BOOK REVIEW: TRACING THE HISTORY OF RUSSIAN INVOLVEMENT IN THE CAUCASUS
Alex van Oss:
Posted October 23, 2009 © Eurasianet
In his autobiography The Two Lives of My Generation (OLMA Media Group 2006), Russian broadcaster and best-selling author Yuri Kostin quotes a classical poem about Georgia:
"On Georgia godly gifts were showered,In garden shade they bloomed and flowered,And have since then, and without fear,Behind a friendly fringe of spear."
[from "Mtsyri" by Michael Lermontov (1814-1841); my translation]
Kostin, born in 1965, the same year as Russia's president, Dmitriy Medvedyev, belongs to a pivotal generation now coming into power: it is perhaps the last generation that can clearly recall Soviet times. It is also a generation suckled on the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. Kostin's implication is that literary notions of "godly gifts" and "friendly spear" in the Caucasus cannot be dismissed as quaint: indeed, in Russia, they have gained traction.
This, too, is the thesis of Bruce Grant's intriguing The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Cornell 2009) - an exploration of stories and poems (some of them thousands of years old), films, and the recurrent themes in them of capture, hostage-taking, and gift-giving. Grant argues that Russia has couched its empire-building in terms of bringing to others the gifts of civilization, education, language, and even soul--along with a friendly fringe of spear.
Grant contends that Russians have been profoundly influenced by tales of the Caucasus--as have Caucasians themselves, who read the classics as part of the same Soviet curriculum and often came to consider them as historically correct masterpieces. Grant, who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University, encapsulates the problem neatly: Russian writers who sallied into the Caucasus "entered a physical place, found a mythic place, and generated a narrative place."
Unfortunately, Grant also sprinkles his text with undefined terms ('acts of emplacement,' 'logics of sovereignty,' 'biopolitics,' 'idioms of closure,' 'sleights of power') that take considerable getting used to. There are also some academic head-scratchers like:"In examples such as these [i.e. a legend about bride kidnapping] we find the logics of Bataille most prominent: beyond pure utility, persons may be stolen foremost to perform sovereignty in an act of power as spectacle."
But all in all, this book will greatly reward the reader. Just as the United States "settled" the Wild West, Russians contended with the Caucasus - and indeed still do. Grant's labor in The Captive and the Gift is to present us with the interplay between myth, story, and action: between Russian ideas about the Caucasus and their actual relations with it.
Grant divides The Captive and the Gift into chapters covering several themes: the myth of Prometheus (chained to a mountain in the Caucasus); raiding and trade; giving and taking; bride capture, slavery, and much more.
Considerable space is devoted to the "prisoner in the Caucasus" story and its permutations. Pushkin's original plot is simple: boy meets girl - or rather, captured Russian soldier gets released by smitten Caucasus lass. Sometimes the girl or the prisoner dies; sometimes it is the girl who is hostage; in one modern version of this tale, both parties are male. Later variations on this theme also appear in Russian verse, prose, theater, ballet, opera, and film.
The question hovering over these stories is: who is the captive and what is the true nature of the escape? Grant argues that becoming a prisoner of the Caucasus was, in a sense, Russia's gift of themselves to an uncouth "other" culture, a sacrifice that justified, in the Russian mind, a reciprocal gift: the surrender of sovereignty and assimilation of Russianness. It is an argument worth pondering.
Another compelling plot-line: A fierce Avar mountaineer in Dagestan hands over his eldest son as a hostage to the Russian army. The boy is raised in the Tsar's court and thoroughly Russified. Years pass. The mountain warrior takes innocent Georgians and Europeans hostage so as to force the return of his son. The Tsar releases his captive, now a grown man, to his father, who in turn lets the hostages go. The son, no longer a prisoner of the tsar, but now most unhappy to be back in the mountains, falls ill and dies.
Actually, the above story is not literature at all: it is what happened to Imam Shamil, the 19th century Avar fighter in Dagestan, and his son. One reads about it and wonders who "won." The Tsars are gone, but Shamil's image still graces the walls of Caucasus culture clubs in the region and throughout Anatolia and the Middle East.
Anthropologists have long been intrigued by the ambiguity of gift-giving. Grant contrasts the Russian determination to "gift" their culture to the Caucasus in the 19th century with the Caucasian propensity to give away "too much" in their hospitality toward guests. Grant delves into hidden motives, but neglects one possibility: that gifts and hospitality may be extended for the pure joy of it. The spiritual aspects of the Caucasus are powerful and important, but few writers (or politicians for that matter) take them into consideration.
The Captive and the Gift could serve as a partner volume to a notable work by another scholar: Susan Layton's Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge 1994). However, Grant ranges more widely than Layton, and also discusses Caucasus films. This is a welcome topic: one of the greatest living directors, Otar Ioseliani, is a Georgian residing in France; the late Sergei Paradzhanov, an Armenian born in Georgia, ranks with Bunuel, Fellini, and Tarkovsky; and there are others.
Grant provides an overview of Soviet and contemporary film, particularly works from Azerbaijan. One of the most recent iterations of the prisoner-of-the-Caucasus theme is a 1996 Oscar-nominated Russian film by Sergei Bodrov. Grant points out an amusing detail that English-speaking viewers relying on subtitles - and most Russians - would not notice: the captor's daughter speaks to her father in Azeri, her father answers in Georgian, their kinsmen address them in Avar, and so forth.
Two instructive Caucasus "hostage" films which might also have been included in this chapter are Vadim Abdrashitov's remarkable Time of the Dancer (1997) and Alexei Balabanov's War (2002). Time of the Dancer is about a group of Russian soldiers who return to an unspecified post-war Caucasian country and attempt to be "recaptured" by it in order to set up a normal life for themselves--with mixed success. Balabanov (director of urban gangland blockbusters such as Brother 1 and Brother 2) filmed War on location in the North Caucasus and it has become a popular "ekshn" film among Russian viewers. It is a bloody mixture of gorgeous scenery and grotesquerie: the Chechens, depicted apishly, grunt and slit throats; their English hostages come across as cloying, foolish and effete. Indeed, the only characters with any gumption at all are the Russian soldiers - lads who know what needs to be done, and do it.
The Captive and the Gift will lead the reader to reflect not only on Russia's two centuries of military action in the Caucasus, but also upon the United States' involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq (will we still be there in, say, the year 2200?). After all, Russia is not the only bearer of ambiguous gifts. In 1961 at John Kennedy's inauguration, Robert Frost recited a powerful poem about America and its colonizers:
"The land was ours before we were the land's. She was our land more than a hundred yearsBefore we were her people..."
It couldn't be put more plainly: those of European stock were "gifting" themselves to the original peoples on this continent. Indeed, they were Destiny's gift. A few lines later in this often-quoted poem Frost makes a startling aside:
"The deed of gift was many deeds of war..."
After reading Bruce Grant's The Captive and the Gift, these words may send a chill up the spine.
Editor's Note: Alex van Oss is the Chair of Caucasus Advanced Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC.