Torment and Ecstasy, Pleasure and Punishment: Reading Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus”

Last week I read several fables and tales from a large number that Tolstoy compiled to use in teaching his serfs to read.  Although they’re not exactly “short stories” in a modern  sense, they were a delightful way to ease back into reading Russian: they’re short, and Tolstoy’s language is simple and direct.

My goal for this week is to move on to Tolstoy’s longer “short works.” Having been in Russia from 1999 to 2002, when war flared up between the Russian government and its ethnic Chechen citizens, I have a particular interest in the Caucasus region and therefore decided to start with “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1873).

Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837). Portrait by Vasily Tropinin.

According to Russian literary historian D. S. Mirsky, Tolstoy’s story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” was a kind of spoof on a Byronic poem of the same name, written by Aleksandr Pushkin in 1822.  Because I’m apparently incapable of just reading a story without diddling around its margins first, I gritted my teeth and pulled out my copy of Pushkin’s “Selected Works” to read the original Pushkin poem (eighteen pages long).

Pushkin is now considered to be the father of Russian literature,  and Russian kindergarteners cut their literary teeth by memorizing long passages of his poetry.  However, according to Mirsky, his work was not held in high esteem by his nineteenth-century successors.  I totally get that:  I have had a love-hate relationship with Pushkin’s narrative poems for more than twenty years.

As an undergraduate student of Russian literature, I found reading Pushkin to be a kind of ecstatic torture.  We spent seven weeks of a senior lit seminar on Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse:  389 stanzas of iambic tetrameter, most with a complicated rhyme scheme based around masculine and feminine word endings that some critics call a “Pushkin sonnet.”  The class met three times a week, which meant that we had to read seventeen or eighteen stanzas for each class.  It was torture.  On the morning that we were to complete our
discussion of Eugene Onegin, my six seminar classmates and I met at 9AM and opened a bottle of Stolichnaya that had been in the freezer overnight.  For an hour we chased vodka shots with kosher dill pickles.  We then went to class in a very…convivial mood.  The discussion was most lively.  Our professor was astounded by our enthusiasm, and  complimented us on our perspicacity.  (I suspect that he knew exactly what we’d been up to, if not what had driven us to drink.)  The lectures and discussions in the seminar were conducted in Russian, but I usually took notes in English; when it was time to study for the final exam, I was shocked to find that my notes from that morning were in Russian, and that I needed a dictionary to translate them.

General Rayevsky. Pen-and-ink sketch by A. S. Pushkin.

The opening lines of Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” in which Pushkin dedicates the poem to Napoleonic War hero General N. N. Rayevskiy, were as painful to read as  anything in Eugene Onegin:

Primi s ulybkoyu, moi drug,/Svobodnoi muzy prinoshen’ye:/Tebe ya posvyatil izgnannoi liry pen’ye/I vdokhnovenniy svoi dosug.

 The first two lines are easy:  “Take with a smile, my friend/The offering of the free Muse:” (at least I think that’s right; grammatically “free” modifies “Muse,” even though I want to read it as the free offering of the Muse because even after reading the entire poem, thinking about Pushkin’s treatment of the themes of slavery and freedom, and knowing that Pushkin wrote it while in exile, I still don’t fully understand why he would choose the adjective“free” to describe his Muse.

"Chechen Scene" - pen-and-ink sketch by A. S. Pushkin

The next two lines are harder:  “I dedicated to you the song of the banished lyre/And its inspired leisure.”  The word “song” is usually spelled “peniye,” and substitution of one letter – a soft sign in place of the letter “i,” makes it look like a different sort of word altogether, perhaps some odd declension of the word pen’, which means “stump.”  It took me about thirty minutes of reading entries beginning with “pen-”  in Smirnitsky to decide that Pushkin’s lyre was singing instead of stumping.  There are all sorts of spelling substitutions in Pushkin’s poetry to get the meter to come out right:  “khladniy” for “kholodniy” is easily understood, but substituting “glava” for “golova” suggests initially that Pushkin’s captured soldier had a busted chairman instead of a busted head.

