Bloody Verses: Rereading Pushkin's «Prisoner of the Caucasus»

John Lyles

 

Pushkin’s 1822 narrative poem, Prisoner of the Caucasus (Kavkazskii plennik), is frequently pointed to as Russia’s first literary introduction to the Caucasus and its peoples. Belinsky praised it both for its accurate representation of the region and for the beauty of its verses.[1] One section of the poem, the so-called ethnographic section in which the Circassian customs and way of life are described in some detail, was reprinted six times in Pushkin’s life alone.[2] Yet, for all of its popularity, critics and readers alike have continued to struggle with the poem’s epilogue and its relation to the first two parts of the story. This epilogue, written approximately three months after Pushkin finished the first two parts of the poem, differs both stylistically and thematically from the remainder of the work. Resembling first the elegy, then the epic narrative, and finally the ceremonial ode, as Harsha Ram points out, the form of the epilogue is as discordant as its apparent new message: the celebration of imperial might and the outright conquest of the Caucasus.[3]

And, in fact, the epilogue does express a clearer political message than the remainder of the poem by celebrating the destruction of the Caucasian tribes and the expansion of the Russian Empire:

И воспою тот славный час,
Когда, почуя бой кровавый,
На него дующий Кавказ
Подъялся наш орел двуглавый
[…]
Тебя я воспою, герой,
О Котляревский, бич Кавказа!
Куда ни мчался ты грозой—
Твой ход, как черная зараза,
Губил, ничтожил племена
[…]
И смолкнул ярый крик войны:
Все русскому мечу под властно.
Кавказа гордые сыны,
Сражались, гибли вы ужасно.[4]

And I will celebrate that glorious hour,
When, having felt the bloody attack,
Upon the indignant Caucasus
Our double-headed eagle raised itself
[…]
You I glorify, hero,
O Kotliarevskii, the scourge of the Caucasus!
Wherever you rushed, a terror—
Your speed, like a black plague,
Destroyed, annihilated tribes.
[…]
And the violent cry of war fell silent:
All is subject to the Russian sword.
Proud sons of the Caucasus,
You have fought, you have perished terribly.[5]

In this article I will offer a new interpretation of Pushkin’s epilogue and its relationship to the remainder of the poem. Pushkin succeeds in problematizing Russian imperial expansion precisely through the addition of such a nationalistic ending to what at first appears to be a Romantic work about an exotic people. In the first two parts of the poem, Pushkin plays on his readers’ expectations, largely based on European literature, in particular Byron, as well as on their own unspoken, sometimes unconscious, desires to experience vicariously the danger and excitement of the still mythical Caucasus.[6] He then describes the bloody consequences of this fascination with the region and its peoples: total conquest by Russia and the destruction of Caucasian society. Pushkin’s poem reveals the double-edged sword of imperialistic expansionism: on the one hand, there is an idealization of the Other and its way of life, while on the other, contact between the empire and the Other leads to the destruction of that way of life. From this conclusion, I will then reread Pushkin’s poem with this end in mind and show how the body of the work leads more organically to the epilogue than it first appears.

Reaction to the Epilogue

Upon publication, Pushkin’s epilogue inspired little to no commentary. In fact, in the majority of reviews of the poem, literary critics simply chose not to address it.[7] Susan Layton suggests that critics were unwilling to speak out against the epilogue due to the political climate of the time.[8] In private, though, the epilogue caused some degree of discomfort for at least one of Pushkin’s contemporaries, Prince Viazemsky. “It grieves me, that Pushkin stained with blood the last verses of his tale,” he writes to Alexander Turgenev in a letter from September 1822. “What kind of hero is Kotliarevsky, Yermolov? What here is good, that he, ‘like a black plague, / Destroyed, annihilated tribes?’ From such praise, one’s blood freezes and one’s hair stands on end.”[9] He goes on to complain that it was impossible even “to allude” (nameknut´) to his displeasure with the epilogue in his review of the poem due to the censor.[10]

The Soviet scholar, Boris Tomashevsky, offers one of the lengthier and more detailed analyses of the poem,and the epilogue in particular. Regarding the epilogue, Tomashevsky states that “Here his tone does not at all recall the elegiac verses of the poem itself.”[11] He goes on to read the epilogue as an attempt to correct the depiction of the Circassians in the main body of the poem. Having presented an idealized image of the mountaineers, Pushkin uses the epilogue to remind the reader that the Circassian way of life was not superior to the Russian.[12] Tomashevsky further explains the imperialistic message of the final section of Pushkin’s poem by connecting Pushkin’s thinking about the Caucasus with the Decembrist Pavel Pestel.

Pestel, while supporting the attempted overthrowing of the tsar, nevertheless remained very much a believer both in Russia’s superiority over Asia and the Caucasus and in its need to maintain its borders. As Layton summarizes, “This outlook made Russian imperialism in the orient fully compatible with a program for radical reform and modernization at home.”[13] Pushkin met Pestel in Kishinev in April 1821 and wrote about their meeting in his diary. While the specifics of their conversation are unknown, Tomashevsky claims that this conversation only confirmed Pushkin’s beliefs about the Caucasus, beliefs he expresses in the letter of 20 September 1820, written to his brother. In this letter, Pushkin writes:

The savage Circassians have become timorous; their ancient audacity is disappearing. The roads are becoming less dangerous by the hour, and the numerous convoys are becoming superfluous. It is to be hoped that this conquered land, which until now has brought no real benefit to Russia, will soon form a bridge between us and the Persians for safe trading, that it will not be an obstacle to us in future wars—and that perhaps we shall carry out Napoleon’s chimerical plan of conquering India.[14]

Tomashevsky then concludes that Pushkin was inevitably influenced by Pestel, the result of which can be found in the tone and content of the epilogue.[15]

