Imagining Circassia: David Urquhart and the Making of North Caucasus Nationalism, by Charles King

The Russian Review, Volume 66, Issue 2 (April 2007) Pages 238 - 255

Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government and Ion Ratiu Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University, where he also serves as Chairman of the Faculty of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. A native of the Ozark hill country, King studied history and politics at the University of Arkansas and Oxford University, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He is the author of The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford University Press, 2008), The Black Sea: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004), and The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture (Hoover Institution Press, 2000), as well as articles and essays in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, and leading academic journals. He lectures widely on eastern Europe, social violence, and ethnic politics, and has worked with broadcast media including CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC, the History Channel, and MTV.

Imagining Circassia

Peripheral nations attract committed intercessors.  Over the last two centuries, the cause of almost every sizeable cultural group from Central Europe to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond has been taken up by one or another traveler, journalist, adventurer, or ne’er-do-well intent on finding in the often disorganized resistance to imperial rule a germ of national sentiment that might be put to some political use.  T. E. Lawrence is the most famous of these, but there were many others: the eccentric painter Edith Durham, the chief spokeswoman of the Albanian national cause; her rival, the historian R. W. Seton-Watson, the champion of several European nationalities, from Romanians to Slovaks; the amateur linguist Oliver Wardrop, who became an advocate for Georgian independence from both Russians and Bolsheviks; and a bevy of archaeologists, Orientalists, and simple plunderers such as Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein, who helped focus European attention on the lost cultures and strategic significance of the “silk road.”

At once observers and advocates, these activist intellectuals were critical in providing information on otherwise unknown groups on the fringes of European and Eurasian empires. But they also brought with them a clear and often inflated sense of their own importance on the ground.  Many considered themselves to be both interpreters of dispossessed nationalities for the outside world as well as the agents of these nationalities’ cultural enlightenment. They looked on their adopted peoples with a double gaze: a romantic attachment to the simplicity and purity of the “East” and a sense of frustration when romance and reality collided.  Some ascribed to themselves the role of nation-maker.  They imagined themselves as not only advocates for dispossessed nationalities but also as the midwives of national rebirth, calling inchoate nations into existence.  Some of these outsiders—such as Durham or Seton-Watson—are today lauded in the national narratives of those groups whom they aimed to serve, while others are remembered only dimly if at all, forgotten foreigners living out their own quixotic national fantasies on the borderlands of Europe and Asia.

Download the full-text document in PDF format