When George Kennan set out for the Caucasus in 1870, few if any Americans had explored the highlands of Dagestan, Chechnya and the wild frontiers of imperial Russia. And with good reason. In the nineteenth century, the Caucasus and Central Asia were places of untrammeled brigandage and intermittent rebellion, marked by the rule of unpredictable kings and khans. Foreigners came at their own risk, usually in the form of British and Russian adventurer-spies (or missionaries) who sought to gain intelligence on the other's doings or to foment unrest in the service of their respective empires. Between the Black Sea and western China, a rim of lawlessness separated the czar's dominion and the Raj in India. British and Russian efforts to control this middle ground were immortalized by Rudyard Kipling as the "Great Game." But for Kennan, who was only 25 at the time of his travels, the game was entirely personal: A desk job in Ohio seemed unfathomably tedious, and scribbling fantasy itineraries from a map in a library would inevitably lead to the real thing, a "skirmish with the difficulties of Caucasian exploration."

Kennan–great-uncle of the cold war strategist George Frost Kennan and long-ago contributor to The Nation–left during a time of enormous upheaval at home. The Civil War had just ended. Reconstruction was haltingly unfolding. During the 1870s, the United States turned toward restitching North with South, and as Washington withdrew from the world, the professional caliber of its diplomatic corps fell dramatically (or so Europeans of the time believed). The German leader Otto von Bismarck noted, "A special Providence takes care of fools, drunkards, and the United States." Yet, if America as a whole was retracting into its shell, talented and daring individuals continued to force their way overseas. Kennan's journals, recently collected for the first time, attest to this. They also demonstrate the distinctly American character of his mission. He differs from his British counterparts–Sir Richard Burton and George Nathaniel Curzon, for instance–whose adventures were colored by the grandiose trappings of empire. Kennan wandered off on his own, for his own reasons. He saw himself as a vagabond, "a man who travels without any definite utilitarian aim." Unlike some of his fellow adventurers, he didn't expect "to bring about the millennium," but "to be a simple observer in the great world of God."

The world that Kennan went to observe, however, was far from simple. Much as it is now, the Caucasus of his day was marred by horrendous, internecine violence. While traveling from Dagestan into Chechnya, Kennan observed a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups, but he was overtaken by the cult of militancy and defiance common to so many of them. "Weapons are their delight," he tells us, "and all the money they can earn above what suffices to supply their daily wants is spent for splendid silver-mounted pistols & kinjals"–the ubiquitous curved knife of the Caucasus. The region had just emerged from bloody turmoil. Between 1834 and 1859, the great warlord Shamil led a rebellious Sufi brotherhood of Chechens and Dagestanis in a fierce holy war of resistance against Russian rule, forestalling the czar's hold over the region for twenty-five years. "Men fought against the Russians with the most devoted heroism, believing firmly that if they died fighting the [infidels] they would go at once to Paradise," Kennan notes. "They believed also that God had immutably fixed the date of every man's death and they went into battle with the conviction that if the predetermined day of their death had come, nothing could save them and that if it had not come, nothing could kill them. This fatalism of course made every man a hero."

These insights, among others in this slim volume–elegantly edited by Frith Maier and titled Vagabond Life–serve as a well-timed reminder that history casts a jagged shadow over the Caucasus. Shamil's rebellion may have been brought to heel, but the memory of his bloody insurgency no doubt informed Moscow's policy toward this unruly southern borderland during the 1940s, when the entire Chechen population was banished to Central Asia (ostensibly for fear they would side with the Nazis), and again, fifty years later, when dealing with Chechnya's ruinous, post-Soviet struggle for independence.

In this way, the publication of Kennan's journals fortuitously coincides with a fine reprint of Laurence Kelly's 1978 Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus, a fascinating, literary history of the nineteenth-century author's all-too-brief life, and an additional glance at some of the historical forces that brought about the current bloodshed in Chechnya. Lermontov, much like Pushkin and Tolstoy before him, was a "prisoner of the mountains," a captive of the region's extreme natural beauty, which could so easily transform itself into a panorama of brutality. In the 1840s he fought in the Caucasus and witnessed the carnage. At the age of 18, he described the czar's "search and destroy" approach to crushing the Shamil insurgency:


