Russian Ghost Stories

img_0648Now that the evenings are getting longer again, it’s the perfect time to read ghost stories. And there were plenty of ghosts, witches and other scary things around in 19th century Russian literature! With the greatest pleasure I emptied my book shelves and (re)read some, in fact most, of the following examples.

Pushkin

Pushkin‘s Queen of Spades (1833) is without a doubt the best known Russian ghost story. It is also the best, even if it’s not the scariest. Written in a masterly way, Pushkin gradually builds up the tension. The young officer Hermann wants to extract a secret from an old Countess. It’s a combination of cards that will guarantee you to win at Faro, a betting cards game. The Countess, however, doesn’t just give away her secret… A story as fresh as if it was written yesterday and highly readable any day of the year.

Lermontov

And what to think of Lermontov’s Shtoss (1841)? Shtoss is a cards game similar to Faro. The hero Lugin keeps hearing a voice in his head repeating an address in St Petersburg. A friend advises him to investigate, and the address exists and is up for rent. He moves in, but it turns out there lives a ghost who likes to play Shtoss… The story ends with an open question and it is unclear whether the story is finished or not, and whether Lermontov was serious about it or not. In any case, Lermontov died shortly after writing it.

A.K. Tolstoy

A.K. Tolstoy, a remote cousin from Leo, wrote several classic horror stories. The Vampire was published in 1841 as well, under the nom de plume Krasnorogsky. This highly entertaining and original novella features a female vampire: an old woman who is after the blood of her (obviously attractive) granddaughter. The hero of the story, Runevsky, tries to protect her from her loving grandmother. Elegantly written horror with a healthy dose of humour.

Gogol

And that brings us to Gogol: the writer who knew all about (Little) Russia’s legends and superstitions. They feature in many of his stories, particularly in those from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and Mirgorod. Gogol had a vivid imagination and the coffins and witches almost fly off the pages. His heroes are not in the least surprised; they do not doubt that witches and sorcery exist. Viy (1835) is the scariest, but May Night and A Terrible Vengeance aren’t for the faint hearted either.

Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky, who did have a contagious sense for the absurd like Gogol’s, also wrote a ghost story: Bobok (1873). It’s a short and funny story about a certain Ivan Ivanovich, who one day happens to hear the dead chat amongst each other under their gravestones. What are the consequences of dying and what do dead people talk about? I had a good laugh reading this story!

Odoevsky

The inspiration for Bobok came from Odoevsky’s The Live Corpse (1838), an amusing story about a man who finds out he has died, but has a hard time accepting that. Other, more serious, mysterious tales from this Russian nobleman are The Salamander, Cosmorama and The Sylph. Odoevsky was, among many other things, interested in science and his works feature metaphysical, occult, gothic and romantic elements. Harry Potter fans will recognise a thing or two.

Turgenev

Even though he was a firm Realist who didn’t believe in God, Turgenev wrote numerous ghost stories: the best known being Klara Milich (1883); a great Turgenev story, that due to its almost claustrophobic atmosphere has a Dostoevskian feel to it. The recluse student Aratov literally becomes possessed of a young female singer who commits suicide while performing. His dear old aunt Platosha is worried sick about him, and not without reason…

Chekhov

The last of the great Russian Realists was of course Chekhov. The Black Monk (1893) is one of his best works. Chekhov, who was actually a doctor, considered it primarily a case study of a young man suffering from megalomania, but in a literary sense the novella could be categorised as a supernatural tale. Kovrin is a brilliant student who leaves for the countryside to rest his overworked brain. Once there, however, he starts getting visions of a black monk… Chekhov at his understated best!

*****

Hopefully I have inspired you with this diverse lineup. Did you read any of these stories, are you going to, did I miss something or would you simply like to share your favourite ghost story? Let me know in the comments…

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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The Shot and The Fatalist – When Fiction turns into Reality

A comparison of Pushkin’s story The Shot (The Belkin Stories – 1830) with Lermontov’s story The Fatalist (A Hero of Our Time – 1838).

