In their efforts to comprehend conflict in any part of the world that they are but very imperfectly aware of, Americans tend to seek refuge in pronouncements of the analogical formula “Small Country X is the Past or Present US Region (e.g., the South, the Old West, or the Rust Belt) of Big Country Y.” In the case of the ongoing struggle on the Russian-Georgian border, the Old West analogy is more apt than usual; for not only were the Caucasus the site of massive imperial expansion on the part of Russia in the nineteenth century, but this expansion also occasioned the efflorescence of a body of literature that proved no less seminal to the formation of the so-called Russian national myth (or “the stories Russians tell about themselves,” as the faux-folksy cant of the present would have it) than the literature of the Old West has proved to the formation of the American one.
The heroic and adversarial archetypes of this myth are to be found neither in old Russia proper, nor in the annexed Black-Sea-abutting southern territories (notably, for the purposes of the immediate present, Georgia). Rather, they inhabited the murky interstitial area flanked from east to west by the Greater Caucasus mountain range—a stretch of territory that includes such modern-day lands as Chechnya, Ingushetya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Dagestan, and North Ossetia.
Paramount in this mythos is the not-uncowboylike figure of the Cossack: surly, bellicose, prone to drink, uncultivated to the point of barbarism and verging on loose-cannonhood in his defiant espousal of a warrior ethos; but for all that, also Christian, Russophone, and when the chips are down, unalloyedly loyal to the Tsar and to Mother Russia. Both in fiction and in fact, the Cossack was less often pitted against the inhabitants of the larger and partly urbanized territories of the far south such as Georgia, than against a congeries of quasi-tribal, semi-nomadic, largely Islamic, not un-Indianlike peoples resident further north, among or within sight of the Caucasus proper—Chechens, Circassians, Tatars, and yes, Ossetians, to name just a few among dozens.
At bottom, the distinction between the Cossacks and these neighboring peoples was but—and, of course, this is a very big “but”—creed- and tongue-deep; for, from what is vulgarly termed a cultural point of view, the Cossacks tended to affiliate themselves much more closely with the peoples who were nominally their enemies than with their officially designated allies: “Even now, the Cossacks claim relationships with the Chechens, and the love of freedom, of leisure, of plunder and of war, still form their chief characteristics. […] The Cossack is inclined to hate less the dzhigit hillsman who maybe has killed his brother, than the soldier quartered on him to defend his village but who has defiled his hut with tobacco smoke” (98).
Thus wrote Leo Tolstoy in The Cossacks (1863),1 perhaps the literary masterpiece of the age of the high Caucasian “Old South”; and were I writing this essay in 2002 rather than in 2008, I would at this point launch into an exposition of the plot of this novella—for, benefiting as it does in equal measure from The Master’s proto-anthropological acuity of observation and his wholesome-as-kasha sympathy with every imaginable species of plain folk, The Cossacks constitutes a virtual made-to-order palliative for any New Westerner inclined to pass categorically stern judgment on the brutality of the means resorted to by either side during the Chechen insurgency of five years ago. Of the 2002 Moscow theater standoff, the Tolstoy of 1863 would doubtless have said, “This is really all about bad weapons falling into the hands of good—excessively-proud, to be sure, but basically good—people.”
Regrettably, as the current conflict centers not on Cossacks and Chechens, but on Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetes, The Cossacks is hardly the ideal text in the old Caucasian Southern tradition when it comes to trying to present the most immediately pertinent old-school Russian view of the region. For that we must go all the way back to 1840 and to an author with a much less liberal worldview, to Mikhail Lermontov and his sole novel, A Hero of Our Time.2 For A Hero does at least take place in part in one of the very sub-regions now under contestation between Russia and Georgia, namely Ossetia. Moreover, as the product of a much less self-consciously humanistic view of its Caucasian setting—of an authentic Russo-centric attitude—A Hero is a much better starting point for perhaps understanding the ingrained attitudes that today’s Russians have for their southern peoples.
The non-eponymous hero of A Hero is one Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a world-weary young army officer in semi-self imposed exile from the Musco-Petersburgian beau monde. Lermontov’s depiction of, and commentary on, the Caucasians is apportioned among three mutually quite distinct characters—Pechorin himself, an unnamed civilian narrator, and their common friend, the lovably simple and stoical old Captain Maxim Maxymich; but despite the diversity of points of view, the view itself is remarkably coherent: none of the three ever demurs at anything said about the natives by either of the other two.
