Sochi, the Caucasus and Russian Romanticism

Since the 19th century the Caucasus has been Russian’s ‘window on the East,’ its access to another, often very romanticised world. The Sochi Winter Olympics took place in the Caucasus, but they presented a less complex image.

Benedict Coleridge
8 April 2014

The Sochi Winter Olympics are over, and they have taught us that there is a ‘new Russia’ – one capable of self-deprecating humour, ‘efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world’.  So says International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Olympic Games always have a political dimension, as this statement demonstrates; they are a presentation of national narratives as much as a competition. And where the ‘Olympic politics’ of Sochi has manifested itself most interestingly is in the presentation of culture.

It is impossible not to recognise the enormous cultural wealth that was put on show in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games. But the ‘new Russia’ we need to keep in mind is more complicated than the romantic vision choreographed so impressively at Sochi, especially in its fraught relationship with the Caucasus. 

The diversity of the Caucasus has a sharper edge to it, and it challenges Russian self-confidence.

The contrast between the stories told at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Games is striking. The former put on a show of the immense ethnic diversity of the USSR.  (This was of course its own romantic vision that obscured the great tragedies inflicted upon local cultures by the all-encompassing vision of Communist social life.) At Sochi, the folkloric diversity disappeared: Sochi was more mono-cultural, more mono-vocal. If Romanticism points either to exaggeration or reduction, the Moscow Olympics were exaggerated, whereas the Sochi Olympic ceremonies were reductive – they shied away, in particular, from paying recognition to the cultural diversity of the Caucasus, the region in which they were situated. That could well be because the diversity of the Caucasus has a sharper edge to it, and it challenges Russian self-confidence. 

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Former President Dmitry Medvedev visiting the FSB Special Forces Centre in Makhachkala, Dagestan.Photo:presidential press office

The Caucasus has always been a place that has complicated Russian identity.

This is not only to recognise the obvious: that Russia has had to practise counter-insurgency against North Caucasus separatism and religious fundamentalism for the last two decades. It is to point to the unique position the Caucasus has occupied, and continues to occupy in the Russian imagination; and as a site of Russian cultural production. The Caucasus has always been a place that has complicated Russian identity, and enlarged it too, through its historical orientation to cultural worlds beyond that of Russia. But whereas 19th century Russian literature attempted to grapple with the complications, Sochi’s reductive Romanticism avoided it altogether – unless the parade of Russian writers in the closing ceremony adverted to it, unintentionally.

Early history

Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus began with campaigns conducted by Peter the Great along the Caspian Sea coast in the 1720s. The Russians may subsequently have been driven back by Safavid Persia, revived temporarily under Nadir Shah (ruled 1736-47), but Peter’s expeditions into the Caucasus had lasting significance for the Russian state.  His campaigns initiated a growing sense of Russian entitlement to the Caucasus – the idea that the identity of empire rested upon control over that southern border, and the displacement of Russia’s eastern rivals (the Persians and the Ottomans) from that region. This strategic vision was lent historical and quasi-eschatological meaning by Catherine the Great who conceived of Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus as a campaign directed towards eroding Ottoman power, and eventually restoring Constantinople (Byzantium) to Orthodox Christian rule. The strategy that produced the wars of conquest in the Caucasus was thus imaginatively framed – in a way that in time resourced Russian romanticism. Only think of Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, of the prose romances of Alexandr Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, or of Lermontov’s Bela and Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat

The Caucasus was Russia’s Orient.

The fascination that the Caucasus had for Russian writers of the 19th century can be thought of as being tied to the wider contemporary European fascination with the ‘East’. The Caucasus was Russia’s Orient; it acted as a portal through which Russians encountered both the local mountain peoples, and the Persian and Ottoman worlds. Pushkin described the Caucasus as the ‘sultry border of Asia,’ a statement not only of orientalist excitement, but one of imperial intent. For Pushkin, the Russian presence was to be a civilizing mission: to spread the Gospel to the ‘barbarous’ mountain tribes, and thus making them natural Russian allies. Pushkin even envisioned the conquest of the Caucasus as leading to the realisation of that Napoleonic dream, the conquest of India. In this sense the conquest of the Caucasus was one further development in the historical enterprise of the Russian state - the ‘frontiers of Asia’ had been pushed back since the conquest of Kazan under Ivan the Terrible in 1552.

