Representation of the Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

We’re sure that you’re aware of a fact that certain actions have certain consequences. You stole the last piece of the Red Velvet cake and now your sibling is upset. Or you had an argument with someone and now they’re not particularly keen on talking to you. Or you wrote a subversive piece of literature and you get sent off to a very far away geographical region which your country has been progressively invading for some time. Obviously, we’re exaggerating here slightly about the Red Velvet cakes; but the elements of intrigue, arguments, duels, subversive pieces of literature and most importantly history still stand. In this post we will be discussing Russian Romantic writers and their links to the Caucasus region.

Think like a Historian:

Why would a monarch be willing to send someone very far away from a capital city? Why do you think so?
Here is a modern-day map of the region we will be discussing in our post. (cc: Lermontov, M.Y., ‘A Hero of Our Time’, ed. Penguin Classics)

Russian Romanticism: A Brief Introduction

When academics mention the word “Romantic” or “Romanticism” they are usually referring to a socio-cultural movement that lasted from about 1780s to 1830s. Evidences for Romanticism are wide-ranging, such as paintings, music, and philosophical works. However, this post will solely focus on literary sources, such as poems and novels.

A brief overview of Romanticism and the philosophy behind it

Russian Romanticism was heavily influenced by two strands of contemporary thought: German philosophical tradition, called Naturphilosophie, and British Byronism. Thinkers of Naturphilosophie placed emphasis on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation. Byronism, on the other hand, was tied to aesthetics. Just as Naturphilosophie, Byronism highlights the importance of a special nature of humans in relation to nature. Differently to the German tradition, Byronism also emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two portraits. The one on the left depicts Lord Byron, who is considered to be the founder of the Byronic tradition. This portrait was painted in by a famous contemporary artist Richard Westall in 1813. The portrait on the right depicts A.S. Pushkin, a famous writer of the Russian Romantic tradition. It was painted by an experienced artist Orest Kiprensky in 1827. Can you find any similarities between the two portraits? Think about why these similarities could have arose in the first place. Is it just to make Pushkin’s portrait look fancy?

Caucasus in Russian Romantic Literature

One of the predominant ways how the Caucasus region is framed in Russian Romantic literary tradition is as a place of exile, veiled in a dream-like atmosphere that verges on a sense of longing. For instance, this is how A.S. Pushkin describes the Caucasian mountains in his narrative poem, A Prisoner of Caucasus: [Mount Beshtau] “Will I ever forget its gritty heights,/ Its gushing springs, its withering plains…The impressions of a young soul?”. In these lines there is a clear focus on a natural beauty and a sense of longing. Although it is possible to argue that Pushkin is exploiting a common contemporary literary trope that describes Caucasian mountains as having a special aesthetic quality, such a position ignores the possible explanation for why such tropes arose. Indeed, such descriptions shouldn’t come as a surprise as some of the Russian Romantic writers and poets were sent away to Caucasus at a young age as part of their punishment for what the State perceived to be subversive behaviour, including writing a piece of literature which undermined the authority of the State. The attitude expressed by Pushkin, who himself was exiled twice in his lifetime, therefore probably reflects the probable stifling effect the State-sponsored censorship had on individual writers as the Caucasus seems to represent a sense of freedom, despite the government officials framing the location as a punishment. Consequently, some Russian Romantics didn’t see Caucasus as the means of punishment but rather as a place of liberation, contrary to the official governmental position.

Unsurprisingly, another common association which the Russian Romantics tended to explore in their works is that of Caucasus as a place of earthly pleasure, and romantic pursuits. Such tropes could be seen in Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus, where the protagonist falls in love with a local woman, but has to leave her in order to come back to mainland Russia. As evidenced by the passage below, the narrator emphasises the overtly emotional attachment the woman has towards the character of the Prisoner. This may suggest that for Russian Romantic writers Caucasus was seen as a place of exotic pleasure which was maybe unattainable or seen as immoral within the elite social circles. However, as one could see in Lermontov‘s passage, the attachment to the region seems to also be in the potential secrecy of the encounters, rather than in the ‘exotic’ nature of locals. Although it is possible to argue that the two concepts are self-supporting as inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret from social circles back in St Petersburg or Moscow, such an argument lacks nuance. This is because it does not follow that socio-cultural inappropriate behaviour had to remain secret. After all, why would Pushkin boast about his long list of lovers in 1830s; and according to some literary critics and historians to have included some gypsy women whom he’d met whilst in exile in Bessarabia province? Consequently, some Russian Romantics, most prominently Pushkin, associated Caucasus with the possibility to lead a morally dubious lifestyle within the standards of their society.

Nevertheless, with hedonistic pursuits came various dangers. Some of such dangers seemed to have stemmed from conflicts that arose due to the subversion of the established social order and often ended up in duels as the means of the last resort to settle the conflict. Such is the case with the protagonist in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Grigori Pechorin, who ends up on duelling grounds to settle a dispute with another young man, Grushnickiy, over the hand of Countess Mary. Yet, a duelling trope seems to be very common to Russian literature of the period and not particularly associated with Caucasus. For example, Pushkin’s characters from Eugene Onegin, Onegin and Lensky participate in a duel in a similar circumstances as Pechorin and Grushnitskiy. As a result, Caucasus was probably not seen as somewhat of a massive duelling ground. Indeed, the descriptions of Caucasus lifestyle seem to focus predominantly on highly localised dangers. For instance, the main trope of Pushkin’s Prisoner of Caucasus is that the character of the Prisoner ends up in a remote Caucasian village because of an unexpected raid by local tribesmen onto his military garrison. This therefore suggests that Caucasus was associated with unexpectant dangers. Consequently,Caucasus was viewed as both a place of hedonistic pursuits and deathly dangers.

SOURCE TIME: This time we decided to make the sources slightly more fun. Here are two distinct duel scenes. The one at the top is taken from a film adaptation of Lermontov’s ‘A Hero of Our Time’. The one below it is taken from a film adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Assuming that both duels are somewhat grounded on original authors’ life experiences and that the film-makers of the adaptation did an excellent job at reconstructing the duels that took place in 1830s Russia what can you find out about duels and culture around them? Think about what kind of people participated in duels and most importantly why would the duels occur in real life? Would they be solely focused on resolving an argument?

Think like a Historian:

Based on the information in this post, why do you think there was such differing interpretations of Caucasus in Russian Romantic literature?

Important vocabulary

  • Aesthetic: the way an artist or a writer choses to portray their work according to what they think is beautiful.
  • Romanticism: a socio-cultural movement that lasted from 1780s to 1830s.
  • Naturphilosophie: a strand of philosophical thought that originated in Germany and focused on an idea that human beings are separate from nature, therefore suggesting that humans cannot be understood by using methods of scientific experimentation.
  • Byronism: a socio-cultural phenomena that later developed into its own philosophical thought that emphasised a self-indulgent, often inappropriate even by contemporary standards, behaviour and the value of human emotions on an individual level.

To explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the way Romanticism was incorporated into Russian philosophy and thought, we strongly recommend reading Marlene Laruelle’s Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Although it doesn’t focus on Russian Romantic thought throughout the entire book, there are several chapters that discuss it in detail.
  • If you’re generally interested in Romanticism generally a good place to start is N.V. Riasanovsky’s The Emergence of Romanticism. It’s a comprehensible read and the author gives the reader an in depth introduction to Romantic movements in Britain and Germany.
  • If you’re interested in finding more about Lermontov, we’re attaching an article about him to this bullet point.
  • If you’re interested reading both ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘Prisoner of Caucasus’ that are mentioned in the posts we’re attaching a pdf copy of the latter and a web-link to this bullet point.