The Caucasian group expounded upon—and dramatically portrayed—at greatest length are the Circassians. “Bela,” the novel’s first chapter, is named after a young Circassian woman, the doomed object of Pechorin’s attentions. But it might even more aptly have been named for its true Helen (or wrath of Achilles), one Karagyoz, a Circassian horse. The trouble over Karagyoz all starts at a friendly Circassian chieftain’s daughter’s wedding at which Pechorin and the Captain are present as kunaks (a kunak, as near as I can tell, being something like a shabbos goy, an exceptional friend in an adversary tribe or people), and Karagyoz as the steed of another of the guests, a wily marauding tribesman name of Kazbich. Azamat, the brother of the bride, has taken a shine to Karagyoz and tries to persuade Kazbich to sell the horse to him, even going so far as to offer to abduct his beautiful sister Bela (not the bride, but a different sister) as barter.
Kazbich is at best vaguely tempted by the proposed bride-for-ride exchange and in the end surlily and violently rejects it. Pechorin, on the other hand, is positively ravished by the idea and determines to make it his own. He gets Azamat to steal Bela for him, and in return steals Karagyoz from Kazbich for the lad. Kazbich, now the odd man out, “falls to the ground and sobs like a child” and “lies there like that the whole night through,” (37), although eventually he does exact revenge for the loss of his beloved by killing Azamat’s father in an ambush.
The comic and pathetic nature of a society in which horses are valued more highly than women naturally speaks for itself, and probably no more loudly here and now than in Petersburg in 1840. What perhaps does not speak for itself is the urbane Imperial Russian’s practical attitude toward such a society as instanced by Pechorin’s behavior in this episode. His theft of the horse and receipt of Bela in kind is clearly assimilable to the trans-cultural colonial-era topos of going native. But unlike, say, the more familiar Fenimore-Cooperian-slash-T. E. Lawrentian version of the topos, which is overwhelmingly deferential and appreciative in tone and execution, Lermontov’s version is prevailingly contemptuous and emulative: Pechorin wants to prove that whatever the natives can do, regardless of the degree of valiance or skill occasioned thereby, he can do better.3 And what is more, he succeeds, leaving even the noblest of Caucasians looking faintly rube-ish and silly.
Here again I must emphasize the mutual complementarity of Lermontov’s three points of view, in order to forestall the inevitable objection that Pechorin, Byronic elitist that he is, can hardly be taken for an Everyrussian—as indeed he cannot, but that is not the point. The point is that, at least as regards his attitudes toward and treatment of the Caucasians, neither the narrator nor Maxim Maxymich ever jumps in with the sort of Jimmy-Stewartesque “Wait, wait, wait, hold on just a gosh-darn second, here Mr. Pechorin!” remonstrations that one expects at minimum from a scandalized party, that his comportment vis-à-vis the natives cannot be seen as straying absolutely beyond the pale of acceptable Russian comportment at the front.
But where, after all, do the Ossetians, one of the two unpronounceable Caucasian ethnicities of the moment, fit into this dramatis populi? Crowded somewhere in the middle of that horizontal, all-caps catalogue of anonymous ATTENDANTS, NE’ERDOWELLS, and LAYABOUTS set off at the bottom from the list of the named actors. In other words: 1) there are no proper Ossetian characters in A Hero, no Ossetes with names and independent destinies after the manner of Azamat, Bela, and Kazbich; 2) beyond this, one may hardly even speak of the promulgation of an Ossetian “stereotype” in Lermontov, inasmuch as the stereotypist, like the fairground caricaturist, must at least nominally fix his attention on an individual, from whom he ostensibly derives the exaggerated features and mannerisms to be imposed on a general population; and with very few exceptions—three to be exact—Lermontov alludes to Ossetes only in the plural, to pairs or groups of Ossetes, and hence presents us, at most, with a kind of Ossetian phenotype; and, most consequentially, 3) this phenotype possesses absolutely no ennobling or redeeming qualities. None of Lermontov’s Ossetes seems to have any connection with the nasty and brutish, yet winsomely martial world of his Circassian warrior chiefs and brigands; rather, they are all of them to a man (and they are all men) employed or seeking employment as ad hoc porters, drivers, guides, and hosts along the Georgian military highway traversed by the narrator and Maxim Maximych in the first two chapters of the novel.