In the West, meanwhile, scholars have offered a variety of new and interesting interpretations of the epilogue’s role as they, too, struggle to reconcile it with the main portion of the poem. Katya Hokanson echoes Tomashevsky’s opinion of the epilogue as a corrective, but with a slight twist: “Pushkin finds it incumbent upon himself to restore the feeling of the rebellious Caucasus that must be put down, since the second part of the poem has allowed the Russian prisoner to be so completely in control of his relationship with the Circassian girl, that is, in control of his relationship with the Caucasus.”[16] She goes on to say that “since in the body of the poem the Circassian warriors admire the captive and do not prevent his escape, the epilogue restores, as well, their threat to Russia, or at least to Russian travelers.”[17]

Susan Layton interprets the epilogue as Pushkin’s attempt to please the government in the hopes of obtaining an early release from exile.[18] Stephanie Sandler says this about the epilogue: “Rather than echoing the descriptions of Circassian courage and steadfastness that mark the poem proper, these lines describe the Caucasian peoples as abandoning the traits that have made them who they are … in order to become a conquered people.”[19] Despite this, though, she shows how such patriotism is not completely foreign to Pushkin’s poetry, while also claiming the epilogue “sounds a note of indifferent mastery that resonates elsewhere in the tale.”[20]

Harsha Ram believes the relationship of the epilogue with the remainder of the poem is more complex than a simple corrective of seemingly anti-imperial sentiments: “I would suggest that, taken as a whole, Kavkazskiiplennik neither avoids nor simply underwrites the imperial project. Whatever the ideological premise of the epilogue, it is refracted through a complex relationship to the generic forms within and alongside which it functions.”[21] He elsewhere suggests that the elegiac tone of the epilogue marks Pushkin’s “increasing ambivalence towards the imperial state.”[22] Adrian Wanner sees a more organic connection between the poem and the epilogue through the theme of death that runs throughout the work.[23]

The variety of interpretations of Pushkin’s epilogue speaks to just how discordant it appears to be with the remainder of the poem. There are several reasons readers and critics continue struggling with the epilogue’s place in relation to the body of the work. First, the style of the epilogue, with its abrupt jingoism, contrasts harshly with the preceding verses, which have been all but universally praised for their beauty and perceived accuracy. Besides Belinsky (quoted above), who, among other things, lauded the poem’sveracity,[24] Pushkin’s contemporary, Piotr Pletnev, states:

One may decidedly call the local descriptions in The Prisoner of the Caucasus perfection of poetry. A poet with less talent than Pushkin could have better conceived the narrative; but his descriptions of the Caucasian land will forever remain paramount, unparalleled. On his descriptions remain the amazing impress of evident truth, the clear, so to speak, tangibility of the places, of the people, of their lives, and of their occupations, in which our poetry is not so rich.[25]

Meanwhile, D. S. Mirsky attributes the poem’s popularity first and foremost to “the wonderful music of [its] verse.”[26] This pleasure readers experienced over Pushkin’s talent as a poet was marred by the epilogue’s sudden celebration of conquest and imperial might.

Second, the setting and subject matter of the poem charmed readers as much as the style of the verse. Readers were enchanted by the tragic love story, by the beauty and guilelessness of the heroine, and by the exotic flavor of its supporting cast.[27] Many readers, in fact, were drawn to the Circassian maiden, whom they pitied and liked more than the Russian. [28] She not only nurses the Russian back to health, but she keeps him company in his solitude. Furthermore, she falls in love with him and selflessly sacrifices herself to help him escape. The prisoner’s own selfish and cold treatment of the maiden only heightens her pathos. Along with the role of caring nurturer the Circassian maiden plays, her innocence and sensuality also appealed to readers. She is both sexually aggressive and entirely chaste, two things that, despite seeming in opposition to one another, would have allowed Pushkin’s readers to live out their own sexual fantasies about the wild women of the Caucasus.[29] Much of the poem (particularly the second part) is concerned with the maiden and her developing relationship with the Russian. It is no wonder, then, that the sudden shift to an epic-like impersonal celebration of Russian imperialism and conquest over the Circassians caught Pushkin’s readers off guard (and continues to surprise new readers).

Beyond the beautiful and sexually available maiden, though, readers also related to the Circassian warrior. Layton suggests that readers saw in the fierce warrior tribe an “underground Russian self.”[30] She writes, “Circassian and Russian identities interpenetrate one another extensively in ‘The Prisoner of the Caucasus.’ The poem’s mountain warriors have three major lines of affiliation with Russian national aspirations and values: liberty, heroic machismo and simple moeurs.”[31] In the aftermath of the victory over Napoleon in the war of 1812, along with the growing discontent with the tsarist regime, Layton posits that Russian readers responded to the image of the Circassian warrior, both to his martial ability and to his opposition to the Russian government.[32] Thus, a sudden celebration of the defeat of these noble warriors at the hands of the hated tsarist regime contrasted sharply with many readers’ sentiments and interpretation of the preceding sections.

Supporting this reaction is the tone of the narration in the body of the poem, which fluctuates between a neutral retelling of events and a sympathetic representation of the Circassians, often including what can only be described as admiration for them as a people. This respect and admiration can be seen in a number of places. The lengthy ethnographic passage, for instance, begins with the narrator virtually gushing over the Circassian warrior’saccouterments and superior ability with weapons. Taking this praise even further, the narrator appears to celebrate the kidnapping of an unwary traveler, who strangely resembles the Russian prisoner, and the silent assassination of an unwary Cossack, both at the hands of the Circassian.[33] It is with an “udar moguchii” (mighty blow) that he overpowers the imagined traveler, before dragging him near to death behind his “kon´ retivyi” (ardent steed), which is full of “ognennaia otvaga” (fiery courage) (100/237).[34] Against the Cossack, who is daydreaming of his homeland, the Circassian is “neutomimyi i bezmolvnyi” (tireless and silent) as he swims across the “bystry volny” (rapid waves) to take down the guard with an “okrovavlennyi kurgan” (bloodied arrow) (101/238).

