Review: The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen


Book Reviews, Photobooks


One of the defining features of the North Caucasus is the bewildering number of ethnic groups living and often fighting there (see this map of ethnolinguistic groups). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the pressure cooker’s lid has finally completely come off, with new nations and/or territories emerging, some of them internationally recognized, many others not. As a matter of fact, the sheer number of wars and mini-wars that have engulfed parts of the North Caucasus over the past twenty years make the Balkan look tame in comparison. Imagine something like the Kosovo conflict in more than one place, with new mini-states immediately fracturing up into multiple parts, and you get an idea of the problem.

Needless to say, to stage the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just across the mountains from such a region - beset by violence and filled with various terrorist groups - seems like an utter folly, and that ignores that fact that the city is a resort town most well-known for its beaches and sunshine. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, a photographer and writer, respectively, have been covering Sochi and the North Caucasus for a few years now. The Sochi Project, an endeavour in part funded by donors, has resulted in a series of publications, some of which were reviewed on this site.

The latest publication, The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova, is now available. The book might well be the Sochi Project’s most ambitious so far, in terms of the scope of its content. Using the personal story of Khava Gaisanova, a woman whose husband disappeared without trace a few years ago, the book tells the story of the North Caucasus and its many ethnicities, starting with Tsarist Russia’s earliest advances into the region all the way up to today. This includes the two wars in Chechnya, with its Stalingradesque destruction of Grozny and its bouts of violence reminiscent more of medieval than of even 20th Century wars. It also includes ethnic cleanings and deportations initiated by Stalin in the 1940s.

As enlightening as it is, The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova often makes for an utterly depressing read. Violence, murder and mayhem are always just around the corner; and the stories told by Khava Gaisanova or many other people are heart breaking. With so much story, so much information contained in its pages, the book (thankfully) shies away from being a glossy photobook, a production one might enjoy for its materials. As is always the case with Sochi Project book, it’s a well-designed, well-conceptualized object. But it’s using newsprint, which takes a lot away from the images, purposefully so, to not have them overwhelm the text.

Who knows what will happen next year, when the Winter Olympics hit Sochi. And who knows what will continue to happen in the North Caucasus. For anyone interested in finding out more about the region, in a succinct and very much accessible way, The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova is a must. And for the history of the photobook, here is another example where form follows function, where Dutch photobook making shows how it should be done.

Truly excellent, highly recommended.

The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova; photographs by Rob Hornstra; writing by Arnold van Bruggen; 352 pages + 32 page insert; The Sochi Project; 2013