A Russian reverie: Chechnya's literary legacy


* During a televised debate prior to France's 1995 presidential election, Jacques Chirac recalled a 'viscious Chechen' in a poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41), an author best known outside Russia for his novel A Hero of Our Time (1840). The quoted phrase correctly suggests historical antecedents to current Russian stereotypes of Chechens as a rebellious people prone to crime. However, Lermontov himself was no agitator for war against Chechnya. On the contrary, be was one of several writers who gave Russian readers thrilling images of the Caucasus as a realm of freedom on their despotic country's southern edge. This romantic literature contributed to a split in nineteenth-century Russian public opinion comparable to the modern-day cleavage between the Kremlin's party of war and proponents of non-violent resolution of tensions with Chechnya.

A division in Russian attitudes toward Caucasian mountain peoples occurred soon after the Napoleonic Wars. Certain Russian nobles then were envisioning the empire's peaceful assumption of control over Chechnya and other wild, Caucasian frontier territories. But the Russian state chose the war path instead, largely due to General Alexey Ermolov, the Caucasian viceroy and commander of the Caucasian army from 1816 to 1827. Ermolov convinced Tsar Alexander I that nothing but force would work, especially with Chechens, whom the general called the region's most dangerous, ethnic group. With a mind to pacifying, the area, Ermolov in 1818 founded Fort Grozny (a Russian name promising terror), and during the next few years Russia built more military outposts in Chechnya and Dagestan. Naturally alarmed at the incursion, the mountaineers began resisting. To punish, them for excessive 'love of independence,, the general instituted genocidal raids on their villages. Russian muskets were poor, and soldiers untrained in shooting. Raiders relied primarily on the bayonet and often did not spare even infants.

The ferocity of Ermolov's methods achieved the opposite of the Russian state's objective: instead of beating the mountaineers into submission, the raids encouraged a Muslim resistance movement in Chechnya and Dagestan. Well before the late 1820s, when the jihad against Russia started assuming major proportions, the self-defeating character of Ermolov's strategy struck Mikhail Orlov, a general who took no part in the Caucasian conquest. As Orlov wrote in a private letter of 1820:

It is just as hard to subjugate the Chechens and other peoples

of this region as to level the Caucasian range. This is not

something to achieve with bayonets but rather with time and

enlightenment, in such short supply in our country. The fighting may bring great personal benefits to Ermolov, but

none whatsoever to Russia.

Orlov's prophetic assessment indicates the lesson that today's Kremlin warmongers astonishingly failed to learn: Chechnya and Dagestan held the Tsar's troops at bay until 1859. Though greatly outnumbered, the mountaineers scored spectacular successes against the imperial army, particularly during bungled Russian campaigns into the Caucasus' rugged heights. Ultimately Russia achieved a military victory but at the cost of many tens of thousands of lives (vastly more lost to disease than combat). Mindful of the high price Tsarist Russia paid for the northern Caucasus, today's Chechen guerrillas derive psychological strength from their ancestors, formidable resistance, a factor which promises to keep them tough bargainers in negotiations for independence.

While the post-Soviet conflict with Chechnya has repeated military history in striking ways, the context of Russian civilian response to war has altered completely. Beginning with the January 1995 invasion of Grozny, the Russian media provided extensive coverage of carnage in Chechnya. Shocking television images in particular provoked anti-militarist outcries from Russian parliament members and ordinary citizens concerned for their relatives in uniform. By contrast, Tsarist censors kept Caucasian campaigns in the dark (a policy General Ermolov in 1845 justly attributed to the Russian state's embarrassment at the mountaineers, military prowess). With no printed news from the front, early nineteenth-century Russia's tiny readership fell under the spell of romantic literature which portrayed the Caucasus as an alpine refuge from tyranny and boredom.

The trend began with Alexander Pushkin's (1799-1837 "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" (1822), a Byronic poem which created a Russian literary vogue for sublime scenery, valiant mountain men and lovely "mountain maids". Despite the aggressiveness of Pushkin's mountaineers Cone of whom kills a Cossack border guard) no commentators of the period typed them as barbarians. Quite the contrary, the tribes acquired a Russian reputation for martial heroism, charming folklore, a pleasingly 'simple way of life', and generosity within their own communities, where agriculture as well as pillaging provided the economic base. About two months after finishing the tale of captivity, Pushkin added a patriotic epilogue which foresaw Russian domination of the Caucasus. However, this coda ignited no flame of Russian national antagonism toward the mountaineers. Instead of waxing chauvinistic, the public evidently cherished the vicarious satisfaction of plunging into a free, invigorating alpine zone just outside the dispiriting Russian police-state. Many Russian readers knew by heart Pushkin's stanzas in praise of 'Circassian liberty,. in tune with Pushkin's romanticism, Lermontov and other soul-stirring Russian authors of the 1830s and 1840s continued to associate the mountain frontier with freedom and dashing tribesmen.

Pushkin's immensely popular captivity tale gave "Circassian" currency as a term Russians applied to all Caucasian mountaineers, including Chechens. `The Prisoner of the Caucasus' briefly presents a `Chechen' in the 'Circassian' milieu, and Pushkin's correspondence of 1820 uses the two ethnic designations interchangeably. The author's unfinished poem 'Tazit' (1829) still employed 'Circassian' as an all-purpose name for mountaineers but highlighted Chechens as an especially war-devoted people. The eponymous Chechen hero is a dreamy fellow estranged from his martial culture. His peculiarity provokes angry words from his father: You're no Chechen! You're an old woman, a coward, a slave, an Armenian!' (a reflection of Russia's stereotype of the Armenian as merchant).