Old men and babes he slaughters, pitiless,
Young girls and mothers smears with the caress
Of bloody hands; but women of the hills
Are not like women in their souls and wills;
After a kiss, a dagger flashes high,
A Russian reels and falls, and then the cry:
'Comrades, revenge!' and in a moment more
Deserved revenge for death of a murderer
The simple hut that cheered their humble ease
Burns high…


Fast-forward 150 years: Imperial Russia's "search and destroy" missions look like precision bombing when compared with the indiscriminate devastation President Vladimir Putin has used to bludgeon Chechnya into submission–or, for that matter, the haphazard way Chechen rebel commanders have retaliated, as last October's mass hostage-taking at a Moscow theater demonstrated. "Comrades, revenge!" is, of course, the ultimate battle cry of any ethnic conflict, but the Chechen war has descended so far into the logic of the blood feud that one wonders if there can ever be an end to it. Among the rebels, much of the violence is now being carried out by "blood avengers," a term Anna Politkovskaya uses in her new book to describe the "numerous small detachments that became militant in the course of the war to carry out their own and, usually, specific plans of revenge for their killed or missing relatives." Politkovskaya is one of the few journalists to report from Chechnya during the "second war," which began in 1999, and her recent anthology of dispatches illustrates that the most frightening trend in the region is not the expanding reach of militant Islam but what several observant Russians have termed the "Palestinization" of the conflict. The proliferation of suicide attacks in the past year, an increasing number of which have been carried out by female bombers, indicates that Chechnya is slipping into the lowest strata of hopelessness. And without real peace, Politkovskaya notes, rebel fighters will only continue to gain in numbers: "the more people get humiliated and hurt, the more units formed."

Not surprisingly, since 9/11 President Putin has struggled to pry the Chechen secessionist movement from history. Ignoring its nationalist origins, he has argued that Chechen violence is a "link" in the "same chain of acts by international terrorists" who targeted the United States. And Washington has so far given him a pass on this (just as Russia, returning the favor, has chosen not to interfere with recent US troop deployments in Central Asia). True, some militants in Chechnya–such as the late, infamous Khattab–have established ties with global Islamist terror networks. But the crisis in Chechnya ultimately remains local. Putin's 1999 vow to "rub them out in the shithouse" was the magic combination of determination and vulgarity that his electorate, so desperate for order, wanted to hear. However, his sledgehammer approach in the rebellious province has proven disastrous. This fall's "election" in Chechnya, designed to give the war-weary region a veneer of normalcy, was a Kremlin-orchestrated farce. With Russia's presidential elections fast approaching, Putin has made it clear he wants to stand beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner of his own. However, it's hard to think of Chechnya's hand-picked viceroy as anything but another gang leader in the ever subdividing constellation of rebel groups. Meanwhile, the violence grinds on. This year, Chechen suicide bombers have killed more than 150 people. In June, one rebel commander issued a dour warning: "For this summer and autumn we have a lot prepared." Another prominent rebel, Shamil Basayev, has promised a "whirlwind" of carnage; his nineteenth-century namesake would not have put it any differently.

In 1994, when Chechnya exploded into war, British journalist Thomas de Waal was one of the few foreigners who went there to tell about it. Three years ago, along with now-New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall, he released Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, one of the most intimate chronicles of the fighting. Chechnya has by far become the bloodiest of all the splinter regions to have fallen into war since the Soviet Union imploded. But the earliest–and perhaps the most geopolitically significant of these conflicts–was one that developed some 100 miles south of the Chechen border, in a remote set of mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This is where de Waal went to tell his next story, and he has returned with an account that is just as harrowing as the last one.

Black Garden explains how Nagorno-Karabakh evolved into the "tiny knot at the center of a big international security tangle." The conflict began in this blighted region during the late 1980s, tearing through the ossified Soviet system like a fracture ripping into Khrushchev-era concrete. De Waal convincingly illustrates how the ensuing political breakdown marked Communism's final hour in the Kremlin. To a lesser extent, he also shows how the fall of Soviet power gave way to rising Western interests in Caspian Sea petroleum reserves, which again pushed the Karabakh conflict into a larger political arena. To get landlocked Caspian oil to world markets, pipeline routes have had to dogleg around this war zone, at great political and financial expense. And as energy companies strive to make this happen, with a $3 billion pipeline currently under construction, the conflict has festered. Twenty thousand people died in roughly three years of fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and the two sides continue to kill each other in sporadic gunfights across a tense cease-fire line–perhaps the most militarized in all of Europe. Worse still, the war has generated one of modern history's largest refugee crises. More than a million people were displaced from their homes in rival campaigns of ethnic cleansing–all in a cramped span of territory not much more than 400 miles wide.

