Sergei Nikitin reviews ‘High Caucasus’ by Tom Parfitt

19 March 2024

by Sergei Nikitin

Sergei Nikitin reviews High Caucasus by Tom Parfitt [Hard cover £25, 352pp, ISBN-13: 9781472294760, Headline, London, 2023]

High Caucasus by Tom Parfitt, a British journalist, was published in 2023. It would seem there might be little interest now, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in a book about Russia’s ‘haunted hinterland.’ However, I read this book with great interest, almost without stopping. Tom Parfitt’s ‘mountain quest’ is a very timely work by a talented writer.

I have never met Tom in Russia, although I can see our paths crossed, and we may without knowing it have bumped into each other in Vladikavkaz in August 2008, just after Russia’s war with Georgia. Tom, like me in those days, was there meeting refugees from South Ossetia; like me, he traveled to Tskhinval right after the fighting ended. 

But the book as a whole is not about the war that was the first in the chain of Putin’s aggressive attacks on former Soviet republics. Conflicts and gunfire are only a small part of his story. In three hundred pages Tom Parfitt relates in great detail and with great affection his trek from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. The trek, though intermittent, was entirely on foot. Well, perhaps, with a few exceptions, as when the English journalist walking with a backpack along dusty Caucasian roads was detained by siloviki[1] and taken to the police station to elucidate his identity – despite Tom having shown his passport – and to look into the ‘true purpose’ of this suspicious Englishman’s strange journey with a map of the Caucasus made for the Soviet General Staff.

The people Tom encountered on his long journey, including those same siloviki, are the main characters in this fascinating narrative. This is how we meet Abkhazian chekists from the region’s security service: a high-ranking officer – ‘a stout man in his pinstriped suit and pointy-nosed dress shoes’ – zealously interrogates the Englishman (a great piece of luck for the chekist idlers – they caught a ‘spy’!), trying in every possible way to let the foreigner know that he’d be released if only he were to give up his camera. There, in Abkhazia, Tom by chance also meets a young monk, Theophan, full of delusions of grandeur about the Russian people, glorifying both tsars and Stalin. And it should be no surprise – the New Athos monastery is not far from Stalin’s dacha in Miuseri, which Tom also visited. 

The people Tom meets on his way at times display a remarkable knowledge of Britain. The shepherd who gave Tom tea in his hut, declares ‘So, you are an Englishman. Your racehorses are the best in the world.’ Another Caucasian tells Tom that Britain has long since built a radio telescope for tracking UFOs. ‘It’s one of the most famous in the world,’ he adds.

Reading the story of this unusual trek I was often amazed at Tom Parfitt’s daring, bordering on recklessness. I lost count of the number of times random fellow travelers offered him a drink of vodka, and every time (except for one, when Tom was on his way to visit a mosque) he agreed. My life experience as a Russian taught me the hard rule: never drink with strangers. God clearly kept Tom safe on his journey from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

Tom Parfitt’s book has a laconic dedication: For the memorialtsy. And this is very important. Tom recounts his meetings at Memorial’s office in Ingushetia and his visit to the organization’s office in Grozny. Those working for Memorial in the North Caucasus had to be very brave people and did amazingly important work. The Memorial human rights organization is today vilified and closed down by Putin’s authorities. It is banned, as is all human rights work in the country, and many human rights activists, including Natasha Estemirova, have been murdered. Oleg Orlov, the chair of Memorial’s board, is now behind bars and serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a penal colony.

In the book’s Epilogue Tom tells a story about his meeting with Lana Estemirova, Natasha’s daughter. Lana was living in the UK when he met her and, of course, she could not go to Chechnya, although she misses her homeland and hasn’t been to her mother’s grave since 2012. But she said, ‘Be stubborn and live, that’s my philosophy.’ And then she added: ‘I’ll see the end of this regime. I’ll go back to Chechnya. I know it.’

And Tom also promises his little son: ‘Don’t forget, one day we’ll walk together in the High Caucasus.’ 

I do believe Memorial will one day be back in Moscow, Nazran and Grozny, Lana will go to Chechnya and Tom with his family will make another trip to the Caucasus. Perhaps that’ll be a good time for me to go to St Petersburg, too. Tom’s book brings hope. 

[1] Author’s note: Silovik [pl. siloviki] – a person who works for any state organisation authorised to use force against citizens or others.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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