“Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Leo Tolstoy

Prisoner of the Caucasus

Prisoner in the Caucasus

Leo Tolstoy

I have, for my sins, agreed to write up an entry on Christian-Muslim relations in Tolstoy for the University of Birmingham’s project on Christian-Muslim relations in literature. I say “for my sins” because Tolstoy suffered from acute graphomania throughout his long life, and the disease must be contagious, because his followers and scholars are nearly as prolific. Which means trying to do anything that involves Tolstoy involves wading through literally thousands of pages of text, only some of it scintillating.

The actual story “Prisoner of the Caucasus” (Кавказский пленник, variously translated as “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “Prisoner in the Caucasus,” and “Caucasian Prisoner,” the literal translation of the title) is, however, scintillating in the extreme. Based in part on Tolstoy’s own experiences as an officer in the army during the 1850s in the Caucasus, the story was first published in 1872 as part of his ABC for peasant children and peasant readers. At the time he was moving away from the loose baggy monstrosity of his best-known works, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” and experimenting with an extremely spare, compressed style, and the result is a lapidary little work, full of exquisite nature descriptions and gripping action sequences in its 40 pages, as we follow the adventures of Russian soldier Ivan Zhilin (“John Life”) as he is captured and held for ransom by Caucasian villagers, and makes several daring escape attempts, even as he befriends the villagers who are keeping him prisoner.

While Tolstoy’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus” is an interesting work in its own right, what makes it truly fascinating is its place in Russian literature as a whole. Russianists will recognize it as a reworking of Pushkin’s epic poem of the same name, also about a Russian officer captured by Chechens/Circassians, although Tolstoy eschews Pushkin’s youthful 1820s romanticism for a stripped-down, unsentimental realism. Even more interesting are the recent spate of stories and films the work has spawned: Sergei Bodrov Sr.’s 1996 movie “Кавказский пленник” (English title “Prisoner of the Mountains”),

Prisoner of the Mountains

Sergei Bodrov Jr. (left) as naive conscript Ivan Zhilin and Oleg Menshikov (right) as cynical warrant officer Sanya Sly in “Prisoner of the Mountains.”

which starred his son Sergei Bodrov Jr. as Ivan Zhilin, launching his tragically brief but illustrious career,

Брат

Sergei Bodrov Jr. as disaffected Chechen veteran turned gangster in Aleksei Balabanov’s 1997 blockbuster hit “Brother.”

is a very close reworking of the story, but with the action set during the first Chechen war (1994-96). Vladimir Makanin, who recently passed away, also reworked the story, this time called “Кавказский пленный” (“Caucasian POW”), but made the captive a teenage Chechen separatist fighter who is captured by a Russian soldier; the story was adapted for the screen in Aleksey Uchitel’s 2008 film, which is available in English as “Captive.”

Пленный

From left to right: Vyacheslav Krikunov as hardened Russian soldier Rubakhin, Irakly Mskhalaia as teenage Chechen separatist fighter Dzhamal, Pyotr Logachyov as devil-may-care sniper Vovka

Which suggests that there truly is something captivating for the Russian imagination about the Caucasus, and that the two regions will not be disintwined easily or quickly, if they ever will at all.

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