On the eve of the anniversary of Pushkin’s death 181 years ago, I thought it’d be interesting to see how Pushkin wrote about fate and death and to compare one of his most famous stories with a strikingly similar story by Lermontov.


Fate and death in fiction

Now I don’t know if any of you have read both The Shot and The Fatalist? If so, I challenge you to recollect to which story ‘the Serb’ belongs and to which story a certain ‘Silvio’. Both men are outsiders with a passion for cards and pistols. One of them ended up in a duel and the other played Russian roulette…

Yes, both stories are about as Russian as it gets. There’s a regiment stationed in a small village and the officers play cards together every evening. Both Silvio and the Serb like to ‘hold bank’. Both stories feature a cap with a bullet hole. Both have an anticlimax in the middle and fate is the main subject in both stories. But that’s where the similarities end.

In Pushkin’s The Shot, Silvio gets insulted by a young officer, whom he challenges to a duel. The young officer arrives at the scene carelessly eating cherries and Silvio decides that he can’t get satisfaction from shooting someone who doesn’t care for life and postpones his turn to shoot. Silvio practices shooting every day for years until he finally hears that his opponent is about to get married. He goes to see the young man and take his turn to shoot, but his conscience intervenes: he can’t shoot at an unarmed man, so instead he organises a new duel. The young man, now more mature and really nervous, misses, piercing a painting on the wall. His wife comes in terrified and throws herself at Silvio’s feet. Silvio, seeing the real fear in his opponent’s face, is now satisfied and shoots a hole in the same painting instead, right next to the other hole.

In Lermontov’s Fatalist, the Serb claims that you can’t die, unless it’s your destined time to die. He makes a bet with Pechorin and to prove it he takes a random pistol from the wall of their host, points it at his own head and shoots. Even though the pistol turned out to be loaded, it misfires. He wins the bet. Pechorin, the fatalist, however, was certain that he saw in the Serb’s face a sign that he would die soon (having been in the army already for a long time, he is familiar with death) and right enough, the Serb gets in the way of a drunken idiot that same night and gets killed. Pechorin decides to put his own theory to the test and certain that it’s not yet his time to die, captures the dangerously drunken Cossack.

Pushkin lets Silvio take control of fate; he had the chance and (by law of honour) every right to shoot his opponent on two occasions and being the best shot the narrator has ever encountered, he would certainly have killed his opponent if he had done so. The young opponent realises this only too well. This is very much a story about honour, respect and satisfaction.

Lermontov lets fate take control. Pechorin happily bets with the Serb, who puts his life in danger for a bet, and Pechorin doesn’t feel any guilt about it, even though, or perhaps because, he sees death written on the face of the Serb that evening. This story is about predestination. Pechorin can be more courageous because he is a fatalist.


Fate and death in real life

It makes you wonder how both writers felt about fate and death when they themselves came face to face with a bullet that had their name on it.

Lermontov thinking until the last moment that the duel would be called off; nonchalantly going to the appointed place, we can almost picture him eating cherries, but getting himself killed anyway, after all his outrage after Pushkin’s death, and being regaled as Pushkin’s heir. Did he see death in his own face when he looked in the mirror that fatal day?

Pushkin feeling out of control of the situation, feeling forced to fight a duel with a trained military man, fully aware that he might die, leaving a wife and four children behind. He too practiced shooting. His bullet hit d’Anthès, but fate blocked it with a mere metal uniform button, and d’Anthès lived. Pushkin was hit in the abdomen and died two days later, having had plenty of time to reflect on death on the leather sofa in his study.


In 2010 forensic experts found bloodstains on the leather sofa in Pushkin’s study, proving that it was indeed the sofa that he had died on. Moments before he died he told his friend Dal: “I was dreaming we were climbing these books you and I, high on these shelves, and I got dizzy.”


© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos: illustrations from both stories combined by me; the waistcoat that Pushkin wore during the duel from Wikipedia; the couch in his study from The Moscow Times.

Books read: the two stories and Pushkin’s Button by Serena Vitale.

You can read these wonderful and short stories online here:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pushkin/aleksandr/p98sh/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lermontov/mikhail/l61h/book4.html

And more about the final moments of these two great writers here:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/lermontovs-fatal-duel/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/pushkins-own-duel/


Typically Lermontov

Lermontov (1814-1841) is generally considered to be Russia’s greatest poet bar Pushkin and his prose is as least as good as his poetry. His most important work A Hero of Our Time is regarded as the first psychological, Russian Realist novel and so Lermontov built a bridge between the Romantic and the Realist era in Russia. The impact was enormous when it was first published in 1840.

Small legacy

Lermontov was able to leave only a small legacy in his short life. It is usually split into two parts: a juvenile and a grownup part. A selection of poems, a few narrative poems, a couple of plays and A Hero of Our Time, that’s all. Thematically Lermontov belongs in the Romantic era: the Caucasus is used as a background for most of his work, the protagonist often goes on a journey and falls in love with some exotic beauty. Lermontov himself was a romantic hero too, growing up without his parents, travels and exiles to the Caucasus, a military career and duels being part of his life.

Pechorin, a superfluous man

Actually A Hero of Our Time is not really a novel: it’s a collection of short stories that can be read independently. They’re connected by the same protagonist, Pechorin. Pechorin is the prototype of the superfluous man, this apparently careless man leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes.The narrative prospect of the stories is very interesting, there are fragments from Pechorin’s diaries, and some of the stories are memoirs of people who knew him. This gives the reader a complete picture. The stories are not told chronologically, which highlights Pechorin’s mysterious character.

Psychological novel

Not only does Lermontov provide us with the picture of an embittered protagonist, he also investigates how it’s possible that such a young man is already tired of life. He comes to the conclusion that society is to blame for Pechorin’s character. Hence the title of the novel. It is the psychological background of Pechorin, that makes A Hero of Our Time the first psychological, Russian Realist novel. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Turgenev’s Bazarov and Tolstoy’s Olenin, they all have a little bit of Pechorin in them.

The Demon

His other masterpiece (and life’s work!) is The Demon. An epic poem, like we know from Pushkin. Here too Lermontov uses his beloved Caucasus as a backdrop for the story. A fallen angel roams the earth eternally. When he falls in love with a living girl, Tamara, he hopes that she can release him, but she dies after he has kissed her. The poem is of an unearthly and unequalled beauty; it is really not without good reason that Lermontov had the great honour of being called Pushkin’s heir. The Russian painter Vrubel made a fantastic series of illustrations for the poem that capture the atmosphere wonderfully.

Writing style

What makes Lermontov so unique is his musical and descriptive style of writing. Not surprising, since Lermontov was also a gifted musician and painter. Where Pushkin is elegant and cheerful, Lermontov is melancholic. His writing is doubtlessly as beautiful as the Caucasusian landscape. Or the Scottish landscape, where his ancestors came from, now misty and mysterious, then sparkling and fresh.

 

Fragment from The Demon:

“What is this eternity to me without you?

What is the infinity of my domains?

Empty ringing words,

A spacious temple — without a divinity!”

Read more from this unique writer here:

http://faculty.washington.edu/jdwest/russ430/demon.pdf

http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos by me (book and Scotland) and from Wikipedia (Portrait of Lermontov and aquarel by Vrubel)

 

Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

“Если бы этот мальчик остался жив, не нужны были ни я, ни Достоевский – If that young man had stayed alive, neither I, nor Dostoevsky, would have been necessary” – Tolstoy

 

At 7 o’clock in the evening of July 27th 1841, somewhere at the foot of mount Mashuk near Pyatigorsk, in the midst of a fierce mountain thunderstorm, the young poet Lermontov was shot dead in a duel with his old comrade Martynov.

