Bruce Grant (New York University) investigates the many cultural effects that the “gift of empire” which he deems proper to the State of the Romanovs and its Soviet successor has produced in both Russia and the Caucasus over the last two centuries. Combining fieldwork with historical research and literary analysis, B. Grant situates his work in the realm of cultural history making recourse to interdisciplinary techniques.
A site of invasion, conquest, and resistance since the onset of historical record, the Caucasian mountains have earned a reputation of an isolated abode of savagery. Over extended efforts to control them, Russians have mythologized stories of their countrymen taken captive by bands of fierce Highlanders. Inspired by Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Grant explores the long relationship between the two sides and the means by which sovereignty has been exercised in this contested borderland, as well as the resonances of the themes of violence, captivity, and empire through popular narratives and close readings of ritual practices permeating mythology, poetry, short stories, ballet, opera, and film in this section of the post-Soviet space.
The mandate for cultural supervision which went with the shared Soviet project being widely comprehended as a form of generosity has been regularly questioned by most national minorities, despite all the intense forms of belonging and internationalism generated in the USSR. In scholarship, Russia’s relations with its Caucasian periphery are most conventionally expressed through focusing on military and diplomatic issues. Rapid political shift was indeed the order of the day at both the opening and the close of imperial rule, but leaders and regimes prefer to legitimate their rule on grounds of altruism as dominance over another entails the burden coming not only from calculated gain, but from a self-perceived noblesse oblige (Russian kul’turnaia missiia, identical with Montesquieu’s mission civilisatrice). Avowing his methodological indebtedness to Georg Simmel and Marcel Mauss, B. Grant audaciously transplants the heuristic experience usually applied to primitive societies to the characteristics of mutual perception of Russians and Caucasians in the modern period. He states here the existence of a porous landscape of mobility, border crossings, and sometimes exchanges over proximate frontiers which are the objects of constant negotiation presenting zones of regular challenge. In this optics, to ask simply whether the conquest of the region was somehow right or wrong leaves unquestioned the nature and status of sovereign logics themselves.
Striving to get rid of the normally exclusive Russo-centric outlook, the anthropologist examines long-standing practices of raiding, the exchange of human proxies during warfare, and bride kidnapping, alongside related experiences of voluntary self-abnegation and exile. Drawing attention to their variety, the author argues that captivity was an active key symbol in the long-fraught relations between the political centre and its southern territories for the very reason that the languages of giving and taking so well suited the complex moral vectors of struggle (the kidnapped body became one of the most prominent signs of sacrifice made for the advancement of newly captured lands). Through all the exposition there goes the image of the suffering enchained giver Prometheus which serves the author’s multiple purposes of discovering inner symbolism in diverse collisions of social and cultural nature taking place between the conquered and the conquerors who are often prone to change role in histories of encounter, raiding, and trade. This fascination is reframed by corresponding narratives which flourish in Russia just in the first half of the nineteenth century when analogical and more famous narrative traditions in the West and the Near East lose their commercial audiences.
The Russians’ “Promethean gifts” as narrated by themselves are juxtaposed with the cultures of sacrifice and exchange motivated by the logic of noble giving and noble taking in a broad context of the “Caucasus War” and its aftermath from empire to Soviet socialist project. This landscape of “brides, brigands, and fire bringers” is willingly expanded to encompass subjects like the traffic in women (what could be compared to an institutionalised abduction as a necessary part of an imagined code of “Caucasianness”) and in famous ancestors (the competition for a more glorious past, which has become one of the favourite sports of the region’s national intelligentsias in the twentieth century, only to transform itself into a most popular way of legitimisation of mutual territorial claims and pretensions to civilisational primacy on the eve of the third millennium CE).