the equivalent of a good cardio work out.

But the towns, roads, and railways in Caucasus were all created at a little distance of the foothills of the mountains, as a means for the Russian Empire to maintain control not just over the mountains but also the valleys.

This map of Kabardino-Balkaria shows clearly how the infrastructure is situated at a distance from the mountains in the North, in flat land.

So most towns are flat; even Grozny, the capital of the Chechens, known to be mountains people. Mountains are not always visible from towns, you may have to drive quite a bit southwards to encounter them.

The statue of Ossetian WWII hero General Pliyev in Vladikavkaz; the Caucasian mountains can be seen in the background!

The mountains however, once you reach them, are well and truly there.

A donkey in the Pyatigorsk hills. Perhaps more an image I was expecting for Caucasus, than these endless Soviet towns on flat land…
Mount Elbrus can be seen from afar and seems so big, it is indeed the highest mountain of Europe. Here on a road somewhere in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic.
  1. Love of their land

I’ve travelled a fair bit in Russia and always been surprised how much Russians tend to forget the beauty of their land: everywhere people seem utterly astonished to see a tourist and I always have to justify my presence. Once reminded though, people can pour their heart out about the beauty of Russia in such romantic way that only Russians can do.

Somewhere in Balkaria.

In Caucasus, there is no need to remind locals of the beauty of their land. They know it, and seeing foreign travellers going a great length to visit their land is no surprise to them. It does make them very proud!

In Caucasus many house roofs are decorated with iron artwork in shapes of stars, flowers, or crescents. Here in Balkaria.

And they will all tell you that their part of Caucasus is the best, of course. Locals in Pyatigorsk insisted I learned this little rhyme:

Кто в Домбае не бывал, тот Кавказа не видал

Who didn’t experience Dombay, hasn’t seen Caucasus!

“Who did not experience Dombay, didn’t see Caucasus”

So I did jump on a bus to Dombay.

In Dombay, over 3000 meter high.
  1. Are we in Russia?

The territories of Caucasus have been dominated by Russians for such a long time that it is only logical that it feels Russian. The streets layouts, the transportation systems, the commercial spaces, everything is organized according to Russian codes. So if you’ve been anywhere in Russia, you can navigate easily in Caucasus.

You’ll see the same sort of stuff as everywhere in Russia, and that includes of course all the Soviet propaganda that’s still standing. Here for example in Vladikavkaz.

Everything is written in two languages (Russian and the local one) but when they meet, strangers address each other in Russian language, making it the language by default. It’s only once they realise that they belong to the same group that they switch to a common language; Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhaz, Balkarian, etc.

Pyatigorsk. A “normal Russian” town, but with Mount Elbrus in the background.
There is a lot of diversity in Caucasus, but occasionally you cross Muslim-dominating areas, and with the mountainous landscape around, it doesn’t feel as Russian anymore. Here in Balkaria.

The only exception perhaps is Chechnya and sometimes in the mountains, where Islam is so dominant and the population not really mixed, so it did feel a little different. When I left Chechnya to go back West, I heard myself say “I’m going back to Russia”.

  1. Political dominance and propaganda

The only way that has been found yet to stabilise such explosive region is strength. And strength, Putin has.

The most obvious evidence of central power is the Soviet propaganda, including Lenin statues. Less common, there is even a statue of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of KGB, in Kislovodsk; you could rarely think of a stronger display of the central power’s domination.

This requires strong evidence of power, as well as propaganda. And propaganda, I have seen a lot. Everywhere posters and slogans, monuments and events, to remind people that they belong to the Russian Federation and this is for their best. (Do check this blog post about the bromance between Kadyrov and Putin for more evidence).

Everywhere in the streets of Kabardino-Balkaria, posters and other propaganda celebrating the 460th anniversary of the “bounds with Russia”. Interesting how the Russian Federation is named “Russia” in perfect continuity with the Empire and with the Soviet State in this case!
60 years ago, a monument was even erected in Nalchik to celebrate what was then the 400th anniversary of the “union” with “Russia”.

I do hope that you once get the chance to experience the region!

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