The tone of these two passages reveals a narrator who is in awe of his subject matter: the capable and deadly Circassian warrior. Meanwhile the narrator’s attitude towards the Circassian maiden can best be described as compassionate and tender, although not without a hint of sexual interest, as well. Her native speech is called “volshebnyi” (magical), and her “vzor umil´nyi” (sweet gaze) and “golos nezhnyi” (tender voice) do more to bring the prisoner back from the brink of death than the kumys she gives him to drink (94/234). Later, the narrator addresses the maiden using the informal ty, while the kinds of adjectives the narrator uses to describe the maiden reveal his attitude towards her perhaps more effectively than anything else. Thus, the “deva” (girl) is “strastnaia” (passionate) (106/241), with “ognennyi, nevinnyi vzor” ([a] fiery, innocent gaze) (105/240) as the story builds to the prisoner’s rejection of her, and “bednaia” (poor) (108/ 244) and “pechal´na i bledna” (sorrowful and pale) (111/246) in her response to that rejection.

The empathy and pathos with which the narrator describes the Circassian maiden reach their peak when he describes her tragic ending. While she sets the prisoner free, the narrator describes “vgliad ee bezumnyi” (her mad glance) which “liubvi poryv izobrazil” (expressed a burst of love) (111/247). Her aping back to the Russian his earlier reasons for rejecting her as explanation for her unhappy fate enhances both the irony and the pathos of the situation. Finally, the maiden’s suicide, to which she calmly goes, “ruka s rukoi” (hand in hand) with the source of her pain, leaves the narrator and reader deeply touched by her sacrifice (112/247). It is into this quiet moment of sadness and sympathy for the Circassian maiden that the epilogue bursts with its sudden and noisy imperialistic celebration of the final and total destruction of Circassian society, largely represented at this moment by the kind and tragic maiden.

The harsh transition from the empathetic and moving account of a young maiden’s broken heart and tragic death to the jingoistic celebration of Russia’s conquest of that maiden’s people is further magnified by what appears at first to be the sudden and unexpected betrayal by the narrator himself. Having so touchingly described the Circassian people, admiring their lifestyle and their martial ability, while being as enchanted by the beautiful maiden as many of his readers, the narrator abandons the sentiment of the rest of his work, as is seen in the quoted sections of the epilogue above. This abrupt shift in tone comes across as insincere, unbelievable, or cruelly deceptive. Regardless of which conclusion readers make, such a tone is in sharp contrast with the remainder of the work. Thus, the epilogue is doubly jarring in its sudden shift in both tone and narrative identification.

Two Sides of the Imperial Coin

Rather than try to explain away the epilogue as an attempt to appease the tsar or correct a narrator (and reader) grown too infatuated with his or her subject matter, Pushkin’s epilogue problematizes the imperial project by showing it for what it was: the annihilation of a people sympathetic and human, with whom his readers largely related over the first two parts of the poem. Without the epilogue, Pushkin’s poem is left only vaguely undermining Russian imperialism, as Layton states, largely through references to the freedom of the Circassians.[35] The epilogue is the key to the poem’s evaluation of the imperial project, as well as evidence of Pushkin’s own understanding of the end result for the Caucasus of Russia’s literary (and otherwise) exploration of the region. The hyper-imperialistic conclusion abruptly and harshly draws the readers’ attention to the consequences of their interest in the Caucasus, an interest they have been guiltlessly satisfying throughout the first two parts of the poem.

Parts I and II of the poem are just one side of the coin. In them, Pushkin encapsulates all that Russia (and the West) found exciting and enchanting about the Caucasus (and the Orient): the exotic Other, noble, yet savage, living in an age long past, guided by simple laws and uncorrupted by the advances in science and technology that had left many in Russia plagued with ennui, just like Pushkin’s prisoner; the beautiful maiden, both sexually pure and available, who is waiting for, even longing for, a Russian to sweep her away from her life. These two parts are a prime example of what Edward Said would more than a century later show to be the West’s developing mythology about the East that sprung up with the Occident’s first encounters with the Orient.[36] “The ‘positive’ features with which the west confronted the Oriental ‘enigma’ … were precisely those about which western culture had betrayed ambivalence since the Enlightenment: every step of rational or civilized progress had begotten an antithetical longing for nature, emotion, the past, or mystical truth.”[37] To Pushkin’s readers, many of whom had only an abstract understanding of the war in the Caucasus[38] and viewed the region as a source of inspiration and a place of religious sanctuary,[39] the first two parts of the work provided them with plenty of material for their sentimental fantasies.

But readers’ wistful participation in the Orient comes with a price, which most of Pushkin’s contemporaries overlooked, ignored, or simply did not know existed, and which Pushkin presciently shows with his poem. It is the other side of the imperial coin, and the epilogue encapsulates it. Russia’s expansion south and its discovery of the exotic Other and their charming way of life come at the cost of the very way of life so admired among the locals, the end of which the epilogue celebrates.[40] In an example of Pushkin’s understanding of the relationship between empires and smaller nations or tribes of people, the inclusion of the epilogue highlights the price of Russia’s knowledge of the Caucasus by successfully bringing the violence of the imperial project into light for the first time.[41] It serves to shake the reader out of his or her daydream, pulling back the curtain on the fantasy that is the West’s encounter with the Orient. Furthermore, it makes the reader and his or her seemingly harmless infatuation with the Caucasus complicit in the region’s destruction.

Rather than allow the reader to enter the Orient, take pleasure in it, perhaps even learn something, and then leave (rather than mimic the arc of the Russian prisoner, that is), Pushkin’s epilogue is the price of admission, the moral and actual cost of Russia’s knowledge of the Caucasus. With the so-called discovery, in this case literarily, of the Caucasus by the Russian Empire comes the bittersweet realization that these quaint, primitive, exotic visions of the past are destined to perish forever. With their discovery, comes their eventual destruction, as imperial expansion by the so-called more advanced and civilized West does not allow for such exotic tribes to remain intact and untouched. Pushkin’s poem shows that the poet understood this fact. His epilogue, through its sharp juxtaposition with the remainder of the work, ensures that his readers will, at the very least, feel discomfort over this paradoxical relationship, if not grasp the true nature of that relationship.

