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)