Once again, the lesson in the Caucasus is that ethnic warfare is as much a contest over history as it is a fight over the present, as much a struggle for identity as it is a mad land grab, as much a game of savvy political operators as it is a clash of popular nationalist sentiments. De Waal expertly traces these different lines of dispute to their tragic focal point: bloodshed and economic ruin. What is less clear from his account, though, is why these things became so hotly contested in the first place, or, on an even deeper level, why fear and hatred corrupted people's worldview so profoundly that neighbors become bitter enemies, and slaughter the only possible way to settle scores. Other journalists–Michael Ignatieff and Philip Gourevitch, to name two–have visited the dark world of communal violence and returned with trenchant examinations of human nature alongside their chronicles of war. De Waal has set out to do something slightly different: to set the historical record straight. The history of the Karabakh conflict has become so obscured by bias and vitriol that a simple clarification of what happened is essential to figuring out how the two sides might find reconciliation. This is Black Garden's primary ambition, and with its cautious balancing of fact and opinion, its firsthand portraits of loss and nationalist frenzy, it deftly achieves this.

His story begins with geography. Nagorno-Karabakh is a wooded region of towering hills and black earth. Throughout modern history it has been situated in western Azerbaijan, but its population has been predominantly Armenian. This demographic twist remains at the heart of the dispute. In 1988, under the banner of glasnost, masses of protesters (at one point, up to a million people) in Soviet Armenia petitioned the Kremlin to transfer the province from Soviet Azerbaijan to their republic. Tensions escalated after anti-Armenian pogroms erupted in Sumgait, an outer district of Baku. Later that year, Armenians more or less expelled, en masse, the Azerbaijanis living in their republic. Azerbaijanis followed in kind, and a failure to resolve the dispute politically led to all-out war in 1991, just months before the Soviet Union fell to pieces. Both sides committed atrocities. During the fighting, Armenian soldiers (many, it seems, recruited from Sumgait exiles) conducted the worst reported massacre, in the Azerbaijani town of Khojali, where several hundred civilians were slaughtered. Armenian forces eventually took control of the entire Nagorno-Karabakh province, as well as large portions of the surrounding area, which in total amounts to 14 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. A cease-fire agreement was finally signed in 1994–the same year, incidentally, that Russian forces invaded Chechnya.

The early 1990s were not the first time Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought each other, though. Before 1922, the advent of Soviet domination in the Caucasus, both sides fell into a bloody cycle of interethnic strife. But, as with the war in Chechnya, it would be too simple to say that Communism merely bottled up old hatreds. The Soviets share blame for these nationalist uprisings. Leaders from Stalin on down manipulated internal borders capriciously, pursued imperialistic "nationalities" policies and allowed clan fiefdoms to flourish. With economic rewards channeled through Moscow, neighboring republics competed for spoils from the center rather than build truly cooperative relationships. This lasted until the bankrupt Soviet ideology became so confused and untenable that extremists were able to peddle nationalism as a viable antidote to the rotting Communist imperium. "An atmosphere was created which became fantastic," a former schoolteacher told de Waal, remembering one of the mass rallies held in Armenia. "I mean it's like when the Pope speaks on St. Peter's Square to the faithful, the true believers…. It was a state very close to that. Everyone loves everyone else. An atmosphere of total warmth." Nationalism offered a sense of unity and purpose that the Leninist ideal could no longer provide, if it ever did–and people threw themselves into it, no matter how destructive the results.

The important question today is: What to do with the "true believers," who continue to hold so much sway? Conflicts like this one don't remain frozen. They continue to do damage, as criminal and political mafias feed and grow off the status quo. Authoritarianism has metastasized in both countries; economic development–at least for the majority in Armenia and Azerbaijan–has atrophied catastrophically. The United States, although increasingly invested in peace negotiations, appears adrift in the region, lacking a coherent strategy. In October, against a backdrop of mass protests, Azerbaijan showcased the former Soviet Union's first dynastic succession when the ailing strongman, Heidar Aliyev, cleared the way for his son, Ilham. "The repression machine is firing all its cylinders," an opposition leader told Azerbaijan's Ekho newspaper, referring to the upsurge in beatings and arrests that accompanied the elections. Not long after ballot boxes were sealed, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–a founding board member of the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce–called Ilham to note his "strong performance at the polls." Days later, as the violence became too significant to ignore, the State Department quietly expressed concern that "problems cast doubt on the credibility of the election results."