If Pushkin had ended his poem with the maiden’s suicide and the prisoner’s successful return home, it would have still been considered one of his early masterpieces and Russia’s true literary introduction to the Caucasus, but it would not have achieved the level of genius it does with the epilogue included. Pushkin’s poem expertly captures the West’s fascination with the exotic Orient, regardless of, or perhaps precisely because of, their “savage” nature. Likening nineteenth-century Russia’s view of the Orient to an untamed animal, Hokanson argues that one can admire a wild animal, but still wish it to be locked up.[42] Pushkin’s poem encapsulates the West’s desire to safely interact with the wild Other. As discussed above, Russian readers were able to live vicariously through Pushkin’s poem. They approached the cage, touched the creature, and marveled at its power and strangeness, all from the safety afforded them by the iron bars. Pushkin’s epilogue draws the readers’ attention to the bloody and ultimately deadly price the Caucasus will pay for Russia’s knowledge of and interaction with it by emphasizing the future destruction of its peoples through Russian conquest. The reaction of his readers, embodied in Viazemsky’s recriminations of the bloody verses, reveals just how successful the poem is in articulating both sides of the West’s encounter with the East.

Rereading the Poem

The sudden change in tone, style, and content found in the epilogue challenges our initial interpretation of the poem and begs the reader to return to the first two parts to see if we simply misread them. Perhaps there were indications that Pushkin was building to this epilogue all along. Rereading the poem with the epilogue in mind does, in fact, introduce new shades of meaning and interpretation. Pushkin foreshadows the other side of the Russian reader’s interest in the exotic and unknown region by encoding the justification for the destruction of Circassian society in the body of his poem. All of those things readers found fascinating and exotic about the Caucasus have one unifying feature: violence. It is the violent nature the poem shows as inherent to the Caucasus that will justify the Russian conquest of the region celebrated in the epilogue.

The unifying theme of violence between the epilogue and the body of the poem is evident from the opening lines.[43] This first scene depicts Circassians quietly relaxing around the aul. However, the way they pass their free time here is significant:

Вауле, на своих порогах,
Черкесы праздные сидят.
Сыны Кавказа говорят
Обранных, гибельных тревогах,
О красоте своих коней,
О наслажденьях дикой неги… (89)

In the aul, on their thresholds,
The idle Circassians sit.
The sons of the Caucasus speak
Of martial alarms, disastrous,
Of the beauty of their horses,
Of the enjoyments of wild bliss… (230)

Of primary importance in their reminiscences are their military feats, whether successful or not. Of secondary importance is the quality of their steeds, which, as the narrator will inform us later in the poem, are weapons themselves, a Circassian’s best friend, and his most reliable ally. Finally, occupying the place of least importance, are women, who are won in battle.[44] All three are intricately bound to war. Thus, even when the Circassians are ostensibly at peace, violence is ever present. For example, their discussion quickly turns more explicitly violent:

Воспоминают прежних дней
Неотразимые набеги,
Обманы хитрых узденей,
Удары шашеких жестоких,
Имет кость неизбежных стрел,
И пепел разоренных сел,
И ласки пленниц чернооких (89).

They recall the former days
Of raids that could not be repulsed,
Of the treachery of sly leaders,
Of the blows of their cruel sabers,
And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,
And of the ash of destroyed villages,
And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners (230–31).

These lines expand significantly on just what the Circassians mean when they discuss “martial alarms” and “the enjoyments of wild bliss.” The raids are frequent and devastating, often leaving whole villages destroyed, their leaders are treacherous, and the captured women are held as sex slaves.

From the first few lines, then, the reader is left with an image of the Circassians as violent, treacherous, sly, cruel, and extremely effective warriors who rape their female captives. They frequently participate in raids in which they kill or enslave their victims and burn their villages to the ground. Given the ongoing war in the Caucasus, the violent descriptions of Circassian raids found in this opening passage would perhaps not be that surprising, even to those readers who knew few details of the war effort. However, what is unique (and misleading) is that the passage begins in Circassian domestic space, far from any threat, and yet the Circassians are still focused on violence. Even when at peace, then, violence is at the center of their lives. In this way, Pushkin’s opening lines suggest the primary place of war and martial ability—two things that prevent Russia’s “civilizing” project—in Circassian society.

The peaceful discussion of violence, though, is quickly replaced with actual violence and savagery when the Russian prisoner is dragged into the aul. The means by which the prisoner is brought to the aul, as well as the condition he is in upon arrival, speaks to the violent and cruel behavior of the Circassians that we see reflected in their reminiscences. The prisoner is “vlachil” (dragged) by the Circassian’s horse to the point of disfigurement (89/231). Such a method of kidnapping suggests that whether or not the prisoner is brought to the aul alive is of little importance, thereby casting the Circassians in a barbaric light.

The aul’s response to the prisoner’s arrival reveals the Circassians’ swift and deadly readiness to do battle that is palpable throughout the poem. The village immediately comes “sbezhalsia / Ozhestochennoiu tolpoi…” (running / In a fierce crowd…) (89/231). Ozhestochennyi, the word used to describe the crowd of Circassians, not only has the meaning of fierce, but of hardened as well. Hardened, here, in the sense of hardened to violence and war. The Circassians demonstrate this callousness with their reaction to the mutilated and near-dead victim: they shout threats before leaving him, chained and alone, to live or die. This second stanza, then, continues the image of the Circassians as a malicious and violent people, unmoved by acts of cruelty. Thus, in the opening lines of his poem, Pushkin immediately establishes the threat of the Circassians to Russia, not only by describing the brutal kidnapping of a Russian, but also by the many details of violence included in this short passage.

The second passage that continues Pushkin’s description of the Circassian people is the famous ethnographic scene, in which the narrator describes the Circassian customs and mores. It is no wonder many during Pushkin’s lifetime turned to “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” for “reliable ethnography,” the poem being beautifully written and featuring intriguing details about the Circassian way of life.[45] The narrator introduces this scene as if it will be from the Russian’s perspective.

