I saw this in a used bookstore and it was so wonderfully obscure that I had to get it. Surprisingly it was actually pretty interesting. Georgia and the caucasus at that time were a meddly of warring factions and intrigue (as they have been throughout history). The general overview is that the Russian principalities had thrown off the yoke of the Tartars and had united to some degree under the duchy of muscovy and now were beginning to dominate the steppe. However as a settled civilisation against nomadic tribes their control was generally weak and the situation there was constantly fluid. Russia couldn’t project power into the wilderness effectively, so its’ control was mostly around rivers and in fortified settlements. At this time Russia had just conquered Astrakhan and was extending its grasp into the Caspian, and so naturally became interested in the Caucasus region.

Two other great powers were also interested. The Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. The Ottomans saw the caucasus as a gateway to the northern steppes and to their holdings in Crimea, as well as a necessary acquisition to secure their hold over the Black Sea. They controlled most of the Armenian and Anatolian side directly and most of the other Caucasian tribes were, at least nominally, their vassals. Many were also inclined towards the Ottomans by shared religion as many of the strategically placed rulers, such as the ruler of Derbent were muslim. Persia also had its interests  in the Caucasus and near its own borders it cultivated its own kaleidoscope of alliances and pseudo-vassals. It also tried to oppose the Ottomans at every step. Though communication, and thus coordination, was often difficult and slow between the Persians and the Russians, they shared many of the same objectives and often supported each other indirectly.

Russia’s main aim in the caucasus at this point was not to project power directly, but merely to keep the passes closed to the Ottomans. If the tribes were friendly and an Ottoman army could march freely through the caucuses it could fall upon Russia’s weakly consolidated conquests of Astrakhan and around the Caspian sea. It could also provide another route to reinforcing its allies in the Crimea. On the other hand, if the tribes were hostile to them, the way would effectively be closed. To force a passage would be to engage in a merciless guerilla war which would make the whole idea uneconomical. Russia then sought to keep the tribes hostile to the Ottomans and ideally in alliance with them, while the Ottomans obviously sought the opposite.

The Caucuses at this point were by no means united. The mountaineous geography had lead to an incredibly fractured political landscape consisting of innumerable tribes constantly engaged in low level warfare and raiding against all their neighbours. In the mountains these tribes were generally nomadic, but in the flatter and more temperate regions agricultural societies and kingdoms had developed which, though small, were often heavily fortified in passes, and difficult to conquer. These more civilised states, however, were generally more favourable to the Ottomans rather than Russia so much of the Russian effort went towards gaining the support of the nomadic tribes who could harry any invading army to destruction.

The general protocol was as follows: Because travel could be so dangerous,and the tribes themselves could be incredibly fickle and rarely respected the sanctity of envoys, before any negotiations begun, hostages would be requested from the tribe and sent to a nearby Russia-aligned settled state. The ambassadors would then procede from their “base camp” in the settled state up into the mountains with a pretty large escort of several hundred men to protect against the ubiquitous brigands. Once they had arrived safely at their designated tribe they would exchange gifts, with the Russians often presenting furs, jewels, or well-crafted armour. In return they would be offered hospitality and then would typically stay for several weeks while the envoys attempted to lure the chiefs and kings towards a Russian Alliance. Often this wasn’t particularly successful as unsurprisingly most of the chiefs seemed more concerned with local matters such as raiding their neighbours than an alliance with the distant Russians (or the Ottomans), and were generally ignorant of the wider geostrategic situation,  but they liked the gifts and the pomp and ceremony of the delegation so they tended to keep them around for a while.

The book follows several such expeditions taken over about 15 years, the first by the amusingly named Prince Semen. The vast majority is translated primary source documents from the Russian archive, which is great. There are a huge number of letters and general  bureaucratic papers in there, which can be extremely interesting at times. They are also bogged down in huge amounts of detail however. The Russian bureaucracy’s letters to the ambassadors tend to be filled with extremely minor specifications of protocol, such as exactly which gifts to give to which people when, which order to talk to chieftains, and who precisely should deliver what letters to whom. As it took about a year to get there, I do wonder how up-to-date the information in those letters was. They were also written in typical official style (of the late 16th century Russian government!) which was a bit offputting at first but you get used to it quickly. Apart from the extreme focus on protocol, the letters to the ambassadors also showed an extremely detailed set of instructions for the  ambassadors to follow about their wider strategy. A typical instructoin would be something like: Go to the allied kingdom of (-/x). Wait there for two weeks. Ask for hostages (nephews and sons of the chief/king) to be sent to you there. If a tribe refuses ignore them and pointedly talk to their rivals. First go to tribe A. Let the prince present an embossed cuirass worth 50 rubles, and the friar present a sable coat worth 12 rubles to the chief. Try to obtain a defensive alliance with Russia and a commitment to closing the pass. If that fails try to convince them to raid their muslim neighbour tribe B. If both fail move on to tribe C, and present … and so on. These instructions were typically sent in incredible detail and spelled out a hgue range of scenarios. Obviously the 16th century Russian bureaucracy wasn’t a huge fan of Aufstragstaktik. (One gets the sense that the Caucasus was much like Siberia became later - a place to send the mostly useless bureaucrats and those whose political star was definitely dimming. I can’t imagine many of the Russian aristocracy would willingly choose to leave Moscow or their estates to go on a long (several years round-trip), dangerous, and unpleasant journey if they had other options. )

The letters the ambassadors sent back to Moscow were generally much more interesting. They contained a huge amoutn of information about the political situation then prevailing as well as information about climate, demography, and general medieval life in a region I personally knew almost nothing about.

As well as the letters, the book has a really delightful introduction exlpaining the strategic situation at the time, listing all the various tribes and their histories (and Roman/Greek names and etymologies)  along with interestign facets of their culture. It also has useful editorial notes on the letters themselves.

Overall I was actually pretty surprised how good this was, considering it was an impulse buy. It wasn’t a page-turner, but it included a huge wealth of historical information which was fascinating. Also, the writer William Edward David Allen has a fascinating biography. He was just one of so many accomplished writers/politicians/intellectuals of the early 20th century. It’s sad that that type has  appeared to have died out now.