To their immediate credit, the Ossetes are always presented as eager to be taken into service: the traveler seemingly can hardly mark two versts in succession without a crowd of them descending upon him like so many would-be window-squeegee-ers upon a twenty-first century inner-city motorist.4 But no sooner have they been hired than they transform themselves into veritable living engines of inertia, apportioning the work at hand as diffusively as possible and retarding its progress by means of what one cannot help terming a strategy of deliberate counterproductivity: “There was nothing else for it,” writes the narrator, “so I hired six bullocks and a few Ossetes. One of them heaved my portmanteau on to his shoulders and the others helped the bullocks along, doing little more than just shouting.” Immediately thereafter he catches sight of a Russian army officer (the aforementioned Maxim Maximych) who, to his astonishment, is making equally speedy progress with heavier luggage, fewer bullocks, and no Ossetian help whatsoever. The officer’s explanation for the discrepancy, for all of its telegraphic syntax, is as transparent to interpretation as it is unsparing: “Fearful rogues, these Asiatics [!] are. Do you really think they’re doing any good with all that shouting? God alone knows what it’s all about! But the oxen understand them. You hitch up twenty bullocks if you like, but they won’t budge an inch when they shout at them in that language of theirs. Dreadful scoundrels they are! But what can you do to them? They like to fleece travelers…”.
Here, the sentimental romantic conception of primitive man’s first-nature empathy with the animal world is brusquely turned on its head: whereas the well-traveled Russian soldier manages to put the local beasts of burden to efficient use on his own without recourse to human language of any kind, the native Ossetes exploit the animals’ and the narrator’s shared ignorance of their “Asiatic” tongue towards the immediate end of provoking fear and skittishness in the one and tolerant bemusement in the other, and towards the ultimate end of drawing out the journey to its utmost possible duration, hence, presumably, augmenting their own wages.
And what are these eagerly sought-after and lightly gained wages to be expended on? Why, on alcohol of course: “‘Ah, these people,’ [Maxim Maximych] said. ‘They don’t know the Russian for ‘bread,’ but they’ve learnt to say “Give us the price of a drink, sir.” Why, I’d rather have a Tatar—at least he doesn’t drink’” (23). To be sure, on the penultimate leg of their journey together, Maxim Maxymich and the narrator are treated to a “warm welcome” (48) in a makeshift Ossetian hostelry, but even here, native goodwill turns out to have been actuated in advance by a bureaucratically administered pourboire: “I learnt afterwards that they [i.e., the Ossetian hosts] are paid and kept by the government on condition that they take in travelers caught by storms” (ibid).
The American reader (or at least this American reader) cannot but bemusedly and amusedly receive Lermontov’s mercilessly negative depiction of the Ossetes as a jaw-dropping object-lesson in the portability of ethnic slurs; he searches in vain for a vice traditionally attributed to any of his classic ethnic minorities—the itemization of which I leave as an exercise for the empirical reader of this essay—that is absent therefrom. And a certain kind of naïve but eminently rational American reader, informed by his own country’s ever-crescently progressive treatment of its minorities, will go on to infer that since the Russians of the present seem quite keen on recognizing the Ossetian part of Georgia as an independent republic, a more enlightened view of the Ossetians and of the other border peoples must have prevailed in the meantime. In this inference he would be badly mistaken. To see this firsthand, we must turn to the Soviet-era film comedy Kidnapping Caucasian Style.
On viewing Kidnapping Caucasian Style (1966)5 immediately after a reading of A Hero, one is surprised to find so many of Lermontov’s topoi of Caucasian life alive and kicking a century-and-a-quarter after his death, in a product of the Soviet film industry no less. In this film, the Caucasus are first and foremost presented as a residual enclave of pre-modern folkways and institutions, with that ambivalent mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment that such enclaves characteristically occasion in self-consciously modern societies.
Shurik, the leading man, a bleached-blond, bespectacled amateur folklorist of presumptively Muscovite provenance,6 visits an unnamed town in a pointedly unnamed Caucasian region (“He didn’t specify which region it was because he wanted to be fair to all the other regions where such a story might have happened,” disclaims a one-off narrative voiceover at the very beginning of the film) in order to, as he informs the headwaiter-cum-desk clerk of his hotel at check-in time, “make records of your old tales, legends, toasts.” “Toasts?!” rejoins the headwaiter: “My dear man, you’re in luck…I can help you.” Whereupon he presses the nominal teetotaler Shurik into accompanying him on a bender that lands our hero in police headquarters and wondering next morning whether he might not have demolished a medieval chapel somewhere along the way. (Whoever these generic Caucasians are, they are evidently not Tatars.)
Meanwhile, the leading heavy, a middle-aged local administrative official, Saakhov, 7 whose swarthy complexion and droopy moustache betray from the outset his profound entrenchedness in every dubiety the region has to offer, has taken a shine to our leading lady, Nina—likewise a local, but also a Komsomol member (hence, presumably looking to get the hell out of Dodge and into the Bolshoe Yabloko), and physiognomically a sort of perky mid-1980s Juliette Binoche avant la lettre. As she has merely evinced a coy gormlessness in the face of his admittedly purely abstract hints at marriage, he strikes a bargain with her uncle, offering him 20 sheep, a refrigerator, a certificate of merit, and a free trip to Siberia (!) in exchange for her forcible abduction and delivery. Amid numerous highjinks involving three vaguely Stoogeian henchmen and (once again) the hapless Shurik, the would-not-be bride is then kidnapped, detained, and ultimately rescued.
Then, by way of giving Saakhov his comeuppance for the abduction, Shurik, Nina, and an unnamed accomplice (a happy-go-lucky Muslim ambulance-driver) break into Saakhov’s apartment and hold him at gunpoint. “We are here,” explicatively intones Shurik’s chillingly hooded and rifle-bearing silhouette to his genuflecting hostage, as Nina, clad in some sort of traditional dress complete with filmy white Persian headscarf, looks on from the regal security of Saakhov’s living room armchair, “to judge you by the law of the mountains because you have sought to bring dishonor upon us. You shall die like the jackal you are. I shall answer for it only to my true consciousness as a mountaineer, to my sister’s honor, and to the memory of my ancestors.” “But,” protests the genuinely terrified Saakhov on his knees, “this is the mob law! I demand to be judged by the Soviet law!” Prosaic Soviet justice is indeed ultimately meted out to him: after being scared out of his wits and front window by a double-barreled blast of blank buckshot, he is seen, along with his Stoogean employees, in the defendant’s dock of a Soviet courtroom, too sore from his recent defenestration to sit down at the appropriate judge-mandated moment, familiar to all Perry Mason and Judge Judy viewers…
Kidnapping Caucasian Style is a farce. But if its broadly-drawn characters and situations had not rung true to a substantial part of the Brezhnev-era cinema-going public, it would not have been as wildly popular as it was (and evidently still is, at least among people who grew up with it). To some extent, Saakhov is a holdover of the Circassian tribesman of Lermontov’s “Bela,” the sort of fellow who, like Kazbich or Azamach, regards the exchange of women for livestock as a rational and ethical economic transaction; who, moreover, is valorous and foolhardy enough to resort to violence in the service of such a transaction. But he is also—albeit in a rather humble capacity—a functionary of the Soviet state, to whose relatively enlightened judiciary he reflexively appeals when apparently at the mercy of the “law of the mountain,” the judicial aspect of his own mountaineer’s ethos. But what (the film seems to ask) if such a judiciary ceased to exist, or lost the luster of transnational legitimacy conveyed by the adjective “Soviet”? From whom, apart from potentially uncooperative members of the bride’s family, would a Saakhov then bother concealing his bride-bartering scheme, and to what higher tribunal could he appeal in the event that this scheme were discovered and discountenanced?
Not that the legally legitimate, touristic sector of Caucasian society fares much better, for what could be more pungently reminiscent of Lermontov’s Ossetia—or more starkly un-northern and un-Soviet—than its combination of brazen hucksterism and rampant bibulousness? Caucasian hoteliers, in the film’s view, are either perpetually sozzled themselves or trying to wheedle their abstemious and gullible northern guests into getting drunk against their better inclination. If it’s wholesome, family-friendly leisure you’re looking for in the Caucasus, you must escape from the usual native-infested pleasure haunts of the towns and head, if not for the mountains, then at least for the foothills—specifically on the sort of state-sponsored backpacking embarked on by Nina and her fellow Komsomolites, and dutifully documented in montage from sunrise to tuck-in time, just to show us how pleasantly wholesome and exhausting Komsomol life is.