Но европейца всё вниманье
Народ сей чудный привлекал.
Меж горцев пленник наблюдал
Ихверу, нравы, воспитанье,
Любил их жизни простоту,
Гостеприимство, жажду брани,
Движений вольных быстроту,
И легкость ног, и силу длани […] (99)

But all of the attention of the European
Was attracted by this marvelous people.
Among the mountain people the prisoner observed
Their faith, customs, upbringing,
Loved the simplicity of their life,
Their hospitality, their thirst for battle,
The swiftness of their free movements,
And the lightness of their feet,
And the strength of their fists […] (236)

Pushkin’s prisoner is seemingly enthralled by his captors, observing their way of life with interest. That the Circassians are called “chudnyi” (marvelous) and that the prisoner “Liubil ikh zhizni prostotu” (loved the simplicity of their life), suggests to the reader that the prisoner is positively disposed to the Circassians, despite their role as captors. Lines such as these help explain the reader’s surprise at the epilogue. However, even here there is a focus on the Circassian’s martial ability (“their thirst for battle,” etc.). This focus continues in the lines that follow.

After this brief introduction from the prisoner’s point of view, the narrator quickly takes over and waxes poetic on his own. He begins with a description of a Circassian warrior, praising his clothing: “On liubovalsia krasotoi / Odezhdy brannoi i prostoi” (He admired the beauty / Of clothing both martial and simple) (99/237); and his “vid / Nepobedimyi, nepreklonnyi” (look / undefeatable, unbending) (100/237). The narrator sings the praises of the Circassian horse, as well, calling it “kon´ retivyi” (an ardent steed), “tovarishch vernyi” (faithful friend), and “ispolnen ognennoi otvagi” (full of fiery courage) (100/237). One whole stanza is even dedicated to the Circassian’s superiority over the Cossack in battle. Moving from the militaristic aspect of the Circassian way of life, the narrator then devotes a stanza to the hospitality one encounters among the tribesmen, before describing a religious feast and the Circassian youth who compete in games of dexterity and speed. Finally, the narrator describes the more violent games that tend to spring up during “bezumnoi rezvosti pirov” (the mad playfulness of feasts) and which lead to the deaths of servants and to the joy of children (103/239). Again, the tone we encounter here is one of praise and admiration, yet it is an admiration based largely on the Circassian’s ability in battle and his superiority over the Cossack (and by extension over Russia).

The narrator introduces this ethnographic passage by stating, “plennik nabliudal / Ikh veru, nravy, vospitan´e” (the prisoner observed / their faith, customs, upbringing), thereby suggesting that the description that follows will reveal precisely this: the Circassian way of life (99/236). Considering the emphasis and importance placed on this particular passage, it is worth examining more closely. What will quickly become evident is, just as in the opening lines, Pushkin infuses violence into what at first appears to be an objective, neutral scene.

Just what is included in the “veru, nravy, vospitan´e” (faith, customs, upbringing) that the prisoner observes among the Circassians? Of the 113 lines (112 in the translation) that make up this section, the first 77 (76) are devoted to praising the Circassian warrior for his ability to kidnap travelers and assassinate Cossacks, as described above. Thus, the first two-thirds of this section is devoted to the Circassian aptitude for violence. After this, 16 lines discuss the custom of Circassian hospitality, one of only two times in the poem that violence is not present when the Circassians are mentioned (the other being when their return from the fields is briefly described). The next 12 lines are given to a description of Bairan, or “Ramazan, Muslim Lent,” as one of Pushkin’s footnotes informs us (253). Ramazan, or Ramadan, is a religious observance that celebrates the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. It is marked by a month of fasting from dawn to sunset every day and frequent prayer. The narrator, however, does not provide a description of fasting and prayer to accompany his mention of Bairan. Instead, he describes the games the Circassian youth play during this time: shooting eagles out of the sky and racing like “lani” (does) (103/239). The long passage ends with eight more lines that describe the Circassians’ behavior at feasts in general, rather than the details of those feasts, i.e., what they celebrate.

Но скучен мир однообразный
Сердцам, рожденным для войны,
И часто игры воли праздной
Игрой жестокой смущены.
Нередко шашки грозно блещут
В безумной резвости пиров,
И в прах летят главы рабов,
И в радости младенцы плещут. (103)

But monotonous peace is boring
To hearts that are born for war,
And often the games of idle liberty
Are troubled with a cruel game.
At times the swords fiercely flash
In the mad playfulness of feasts,
And into the earth fly the heads of slaves,
And the young children dance for joy. (239)

With this passage, particularly the line “Serdtsam, rozhdennym dlia voiny” (hearts that are born for war), the narrator is describing the Circassians as genetically predisposed to violence. Warfare and aggression are in their blood and as much a part of them as is their skin color or sex. It cannot be changed. The young children who dance for joy at the sight of the slaves’ beheadings serve to support his point. Furthermore, the deadly violence is likened to “rezvost´” (playfulness), suggesting a general lack of respect for human life. What begins as a description of feasts becomes a general description of the Circassian predisposition to violence.

Thus, the main ethnographic passage of the poem that boldly claims to offer the reader a depiction of the “vera, nravy, vospitan´e” (faith, customs, upbringing) of the Circassian people in fact offers us a fairly one-sided picture of a people who are inherently violent, willing to commit murder simply to alleviate boredom. Beyond the 16 lines that discuss hospitality, the rest manage to introduce or highlight the violent nature of the Circassians, despite the mention of Ramadan and other feasts, topics that would have allowed the narrator to provide other, more peaceful details. In this way, the narrator presents the Circassians as a people whose primary focus is the preparation for and execution of violence, with little else by way of culture.

The final section of the poem, which is occupied primarily with the developing relationship between the Circassian maiden and the prisoner, does offer another glimpse of the Circassians as a people when the men go off on a raid:

Бегут, шумят;
Уздечки медные гремят,
Чернеют бурки, блещут брони,
Кипят оседланные кони,
К набегу весь аул готов,
И дикие питомцы брани
Рекою хлынули с холмов
И скачут по брегам Кубани
Сбирать насильственные дани. (109)

They run, make noise;
The bronze bridles clank,
The burkas show up black, the armor flashes,
The saddled horses boil,
The whole aul is ready for the raid,
And the wild nurselings of battle
In a river gushed from the hills
And rode along the bank of the Kuban´
To gather tribute by force. (245)

The raids that the Circassians reminisce about in the opening scene now play out for the reader in real time. Note the language used to describe the Circassians: “dikie pitomtsy brani” (wild nurselings of battle). This phrase echoes the “Serdtsam, rozhdennym dlia voiny” (hearts born for war) of Part I, with all of its primordial implications concerning the inherent violent tendencies of the Circassians.