Especially when the Caucasian war escalated in the 1830s, Russian writers invented an ignoble breed of mountaineer, a type associated mainly with Chechnya. This low-brow literature dispensed some reliable ethnographic information, telling readers, for instance, that the Chechens' self designation was 'Nakhchuo'. But the dominant characters in these now forgotten tales were vicious, Chechens, the mountain thugs who abuse their women, kill each other in vendettas and hold to ransom Russian prisoners in fetid pits. Bloodthirsty as the men, Chechen women of this

Lermontov entered into a polemical dialogue with this Russian pulp literature's wicked Chechens. In 1837, after writing a poem which blamed court circles for Pushkin's death in a duel, Lermontov was exiled into the Caucasian army for a year, but did not see action. He returned to Russia full of fresh impressions of the mountain territory he had grown to love during boyhood visits to the estate and silk factory one of his relatives had built on the bank of the Terek river, between Kizliar and Grozny, where a town had developed around the Russian fort. Among the poems inspired by Lermontov's first military exile was Cossack Lullaby'. The Cossack woman who sings this song conjures a wicked Chechen as a bogey to make her baby go to sleep. The phrase illustrates Lermontov's frequent habit of orchestrating somebody else's words. He employs here a Russian stereotype of Chechens but hides his personal attitude toward it. By contrast, other poems of the period in Lermontov's own voice feature a Chechen as a brave warrior or dignified storyteller, friendly to a Russian traveller.

Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time most drastically disrupted the `vicious Chechen, cliche. Set in Chechen country, the book's first episode recounts a love affair between the Europeanised Russian officer Pechorin and the tribeswoman Bela (designated a 'Circassian'). Bela's brother Azamat delivers her to Pechorin in exchange for a splendid horse which the Russian has stolen for this purpose from Kazbich, a swarthy, slovenly Chechen. Vengeful Kazbich kidnaps Bela and fatally stabs her in the back as Pechorin watches helplessly from a distance. The old Russian captain who tells this story calls Chechens `cut-throats, and Kazbich's face a 'bandit's mug'. Lermontov's self-effacing narration provoked debate about the story's meaning. Patriotic Russians of the time predictably interpreted Kazbich as the sort of wild man the conquest aimed to reform -- or eliminate, if necessary. Yet some of these very commentators posed a question which inadvertently eroded the ground from under their imperialist feet: Why had Lermontov made Pechorin a bad sort so difficult to distinguish morally from Kazbich?

Even more than his ironic writings, Lermontov's second military exile interfered with the Russian state's effort to inculcate national pride in the conquest. After a duel wit the French ambassador's son in St Petersburg in 1840, the author was dispatched to the Chechen front where he participated in heavy combat as an officer. This exile exemplified Nicholas I's practice of using the Caucasus `southern Siberia, to punish anybody he chose. Besides Lermontov, several other men of letters and over 3,000 participants in the Decembrist conspiracy to overthrow Tsar in 1825 were banished to the Caucasian army. In addition, military commanders in Russia regularly rid their units of criminals and deserters by transferring them to Caucasus, an assignment the peasant soldiers dreaded.

Like many of the less famous and wholly anonymous men compelled to serve in the Caucasian army, Lermontov was killed there. He died at Pyatigorsk in a duel with a Russian officer humiliated by his jests. Although not combat-related, Lermontov's death symbolized for his admirers the Caucasian war's tragic, punitive aspect for Russia. Enforced military service in the borderland brought death to other beloved writers as well, and the public tended to construe them as victims rather than heroes.

While Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) never suffered military exile, he developed into Russia's most virulent critic of empire's assault on Chechnya. He became acquainted the region in the early 1850s while quartered with the imperial army in a Cossack community, first as a curious noncombatant and then as a commissioned officer. As shown in his novel The Cossacks (1863), he was impressed by the Russian frontiersmen'ss immemorial traditions of commerce, intermarriage and recurrent but limited warfare with their Chechen neighbors. An old Cossack of Tolstoy's story typifies Russian soldiers as invasive brutes whose raids have destroyed the two local cultures, modus vivendi. In harmony with this view, young Tolstoy's diary called the Caucasian War ugly and unjust, (and he left for the Crimean War soon after receiving his commission). The moral revulsion Tolstoy expressed at that time permeates Hadji Murat, a book he wrote between 1896 and 1904. After the Russians of this novel raid a Chechen village, the surviving mountaineers gather to decide how to cope with the senseless cruelty, of bayonet-wielding attackers like `rats, venomous spiders or wolves. Their decision is to join Imam Shamil's Holy War.

Where lay the greater burden of savagery, in the Caucasian conquest? As illustrated by the 1894 memoir of a Tsarist military man named F. von Kliman, Russia reached no consensus on this question. Von Kliman belonged to the pro-war camp, still convinced that the mountaineers had been too backward to understand anything except force. Yet he recalled, with sarcasm, how other Russians thought peaceful measures could have succeeded. Some of those people, he records, had gone so far as to dismiss the conquest as a 'harmful and useless escapade of ambitious generals'.

A remarkably similar perception of the recent Chechen war now prevails among Russian citizens. Some undoubtedly consider Chechens a `viscious', worthless breed Can old prejudice the guerrillas certainly reinforced by menacing Russian civilians, as at the hospital at Budennovsk in june 1995). All the same, Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya are being remembered as victims expended for no good cause. Politically ambitious General Lebed surely tapped into this anti-militarist sentiment when he negotiated the peace settlement in Grozny last August. Whether the peace holds or not, and in spite of his own subsequent full from grace, Lebed's success in halting the bloodshed at that time will not be forgotten by an electorate alienated from the Russian state's hardliners on the issue of Chechnya's succession.

Susan Layton is a research associate at the Centre d'Etudes du Monde Russe, Sovietique et post-Sovirtique, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, Paris. She is the author of Russian Literature and Empire. Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge University Press, 1994).


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