North Caucasus Studies? Impediments for the Emergence of a Distinct Area of Study

A review of scholarship on the Russian North Caucasus reveals that there is a large though dispersed body of interdisciplinary work done on this region. While interest in the North Caucasus comes and goes, articles and monographs keep being published featuring original research on the North Caucasus, its native languages and cultures, political processes, history and other dimensions that cut across disciplinary lines. However, this body of work has yet to be organised by summative accounts or around dedicated conferences and institutions. In Europe and North America, there are neither journals nor research centres that specialise exclusively on the North Caucasus. In sum, the North Caucasus studies 'field' - if it can be called that way - is diffused. Research on this Russian region is typically hosted by two broader areas of study: Caucasus studies and, occasionally, Russian studies. In the United Kingdom, those that specialise in the North Caucasus are typically based in departments of Central and Eastern European Studies. I do not suggest that this situation necessarily hinders scholarship on the North Caucasus. However, it does hinder collaboration and contact among researchers working in the region [i].
 
In the following, I argue that there are four difficulties that at least partially explain the diffusion of North Caucasus studies in Europe and North America: the definition of the area, the relevance of the region, language barriers and security concerns.
 
First, the boundaries of the North Caucasus are hard to define. Where to locate the northern end of the Caucasus as a distinct area of cultural/political studies? Andrew Foxall mentions [ii] that this ambiguity is present even in Russia itself. Is the North Caucasus limited to the 'ethnic' republics of Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia-Alania? Or should it also include the neighbouring, Russian-majority districts? It could even be defined up to include all of southern Russia between the Black and Caspian seas. For a potential North Caucasus studies 'field', this lack of definition blurs the boundary between the specificity of the region as an area of study, and, for instance, Russian studies. However, this type of lack of a clear geographic definition has not impeded other regions to become areas of specialised study. For instance, Soviet Studies have evolved into broader areas to include former socialist countries and even China. The trajectory of the journal Europe-Asia Studies (formerly Soviet Studies) illustrates this trend. One could also argue that the region is not large enough to stand as its own 'field'. However, other regions with relatively small populations have dedicated journals and international associations dedicated to their study, such as the Baltic states (about 6 million) [iii].
 
Second, the policy relevance of the region has diminished markedly in the past ten years. Much of the early, post-1991 scholarship on the North Caucasus was connected to the conflict in Chechnya, and with the broader insurgency in the neighbouring republics. This early burst of interest could be seen as reflective of the larger trend in Central Asian studies in the 1990s when the newly independent, former-Soviet republics attracted researchers to conduct fieldwork in that region [iv]. For the North Caucasus, the end of the Chechen wars seems to have marked the end of the period when the region's political arrangement was in flux and open-ended. Consequently, interest in the region is not as widespread as before, when 'big' developments were taking place.
 
Third, area studies are typically associated with language-based scholarship. The native languages of the North Caucasus are considered to be some of the most difficult to learn, due to their relative isolation vis-à-vis other language families. This peculiarity has made the languages of the North Caucasus an object of interest in philology [v], but represents a barrier for other disciplines interested in language-based research on the region. However, due to long-term Russian domination, documents and inter-ethnic communication are both done in Russian, which facilitates some forms of research. This both enables certain forms of research but also contribute to the lack of specificity in North Caucasus studies, subsuming these further into Russian studies. Some universities in Europe have offered North Caucasus languages as part of their postgraduate programmes, but these remain a rarity.
 
Fourth, the security situation throughout the North Caucasus has been an impediment to fieldwork being conducted in the region. Even beyond the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and Dagestan today, the other 'quieter' [vii] republics have seen their share of violence. However, the last few years have seen a drop in violence throughout the North Caucasus. Even some international travel guides such as Lonely Planet [viii] feature some of the North Caucasus republics (albeit they refrain from recommending travel to more unstable ones such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia). Consequently, fieldwork has been carried out in all of the republics, including Dagestan [ix]. Furthermore, there is a small but growing field of inquiry on how to conduct scholarly research in conflict zones, featuring cases such as civil-war era Cote d'Ivoire [x]. 
 
In sum, a lack of clear geographic determination, policy relevance, language scholarship and safety assurances for researchers doing fieldwork have been among the impediments for the emergence of the North Caucasus as a distinct region for area studies. While none of these is impossible to overcome, they have made access to the region more difficult. A possible solution to these obstacles could be a deeper, more institutionalised collaboration of Western universities with North Caucasus institutions in interdisciplinary research and training. 
 
 
References
 
i. The same cannot be said of Russia, or at least not entirely. Inside the Russian Federation, there are some study centres that specialise in the North Caucasus from an interdisciplinary perspective, or even in its sub-regions. Also, there are a number of journals entirely or partially dedicated to the study of the Russian Caucasus from various disciplines. However, these cases are few. Other Russian centres that address the region are mostly in the fields of linguistics and philology. 
ii. Foxall, Andrew (2015), Ethnic Relations in Post-Soviet Russia. Russians and non-Russians in the North Caucasus. London: Routledge, p. 8.
iii. This is, namely, the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, which does feature scholarship on the broader Baltic sea region too.
iv. See, for instance, Johnson, E. C. (1994), “Central Asian Studies in American Academia”, Islamic Studies, 33:2/3: pp. 393-396.
v. See, for instance, Jaimoukha, Amjad (2001), The Circassians: A Handbook. New York: Palgrave, pp. 17-18.
vii. The phrase 'quiet conflicts' was notably used to describe political conflict in Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. See Kazenin, K. (2009), Тихие Конфликты на Северном Кавказе. Moscow: Regnum.
viii. Richmond, S., et al (2018), Russia Travel Guide. Lonely Planet, pp. 398-410.
ix. Ratelle, J.-F. (2013), Radical Islam and the Chechen War Spillover: A Political Ethnographic Reassessment of the Upsurge of Violence in the North Caucasus since 2009. Doctoral thesis, University of Ottawa, chapter 6.
x. Bonfoh, B., et al (2011), “Research in a war zone”, Nature, 474: 569–571 URL=https://www. nature.com/articles/474569a (accessed on 1/04/2019).
 
 
Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz is a doctoral student at the University of Tartu, Estonia. His research interests are Russian foreign policy and the North Caucasus. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. @IvanUlisesKK
 
 
 

Tags: North Caucasus, Area Studies

BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding

 

British International Studies Association
 
Email: office@bisa.ac.uk
Charity No:1151260
Company no: 8422260
Registered office: C/O Francis Grey Chartered accountants, Ty Madog, 32 Queens Road, Aberystwyth UK