Although the Caucasus has a long history in literature, almost none of the most celebrated books about the region seem to be written by Caucasians: Tolstoy, Pushkin and more recently Anthony Marra have been the undisputed arbiters of Caucasian fiction. From ancient legends to the supernatural, here are 10 of the best recent books in English translation
Чернова-Деке, Тамара (2008) Немецкие поселения на периферии Российской Империи. Кавказ: взгляд сквозь столетие. Москва: МСНК-Пресс.
‘Монография представляет собой комплексное исследование проблемы становления немецких поселений на Кавказе и соответствующей имперской политики. Основное внимание уделено причинам переселения, образованию выходцами из Вюртемберга колоний в Грузии и специфике их социально-экономической и религиозной жизни, административного и духовного управления колонистами. На основе архивных материалов и законодательства империи, положений Кавказского комитета рассмотрены позиция правительства и действия местной администрации по отношению к колониям, в частности по оказанию поддержки в хозяйственной и социокультурной адаптации швабов, а также – по ликвидации землевладений и недвижимого имущества немецких выходцев в Кавказском наместничестве в годы Первой мировой войны. Затронут вопрос о взаимоотношениях немцев с местным населением.’
It may seem surprising and even outright doubtful at the first glance that the three key works of nineteenth-century Russian literature, set in the Caucasus, seem to be so different yet reveal so much structural similarity in their narrative design. A question which suggests itself, therefore, is whether indeed a common feature of liminality underlies the three works by Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy, or whether reading them in this way is merely tendentious.
I do believe otherwise strongly, and I suggest that discovering the shared quality of liminality in these works really lies at the surface and is justified by several reasons.
Some of the opening paragraphs of Khadzhi-Murat traditionally set the tone for its interpretation as an anti-imperialist text.
Ia nabral bol’shoi buket raznykh tsvetov i shel domoi, kogda zametil v kanave chudnyi malinovyi, v polnom tsvetu, repei togo sorta, kotoryi u nas nazyvaetiia “tatarinom” i kotoryi staratel’no okashivaiut, a kogda on nechaianno skoshen, vykidyvaiut iz sena pokosniki, chtoby ne kolot’ na nego ruk. Mne vzdumalos’ sorvat’ etot repei i polozhit’ ego v seredinu buketa. Ja slez v kanavu i, sognav vpivshegosia v seredinu tsvetka i sladko i vialo zasnuvshego tam mokhnatogo shmelia, prinialsia sryvat’ tsvetok. No jto bylo ochen’ trudno: malo togo chto stebel’ kololsia so vsekh storon, dazhe cherez platok, kotorym ja zavernul ruku, — on byl tak strashno krepok, chto ia bilsia s nim minut piat’, po odnomu razryvaia volokna. Kogda ia, nakonets, otorval tsvetok, stebel’ uzhe byl ves’ v lokhmot’jakh, da i tsvetok uzhe ne kazalsia tak svezh i krasiv. Krome togo, on po svoei grubosti i aliapovatosti ne podkhodil k nezhnym tsvetam buketa. Ia pozhalel, chto naprasno pogubil tsvetok, kotoryi byl khorosh v svoem meste, i brosil ego. “Kakaia, odnako, energiia i sila zhizni, — podumal ia, vspominaia te usiliia, s kotorymi ia otryval tsvetok. — Kak on usilenno zashchishchal i dorogo prodal svoiu zhizn'”.
As ethnography was carving out the truth from the realm of the imagined, and literature made its way through the thorns of Caucasian landscape (or, possibly, the other way around), in parallel, the invisible work of spatial appropriation was taking place over the decades of 1820s to 1840s. While literary devices persisted, and were visible, the positioning in the Caucasus was no less visible but fluent and volatile. By the 1930s the character of the war theatre changed considerably, compared to 1920s. To survive and confront Ermolov’s terror, many of the previously discordant tribes, which used to lead their resistance campaigns each on their own, gradually consolidated into a single entity, which raised its flag in 1929 as the Caucasian Imamate, a theocratic Islamic state. The newly proclaimed state’s declared mission was gazawat, a holy war against the infidels. The rhetoric of gazawat, though, was not confined to matters of belief – it was unequivocally directed against Russia. In other words, the Caucasian gazawat was a struggle for independencу from the Russian Empire, in which Islam started serving a unifying role.
Robert Chenciner, a senior member St. Antony’s College at University of Oxford, and author of Dagestan: Tradition and Survival (Palgrave Macmillan, Caucasus World Series, 1997), reviews Alisa Ganieva’s much-discussed book, The Holiday Mountain.
Walls should be a wonderful construct for this story. The walls visible from outer space are the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall across north Britain, the triple walls of Constantinople, the Sassanian Persian walls of Derbent, and others in Dagestan. In modern times there rose the former Berlin Wall, the West Bank Wall, and the Belfast Wall. So the mythical wall of the title is in rich company.
There probably is no single work about Russian literature and the Caucasus that does not start with or feature Belinskii’s infamous pronouncement of Pushkin ‘inventing’ the Caucasus. Neither do I want to deny myself the pleasure of quoting it:
The grandiose image of the Caucasus with its bellicose inhabitant was recreated for the first time in Russian poetry – and only in Pushkin’s poem did the Russian public become acquainted for the first time with the Caucasus, known long before to Russia as an arena of war.
I have been away for a quite some time but now I am back, and so is the ‘The Caucasus Calling’. While away, I suddenly made a surprising shift from looking at contemporary proceedings to diving back into Russia and Caucasus’ nineteenth-century history. What interested me was the way the Caucasus was portrayed in Russian literature, and what place the land occupied in popular imagination. I focused on some best known narratives and was surprised to see how extensively the seemingly familiar narratives talk about things I thought they do not even mention. What was the general attitude to the Caucasus among nineteenth-century Russian public? How did people imagine this land, exotic and foreign yet ‘conquered’ (indeed?) by the empire? What is there in common between the Caucasus, tricksterdom and liminality? Let’s get straight to the point.
I will attempt to give new narrative interpretations of the the three texts which largely define the tradition of imaginary Caucasus in Russian literature – Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, and Tolstoy’s Khadzhi-Murat. All three texts have evoked a whole host of literary interpretations, which kept changing over time, and to a large degree, it was the political context these works were placed into that had caused so much interpretative controversy.
“We have a good intelligence network in the ranks of these terrorist hordes. This allows is to track the movement of those who are of interest to us. Moreover, it allows us to quickly send those who point the barrel at Russia on an eternal one-way trip,” Kadyrov said.