Cultural Depictions of the Caucasus

[Patrick Foley]

“Fate was casting me into that country which I had desired to see for such a long time—into the canyons, the refuge of the wild sons of nature. I was going to see the Caucasus in all its charm and terror.”— from Elizaveta Gan’s A Recollection of Zheleznovodsk (1841)

In order to understand Soviet rule in the Caucasus during the twentieth century, it is necessary to examine the historical justification for Russian rule in the region. Russia’s relationship with the Caucasus is complicated, so citing one specific piece of evidence as the primary motivation behind Russian involvement in the region proves difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, Russia’s perceived cultural superiority, as well as the belief that the Caucasus could be made “civil” through occupation, appears time and time again in the Russian historical narrative, whether under the control of the Tsar or the Supreme Soviet. Reflecting upon the origins of this perceived cultural superiority can reveal a great deal about relations between Transcaucasia and Russia. For that reason, Alexander Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, and the subsequent works of nineteenth-century Russian writers on the Caucasus, provides an explanation as to why Russians viewed the Caucasus as in need of civilization. The prominent literary works reinforced the notion that Russian culture was superior to Caucasian culture, and provide a justification for intervention in the domestic affairs of the Caucasian territories.

Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, originally published in the early 1820s, introduced the general public of Russia to a particular representation of the Caucasus. Pushkin’s characterization of the region as a land filled with adventure and romance featured prominently in the Russian psyche, not just in the nineteenth century but also into the twentieth century. In the poem, a Russian soldier is taken prisoner while fighting in the Caucasus. The poem focuses more directly on the romantic relationship between the soldier and a local Caucasian girl. As Oliver Bullough notes in his book on the Caucasus, Pushkin’s poem features a romantic relationship between the girl and the soldier that makes the Caucasus seem almost idyllic. The girl introduces the soldier to the local pleasures of the Caucasus by bringing him honey, millet, wine, and the other delicacies of the mountains (Bullough, 77).

Pushkin’s description of the natural treasures of the Caucasus also evoked an image of the Caucasian people as natural savages who were uncorrupted by the outside world. While the Tatars in the story were certainly portrayed as fierce fighters, the romantic relationship between the soldier and the local girl also suggested a gentler side to these people. If this concept seems somewhat odd, I would compare it to the characterization of the Powhatans in the popular account of the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith. It is a common trope in literature, but the popularity of Prisoner of the Caucasus laid the groundwork for similar works. Dozens of new novels in the early to mid nineteenth century depicted the Caucasus as an undisturbed natural frontier awaiting civilization at the hands of the Russians.

In some of his other works, Pushkin continued to reaffirm the widespread belief that the Caucasus remained uncivil. He often characterized the people of the Caucasus as noble savages. In Journey to Arzrum, published in 1830, Pushkin offers his analysis of the Georgian people: “The Georgians are a warlike people. They have proved their bravery under our banners. Their intellectual capabilities await further development” (Pushkin, 40). The warlike qualities of the Georgian people are praised, but their inferior intellectual qualities still await improvement. Pushkin also cited the superstitious ways of the Georgians as a fault of the lack of civilization in the Caucasus, claiming that some of their women were witches (Pushkin, 38). Susan Layton, one of the foremost experts on the Caucasus in Russian literature, noted how Pushkin constructed a new paradigm for interpreting relations between Russia and the Caucasus through his works: “The Prisoner of the Caucasus builds a generalized opposition between civilization and savagery” (Layton, 35).

Tolstoy’s short story version of Prisoner of the Caucasus, one of the most notable Russian short stories of the late nineteenth century, reaffirmed the notion that Russian civilization was the best hope for taming the perceived savagery of the Caucasus. The short story also reiterated many similar themes as Alexander Pushkin’s original poem. Tolstoy’s story once again captured the public’s imagination by depicting the Caucasus as a place of adventure. In the short story, Zhilin, a tsarist military officer in the Caucasus, describes the Tatars as violent savages. During a fight scene early in the novel, Zhilin must fight a Tatar on horseback and vows to battle to the death against the “devil” because he fears that capture would surely mean torture at the Tatar’s hands (Tolstoy, 5). Despite his best efforts, the Tatars capture Zhilin and hold him for a ransom of five hundred rubles (Tolstoy, 10). The people of the Caucasus are cruel fighters only concerned with profit. The Tatars, aside from the young girl Dina who helps Zhilin escape, show little regard for Russians or for ‘civilized’ society (Tolstoy, 24-25). Whereas Zhilin fights for the honor of Russia, the Tsar, and his family, the Tatar soldiers fight only for sport, pleasure, and profit. Without becoming civilized by an outside force, it seems as if the Tatars have little hope of becoming an advanced civilization.

The story remained popular over the next century, and even today Prisoner of the Caucasus is still well known. As evidence, Prisoner of the Mountains became a film in

Prisoner of the Caucasus, originally a poem by Alexander Pushkin, has appeared in several different iterations over the last two centuries. Most recently, the story was adapted into a feature length film titled Prisoner of the Mountains.

Russia based on Tolstoy’s short story and was released in 1996. Director Sergei Bodrov’s film achieved popular acclaim and was generally well received by critics. Prisoner of the Mountains even earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Therefore, one could argue that the story still reverberates today and transcends generational divides. The longevity of the story’s popularity suggests why the Russians claimed cultural superiority as a justification for intervening in the Caucasus.

Many novels and short stories about the Caucasus take their inspiration from the popular works of Pushkin. Elizaveta Gan’s A Recollection of Zheleznovodsk features a woman ambushed by the Caucasians and stolen away into the mountains (Bullough, 87). The novel is an excellent example of erotic fiction, a genre that became increasingly popular among Russians who wrote about the Caucasus. Pushkin also had a close relationship with several notable Russian writers who published similar pieces on the Caucasus. For instance, Alexander Bestuzhev, who wrote under the pseudonym Marlinsky after being sent to exile in the Caucasus following the Decembrist Revolt, published lyrical poems about the Caucasus that were heavily influenced by Pushkin (Leighton , 112-113). The Russian people gradually absorbed this outpouring of material, which portrayed the Caucasus as an exotic frontier landscape steeped in adventure and romance. Just as the novels of James Fenimore Cooper led to an explosion of the so-called “dime novel” Westerns in the United States, so Pushkin’s stories spawned a series of widely available romantic stories about the Caucasus.

However, not all novels entirely glorified the Caucasus as a place of freedom and adventure. Most prominently, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time satirized aspects of Pushkin’s writings on the Caucasus. While Lermontov’s characterization of the physical beauty of the Caucasus surely portrayed the region in a flattering light, he also challenged the belief that the Caucasus required Russian settlement in order to advance. Lermontov characterized the Caucasus as “a place of dissipation, boredom, cynical seduction, savagery, and pointless violence” (Bullough, 94). Pechorin, the anti-hero protagonist of the novel, is far less considerate of women than the typical Russian soldier in the Caucasus. Pechorin is an excellent example of the “superfluous man” in Russian literature, who despite his education and background lacks the ability to contribute much of anything to society. Romance and adventure in the Caucasus are not noble undertakings in the book. Romance and adventure are self-serving for Pechorin. Therefore, Lermontov implicitly challenged the notion of Russian intervention in the Caucasus by questioning the morality of such an undertaking. As Lermontov writes in the foreword of A Hero of Our Time, his goal is to serve a dose of needed reality with regard to the tsarist interventionist policy: “People have been fed enough sweetmeats to upset their stomachs; now bitter remedies, acid truths are needed” (Lermontov, 10).

Lermontov’s iconic novel A Hero of Our Time featured a hero whose motives for adventuring into the Caucasus were less than ideal. The novel caused quite a stir in the Imperial Court, and ultimately led to Lermontov’s own demise.

Lermontov’s iconic novel A Hero of Our Time featured a hero whose motives for adventuring into the Caucasus were less than ideal. The novel caused quite a stir in the Imperial Court, and ultimately led to Lermontov’s own demise.

The tsar and his administration obviously took issue with Lermontov’s novel. The tsar himself met Lermontov’s writings with outright hostility. In a letter to his wife, Tsar Nicholas I wrote of Lermontov and A Hero of Our Time: “The author suffers from a most depraved spirit, and his talents are pathetic” (cited in Bullough, 95). By satirizing the image of the Caucasus created by Pushkin, and a number of imitators who echoed Pushkin’s ideas, Lermontov challenged the efforts of the elites in the tsarist administration to romanticize the Caucasus. It should be noted again that Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time is hardly a negative portrayal of the Caucasus. Lermontov describes the unsettled natural landscape of the Caucasus in glowing terms. However, the less than pure motives of the protagonist questioned the nature of the supposedly ‘civilizing’ relationship between Russia and the Caucasus. Elite figures could no longer unquestionably accept a vision of the Caucasus as an unsettled wonderland awaiting Russian settlement (Bullough, 95). While the tsar sought to cultivate an image of the Caucasus as an unsettled natural destination waiting to be brought under control by an altruistic Russian society, it is important to understand that not all writers completely bought into this narrative of Russian civilization. Lermontov is the highest profile example of opposition to the Tsar’s romanticized view of the Caucasus.

Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, although just a single literary work, had a tremendous effect on Russian culture. At the broadest level, the poem popularized a vision of the Caucasus as an undisturbed land occupied by ennobled savages who had a tremendous amount of independence and military prowess. The Russians tried to indigenize the local population in order to move them towards civilization. This belief gained traction among all levels of Russian society because of the widespread popularity of the romance novels taking place in the Caucasus. As a result, the tsarist administration and later the Soviet administration, could justify occupying these territories as a ‘civilizing’ mission. While novels such as Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time questioned the seeming altruism of the Russian military hero in the Caucasus, the image of the Caucasus developed in Pushkin’s poem ultimately triumphed and provided a rationale for the Russians to intervene the Caucasus.


Works Cited

Alexander Pushkin, A Journey to Arzrum (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1974).

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, Edited by Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time, Edited by J. H. Wisdom, and Marr Murray (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 1997).

Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Lauren G Leighton, The Esoteric Tradition in Russian Romantic Literature: Decembrism and Freemasonry (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

Susan Layton, “Marlinsky’s ‘Ammalat-Bek’ and the Orientalisation of the Caucasus in Russian Literature” in The Golden Age of Russian Literature and Thought edited by Derek Offord (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).