- The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus
Anthropologist Bruce Grant has produced a thought-provoking study of historical memory and its impact on contemporary political and cultural movements. The book examines the period from 1800 to the modern day, as the Caucasus region was claimed by the tsarist empire, transitioned through the Soviet era, and attempted to forge independent identities in the wake of the Soviet collapse. It is not a historical assessment of these events but rather a discourse analysis focused upon the meaning of "empire" throughout these distinct eras as seen through a wide variety of sources, primarily literature, film, and recent interviews with scholars and politicians.
Grant's discussion is formed around two recurrent tropes: the Russian belief in the "gift of empire" and its benefit for Caucasian peoples, and the persistent "captive" narrative that Russians used to explain their actions in the Caucasus. These images allow Grant to address the nature of imperial sovereignty and its effect upon colonial communities. In the nineteenth century, the tsar's gift to the Caucasus was the right to live under the rule of the tsar, which simultaneously meant that the tsar possessed political sovereignty over the Caucasians, but he graciously left them as "full sovereigns of their own labor" (as quoted on p. 40). Therefore, from the beginning of Russia's entrance into the Caucasus, sovereignty never possessed a single meaning. The early separation [End Page 621] of political rights held by a community and those held by an individual created an ambiguous discourse, allowing "sovereign" rights to be redefined in different colonial eras. The Russian (and Soviet) Empire, therefore, "never signaled objective structures so much as it did patterned fields of contested relations" (p. 44).
The captive narrative framed most of the cultural interactions between colonizer and colonized. This narrative traditionally offers an innocent Russian (usually a soldier) held prisoner by a group of violent Caucasians. For Grant, the recurrence of this story enabled "diverse Russian publics to frame their government's military actions there as persuasive" (p. 16). Therefore, violence became necessary to provide the gift of empire. The captive narrative first emerged following the Russian entry into the Caucasus early in the nineteenth century with Pushkin's poem "Prisoner of the Caucasus" (1822), but its popularity would produce Tolstoy's later short story "Prisoner of the Caucasus" (1872), a late imperial opera, Soviet-era ballets, and several films, the first among the earliest Russian films in 1911 and the most recent including the Oscar-nominated Prisoner of the Caucasus (incorrectly translated as "Prisoner of the Mountains") in 1996. While there were decades when the captive narrative never appeared in Russia, there is a correspondence to the periods of Russia's violent engagement in the Caucasus region and the return of the captive to popular culture.
Grant contrasts the Russian justification for its violent actions in the Caucasus with the much older tradition in Caucasian society of hostage taking. "Bride-kidnapping," one form of hostage taking, continued throughout the tsarist and Soviet eras. According to Grant, bride kidnapping was primarily a ritualized practice of necessary social interaction and only rarely a violent form of exchange. The Caucasian practice of amanat (or amanatsvo in Russian) similarly served a longstanding tradition of exchanging men to guarantee good behavior among competitive communities. Grant's arguments easily demonstrate the flawed vision of the Caucasus presented in the Russian captive narrative but only reinforce his earlier conclusion that the Russian narrative was merely a cultural justification for violence in its colony, rather than an accurate depiction of Caucasian societies.
Though cautious to unpack the "true" meanings of social exchanges among the Caucasian peoples, Grant leaves the Russians rather one-dimensional. Their motives never are examined much beyond their belief that they provided the Caucasus the benefit of their civilizing mission and suffered captivity from the experience. His exclusion of other narratives leaves several questions about the nature of...