The aul quiets after the warriors’ exodus, and the narrator describes another peaceful scene of Circassian life:

Утих аул; на солнце спят
Усаклей псы сторожевые.
Младенцы смуглые, нагие
В свободной резвости шумят;
Их прадеды вкругу сидят,
Из трубок дым, виясь, синеет.
Они безмолвно юных дев
Знакомый слушают припев,
И старцев сердце молодеет. (110)

The aul became quiet; in the sun sleep
The guard dogs near the saklia.
The swarthy youngsters, naked
Play in noisy freedom;
Their forefathers sit in a circle,
From their pipes the smoke, curling, shows blue.
In silence they listen to the familiar refrain
Of the young girls,
And the hearts of the old men grow young. (245)

At this point, the narrator quotes the Circassian song, sung by the maidens while the men are off on the raid. The song celebrates the defeat of Russia (in a variety of forms) by a Chechen. Thus, not only are the men and children participants in violence, as seen earlier, but the women and old men celebrate violence in their free time, as well. Furthermore, what ostensibly represents Circassian culture—the creation of music—is linked to their successful resistance to Russia’s attempts to conquer them. Once again, Pushkin shows that violence is the Circassians’ central occupation.

Beyond these passages that depict the Circassians as a people, there is the Circassian maiden, who is the poem’s primary focus and the main link between the Russian reader and the Circassian people. Yet even she is depicted as violent. Explaining to the prisoner why she wants to run away with him, she says:

Меня отец и брат суровый
Не милому продать хотят
В чужой аул ценою злата;
Но умолю отца и брата,
Не то—найду кинжал иль яд. (105)

My father and stern brother
Wish to sell me to a hateful man
Into a strange aul for a price of gold;
But I will beseech my father and brother,
Not that — I will find a dagger or poison. (241)

At this point, it is not entirely clear on whom exactly she will inflict the violence of the dagger or poison, but Pushkin shows her readiness to resort to violence in the casual way she moves from the problem to her deadly solution. Pushkin continues his association of violence with the maiden in his description of her when she sets the prisoner free. “Kazalos´, budto deva shla / Na tainyi boi, na podvig ratnyi”(It seemed as if the girl were going / To a secret battle, to a feat of arms) (111/246). The reader soon learns that the “tainyi boi” (secret battle) is her own suicide, a final act of violence directed at herself.

A careful reading of Pushkin’s poem, then, reveals a narrator who continuously underscores violence in almost every aspect of Circassian life, no matter how mundane or prosaic. We not only see the traditional male warrior in all of his glory and ability, but the narrator shows Circassians of all ages and sexes participating in violence.[46] From the young children who “v radosti … pleshchut” (dance for joy) at the beheadings of slaves, to the old men, whose hearts “molodeet” (grow young) listening to the Circassian song about violence, to the women, who sing about violence while their men are away, every generation is depicted as violent. Furthermore, not only is violence linked to Circassians of all ages, it is present in every facet of their lives. If they are not actively participating in violence, they are thinking about it, whether through storytelling or singing songs. And if the feasts are any indication, any peaceful activity carried on for too long has the potential to erupt into violence and bloodshed. This infusion of violence is in addition to a plot that is centered around a Circassian kidnapping of a Russian traveler and that ends with the violent death of the Circassian maiden by her own hand.

Conclusion — The Discordant Epilogue Revisited

In rereading the main sections of Pushkin’s poem with the epilogue in mind, the recurring emphasis on Circassian violence, whether among the warriors, old or young, the women, or the children, does point to the final image of Russia standing triumphant over a subdued Caucasus. From the perspective of imperial Russia, such a violent people could not be allowed free reign. This assertion, however, leads to several key questions. First, why did readers fail to see that this emphasis on Circassian violence meant the subjugation of the Caucasus by Russia as celebrated in the epilogue was inevitable? And second, what does this rereading of the main portion of the poem mean to my earlier assertion that Pushkin uses the epilogue to emphasize the bloody price of Russian readers’ fascination with the Caucasus?

In answering the first question, the beauty and rhythm of Pushkin’s verses and the effect they had on his readers should not be underestimated. The aesthetic pleasure readers gained from the pure quality of the verses (“perfection of poetry,” as Pletnev says, as quoted above) influenced their reaction to the Circassians themselves, regardless of the violence attributed to them. It is only when one focuses more on the content of the poem and less on its form and presentation that the violence seen becomes overwhelming. It is a tribute to Pushkin as a poet that this emphasis on violence did not detract from the quality of the work as a whole. It is only when readers read the epilogue, which is so different in style, that the violence stands out. Significantly, this violence is specifically Russian.

Second, Russian readers of the nineteenth century, well-versed in European literature, particularly Byron, would not be surprised by the savage nature of the Circassians. This kind of barbarity was expected when dealing with less civilized, non-European peoples (from Pushkin’s readers’ point of view). Furthermore, from the position of perceived Western superiority, both mentally and physically, Circassian violence, regardless of how ubiquitous in their own villages, was non-threatening and easy to dismiss. It would take several more years, if not decades, for the average reader to take Caucasian violence seriously.

Third, as evidenced by the early reviews of the poem, readers were particularly charmed by the Circassian maiden. Given the overall sympathetic portrait provided by the narrator of the maiden, it is not surprising first, that readers would be less influenced by the depictions of Circassian barbarity outside of the maiden (if anything, these depictions would increase reader sympathy for the maiden, who obviously does not belong in her aul[47]), and, second, that readers would not connect the violence the maiden demonstrates with the violence of her people. Caught up in the developing love story and its tragic end, which takes up a large portion of the poem, readers were less likely to focus on the Circassian people as a whole and the violence attributed to them. It is also important to note that, as Layton argues, many readers would have related to the Circassian warrior as well, viewing him as an “underground Russian self.”[48] Rather than see the violence as a threat to Russia and to themselves, many instead read into it a fierce freedom that symbolized Pushkin’s, as well as their own, dissatisfaction with the Russian government.