Then there are the adjectives and descriptive verbs.  Pushkin was a Romantic, and he uses a flowery vocabulary set that I never heard anyone use conversationally in the three
years I lived in Russia: words like “tletvorniy” (putrid, noxious), “nevnyatniy”  (inarticulate), and “zatmyt’sya” (overshadowed).  Every emotion in the poem is extreme: gloom (ugryuma), brooding (vzvolnovat’sya), oblivion (zabvyeniye), entreaty (mol’ba), languor (tomlyen’ye) and ecstasy (vostorg).

I’m just not a huge fan of the Byronic tradition.  Its excesses make me cringe.  In “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Pushkin indulges in long descriptions of fierce Circassians, and longer pastoral passages that extol the wild beauty of Nature (excerpt courtesy of – an awkward translation, but it will give you the idea):

"Shamil's Village, Dagestan" (1904 photograph by Prokudin-Gorskii)

The two protagonists – a nameless captured Russian soldier serving as a slave in a Caucasian village, or aul, and an equally nameless “black-eyed” Circassian maiden who saves his life and falls in love with him – are, by modern standards, two-dimensional.  She is innocent, sweet, loving, and brave.  He is jaded, “used to voluptuousness,” unable to love after his heart was broken by a beautiful woman somewhere back in Russia.  She declares her love for him, and begs him to take her away:  her strict father and brother are going to sell her to a strange husband in another village.  He refuses her, saying that he is dead to love.  Over time, despite being kept a slave, he comes to appreciate the Circassian culture and sort of “goes native.”  Then one night, while the men of the village are out raiding a Cossack village, the Circassian girl brings a saw and cuts away his chains to free him.  He declares his love for her and asks her to come away with him.  She turns his own words back on him, tells him to find love with another and not to mind her cruel fate, walks him down to the river he is to follow back to Cossack territory, and then (if I read correctly what appears implicit in the final stanzas) commits suicide by jumping in and drowning herself in the rushing mountain stream.

“Prisoner of the Caucasus” is about as realistic and as psychologically deep as a Barbara Cartland romance.  Its claim to art lies in its construction.  The language is elegant – you have to hear Pushkin read aloud by a well-educated native speaker to get the full effect.  Despite all the embellishment of rhyme, high diction, and alliteration, there are no  metaphors – a nod to the Classical French poetry that Pushkin liked best.  Four stanzas of “Chechen war songs” sung by women the night of the raid differ drastically in meter and tone from the rest of the poem:  they’re earthy, threatening, and barbaric, with a chant-like, end-stanza repetition of the line “Chechénets khódit za rekói” (The Chechen walks beyond the river) that reminds me of Wordsworth’s depiction of noble savages in “Hiawatha.” And I can’t help but admire the balance of his-and-hers romantic rejection in the narrative.  Never mind that it has the all emotional sophistication of a teenage girl’s fantasy revenge when she has just been dumped by an adored “older man.”

And so:  on to Tolstoy’s version.  In stories of war and the Caucasus, says Mirsky, Tolstoy sets out  “to destroy the existing romantic conceptions of those two arch-romantic themes. To be understood…these stories have to be felt against their background of romantic literature, against the romances of Bestuzhev and the Byronic poems of Pushkin and Lermontov.  The unromanticizing of Caucasus and war is achieved by Tolstoy’s usual method of ever advancing analysis and of ‘making it strange’….It results much rather in the glorification of the unconscious and unambitious at the expense of
conscious and ambitious heroism, of the private soldier and professional army officer at the expense of the smart young officer from Petersburg who has come to the front to taste the poetry of war and to win his St. George’s Cross.”

I open my new volume of Tolstoy to “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” and read the first, short, prose sentence:  Sluzhil na Kavkazye ofitserom odin barin  (“A nobleman was serving as an officer in the Caucasus”).  Simple.  Direct.  Clean.

I sigh in relief.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Aleksandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Quest, Reading, Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Torment and Ecstasy, Pleasure and Punishment: Reading Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus”

  1. michael says:

    Please excuse me if you’ve covered this elsewhere, but I stumbled upon this blog post. I like your writing and I hope to read more of it.

    The explanation for “glava” instead of “golova,” “khladniy” for “kholodniy” is that Pushkin chose to use the Church Slavonic term in place of the usual Russian. This filling out of Church Slavonic words with vowels in Russian is pretty typical (think of grad versus gorod, golos and glas, etc.).

  2. Jonah Weisz says:

    Thank you for an immensely interesting article. do you have any idea where I could find an english translation of Pushkin’s poem?

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