Tolstoy: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (Part IV)

Tolstoy’s Conundrum

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'”.[1]

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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)”