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)”

Book Review: Michael Khodarkovsky. Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus

We all remember Lev Tolstoi’s ‘Khadzhi-Murat’: a tragic story of double loyalties, love, challenged by fidelity and vice versa. Perhaps that would be no exaggeration to say that every reader of ‘Khadzhi-Murat’ must have gone through the same torturing feeling of curiosity and puzzlement trying to uncover the real incentives for Khadhi-Murat’s actions, and understand what this mysterious character really cared about and longed for.
Miсhael Khodarkovsky’s ‘Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus’ gives one the opportunity to do so. Khodarkovsky’s absolutely compelling read focuses on a character very similar to that of Khadzhi-Murat. Semen Atarschikov, of Chechen/Kumyk and Cossack/Nogai descent, is a mysterious figure in the annals of Russia’s North Caucasus quest. Raised as a Chechen, Atarshikov was rooted both in Russian and Chechen cultures, and it was his knowledge of both languages as well as Arabic and Tatar (think of Khadzhi-Murat again) that brought him quick promotion in the Russian army which he joined at the age of sixteen, in 1823 to serve as an interpreter. We come across Atarschikov’s portrait in v.5 of Vasilij Potto’s ‘Kavkazskaia voina: Vremia Paskevicha, ili Bunt Chechni’: Continue reading “Book Review: Michael Khodarkovsky. Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus”