Liminality as Literary Paradigm and Vision: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (part V)

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.

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Lermontov: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (part III)

Lermontov’s Prison and Home

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[1]. 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.

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Pushkin: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (part II)

Pushkin’s Invention

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.[1]

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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. Continue reading “The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination: Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (part I)”