Myth, fiction, reportage: 8 books that paint a portrait of the North Caucasus, then and now

Myth, fiction, reportage: 8 books that paint a portrait of the North Caucasus, then and now
A road through the Caucasus mountains. Image: Konstantin Malanchev under a CC licence

17 June 2020

Russia’s North Caucasus region has long captured the imagination of writers, journalists, and storytellers both from the region and from afar. The interplay between modernity and tradition, the religious and the secular, and the fiercely independent communities living under the rule of Moscow, has given rise to a rich and sometimes fractious culture. Award-winning Dagestani novelist and writer, Alisa Ganieva, compiles eight books to read to enrich your perception of an under-reported region.

Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy (1912)

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, which was the author’s own favourite, tells the story of the legendary mountaineer Hadji Murat, who, together with North Caucasus commander Imam Shamil, fought against the invasion of the Russian Empire. The growing popularity of Hadji Murat leads Shamil to feel envy and spite, causing Hadji Murat and four of his warriors to defect to the Russians. The Russian aristocracy welcomes the hero-enemy with enthusiasm but perceives him as a possible spy. Finally, after hearing that Shamil has captured his beloved family as hostages, a languishing Hadji Murat rushes to the rescue. He’s attacked by dozens of Cossacks, refuses to surrender, and dies in a bloody battle.

This historical plot inspired Tolstoy to ponder the existential questions of moral choice, devotion, and betrayal, as well as the more political questions over the relationships between bigger and smaller nations. The literary giant grips the essence of the Caucasus’ ongoing burning problems, such as how to navigate war, and builds a much-needed dialogue between opposing and unequal sides — Russia and the other nations in the Caucasus. But he also grasps wider topics, such as the relationship between Christians and Muslims or modernity and tradition. Centuries have passed, but Tolstoy’s novella still feels contemporaneous and has the capacity to move us.

Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy is one of many Russian aristocrats who was exiled to military service in the mutinous Caucasus as punishment for his participation in the 1825 Decembrist revolt against the Russian Tsar Nicholas I. His Ammalar Bek is the forerunner to Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat. Marlinskiy also tells the real story of one courageous mountaineer who stepped into an alliance with Russians but ultimately betrayed their trust. There’s a big difference, though. Unlike Tolstoy’s meticulous and highly realistic depictions of local life, Ammalat Bek is replete with romantic passions and forbidden love. Plots of Caucasian narratives almost never change — they always contain valour, heroism, and treachery, as well as tie-ups such as family tradition, honour, or love. They are not just literature: these stories still unfold in the Caucasus today.

The Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Image: Un Bolshakov under a CC image

The ancient mythological heritage of the Caucasus, which spans from seventh century BC to 14th century AD, can be divided into several subgroups — the Allanic (Ossetian), Nakh (Chechen and Ingush), and the Northwest Caucasian (Circassian. Abkhas-Abasin, and Ubykh), each of them with their own peculiarities. It is believed that the sagas, tales, and legends of the superhuman tribes called the Narts have some Nordic, Indo-Iranian, and Ancient Greek influences, leading us back to the past when the Caucasus, Middle East, and Europe all belonged to the same cultural area. For instance, one Nart hero, Soslan, who was born out of stone, very much resembles Achilles, except his weak spot is not his heel, but his knees — which indeed eventually lead him to his death. One all-powerful Nart heroine is Satana (not to be confused with Satan!), a wise and beautiful warrior, who knows everything going on in the world thanks to her magic mirror, and who is believed to have invented many popular Ossetian drinks.

My Dagestan by Rasul Gamzatov (1968)

Translated by J. Katzer

Dedicated to his mountainous motherland, Dagestan, this book by the glorified Soviet Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov does not fit neatly within a defined genre. It’s something between a collection of essays, parables, hearsay, memories, poetry, prose, autobiography, and criticism, written in a lively, personal style. Commissioned to write 10 pages on his native land, Gamzatov is unable to stay within these narrow frames, instead bursting out with a patriot’s love confession that celebrates the country’s traditions, folklore, and code of honour, which range from regional lullabies and deadly feud reconciliations, to wedding customs (did you know that a Dagestani bride only shows her face the third day of the weeding?)