It is of no help that Armenia has also experienced a blossoming of despotism. During February's presidential elections, international observers noted that President Robert Kocharian and his supporters committed massive fraud to hold on to power. It is too soon to say whether Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev can agree on Karabakh, although the election-time amplification of hostile rhetoric does not make for a promising start. Certainly, freer and better-functioning societies are more likely to accept, at least in principle, the idea of compromise. But Washington's efforts to nudge these countries toward democracy and a peaceful settlement are often frustrated by countervailing lobby groups: Big Oil (for Azerbaijan) and the Armenian diaspora (for its ethnic kin). Moreover, the war on terrorism has given cover to some perplexing decisions. In a little-noticed gesture after 9/11, George Bush lifted a self-imposed US ban on arms sales to both countries–the equivalent, one might argue, of issuing brass knuckles to boxers still circling in the ring.

Crumpled between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Chechnya, there is another mess, and it is run by Eduard Shevardnadze–known abroad for his role in dismembering the Soviet Union, and known at home for bringing the same kind of dissolution to his corner of the Caucasus. Shevardnadze's realm, Georgia, bears resemblance to its neighbors in that it rapidly fell into war and political chaos after the collapse of Communism. The freeze-dried stability that he has maintained for ten years has never seemed far from thawing into total anarchy again. Many of Georgia's "reforms," if they accomplished anything, appear to have sublimated problems rather than fix them. It's true that bandits don't rule the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, anymore. But banditry in the form of corruption is entirely without bounds. Kidnappings are still prevalent, while electricity isn't. Refugees from unresolved civil wars, most notably from the breakaway Abkhazia region, live in dank and crowded buildings never intended as permanent housing.

"The Caucasus, Georgia, would make a fool out of anyone with the temerity of prediction," writes Wendell Steavenson, a former Time magazine journalist, in Stories I Stole. Washington's decision to put soldiers in Georgia last year might have seemed like a long shot prior to 9/11. The State Department says they were sent to help the shambolic Georgian military combat terrorism. But, given the nature of the training, it's more likely they were deployed to help secure Georgia as a link in Washington's coveted "east-west energy corridor" for shuttling oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to world markets. Georgia is a potential US "regional staging base," as RAND analysts suggest in a study commissioned by the US Army; it could also "provide a limited alternative or supplement if access is denied to or operations restricted from airfields in Turkey"–an eventuality that irked Pentagon planners during the recent war in Iraq.

Ultimately, it will take more than military support to transform the existing Georgia into the one promised in any atlas: a country that controls its territory and that provides basic protections and services to its citizens–in short, a real state. As with Azerbaijan, Georgia's first major power shift is on the horizon; there are many unknowns, including: Who will succeed Shevardnadze? The beginnings of an answer may coalesce after Georgia's parliamentary elections on November 2. And with fewer regional lobbying groups encumbering Washington's ability to set policy, the United States has delivered a tougher message. In September a State Department official announced that US aid to Georgia–more than $1 billion over the past decade–would be cut because it was "not producing results," according to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Two US delegations have since visited Tbilisi to pressure the government into administering fair elections.

More than a century ago, America's presence in this beleaguered region amounted to one vagabond, George Kennan. Today, US involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia has increased dramatically, with more than 2,500 troops deployed from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan. What kind of effect will this concentration of power have on its host countries? Washington's primary interests are energy and security–the familiar story of oil and war–but will that bring much-needed stability and democracy? If the Middle East offers any lessons, policies driven exclusively by security and energy concerns often generate problems that are costly to correct down the line.

Still, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians and Chechens all have a hand in making their region so unlivable. In 1870, George Kennan, observing the way locals treated each other, noted: "The curses of the Caucasus are as bitter and vindictive as its greetings are courteous and kind-hearted." As a place of extremes, the region has attracted adventurous outsiders for centuries. But for those who live there, lack of moderation, tolerance and understanding have made life anything but attractive.