Russian Literary Tradition in the Caucasus: Three Places to Start
The Russian literary tradition presents and interprets many landscapes. From the frozen wastes of Siberia, to the metropoles of Petersburg and Moscow, and even lands where Russian was or is not the dominant language: there are many options for the Wanderlust-harbouring reader.
The Caucasus—a mountainous region extending between the Black and Caspian Seas, and encompassing modern-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of southern Russia—played a particularly significant role in the birth of Russian literature. Many early Russian-language writers set their works here. But where can the reader start? Here’s a few pointers:
The Prisoner of the Caucasus (Кавказский пленник) – Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin’s narrative poem published in 1822 tells the story of a disillusioned Russian military officer who is captured by a Circassian tribe and falls in love with a local woman. Ironically, despite playing out on the very edge of the Russian Empire’s territory, it was received by contemporaries as one of the first truly national works of literature.
Pushkin travelled in the Caucasus in 1820 after being expelled from St Petersburg for his political activity. While there, he examined the practices of local non-Russians and developed an admiration for their valour in battle against Russian incursions. The poem established the ‘Caucasus theme’ in Russian literature, which used the mountains as a Romantic and Orientalist backdrop to explore national concerns.
“В ауле, на своих порогах,
Черкесы праздные сидят.
Сыны Кавказа говорят
О бранных, гибельных тревогах,
О красоте своих коней,
О наслажденьях дикой неги;”
“In the village, on their doorsteps, Idle Circassians sit. The sons of the Caucasus talk About the warlike, perilous alarms, About the beauty of their horses, About the pleasures of wild languor.”
Hadji Murat (Хаджи-Мурат) – Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Caucasus novella from almost one hundred years after Pushkin’s poem contains many similar themes. The eponymous hero is an Avar, another indigenous group within the Caucasus, whose attempts to protect his family lead him to side with the imperial Russian forces. However, this plan is undermined by the interference of the Minister for War and ends in disaster. These themes reflect a common tension between Petersburg policy towards the Caucasus and writerly sympathies.
Tolstoy based the book on a real rebel figure and his own experience in the Russian army. He demonstrates the complexities of shifting alliances in a war where kinship structures had as much a role as nationality. Among the work’s admirers was Ludwig Wittgenstein who commented that “[Tolstoy’s] philosophy seems to me the most correct when it is hidden in narrative.”
A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени) – Mikhail Lermontov
Lermontov is the Russian poet perhaps most strongly associated with the Caucasus. Like Pushkin, he first spent time there as a political exile and came to admire the local morality. The novel A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840 and tells the story of the young soldier Pechorin, a Byronic hero whose cynical nihilism presages later debates within Russian culture. The novel is distinguished for its critique of Romanticism as well as beautiful descriptions of the Caucasus.
Lermontov would, just one year later at the age of 26, be killed in a duel with a fellow officer in the mountains which he immortalised in prose.
The literature of the Caucasus is written in diverse languages. In recent years, renewed interested in Georgian and Armenian language writing has led to new creative revivals. The Russian literary tradition continues to contain some of the most significant literary treatments of the region. So get reading!
Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.
Photo credits to the Maria Orlova at pexels.com.