The film’s defensive paranoia on behalf of the Soviet bipolar status quo is most in evidence, however, in its refusal to pin the scene of its action down to a specific republic, let alone district or town. In the light of the geographical scale and heterogeneity of the Caucasus alone, this seems perverse. But the Havana-puffing fat cats up at Mosfilm knew exactly what they were doing. Their strategy was to capitalize simultaneously on the simple antipodean disdain of northern Soviets for their southern comrades and on the tissue of jealousies and hatreds subsisting among the various southern peoples themselves.8
In a 2002 interview, Vladimir Etush, the actor who portrayed Saakhov, explained: “Wherever I go, everybody knows Saakhov, and receives me correspondingly. Not once did I meet with any ill feeling. Obviously, we have achieved a kind of consensus, if I may say so. When, for example, an Armenian believed I played a Georgian, a Georgian believed I played an Azerbaijani, and both were pleased that I was making fun of their neighbor. They always had some kind of competition. And thus they all always received me very well.” This “consensus” was destined not to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attendant disintegration of a Muscograd film industry obliged by official charter to heed the prejudices of Soviet viewers from Kaliningrad to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.
From then on out, one was obliged to call a Chechen a Chechen, a Georgian a Georgian, an Ossete an Ossete, and, as they say, to face the consequences for doing so. [And if one were, after all, one-sixteenth Cossack on the distaff side, why not call oneself a Cossack, and spiritually arrogate to oneself all of the martial rights and appurtenances thereof?] Again, Vladimir Etush on another Caucasian villain from another classic 60s farce: “I was searching for a character. I thought he was from the South. Well, I’d better not say it. The relations are so complicated now that I don’t want to name the place I have in mind.”
Akh! Back in the Ess-Ess-Ess-Air, you don’t know how lucky you were…
-Douglas Robertson is a writer residing in Baltimore. Certain of his other writings are to be found at The Philosophical Worldview Artist.
1. In Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
2. Page references are to the 1966 Paul Foote translation published by Penguin (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, UK).
3. Pechorin himself explicitly owns this emulative hauteur in a later chapter: “Actually, I’ve been told that on horseback and in Circassian dress I look more like a Kabardian than many Karbadians themselves. […] I’ve made a long study of how the hillmen sit a horse, and nothing flatters my vanity more than to be admired for my mastery of the Caucasian riding style” (113).
4. The comparison is not entirely facetious, as the Georgian Military Highway is an exact Russian analogue of our Cumberland Road, the first stretch of what would eventually become the U.S. National Highway system whose principal arteries now permeate our most blighted urban areas.
5. All references to this film herein originate from its 2002 Russico DVD release.
6. A later (1973) Shurik-centered film, Ivan the Terrible, is set in Moscow.
7. “Administrator of Regional Economy, B. G. Saakhov,” reads the nameplate on his office door.
8. To a certain extent, Kidnapping may be seen as a belated attempt to accomplish unofficially through a mass cultural medium an end that the pre-revolutionary Stalin envisaged being achieved officially and politically, namely a sort of Suissification of the Caucasus: “What is to be done with the Ossetians, of whom the Transcaucasian Ossetians are becoming assimilated (but are as yet by no means wholly assimilated) by the Georgians, while the Cis-Caucasian Ossetians are partly being assimilated by the Russians and partly continuing to develop and are creating their own literature? How are they to be ‘organized’ into a single national union?… The national question in the Caucasus can be solved only by drawing the belated nations and nationalities into the common stream of a higher culture. It is the only progressive solution and the only solution acceptable to Social-Democracy. Regional autonomy in the Caucasus is acceptable because it would draw the belated nations into the common cultural development; it would help them to cast off the shell of small nation insularity; it would impel them forward and facilitate access to the benefits of higher culture” (J. V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question Transcribed [and translated?] by Carl Kavanagh). But only to a certain extent: yes, Kidnapping’s Caucasians do seem to be content to be regarded simply as Caucasians; but they evince absolutely no inclination to be drawn into the common stream of higher culture (unless viniculture be a tributary thereof). And yet again and of course lampooning people for stagnating in the turbid puddles of lower culture is surely more humane than exterminating them for the sake of drawing them into the stream of the higher.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire