The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination: Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (part I)

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.

Geroi nashego vremeni title page Kavkazskii plennik title page Khadzhi-Murat oblozhka

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.

I will be looking at the shaping of the narrative of fictionally invented land called ‘the Caucasus’ in Russian cultural imagination, and the way the construction of this narrative is indicative of the gap between the actual political and the imaginary relationship of the Empire and its periphery.

It is no surprise that Caucasus entered Russian literature as a symbol of imperial expansion and grandeur, rather than actual geographical space.[1] From the earliest mentionings of Caucasus in Lomonosov and Derzhavin, through Pushkin and his infamous ‘discovery’[2] of the new world, through Pushkin’s numerous epigones consolidating the Romantic image of the land of savage, noble people, through separate figures both engaged and polemicizing with the newly arisen tradition, and trying to distance themselves from it, like Lermontov and Tolstoy; and further into twentieth and twenty-first centuries – the Caucasus has been perceived and portrayed by many in many different ways. However, two things remained unchanged about these images: the ever-present political undertone; and endowing the space of Caucasus with a set of peculiar qualities implying its distinctive role within Russian culture.

Among the intellectual vectors shaping this phenomenon in Russian literature, the dominant one is certainly that of the gradual unification and merging of the two sides – a process, which has been far from problematic. On many levels, the Caucasus has been Russia’s leverage for defining its own identity, and the land has therefore gotten involved in a complicated intellectual dynamics with a very uneven power balance. Nineteenth century was the intense time of nation-bulding and national self-determination in Russia, with one of the main goals being the specification of Russia’s relationship with Europe and its general position vis-a-vis the conceptual, generic ‘East’ and ‘West’. And here, Caucasus got assigned quite a stretched and varied repertoire of roles. Its function included being Russia’s inferior, savage ‘Orient’, which needed to be civilized; being Russia’s ‘Orient’, whose less civilized presence, with its inherent primordial vigor, would instill some ‘fresh blood’ into Russia, and thus give it advantage over the increasingly decrepit Europe; Russia’s inferior ‘Orient’, exerting corruptive influence over the Empire; one of the arguments to validate Russia’s pretense to Sonderweg; or Russia’s anchorage to define itself against other actors as semi-European, semi-Asian.

These many intellectual vectors, and the way they impose themselves, or are imposed, onto literary texts, will show in the discussion of Pushkin’s, Lermontov’s, and Tolstoy’s work. The importance of looking into it rests on the premise that ‘cultural identities are formed and informed by a nation’s literature.’[3] The paper will thus trace the way the ‘Romantic’ seed, cropped by Pushkin’s poems, grew into the peculiar construction of ‘Orient’ in Russian literary imagination, and the attempts of later fiction to bolster, confront, or refine this image. At this point, it is important to beware falling into non-critical reading: having a warped made-up story overshadow the one that actually inspired it, and have the imperial identity constructed atop of a made-up story, neglecting the original, are not unknown historical praxes (if intentional or spontaneous) recurring in the enterprise of empire-building. Susan Layton, in fact, goes as far as to suggest that literature remained ‘willfully blind to imperial Russian designs on the territory’[4] of the Caucasus. While I do not fully agree with this statement and maintain that it applies to Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy to a variable extent, undoubtedly, the idea of conscious distortion of the factual background should not be ruled out.

Parallel to unification and adjustment of Russia and the Caucasus was the powerful move of the periphery’s resistance, which grew particularly strong in the cultural imagination due to Caucasus’s reputation as a volatile land of freedom-loving, unruly people. And finally, somewhat overshadowed by the captivating resistance narrative is the fact that the reverse process, the process of the center’s ‘absorbtion’ of its periphery, was not an integral one either. I suggest, therefore, that the historical memory related to the protracted Russian campaign in the Caucasus, resulted in seeing this place as belonging to the empire yet never fully incorporated within it. In other words, I argue that Caucasus has become some sort of a liminal space in people’s imagination – a trait which has not been verbally formulated and intellectualized but is distinctly prominent in Russian literature about the Caucasus.

Three interpretative practices and devices underlie my reading of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy in this paper. To talk about the suspended status of Caucasus vis-a-vis the Russian Empire, I widely apply the concepts of liminal space and tricksterdom. ‘Liminality’, an anthropology loanword, refers to the state of in-betweenness, ambiguity characteristic of the middle stage within a ritual. Any ritual action can be divided into three stages. The preliminal rite can be described as symbolic detachment from things previously known, and moving outside the framework of a habitual environment; at this stage the initiand goes through symbolic death. The liminal rite is the transformative stage where the initiand’s identity is effaced and recreated. Finally, the concluding postliminal stage is one where the initiand is re-integrated back into social environment with a new identity and normally with a new status.[5]

