Book Review by George B. Hewitt | The value of the past: myths, identity and politics in Transcaucasia, by Victor A. Shnirelman

VICTOR A. SHNIRELMAN: The Value of the Past: Myths, Identity and Politics in Transcaucasia. Senri Ethnological Studies 57. v + 465 pp. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology. 2001.

The three wars that scarred the Transcaucasus during both the last years of Soviet rule and the early days of flawed independence consequent upon the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse—and which remain unresolved at the moment of writing (namely those between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabagh, between Georgians and South Ossetians over South Ossetia, and between Georgians and Abkhazians over Abkhazia)—are the focus of this work. However, Shnirelman does not aim, as others have, to present descriptive accounts of the conflicts or to discuss them in relation to the interests of the leading regional powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran). Instead, he prefers to contrast the generally accepted body of basic facts about the history of each contested zone with the various arguments advanced over the decades by local writers and/or historians and/or archaeologists about their own side's past and the relevance of these arguments to the perceived strengthening of their nation's claim to the respective territory. The reader is almost left with the impression that, whether motivated by plain naivety, centrally imposed ideology, or, most chillingly, the (frequently perverse) demands of local patriotism, many authors whose ideas are discussed in the present work have effected a weird transformation whereby creative writers have all too often become the drivers of local historiography, whilst some of the best examples of fiction are to be found in the textbooks penned by professional historians. Spot the parallels between the cases!

The linguistic affiliations of the peoples concerned must be borne in mind: Armenian is a branch of the Indo-European family, possibly joined by Thracian and Phrygian, languages too poorly attested for certainty; Ossetian is also Indo-European, belonging with Scythian and Alan, its presumed ancestor, to the northern branch of Iranian; Azeri belongs to the Turkic family, closely related to Turkish; Georgian is a South Caucasian (Kartvelian) language with a demonstrable relationship to only three congeners (Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan); Abkhaz is a North West Caucasian language, closely related to Circassian and the extinct Ubykh.

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