Gamzatov mentions everything except one key fact: most, if not all of the authenticity which he praises, had already collapsed under the Soviet regime. All he venerates here is a past long gone. Although Gamzatov’s works were very much a part of Soviet propaganda, they are still creative, eloquent, and informative today.

The son of a Chechen father and a Russian mother, Sadulaev left his native village of Shali in 1989 after finishing high school. His novel is a lyrical and angry account of the Chechen wars of the 90s, dashed with feelings of guilt for having been away rather than at home, fighting.

With directness as well as mythical aura, I am a Chechen! also explores the unsettling territory of memory, as can be seen in this extract:

“The midwife beat me about the face for a long time, shouting: ‘I am not going to lose you, I will have you breathe.’ Though I don’t remember that. Like I don’t remember the moment when I first convulsively swallowed in this life’s air and cried, mournfully, inconsolably. I don’t remember that. But I remember something else. The lives of ancestors, the flight of swallows, the mountains and steppe — and even the future, only someone else’s. Because then — then everything became mixed up. Perhaps some of my brain neurons died, and those which remained meshed together in an unfathomable, unprecedented formation. And it became quite impossible to tell whose each memory was, who was doing the remembering.”

Thus, a long-distance Russian tradition of writing about the Caucasus from a military colonial perspective — starting from the classical works by Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Bestuzhev to Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War in Chechnya, for instance — finds its offshoot: a story written not by a gunned outsider but rather by a sorry and romantic local who had broken away from his herd. This book is a reflection of the unceasing internal and external battles going on at this junction between Asia and Europe for so many decades.

A Dirty War by Anna Politkovskaya, 2001

Translated by John Crowfoot

Protest outside the Russian embassy in Helsinki following Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in 2014. Image: Amnesty Finland under a CC licence

The award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, killed in 2006 after having received a torrent of death threats, wrote a volume of articles about the turmoil, sufferings, and intrigues she observed during her many trips to the North Caucasus and Chechen battlefields. This book covers the corruption, greed, fear, and fearlessness at the turn of the millenium. Politkovskaya aptly shows the war’s effect on everyday life and morals, as it turns into a source of wealth and vanity for some, and torture and death for others. Almost 20 years later after it was written, the book also shine a light on the dawn of Vladimir Putin’s lasting power, who capitalised on the war conflict in the Caucasus to strengthen his rule.

The famous French author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, left us a compelling account of his trip through the Caucasus during its long and bloody war with the Russian Empire in the 1850s. On his way from Kizlyar to Derbent, Dumas is enchanted with the Caucasian cliffs and rivers, and the multi-ethnic diversity of the local population. He’s thrilled with Shamil’s guerrilla warriors’ dangerous lifestyle, amused with blood-chilling stories about local feats of arms, and regaled with exotic dishes. An abridged English translation would be an excellent treat for those who’d love to see the region from the humorous perspective of this famous, romantic, and very unreliable narrator.

The discord between secular and Muslim worlds, open and closed societies, as well as the issues surrounding territorial expansion or occupation, political power, freedom, and the beneficial or destructive blending of cultures, have been hotly discussed over the past years. The love-hate relationship between Russia and the North Caucasus seems to have spawned these themes in art and literature early on; yet next to nothing has actually been solved.

Lesley Blanche’s work is one of the few books that gives a clear outsider’s perspective on the historical background of today’s Russia-Caucasus relationship. The book mainly focuses on the Caucasian war of 1817-1864, featuring the first local Salafi-leader Imam Shamil as a commander of mountaineers and counter-insurgency generals. Though dedicated to the past, the finely written The Sabres of Paradise helps a reader better understand the present.

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