The Caucasus in Russian literature

Those Russian writers who wrote of the Caucasus offer a dual vision of savagery and nobility, both elements that fit within the orientalist frame. Tolstoy conveys vividly the operation of customary law (adat) in the North Caucasus in his work Hadji Murat [his final work, published posthumously in 1912]. In particular, he captures the complex networks of allegiances and blood feuds, which delineated friends and enemies. His rendering of this form of social organisation implies a kind of admiration for the ‘extra-legal’ ties that bind people, for the ‘primitive’, ‘essential’ forms of allegiance that define life in the mountain tribes. 

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Many pieces of Russian fiction, such as Tolstoy's Hadji Murat, are set in the Caucasus. Photo: NYPL Digital Gallery

Those Russian writers who wrote of the Caucasus offer a dual vision of savagery and nobility.

The literary vision of the mountain peoples realised by Tolstoy or Lermontov is, of course, simultaneously excessive and reductive – the image of the Caucasian warrior riding the rocky slopes, living a primal existence, made no connection to the wider cultural world by which the Caucasian peoples were themselves influenced. The assumptions of European orientalism, with which Lermontov and Tolstoy would have been familiar, are at work in their imagining. They create a sense of the Caucasus as culturally barren and untamed, a view reinforced by the particular savagery of the wars of conquest in the Caucasus where the Russian army of the Caucasus encountered a hitherto unfamiliar form of guerrilla warfare. And yet, despite this, Tolstoy’s and Lermontov’s work remains alert to the complexity of the encounter between the Russian Empire and the Caucasian peoples – Russian 19th century literature retained a sense of unease about the challenges that this encounter would present to Russian identity. 

A place of cultural struggle

Tolstoy’s depiction of the Russian campaigns in the Caucasus in Hadji Murat takes its detail and life from his own experience as an army cadet in the Caucasus in 1851, during which time he was deployed with the Russian army of the Caucasus in its fight against the Avar guerrilla leader Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan. The conflict between the followers of Imam Shamil and the Russian Empire took place within the broader context of Russian expansion into the North Caucasus. The Caucasus region was already associated with the surrounding great powers, and had been at different times subjugated by the Safavid Persians and the Ottoman Empire. Safavid rule in the Caucasus reached its height in the early 17th century under Shah Abbas, during which time the Persians ruled over Georgia as well as over the Muslim Khanates of the south and east. However, neither the Safavids nor the Ottomans were able to exert lasting control over the tribes of Dagestan. Thus in the period in which Tolstoy had been present there, the Caucasus was a place of cultural struggle - not only between Russian and local culture, but within that local culture. 

Islamic culture

One central catalyst for this cultural ferment was the encounter between the tribes and the wider Islamic world. The religious tapestry of the Caucasus presents a complex weaving of competing influences and traditions. While the kingdom of Georgia was predominantly Orthodox Christian, and Zoroastrianism and Judaism were alive in Azerbaijan, the mountain peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya had been introduced to Islam in the 7th century by the Umayyad conquerors of Derbent in southern Dagestan. 

Despite their early encounter with Islam, it was only with the emergence of Islamic revivalist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries that the social arrangements of the Caucasian tribes began to be shaped significantly by Islam. The North Caucasus became a centre of Sufism although different regions adopted different tariqas or paths of Islamic mysticism. 

In Dagestan the Naqshbandi-Khalidi Tariqa (the Naqshbandi brotherhood) emerged in the eighteenth century and came to play a central role in mobilising resistance to Russian expansionism. The Naqshbandi Tariqa traced its roots to the fourteenth century mystic Baha al-Din Naqshband who preached the value of silent prayer and meditation which Muslims would use to emulate the Prophet Mohammed. According to this Tariqa, it was only through the strict adherence to the teachings of venerated masters that disciples (Murids) could achieve encounter with and ‘recollection’ of God. While Dagestani and Chechen society was by nature fissiparous, Naqshbandi Sufism introduced a unifying religious vocabulary and set of ideals, which allowed figures such as Imam Shamil to forge a relatively cohesive political entity with which to engage the Russian Empire. This is a complexity that goes far beyond the picture of the ‘mountain primitives’ offered by the Russian Romantics and later 19th century novelists like Tolstoy. What Russian romanticising of the Caucasus obscured was the delicate, often uneasy, inter-weaving of mountain and Islamic cultures.

A sense of otherness

However, fraught as their portrayal of the Caucasian peoples was, 19th century Russian writers and poets nevertheless depicted the region as a portal that opened on to something complex and unfamiliar. Thus, alongside their orientalist depiction of the mountain tribes, there is a form of literary self-examination – a questioning of imperial prerogatives and of how Russian culture should be thought of in light of its encounter with the Caucasus. Whether in Hadji Murat, Lermontov’s poems or his story Bela (1841), there is an awareness of the complex role played by Russia as an occupying power, as that force through which Circassian freedom is ‘set ablaze’. Lermontov spent time in the North Caucasus, and to a large extent considered it to be his spiritual homeland. He fought against the Chechens at Fort Grozny (which in Russian means ‘fearsome’ or ‘terrible’) and came to sympathise with the cause of the mountain peoples, sympathy that he frequently conveyed in his poetry. 

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The capture of Imam Shamil by Russian troops in 1859 during the Caucasus war. Photo: F Roubaud

In his story Bela, the Russian officer Maksim Maksimich is aware that he is a friend of Bela’s father, and that he should therefore insist on the hero Pechorin returning the abducted maiden to her family. At the same time, the cultural preconception of the Caucasus as a realm where fantasy is fulfilled comes to the fore and causes him to hesitate – as Peter Sotto puts it, Maksim Maksimich finds himself caught at that point where ‘Romantic fantasies of escape from the constraints of civilization intersect with the real prerogatives of imperial power.’  He understands that in upholding the orientalist mythology of the Caucasus that Pechorin’s attitude evokes (the sexual fantasy of the Caucasian woman) something real is lost, namely, his tie of friendship with Bela’s father. That form of social bond, loyalty, which Tolstoy admires in Hadji Murat will be broken and this is cause for regret. This points to the possibility that Russian identity in the Caucasus is in fact more complex than its own account of itself as imperial and evangelical. Maksim Maksimich is a Russian officer but he has been drawn within the adat, the local customs and ties that the tribes live by; their cultural power, their pull upon his conscience, begs recognition.  


The Sochi Olympics was Russia telling itself a story about Russia.

The Sochi Olympics was Russia telling itself a story about Russia. It was not a story of Russia’s encounter with something complex and different, an encounter out of which, historically, rich Russian cultural reflection has stemmed. Perhaps the Olympic project in Sochi might be thought of in those terms offered above, as standing at the intersection of Romantic fantasy and imperial power - it was certainly informed by both. What was absent was the important recognition that occurs in Lermontov’s and Tolstoy’s work, of the tension between the local and the foreign, the confusion of an encounter with otherness, and the task of negotiating a deep cultural pluralism. 

The Caucasus has been most fruitful in producing forms of cultural reflection when it has been treated as ‘other,’ even when the vision of ‘otherness’ that arose was profoundly Romantic. In this sense, the task accomplished by Sochi is one of reduction – while Lermontov and Tolstoy romanticised the ‘other’ whom they encountered in the Caucasus, the gleaming buildings of Sochi and the proffered sketch of Russian history suggest that no ‘other’ exists. The world watched the games in Sochi and viewed the breathtaking athleticism, the high tech equipment, expensively dressed competitors and officials, international brands, and the splendid but somehow predictable symbolism of the opening and closing ceremonies. The ‘otherness’ of the Caucasus, its immense complexity and diversity, and its uneasy place within the Russian Federation, was obscured. This is reason for caution – it points to a Russia that does not recognise its own tension-laden reality. 


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