Having been bowled over by Charles King‘s latest book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams—one of the best books about a city I’ve ever read—I’ve moved on to his 2008 The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, and I’ve just come across a brief passage (on p. 83) about the famous rebel Shamil that serves as a nice summary of the difficulty of applying modern ideas of nationality to the Caucasus:
The imam was, if anything, an Avar insofar as he was born in the region of Dagestan controlled by the Avaristani khan. As in much of Dagestan, his language of official communication was Arabic, and it is likely that he used a variety of Turkish, the broad lingua franca of the highlands, in everyday speech. He may have spoken Avar, but there is no evidence that he thought of himself as an Avar in a modern ethnonational sense. He also spent a good deal of his career fighting the hereditary rulers of his native region.
As King keeps pointing out, the notion that there was some kind of unitary “Muslim rebellion” against Russian rule is actively misleading; for one thing, there were plenty of Muslims who had no problem with Russian rule (for example, Kabardians whose princes had been assimilated into the Russian aristocracy) and Christians who fought it. And while of course I would have assumed that Arabic was used in religious study, I was surprised to learn that it served as a language of official communication, and equally surprised that Turkish was “the broad lingua franca of the highlands.”