It was quite an experience in itself to observe everybody’s reaction when I told people I was going to spend my summer in the Northern Caucasus. Everybody around seemed concerned and tried to talk me out of this trip, which I absolutely understood and respected – yet somehow did not want to give in to. Even I myself had some far-fleeting, vague doubts concerning the safety side of the trip. At the same time, I believed, based on what I knew from friends living or coming from the Caucasus, that one should not be misled by the exaggerated stereotypical images in various media, and that the actual situation in the Caucasus is far from incessant fights, gunshots, bombings and all-over violence.
There probably was a mere short moment, as I boarded the plane from Moscow to Grozny, when I suddenly thought: what am I getting myself into? (Which obviously was an act of self-deception since I knew the answer perfectly well, and I knew that nothing on Earth would make me reject the intellectual excitement and, in complete honesty, the adrenaline-filled euphoria of this trip.)
It turned out, I was getting myself into a wonderful adventure, unprecedented in my life. The concerns everybody, myself included, had, were representative of a peculiar phenomenon: that today, more than ever, we are facing numerous stereotypes, which dominate the representation of Caucasus in our minds: terrorism; the notorious peace-stirrers in Moscow, the ‘Caucasian mafia’ etc. When one hears ‘Caucasus’, one inevitably thinks of Beslan, Nord-Ost, and war in Chechnya. At the same time, the romantic but incredibly ‘orientalized’ images of Caucasus as portrayed by Pushkin and Lermontov, the work of Leo Tolstoy contribute to the stereotypical image of the Caucasus.
(Picture by I. Urmanche from the 1981 edition of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Hadji-Murat’.)
And so do the all too-well-known images of Caucasus in Soviet mass culture (think of the movie ‘Mimino’!)
As a result, the actual state of affairs inthe modernCaucasus remains largely unknown, supplanted by a cocktail of various cultural and sociopolitical stereotypes. On the scholarly side, we know almost nothing about the cultural developments in the region; as it comes to literature one has at best heard the names of Alisa Ganieva or German Sadulaev, interesting writers coming from Dagestan and Chechnya respectively yet based on Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Therefore, I wanted to go to the Caucasus myself to get first-hand experience of living (or, rather, staying, for now) in the region, to work with documents that one doesn’t have access to from a cosy office in Harvard, and to see whether Caucasus today is what we imagine it is, or absolutely not. Research-wise, I had quite a broad agenda; the main things I have been interested in this fieldwork trip were national identity in the Caucasus; growth of religious consciousness in the area; the way the social upturns of 1991 have affected contemporary literary process; and, finally, the formation of underground terrorist organizations. The final project I am working towards (presumably, my PhD dissertation) lies at the intersection of these topics, and attempts to shed light on the literary dynamics in the Northern Caucasus.
To say that the trip overcame my expectations would be a dramatic understatement. However grandiose it sounds, the only phrase I can find to characterize this trip would be to say that it opened a whole new world for me. There certainly were many difficulties, small and large, which I encountered while in the Caucasus, but the richness of the material, the amount of things worth looking into, the difference of the universe I dived into, had indeed a mind-blowing effect. I also came to understand that those few names and texts, which reach us here, are only a tip of the iceberg of those exciting developments which take place in the area.
I found a lot of cooperation while doing my research, and I have been able to interview writers, painters, journalists, cultural activists. One interesting feature that really became the highlight of my field trip was the willingness and eagerness of my interviewees to address the vital issues related to the political reputation, and representation of Caucasus
I returned from my journey with an extra suitcase full of books, journals, magazines and manuscripts; and, most importantly, a somewhat better understanding of the region, and a strong desire to map the unknown territories. This blog – largely, although not entirely, be literature-centric, and really on the academic side as it comes to style – will be the place to share my ideas and findings, and to turn my impressions into analytical essays.
(Picture by H. Isaev, ‘Kazenoi Am’ – a stunningly beautiful lake in the Andian Ridge, on the border of Chechnya and Dagestan.)