Caucasus

The Role of the Caucasus in Russian Cultural and Intellectual History

(by guest blogger Vitaliy L. Rayz, in collaboration with Martin W. Lewis)

The present GeoCurrents series has focused on the peoples of the Caucasus, examining Russia and Russians only insofar as they have impacted the region. But the Caucasus has played a significant role in the politics of Russia, and in its cultural history as well. The most prominent Russian poets and writers, including Alexander Pushkin, Michael Lermontov, and Lev Tolstoy, traveled through the region and described it in their renowned books. The “cultural exchange,” moreover, went both ways: many members of the Russian elite served, worked, or vacationed in the Caucasus, while quite a few Caucasians made it to the top ranks of Russian society.

Several Georgian nobles, for example, gained fame for their service to the Russian Empire. Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration (“Prince Pyotr”), depicted on the left, a descendant of the Georgian royal family, became one of the most successful Russian generals during Napoleonic wars. In 1812 he led one of the Russian armies fighting the invading French troops. Bagration heroically fought in the bloody battle of Borodino, where he commanded the left wing of the Russian position. After repelling more than half a dozen massive attacks led by the most talented French marshals, Bagration was mortally wounded.

 

As the Russians advanced into the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century, their armies included a number of nobles. For many, service in the North Caucasus—a land of unrelenting war—was itself a form of punishment, entailing exile from the capital. Some Russian nobles serving in the region were actually de-ranked from the officer class and reclassified as ordinary soldiers. Such a penalty could stem from many kinds of misbehavior, ranging from participation in a duel to the holding of “untrustworthy” political views.

Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s best-loved poet, visited the Caucasus twice and described its snow-covered mountains and proud highlanders in poetry and prose. In his famous poem “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” he describes a Russian captive who falls in love with a Circassian girl. “A Journey to Arzrum,” written during his second visit in 1829, provides a detailed account of his trip. In this remarkable work, the ever sharp-witted and discerning Pushkin describes different peoples, their traditions, and their cuisines. He also had sharp words for the relationship between the Russians and the Circassians:

The Circassians hate us. We have pushed them from free pastures; their villages are devastated, whole tribes are exterminated. With every hour they get higher and higher in the mountains and from there launch their raids. Friendship with the “pacified” Circassians is not reliable: they are always ready to help their violent kinsmen.

In order to safely get to Vladikavkaz in what is now North Ossetia-Alania, Pushkin had to join a regular military convoy, protected by infantry, mounted Cossacks, and a cannon. After crossing the formidable Caucasus range, Pushkin was delighted to see the “fair-looking” Georgia. After arriving Tiflis (Tbilisi), he described the city’s inhabitants:

The Georgians are warriors who had proven their courage under our banners… They are in general of cheerful and sociable spirit… The wines from Kakheti and Karabakh are not inferior to some of the Burgudian ones. … In Tiflis the main part of the population is Armenian: in 1825 there were up to 2500 Armenian families… The Georgian families are no more than 1500. The Russians do not consider themselves to be local inhabitants.

On his way to Armenia, Pushkin ran into a gruesome procession, one carrying the body of another famous Russian poet, Alexander Griboedov.  Griboedov had lived in the Caucasus for many years.  Owing to his knowledge of the region, he was sent as a Russian ambassador to Teheran, where he was murdered by a crowd storming the embassy.

In Michael Lermontov’s book A Hero of Our Time, widely considered one the best examples of Russian prose, a St. Petersburg aristocrat named Pechorin travels to the Caucasus. Pechorin undergoes a variety of adventures, dueling in Pyatigorsk, serving in a small fort at the frontier, and even getting involved with a beautiful Circassian girl. He kidnaps the girl, according to the local custom, only to see her killed by an avenging kinsman.

In the late 19th century, Lev Tolstoy published his own work entitled “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” echoing some of the themes deployed earlier by Pushkin. Again, a Russian military man is captured by local insurgents. They keep the unfortunate officer, in hopes of getting a ransom from his family, but he eventually escapes with help from a young daughter of his captor who had taken pity on him. Interestingly, Tolstoy refers to the Chechens as “Tatars”, a term familiar to his Russian readers, based largely on their Muslim faith. Tolstoy had also served as a soldier in the Caucasus, and the story is said to be based on real events. Tolstoy’s final work, the posthumously published Hadji Murat, also takes place in the Caucasus.

The very same themes of the Russian-Caucasian war, captivity, and love between a Caucasian beauty and a Russian hostage are further explored in yet another “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, a 1996 film directed by Sergei Bodrov and based loosely on Lev Tolstoy’s story. This film is set during the First Chechen War and was shot in the mountains of Dagestan, only a short distance away from the then-ongoing battles of that war, giving it an eerie almost-documentary quality.