Liminality, thus, is the interim stage between the symbolic death and reinstatement; it can be described as a stage where a person going through the ritual is left ‘nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured.’[6] This stage is both destructive and constructive; it serves to erase what one has been and create what one will be; and even though it is designed and conceived as temporal, under certain circumstances, liminal state can turn into a ‘fixed’ state – a situation in which the suspended state in one’s transformation acquires a permanent condition.[7]

A related concept, which proves to give some novel, offbeat insights into the characters of Pushkin’s, Lermontov’s, and Tolstoy’s ‘Caucasian’ works, is that of a trickster figure. The key feature of any ritualistic action is its finitude – the initiand’s warranted ultimate recognition as part of new social order. However, should reintegration fail, one gets locked up in a liminal state – a situation which produces characters known as tricksters. The three important characteristics of trickster are: lack of a home (the trickster is by definition a stray and an outsider), lack of deeply felt human relations, and lack of existential commitments. And while in mythology trickster is someone whose wit and knowledge help him continually circumvent regulations and norms, in the context of liminality this is a precarious figure. Trickster’s safe playspace is the semantic field he belongs to; within a given field, even manipulating and compromising rules and borders is still bound to be part of its semantic structure. However, the danger arises when a trickster attempts to cross the border of the semantic structure within which he functions, or prompt other characters to do so. According to Szakolczai, tricksters are also dangerous because they can act as ‘charismatic leaders’ meaning they can allure others with promise of guidance, and control their ‘flock’. However, since they have been made hollow during the earlier preliminal rite stage, they are in fact nothing more than a mere simulacra of leadership; they trick others, and draw them into risky borderline situations.[8] This does not make them malefactors by default; a trickster can prove to be a tragic character, which falls victim to his own behavior – a situation we will see in Khadzhi-Murat. But it is the substance of such figures (lack of attachments, failure to stick to social orders, functioning above all conditions, rules, or ritual orders), and their urge to circumvent and penetrate borders that are not to be infringed upon, which makes tricksters dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Understanding a given universe within a text as liminal space entails reading the text in a certain way. Lotman’s idea of ‘the special modeling role of space within a text’[9] suggests that the organization and matter of topos lay the basis for non-spatial relations within it and, thus, affect the very narrative structure of the text. For the plot, the primary construction unit is an event, constituted by the ‘shifting of a persona across the borders of a semantic field.’[10] However, not every action constitutes border transgression by itself, as shifts can be made across borders within a given semantic field, on different structural levels. Therefore, to equal an event, an act must occupy a ‘place in the secondary structural semantic field as determined by the type of culture.’[11]

Understanding the significance of the event for the narrative structure, thus, is the link to the text’s spatiotemporal organization. They are interrelated through the plot being ‘organically related to a world picture which provides the scale for determining what constitutes an event and what constitutes a variant of that event communicating nothing new to us.’[12] In the context of liminal space, therefore, we should consider an event such an occurrence where a character transgresses the borders of the liminal state itself, and procceds to the reintegration stage.

In parallel with the analysis of these narrative constructions, I will be continuously mapping the fictional narratives against their historical and ethnographic background in order to see whether their countours align or mismatch. Instances where such ‘calibration’ reveals any semantic gaps between fictional, imaginary narratives, and their underlying parallels, will become particular points of attention; I believe these cleavages to give insights into the impositions, commitments and inner mechanics of the text. At the same time, as these moments of discordance between fictional and real are examined side by side with structures of liminality in the text, openings emerge to talk about the broader issues outlined in this introduction.

[1] See B. Vinogradov. ‘Nachalo kazkazskoi temy v russkoi literature’ in Russkaia literature i Kavkaz (Stavropol: StGPU 1974), p. 21.

[2] See V. Belinskii. ‘Sochineniia Aleksandra Pushkina’, p. 372.

[3] See T. Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, London: 1992), p. 39.

[4] See S. Layton. Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge: 1994), p. 53.

[5] See A. van Gennep. The Rites of Passage (London: 1977), p. 21-23; V. Turner. ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’, in The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca: 1967), p. 47.

[6] See B. Thomassen. ‘Liminality’ in The Encyclopedia of Social Theory (London: 2006), p. 322.

[7] Turner’s idea of ‘fixed’ liminality has been extensively developed by Arpad Szakolczai. See A. Szakolczai. ‘Liminality and Experience: Structuring Transitory Situations and Transformative Events’ in International Political Anthropology, 2 (2009), pp. 141-172; A. Szakolczai. Reflexive Historical Sociology (London: Routledge, 2000), etc.

[8] See A. Szakolczai. ‘Liminality and Experience: Structuring Transitory Situations and Transformative Events’ in International Political Anthropology, 2 (2009), p. 155.

[9] See Y. Lotman. The Structure of the Artistic Text (Ann Arbor: 1977), p. 232.

[10] Ibid, p. 233.

[11] Ibid, p. 233.

[12] Ibid, p. 234.

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