“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky
Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.
Banned to the Caucasus
As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.
We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.
The prisoner of the Caucasus
The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.
The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.
“They recall the former days
Of raids that could not be repulsed,
Of the treachery of sly leaders,
Of the blows of their cruel sabers,
And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,
And of the ash of destroyed villages,
And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”
If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.
Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.
*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.
Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus
Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.