Quite a few Caucasians numbered among the revolutionaries fighting in the Russian Civil War and serving in the subsequent Communist regime. These figures include: Anastas Mikoyan, a shrewd politician, who managed to survive in the top echelon of the Soviet government from the time of Lenin to that of Brezhnev; the infamous henchman Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police apparatus (NKVD); Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze; the terrorist and master-of-disguise “Kamo” (Semeno Aržakovitš Ter-Petrossian); and, of course, comrade Stalin himself (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili). (As was brilliantly said by one of his Georgian countrymen, Stalin became a murderous tyrant only in Russia; in Georgia he was merely a petty criminal.)

In Soviet times, the Caucasus became the prime attraction for mountain climbers from the western USSR, as the loftier Tian Shan and Pamir were too far away. The Soviet government wanted to train climbers capable of fighting in alpine terrain. In pursuing this goal, it established a number of alpine training camps along the ridge of the Great Caucasus Range. Many intellectuals from Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities in Russia and Ukraine regularly spent a few weeks a year in such camps. In addition to climbing the challenging mountains, they enjoyed relative freedom from the oppressive grip of the regime: on the steep slopes they could freely talk with friends and make decisions independent of the government and the bureaucracy. As the brilliant poet Vladimir Vysotskiy put it, “You trust only in the strength of your hand, in a hammered piton and the hands of a friend and pray that a rope belay will never betray”.

Professional mountaineering instructors supervised the training of the alpinists, and a rigorous system of ranks and examinations ensured that the abilities and experience of a climber would correspond to the difficulty of the climb. Considering the casual disrespect for human life in the Soviet Union, this strict system kept the number of casualties relatively low. Many songs were dedicated to courageous mountaineers, describing beautiful mountains such as Ushba (see picture on the left) and Shhelda. Quoting again from Vysotskiy: “The one thing that can be better than mountains is mountains that nobody has climbed yet”.

Many Soviet intellectuals and other members of the elite who were not interested in mountaineering would still regularly visit the Caucasus.  Most would head for the warm Black Sea coast of Georgia, where they would enjoy authentic Georgian food, fine Georgian wines, and unparalleled hospitality.

Georgian poetry was highly respected by Russian literary figures. The works of the best Georgian poets, Shota Rustaveli, Titsian Tabidze, Ilia Chavchavadze and others, were translated into Russian by the finest Russian masters, including the Nobel-prize winner Boris Pasternak. In the second half of the 20th century, Russian culture came to be influenced by prominent intellectuals and artists with Caucasian roots. The list is long, but a few deserve special mention: the poet Bulat Okudzhava, a revered founder of the “singing poetry” genre (see picture on the left); the famous Abkhazian writer and thinker Fazil Iskander; the celebrated theatre directors Georgiy Tovstonogov and Yevgeny Vakhtangov; the beautiful actress Sofiko Chiaureli; and the talented film director, Georgiy Daneliya, who showed authentic Georgian culture in such films as “Mimino”. These names are recognized by most Russian intellectuals, celebrated as cultural leaders who had helped form their views and beliefs. Current Russian public figures of Caucasian background include the novelist Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) and the famed chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an important leader of the Russian opposition.

On maps of the both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Caucasus appear to be a small and rather insignificant place. In Russian cultural and intellectual history, however, it looms large indeed, having profoundly influencing the development of Russian civilization.

(Translations by Vitaliy Rayz)

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Where Is the Caucasus?

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus For the next two weeks or so, GeoCurrents will examine the Caucasus. This unusually long focus on a particular place derives from several reasons. The Caucasus is one of the most culturally complex and linguistically diverse parts of the world, noted as well for its geopolitical intricacy and intractable conflicts. The region contains three internationally recognized sovereign states (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), three mostly unrecognized self-declared states (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh), and seven internal Russian republics (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Adygea); in addition, Islamist insurgent have declared a virtual “Northern Caucasus Emirate” in the Russian-controlled part of the region. Struggles in the Caucasus have global ramifications, as was made evident in the summer of 2008 when the Russian military triumphed over the U.S-backed government of Georgia. In world historical terms as well, the Caucasus is surprisingly significant. Several Caucasian ethnic groups—particularly the Ossetians, the Circassians, and the Armenians—have played major roles on a vastly wider stage.

Despite the importance of the Caucasus, the region is often overlooked in the international media. When noticed, it is often portrayed as a remote and violence-plagued place, a jumble of mountains situated at the periphery of some other region: the Russian extreme south, the Middle Eastern extreme north, or the European extreme southeast. The region is also often misconstrued. Confusion can be generated by something as simple as replicated place names. As was recently explored in GeoCurrents, the country of Georgia and the U.S. state of Georgia are often mixed-up in web-searches, while the historical Caucasian kingdoms of Iberia and Albania are sometimes taken for the European peninsula and country of the same names. Befuddlement even attaches to the term “Caucasian,” which in some circumstances refers to the peoples and features of the region, yet in others denotes a supposed biological race more generally associated with Europe.