Fourth, and finally, by admitting the necessity of a violent subjugation of the Circassian people by the Russian military, readers would be forced to admit their own culpability in the destruction of the Circassian society. What at first was a simple vicarious experience of the Caucasus through Pushkin’s poem would soon become a reality (albeit, without the kidnapping for most), as solitary readers traveled to the Caucasus in search of inspiration and beauty or flocked to the spa towns just north of the main war zone. As Layton articulates, “the sentimental journey erected a screen to the inhumanity of imperialism, as though the traveler’s presence in the Caucasus owed nothing to the military campaigns.” [49]

It is precisely this “screen to the inhumanity of imperialism” that Pushkin’s epilogue removed for his readers. This leads to the second question mentioned above: how does my rereading of the poem change this interpretation? A case could be made, in fact, that by emphasizing the violent nature of the Circassians, Pushkin is actually providing his readers with the necessary means of assuaging their guilty consciences over their participation, however tacit, in its subjugation. This interpretation coincides with the assumption that Pushkin’s letter to his brother quoted above should be taken at face value, that he did hope for the conquest of the Caucasus. And while we will never know for certain if this letter expresses a genuine sentiment of Pushkin’s or if he was writing with the censor in mind due to his exile, supporting the subjugation of a people for the betterment of your country and ruing the loss of that people’s unique culture are not mutually exclusive.

Pushkin’s poem does precisely this: it celebrates the simplicity and naturalness of Circassian life, while simultaneously showing both the need to subjugate the Caucasus and the cost of that subjugation for both the Russian and the Caucasian people. Kavkazskii plennik contains two seemingly contradictory parts: the beautiful description of Circassian life and the patriotic celebration of Russian dominance over the Caucasus. Inherent in the poem, and what makes it both a masterpiece and appealing to today’s reader, is the contradictory aspect of human nature encapsulated in the two parts. Pushkin has expertly shown how we as humans can simultaneously be infatuated with both modernity and the quaint and simple way of life; how we can be sure of our own superiority over others, particularly the Other, while simultaneously longing to experience their way of life; and, reflecting perhaps the most contradictory part of our nature, Pushkin’s poem shows how our desire to possess or experience something often leads to the destruction of the very thing which engendered our desire in the first place.

In rereading the main sections of Pushkin’s poem with the epilogue in mind, it becomes clear that Pushkin understood the inherent contradictory approach the West took with the East. He instinctively knew that that which Russia found so fascinating and stimulating about the Caucasus was the same thing it would use to justify its militaristic domination of the region. Russia’s interaction with the Caucasus was (and still is) extremely complex. Pushkin’s poem without the epilogue attached would fall short of revealing that complexity. With the epilogue, Pushkin succeeded in not just showing his readers how their interest in the Caucasus would inevitably lead to its destruction, but he also inspired in them a visceral and emotional reaction to its destruction that represents all the contradictions and complexities of the West’s approach to and interaction with the East.

 

The College of Wooster

 


[1] Vissarion Belinskii, Sobranie sochinenii v deviati tomakh,vol. 6, Stat´i o Derzhavine. Stat´i o Pushkine. Nezakonchennye raboty. Stat´ia shestaia (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1981). “The pathos of this poem is two-fold: the poet was obviously enamored by two topics—by the poetic life of the wild and free mountain people and then—by the elegiac ideal of the soul, disillusioned with life. The depiction of the first and the second topics blends into one luxurious-poetic picture. The grandiose image of the Caucasus with its warlike inhabitants was reproduced in Russian poetry for the first time—and only in Pushkin’s poem has the Russian public first become acquainted with the Caucasus, already long known to Russia through arms” (311). Unless otherwise noted, translations of Russian sources are my own.

[2] Boris Tomashevskii, Pushkin (Moscow: Izd-vo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1956), 425.

[3] Harsha Ram, The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 195–96.

[4] Sobranie sochinenii A. S. Pushkina v desiati tomakh, vol. 3, Poemy, skazki (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1959), 117. All further citations of the poem will be from this edition and will be indicated with the appropriate page numbers after each quote.

[5] This translation, by Katya Hokanson, appears in her Writing at Russia’s Border (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 249–50. Unless otherwise noted, I will be using Hokanson’s translation throughout and will provide the appropriate page numbers immediately following the text.

[6] For a discussion of Byron’s influence on Pushkin’s poem, see Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 41–46.

[7] Of the four major reviews of the poem shortly after it was published, those of Izmailov, Pletnev, Viazemsky, and Pogodin, only the latter critic mentions the epilogue. And Pogodin does not analyze it or discuss it; rather, he cites Pushkin’s mention of Mstislav as evidence that the poet intended to provide additional stories on the Caucasus. Vasilii Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura o proizvedeniiakh A. S. Pushkina: Khronologicheskii sbornik kritiko-bibliograficheskikh stat´ei. Chast´ pervaia (Moscow: T-vo Tipo-Litografii I. M. Mashistova, 1903), 93–125.

[8] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire, 103, 107–08.

[9] Quoted in Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 406.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 405.

[12] Ibid., 409.

[13] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire,102.

[14] The Letters of Alexander Pushkin: Three Volumes in One, ed. and trans. J. Thomas Shaw (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 75–76. While such evidence appears at first compelling, the opinions Pushkin expresses in his private letters cannot be blindly trusted due to the circumstances under which they were written. First, this particular letter was written during Pushkin’s southern exile. Second, Pushkin’s letters from this exile passed through the censor, who deleted or altered any questionable passages. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Pushkin would be extremely careful not to challenge the authorities in his private correspondence.

[15] Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 407–08.

[16] Hokanson, Writing at Russia’s Border, 68.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire,102.

[19] Stephanie Sandler, Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 162.

[20] Ibid., 164.

[21] Ram, The Imperial Sublime, 194.

[22] Harsha Ram, “Pushkin and the Caucasus,” in The Pushkin Handbook, ed. David M. Bethea (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 391.

