Although I write a lot about current events, I am by training a historian, so it’s nice sometimes to take a break on this blog from contemporary problems and look instead at times past. I was pleased, therefore, to receive from Pietro Shakarian a copy of Baron August von Haxthausen’s Transcaucasia and the Tribes of the Caucasus, a translation of which has just been republished with an introduction by Pietro and a foreword by Dominic Lieven.
A Westphalian aristocrat, Haxthausen visited Russia in 1843, and on his return to Germany wrote several volumes describing his impressions. These are most famous for having extolled the virtues of the peasant commune, and having thereby exerted a powerful influence on Slavophile and Populist thought in Imperial Russia. This particular volume, however, consists of two different works, Transcaucasia and the much shorter Tribes of the Caucasus, which as their titles suggest focus on parts of the Russian Empire outside of Russia itself, especially Georgia and Armenia.
Haxthausen describes in great detail the countryside through which he passed, the people, their customs, dress, food, villages, social and government structures, irrigation systems, and so on. He recounts local legends; meets Nerses, the head of the Armenian Church; spends time with the great Armenian literary figure Khachatur Abovian; and describes the religious beliefs of the Yazidis. His descriptions do tend a bit towards an outdated sort of racial generalization (Tatars, he says, ‘have quite a passion for stealing’, and so on). On the whole, though, his descriptions of the Caucasian peoples are sympathetic and understanding.
Transcaucasia is quite long – 300 pages. Non-specialists might prefer the shorter Tribes of the Caucasus (70 pages). The book’s main audience is likely to be those studying the history, sociology, and ethnography of nineteenth century Georgia and Armenia. They will find much in it of value.