Satellite Image of the Caucasus The peripheralization of the Caucasus, however, is an artifact of conventional ways of dividing the world, not a reflection of the region’s intrinsic position. By changing the frame of reference, the Caucasus is revealed as a key place, one that historically linked the Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins, and, more broadly, the greater Mediterranean world with the Central Asian realm of the Silk Roads. The region may have formidable mountain barriers, but it also contains a broad swath of lower lands sandwiched between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges, which long formed an important trade corridor and is now a major oil-pipeline route. And if one steps back a little further to examine all of Western Eurasia—the zone from Europe to India—the Caucasus appears as a central place. The direct line, or great circle route, from London to Mumbai passes directly through the lowlands of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Map of the Larger Caucasus Eco-RegionDefinitions of the Caucasus vary, although most regionalization schemes encompass the same general area. A maximal Caucasus, visible in the map posted here, stretches from the Kuma–Manych Depression in the north to northeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran in the south. A more common definition excludes much of the northern plains as well as the southern highlands in Turkey and Iran, essentially covering the area bracketed by the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges along with their adjacent lowlands. The Caucasus as a whole is commonly split into two sub-regions: the Ciscaucasus, which encompasses the Russian-controlled area to the north of the main mountain crest, and the Transcaucasus, which takes in the area to the south (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, essentially). Such terminology, however, is rejected by some for perpetuating a Russian imperial perspective, since the Latin word “cis” means “this side of” where “trans” refers to “the other side of.”

Map of Religion in the CaucasisThe Caucasus does not fit comfortably into any of the basic units of global geography. In the conventional continental scheme, the division between Europe and Asia runs along the crest of the Great Caucasus Range, putting the Ciscaucasus in Europe and the Transcaucasus in Asia. Georgians and Armenians, however, often take offense at this definition, preferring a European over an Asian designation for their homelands.* This continental distinction, some argue, inaptly places the region’s mostly Christian southwest in Asia and its mostly Muslim north in Europe. Yet in practice, the standard Europe/Asia divide means little these days, and few people even realize that the European “continent” officially terminates at the crest of the Great Caucasus. Southwestern Asia, moreover, has gradually been written out of Asia and instead placed in the quasi-continent of the Middle East—but the Middle East rarely includes the Caucasian countries.

Where then does one place the Caucasus, if it does not fit into Europe, Asia, or the Middle East? The default option is to group it with Russia.** Spanning the supposed continental divide, Russia is commonly conceptualized as the core of its own world region, one that also includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as well as a few other former Soviet states. This scheme makes a certain amount of sense. The Caucasus was dominated by Russia from the early 1800s to the late 1900s, and its northern swath is still part of the Russian Federation. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Armenians and especially Georgians began to seek regional reassignment, wanting clear differentiation from the Russian realm.

Most Georgians and Armenians would prefer to have their countries grouped with Europe. Although Europe as a supposed continent does not include the Transcaucasus, there is no reason why all or part of the region cannot be slotted into a politically or economically defined Europe. In fact, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan already belong to the Council of Europe. All three are also officially tied to the European Union through its Eastern Partnership (EaP), along with Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. Evidently, leaders of some EU states see the Eastern Partnership as a stepping-stone for actual membership, whereas others hope to avoid such a possibility. Public opinion polling shows that a substantial majority of Armenians want their country to eventually join the European Union, while key politicians in Georgia have expressed a more immediate desire for membership.

The question of where the Caucasian countries should be regionally classified cannot be clearly answered: it is simply not feasible to divide all parts of the world into ideally demarcated, non-overlapping regions. As far as I am concerned, Georgia can simultaneously be regarded as part of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and a Russian-focused region. Certain regional frameworks work better than others for certain issues. But it is also true that some parts of the world do not fit well into any of our standard regions, the Caucasus among them. As a result, it is often best to regard the entire area as forming its own distinctive world region. Doing so helps place the Caucasus on the map of the world, positioning it not as an interstitial zone “between” Europe and Asia or Russia and the Middle East, but rather as an important and fascinating place in its own right.

* See the comments in this About.com geography page, which takes on the question: “Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Asia or Europe?”

** Five of the six leading college-level world regional geography textbooks in the United States, for example, place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the following regions: Russia, the Russian Realm, Russia and the Post-Soviet States, Russia and Its Neighboring Countries, and Russia and the Near Abroad. The sixth text, my own co-authored Diversity Amid Globalization, takes a different strategy, putting Azerbaijan in Central Asia while slotting Armenia and Georgia into a Russian-based region. I have never been happy with this expedient, which divides the Caucasus and tends to offend Armenians and Georgians.

 

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