Changing Planet

Geography in the News: The Caucasus’ Storied Cultural Geography

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner

Geography in the NewsTM and


Among the world’s longest-lived hotspots is the Caucasus region, rivaling only the Balkans as a volatile kettle of violent and rebellious ethnic cultures. Attention is now focused on Chechnya and the Caucasus region because of the ethnicity of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.

The Caucasus mountain chain extends generally east-west between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. These high, rough and rugged mountains are over 400 miles long and 100 miles wide (645 x 161 km.). Isolated valleys separated by high mountains dot the region, providing refuge to the numerous different cultures that sprang up in the region.

Three former Soviet republics located in the Caucasus received their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991-Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim, while Georgia and Armenia are Christian.


Other small autonomous Muslim republics lying along the northern flank of the Caucasus are part of greater Russia and have not been independent in recent history. They are Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Ingushetia and Chechnya have particularly chaffed under czarist, Soviet and now Russian dominance for centuries.

Living among and around the predominantly Muslim populations of these small republics are Christians, many of them Russians and Cossacks. Throughout the 20th Century, the Communist party sent thousands of Russian soldiers and government officials to collectivize private lands and to maintain order over the rebellious Caucasus cultures. The processes of collectivization and Russification solidified many of the minority cultures, particularly when the czarists and Communists were extremely brutal toward the ethnic groups. As an example, in 1944, Josef Stalin had hundreds of Chechens, Ingush, Karachais, Balkars, and Kalmyks hanged or shot and 677,988 deported to Kazakhstan, according to author Anatoly V. Isaenko.

Shortly after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Chechens announced their independence. In 1996, the Chechen army repelled the Russian army. The Russians regrouped and the conflict escalated into a rebel action, with terrorist activity extending all the way to Moscow. In 1999, the Chechen conflict spilled into neighboring Dagestan, with rebels occupying several border towns and villages.

The 2004 school bombing that  occurred in the city of Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania killed more than 336 Russians, half of them children, and was blamed on rebels in neighboring Chechnya.  The focus of the attack was a huge elite Ossetian school, occupied by hundreds of children and parents on the first day of school. This was a terrorist attack, involving heavily armed suicide bombers.

The terrorists were reportedly mostly Islamists (radical Muslims) from Chechnya and Ingushetia, but the fact that terrorists of other nationalities, including Arabs, were accompanying them is an ominous threat. This was an indication that international support among terrorist organizations may have been involved.

The bombing may have been an effort to start a regional war, a catastrophe that could widen the Chechen conflict. The terrorists may have hoped to ignite an ethnic wars between Ossetians and Ingushetians to draw in Muslims from all across the Caucasus. Added to the downings of two Russian domestic airliners in the early 2000s allegedly by suicide bombers, the school bombing left little doubt that the Chechens were a serious threat to the Russian society.

Russian President Vladimir Putin won reelection by promoting a strongman image. The danger was that the Chechen terrorist action would bring a domestic crackdown that could have immersed the Caucasus region in a regional war, exactly what the Chechen rebels appeared to want. That didn’t happen, but rebels from the region soon fanned out across the Middle East, participating in actions against governments in every regional conflict, apparently including Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the countries affected by the 2011Arab Spring and the most recent rebellion in Syria.

Many from the region also fled the violence in the Caucasus region, seeking refuge in more peaceful parts of the world. The family of the two Boston Marathon bombers may have been part of that migration, but it doesn’t explain their terrible alleged actions on Monday, April 15, 2013.

And that is

Geography in the NewsTM .

Geography in the NewsTM

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Prof. Anatoly V. Isaenko is a Cossack from North Ossetia-Alania and former History Chair at North Ossetian State University, a Fulbright grantee at Duke University, a history professor at Appalachian State University and was a co-author of the original GITN article about the Caucasus.

This is a revision of GITN #751 Nightmare in the Caucasus Region, Nov. 5, 2004. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.




Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Jennifer

    “Violent ethnic cultures?” Isn’t that where we are headed as the Left works to divide Americans along racial lines?

  • Tom Adams

    It helps to point out the the Russian invasion of Chechnya started in the 15th century. Islam was adopted shortly thereafter as a means of creating alliances.

    The wars continue…

  • Michael Knowfler

    This just showed up as a top story in the Google news aggregation feed. I can’t understand why. I feel like some liberals are working overtime because the results of this horrific incident didn’t fit their narrative. They were expecting/hoping for a right-wing extremist group and it didn’t pan out that way. Now they got the libtard drones on damage control duty for the next 2 weeks. Good luck with that.

  • Donald Graham

    Human civilisation has to facilitate evolution by starting an international discussion on the rights of minority peoples within a larger state. This issue should be brought before the U.N. so that these minority groups can be enlightened on the pros and cons of living in their own state. It is these peoples’ right to enjoy the sense of self that the dominant groups are enjoying. For our own sake, the human race must stop putting obstacles in the path of the evolution of human rights in our world.

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