 

Since that fatal moment, there have been plenty of people who suspected a plot to murder Lermontov. Sadly there are not many reliable accounts of the events that took place on that fatal evening. So what do we know?

 

Lermontov was staying in Pyatigorsk to ‘take the waters’, to recover from an illness before he went to rejoin his regiment. Pyatigorsk was a popular spa town in the Caucasus (on the Russian side) where many wealthy Russians came to get cured. There were also many military men there, who were on (sick) leave from their duties in the Caucasian War, like Lermontov. Lermontov knew many of the people there, including Martynov, who he had known since military school.

 

In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water. In the afternoons there were picnics in the mountains and in the evening dinner parties and balls were organised. At one of those parties Lermontov made one joke too many at the expense of his old comrade, calling him ‘the highlander with the big dagger’, mocking Martynov’s Circassian outfit and weapon. Martynov replied that he had repeatedly asked him not not make fun of him in the company of ladies. The next day they met again and Martynov again expressed his dissatisfaction, and a date and place for a duel were fixed.

 

Duels were illegal; both participants and seconds would not get off lightly. As a result duels were held in secret, but there were clear rules. The participants needed at least one second each, in this case they each had two. There also had to be a doctor present, and there had to be a cart to take away the dead or injured. The seconds had to try to dissuade the participants in advance and organise the pistols and a doctor.

Until the last moment Lermontov appeared nonchalant, thinking that they would call off the duel, embrace and go for dinner together. The seconds thought so too. They made an attempt to get a doctor, but even though there were obviously plenty of doctors in Pyatigorsk, they all refused to be present at an illegal duel. They didn’t bring a cart either.

 

Only one of the seconds, Vasiltchikov, wrote about the events later. The others, and Martynov too, kept silent. Tolstoy tried later in vain (unfortunately!) to persuade another second, Stolypin, to talk. According to Vasiltchikov, Lermontov had told the seconds that he would fire in the air. At the moment suprême the contestants faced each other. Lermontov pointed his gun upwards and supposedly said that he was not going to shoot at that ‘fool’ and at that Martynov aimed and fired.

 

The bullet pierced Lermontov’s heart and he fell down without even grasping his injury. Although he was clearly dead, a doctor was called. This time they had difficulty getting one to come because of the weather. One of the seconds, Glebov, stayed with the body, in the dark forest in the pouring rain until help arrived. The dead Lermontov was taken to his lodgings and Martynov and the seconds were arrested.

 

Pyatigorsk was in shock; all the ladies paid their respect and the poet’s body was soon covered in flowers. Death by duel was considered suicide, but after some money was paid, Lermontov got a Christian burial. His devastated grandmother later managed to get his body transferred to the family grave.

 

In the official reports there is no mention of Lermontov’s intention to fire in the air. It would have meant that Martynov had to be tried for murder. It remains strange that his old pal was unable to forgive Lermontov his pranks. Other than that there is no evidence of a coverup. And besides, the authorities may have had reasons to exile him, but not to kill him, although one could argue that sending a man to fight at the front in the Caucasian War is practically murder.

 

Did he perhaps want to die? I don’t think so. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and he had his army career. He did have a certain carelessness about him, a sort of disregard for life, like his character Pechorin from A Hero of Our Time. It is difficult to estimate how much of that was just a pose that comes with the territory of being a romantic poet. With Pushkin it was a different case. He had money problems, was well known to be a hotheaded person and he was clearly trapped. With him I feel it was both suicide and murder.

 

Since the duel could easily have been avoided if Lermontov had apologised for his attitude immediately, my conclusion is that Lermontov himself was mostly to blame for his death.

