Caucasian Culture: The Rocky Road

Marianna Hunt

The mountain range of the Caucasus acts as a jagged dividing line of ice and rock between Europe and Asia. Formed in the south of individual sovereign states, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and in the north by regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan which fall under Russian jurisdiction, it is one of the most politically unstable areas in the world. Its natural landscape almost rivals the lifestyle of its native clans in its awe-inspiring, yet treacherous nature.

This mountainous region has found itself, at different points in history, on the periphery of Ottoman, Russian, and Persian empires. Its historical scars, artistic marvels and political upheavals are a manifestation of the region's liminal nature and the inexorable influence of its borders. 

Supposedly deriving its name from the Scythian kroy-khasis (“ice-shining, white with snow”), the area is a natural barrier, with many passes only accessible at certain times of the year. Yet this inhospitable region has also earned itself a reputation as a melting pot of cultures and nationalities.  With more than 50 ethnic groups and a linguistic variety second only to that of New Guinea, the numerous and glittering facets of identity and culture in the Caucasus have inspired thousands of artists, authors, and poets throughout history. The region's status as a "border" is therefore key to understanding the cultural representations of the Caucasus.  

Bordering on some of the mightiest empires in history, the Caucasus's reputation as a stage for drama was established early. The rising red curtain of this theatre reveals a similarly scarlet, bloodstained history of medieval Arab, Persian, and Mongol invasions, conquest by Russian colonialists, massacres of able-bodied males in Armenia, deportation en masse of entire nationalities by the Soviet Union, and more recently, barbaric infringements of human rights during the suppression of "terrorists" in the Chechen wars of the 1990s. The instability of this region persists even today. Its proximity to the volatile Middle Eastern border has led to the recent insurgence of Da'esh extremists, affiliated with jihadists in Syria, in Chechnya. The perilous lifestyle, both politically and physically, of this rocky borderland has had an indelible effect on its native peoples, earning them a reputation in history as some of the world's fiercest warriors and most resilient spirits. Countless invasions of their borders are often seen as having cultivated fiercely independent characters, and many of the highland clans of the Caucasus were never conquered — or even discovered — by invading powers. This proud "Caucasian" spirit can still be seen in modern times, in the activities of freedom fighters in the northern Caucasus, struggling against centralised Russian governance. 

The trend of depicting the Caucasus in art and literature finds its roots in antiquity. In Greek mythology, the Caucasus region held a special significance and was seen to be one of the great pillars supporting the world. Greek myths also established its ancient tradition of acting as a stage for drama - transforming from earthly borderland to border between the heavenly and terrestrial. The Caucasus also functioned as the sight on which Prometheus was chained and faced his eternal punishment for having presented man with the gift of fire.  Though more recent dramas have featured fewer eagles pecking out human livers, the gory history of the Caucasus was thus established.  

Despite the salience of the Caucasus in Russian culture, beneath idealised perceptions lurked the realities of arrogant colonialist thinking. Representations of the region and its peoples as idealistically simple stemmed from the basic assumption that they were less civilized than European Russia. The simplicity of Caucasian maidens such as Dina in "The Prisoner of the Caucasus", by Tolstoy, is a manifestation of their assumed inferiority and lesser intelligence. Thus the representations of Caucasian natives ranged from the simple creature of nature, to barbaric savage.  Though writers such as Lermontov and Pushkin may have admired the beauty of the Caucasus, their belief in Russia’s right to rule there emerges equally strongly. The ending of Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus is heavy with imperialistic undertones: "So the furious shouts of war were silenced; All was subjected by the Russian sword". 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new artistic trend seems to have emerged. The increase in personal liberties following perestroika and glasnost led to a search, in both the Caucasus and other regions on the fringes of the USSR, for their own national identity through art and literature. For example, Armen Gevorgyan's 2012 sculpture, entitled “Disintegration”, is an exploration of his Armenian origins. The broken wheel symbolises the broken circle of life of those who are torn from their motherland - an artistic expression of the long history of resettlement suffered by the Armenian people. 

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 23.45.55.png

In conjunction with this increased concern with their own independence in art, Caucasian writers in more recent times have expressed an increasingly dissatisfied view of Russian authority. This can be seen as the literary expression of Caucasian bids for independence, which have resulted in territorial conflicts, such as the Chechen wars, with the Russian state in recent years. 

The status of the Caucasus region as a land on the fringes of many different societies, as a "border", has left an ineffaceable mark on the artistic creations which it has inspired over the centuries. Examining the transformations of art and literature taking Caucasian culture as their subject matter traces the dramatic development and often tragic history of this fascinating region.