[23] Adrian Wanner, “Imperialism as an Infectious Disease,” Pushkin Review 3 (2000): 133–50.

[24] Belinskii, Sobranie sochinenii, 312. “He who has been to the Caucasus cannot help but be surprised at the truth of Pushkin’s portrayals.”

[25] Pletnev, “‘Kavkazskii plennik,’ Povest´ A. Pushkina,” Sorevnovatel´ Prosveshcheniia, no. 10 (1822), in Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura o proizvedeniiakh A. S. Pushkina, 95.

[26] D. S. Mirsky, Pushkin (London: George Routledge & Sons, LTD., 1926), 65. Mirsky goes on to write: “It was this rich and easy mellifluousness, at once so one in the simplicity of its metre and so varied in the play of rhyme and flexibility of rhythm, that struck the reader” (65).

[27] Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 425. “Among readers, The Prisoner of the Caucasus had definite success. Excerpts from it soon began appearing in readers and made it to school textbooks. The description of Circassian customs was republished particularly frequently (six times in Pushkin’s life) and the ‘Circassian Maiden Song’ enjoyed utterly exceptional success. It was set to music twice (by I. Genishta and A. Aliabev) and was reprinted more than 20 times in songbooks and collections of romances. It was sung in the most varied circles of society. It was one of the most popular songs based on Pushkin’s works.” For an in-depth study of readers’ reaction to Pushkin, see Paul Debreczeny’s Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[28] P. A. Viazemskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii kniazia P. A. Viazemskogo, tom pervyi, 1810–1827 (St. Petersburg: Izd. Grafa C. D. Sheremeteva, 1878),77. Pogodin says the following about the relationship of the prisoner and the Circassian: “The coldness of the prisoner to the good deeds of the Circassian maiden is in every respect inexcusable… To talk this way with a society beauty—it would be cruel, with the innocent Circassian maiden, it is unforgivable” (Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura o proizvedeniiakh A. S. Pushkina, 117).

[29] It is the maiden who first approaches the prisoner after he is brought to her village, and it is the maiden who confesses her desire to run away with him, while simultaneously emphasizing her virginity. Layton argues that the poem’s popularity with contemporary readers was due in large part to the “escapist entertainment and aesthetic pleasure” it offered. She goes on to write: “Issues of gender accounted for many of the mythology’s affective pleasures. The literary Caucasus had a good number of oriental love slaves whom some nineteenth-century Russian men were especially ready to promote as ideals of universally valid, ‘natural’ femininity. Of even greater note, however, the producers and consumers of the literary Caucasus exhibited an enormous fondness for oriental machismo, if sometimes only covertly. […] The “oriental love slaves” and “dashing mountain warriors” were crucial to this escapism” (Russian Literature and Empire,19, 12–13).

[30] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire,95.

[31] Ibid., 93.

[32] Ibid., 92–98.

[33] Tomashevsky points out that this passage is what remains from the first draft of the poem, which begins with the kidnapping of the Russian prisoner (Pushkin, 392).

[34] For shorter quotes, the first page number in the citation refers to the Russian text and the second to Hokanson’s translation.

[35] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire, 109.

[36] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978): 205, 300–01. The premise of Said’s groundbreaking work is that the West has developed a specific method of perceiving and defining the East as both a justification for and means of its domination of the Orient.

[37] Monika Greenleaf, Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 113.

[38] For more on the overall lack of specific information about the Caucasus at the time of the poem’s publication, see Layton, Russian Literature and Empire, 15–35. To summarize, before Pushkin there were very few travelogues about the Caucasus and a “total lack of anything approaching war correspondence about the conquest” (31). So while Russians knew a war was going on, they were very much removed from it and lacked many of the most basic details about Russia’s ongoing conquest of the area.

[39] Again, see Layton’s discussion of Byron’s influence on readers’ reactions to Pushkin’s poem (Russian Literature and Empire, 41–46).

[40] Pushkin’s realization of the significance of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus for the locals does not necessarily equate to an anti-imperialist point of view. Pushkin’s epilogue serves to inform readers of the cost of that conquest, regardless of Pushkin’s own opinions about the Russian government.

[41] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire, 32.

[42] Hokanson, Writing at Russia’s Borders, 30.

[43] Sandler comments on the pervasiveness of violence, but limits it only to the men. See Distant Pleasures,146. As I will show, Pushkin attributes a degree of primordial savagery to all members of Circassian society, including the women, whom Sandler ignores when she says that the maiden “is the tale’s only woman character” (ibid., 148).

[44] Sandler draws attention to this as well in Distant Pleasures (146), as does Joe Andrew in Narrative and Desire in Russian Literature, 1822–49 (London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1993), 22.

[45] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire, 11 and 91. See also Paul M. Austin’s The Exotic Prisoner in Russian Romanticism (Oxford: Peter Lang Publishers, 1997). “The budding writers of the exotic (and they were for the most part budding since well established authors seldom took up the southern theme) saw in Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus what they wanted and took from it what they thought was most portable — ethnography supported by the prisoner figure clad in the cloak of contemporary European fashion, as they understood it” (76–77). Tomashevsky comments on the depiction of the Circassians as well, stating that “the description of morals does not only have an ethnographical interest” (Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 410).

[46] Andrew, Narrative and Desire, 26. Andrew, however, makes violence only the domain of men. “From first to last, men are valorised and men are engendered as violent killers of other men, and of violent aggressors towards ‘captive women’, or ‘wild flowers.’” As I have demonstrated, though, the narrator makes violence a central part of everyone’s lives.

[47] Beyond what she herself tells the prisoner about how the other villagers viewed her—“Слывуядевоюжестокой, / Неумолимойкрасотой” (I am reputed to be a cruel girl, / Of implacable beauty)—the narrator sets her apart from the other Circassians in a number of ways. She is the only one among the many Circassians in the poem who is described in any detail or depth; she is the only one who possesses any real individuality or who is given a past to help explain her actions; and finally, the maiden is the only Circassian given any real voice.

[48] Layton, Russian Literature and Empire,95.

[49] Ibid., 56.