 

*****

 

Different sources all have slightly different versions of the events. I based this account mostly upon the Laurence Kelly biography, Tragedy in the Caucasus and the following websites: fishki.net and aif.ru.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos from Wikimedia: Lermontov dying, the memorial in Pyatigorsk and the family grave in Tarkhany.

Also included is Lermontov’s prophetic poem A Dream.

 

Voor mijn Nederlandstalige lezers: alle Nederlandstalige blogposts staan nu op http://www.eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com .

 

The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

When Pushkin died in 1836, Lermontov got so infuriated, that he immediately wrote the poem On the Death of a Poet. In it he blamed, as did many people, the higher circles of Saint Petersburg society for Pushkin's death. The poem was copied out by hand and promptly distributed throughout the city. Lermontov became famous instantly and was received as the heir of Pushkin* in literary circles. A copy of the poem reached Tsar Nicholas and he was not so impressed with the young Lermontov and his criticisms. He got banished to the Caucasus, to serve in the Russian army there.


First exile to the Caucasus

Lermontov (1814-1841) was already serving as a cornet in Saint Petersburg at the time. There is a self portrait of him in 1837, looking the part, clutching a Circassian dagger. As some of you may remember, Lermontov had been to the Caucasus already three times before with his grandmother. He loved it there, so the exile was hardly a severe punishment for him. He was actually sorry when his banishment was over, and he certainly would have stayed, if it wasn't for his grandmother.


Youth with his grandmother

He was raised by his adoring grandmother after his mother died when he was little. Little Mikhail rarely saw his father, a descendant from the Scottish Learmonth family. His grandmother made sure that he received an excellent education. He had a number of foreign tutors, as was the norm for aristocratic families at the time. As a boy he discovered his hero Byron and when he wished he could read him in English, his grandmother hired an English tutor. As a result of this education, he knew English, French and German, could play and compose music and had learned how to draw and paint. Because he suffered from arthritis already as a child, his grandmother took him to the Caucasus, where the climate was better.


The spectacular nature, the fantastic stories he heard there and the exiting (to say the least!) lifestyle had a profound effect on the boy. After such an upbringing how could he not have become an artist? When he returned to the Caucasus as a grown man, he enjoyed spending his spare time drawing and painting the landscapes, but mostly the Caucasus inspired him to write.


Writing career

Back in Saint Petersburg he had more time to write and in 1839 his most famous work A Hero of our Time was published, as was his his beautiful poem The Demon. Both are set in his beloved Caucasus and have a melancholy feeling that is typical for Lermontov. He had now firmly established his name as Pushkin’s successor. Curiously enough** he was challenged to a duel by the son of the French ambassador, Ernest de Barante. Possibly de Barante was offended by Lermontov's poem On the Death of a Poet and the hate against his fellow countryman d’Anthès it expresses. The duel took place at exactly the same place as Pushkin's fatal duel. Luckily neither opponent was seriously hurt this time. Duels were illegal and someone must have betrayed them. De Barante could not be prosecuted due to his diplomatic status, but Lermontov got his second exile.


Second exile to the Caucasus

Again to the Caucasus, but lower in rank, fighting front line now. Lermontov was a free thinker who didn't like to be told what to do, but in the regiment he followed orders and showed extraordinary bravery. His superiors put him up for promotion and several medals, but Nicholas didn't think Lermontov worthy.


Perhaps also as the result of his childhood, Lermontov was a bit strange. Most people didn't like him, and he didn't like most people. He had a childish sense of humour, played pranks and made fun of others. When Lermontov was on sick leave in Pyatigorsk, his old comrade Martynov got enough of Lermontov’s jokes at his expense and challenged him. Until the last moment Lermontov was convinced that they would reconcile, but the duel took place. At the foot of mount Mashuk, so frequently mentioned in Lermontov's work. Lermontov said beforehand that he would fire in the air, and he did, but Martynov aimed directly at him and shot Lermontov dead.


Lermontov died at just 27 years of age, depriving Russia of another fantastic talent, who is in the West highly underestimated and undertranslated.


*****



*Pushkin died young and was already during his lifetime recognised as Russia's greatest, Russia's all. His death, by a foreigner, caused a real feeling of deprivation and despair and it raised two questions: How could things have gotten so out of hand that someone had dared to kill their national poet and who was going to fill his shoes?!

**Obviously there have been many conspiracy theories about this duel too, the similarities were obvious.


© Elisabeth van der Meer – Photos by me and from Wikipedia


Booklist:

Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

After Lermontov, Translations for the Bicentenary – edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack (translations by Scottish translators into English or Scottish to honour Lermontov’s Scottish roots:-))

Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Tolstoy and the Caucasus

Unlike Pushkin and Lermontov Tolstoy (1828-1910) went to the Caucasus voluntarily. He had accumulated considerable gambling debts in Moscow. Gambling addiction was a big problem with the Russian aristocracy, and the stakes could get really high. The Tolstoy family was no exception. Remember the American( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n )? When he couldn’t pay his debts anymore, he contemplated suicide, but his gypsy girlfriend gave him the money and saved him. The wild stories about Leo’s illustrious great uncle circulated in Moscow for years after his death in 1846.

Good intentions

In order to escape from his troubles in Moscow, Leo decided to join his brother Nikolay, who was positioned with the Russian army in the Caucasus. In their enthusiasm the brothers forgot to take into consideration the well known fact that the average Russian officer loves a game of cards. In no time at all Tolstoy was 850 roubles in debt again and was forced to sell off more of his inheritance. His other good intentions didn’t come to much either; he had gypsy girl after Cossack girl.

The start of his writing career

Tolstoy stayed in the Cossack village Starogladkovskaya for two and a half years. This period turned out to have a positive influence on his writing at least. He even started his writing career in the Caucasus. His war experiences there were used for War and Peace and several of his stories, like The Cossacks and Hadji Murad are situated in the Caucasus.

“He admired the Cossacks”

The novella The Cossacks (1862) is Tolstoy’s first masterpiece and it was Turgenev’s favourite. It starts like any Romantic story. The hero Olenin leaves his troubled past behind to start a new life in the Caucasus. Tolstoy himself, having read Pushkin and Lermontov, must have felt like that too when he made that journey. Tolstoy, however, is not a Romantic writer and Olenin is no Pechorin. Where Pechorin left a trail of destruction behind him, Olenin leaves no impression at all, he doesn’t get the girl and before he’s even out of sight he’s forgotten. This is a technique that Tolstoy uses frequently, making the familiar strange. Ironically Tolstoy needed the proceeds from this work to pay off more gambling debts.

Tolstoy’s final piece of fiction

At the end of his life, between 1896 and 1904, Tolstoy wrote his last masterpiece: Hadji Murad. At that time he wrote mainly religious and pacifist texts and had already declared that literature was a waste of time. As a result he felt guilty working on it. Perhaps we owe it to Turgenev’s deathbed plea that Tolstoy did once more what he was so extraordinarily good at: writing superb fiction. The story is based on a piece of Caucasian history from 1851, precisely the year that Tolstoy went to the Caucasus.

“This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naïb”

It’s a typical Tolstoy story, actually a mini version of War and Peace. It tells the story of the dilemma that Hadji Murad, Chechen rebel leader and hero, faced in the final year of his restless life. We see Hadji Murad through the eyes of the Russians, who admire but also distrust him. We see him through the eyes of his own people, through women’s eyes and finally as a father whose family is being held hostage. It’s a bloody war story and to clear his conscience Tolstoy warns us at regular intervals: war is evil. Feel free to skip these passages and enjoy the great Tolstoy at his best. Tolstoy knew very well why people wage wars and why people like reading fiction. After all he was only human himself.

Hadji Murad in 1851 (Wikipedia)

The quotes are from The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

The books I used were:

Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“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.

Pushkin

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.”

Violent people

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.