I have to be upfront here and say that I’ve only read Kavkazskii plennyi, not the rest of the stories in this collection, so I can only judge that. But anyone interested in the development of contemporary Russian literature and its relationship with its illustrious past will definitely want to read Kavkazskii plennyi, which let’s translate as something like “Captive of the Caucasus” or “POW of the Caucasus” (more on that later).
I was very sorry to hear of Makanin’s recent passing, so soon after I’d discovered him as an author. I originally found out about him when I saw the movie Plennyi (English title “Captive”), directed by Aleksey Uchitel, which you can stream on Amazon and which I highly recommend doing. Intrigued, I sought out the original story.
Anyone with any familiarity with Russian literature at all will guess that Makanin is deliberately working in the tradition begun by Pushkin and continued by Lermontov and Tolstoy, all of whom wrote some version of the “Prisoner of the Caucasus” tale. Makanin sets his version of the action in 1994, as things were heating up in Chechnya, and inverts the story, so that it is not a Russian soldier taken prisoner by Chechens, but a Chechen rebel taken prisoner by Russian soldiers. He also makes the very daring decision to make the Chechen male rather than female, but keep the romantic and erotic tension between him and his Russian captor. This could be unbearably sordid, but Makanin’s lyrical prose style, and his clever juxtaposition of the attraction Rubakhin, the hardened Russian soldier,
Vyacheslav Krikunov as the stoic soldier Rubakhin in the 2008 film version
feels for his captive with the brutalities of war and the thoughtlessness of his partner Vovka the Sniper,
Pyotr Logachyov as the happy-go-lucky Vovka the Sniper in the 2008 film version
makes their brief relationship, such as it is, touching and tender. If you know how the “Prisoner of the Caucasus” story goes, you will probably be able to guess, more or less, how this particular version of it ends; otherwise, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that the story gently but insistently explores the theme of rape, both literal and figurative, with the Russian soldiers finding themselves in the position of aggressors without ever consciously intending to and in fact abhorring, on one level, the acts in which they find themselves complicit.
Like all the “Prisoner of the Caucasus” narratives, Makanin’s paints a picture of Russian and masculine exploitation that is self-aware enough to regret what it does, but not enough to stop doing it. While this may sound off-putting, especially to Western sensibilities, it is a story and a theme that demands being told, and, in the “Prisoner of the Caucasus” tradition, it is told with heartfelt lyricism and compassion for human frailties alongside its condemnation of human cruelties. And the “Plennyi” (Captive) to which the title refers–is that the Chechen boy taken prisoner by the Russians, or the Russian soldier captivated by his beauty? Rubakhin himself is in a way also a captive of war and the Caucasus, unable to give up soldiering, return to Russia proper, and take up a civilian life.
Sadly, to my knowledge this book and this story have not been translated into English. If you can’t enjoy it in the original, or if you want to experience it in film form as well, which I highly recommend, do watch Aleksey Uchitel’s 2008 cinematization of it,
which transposes the action from 1994 and the beginning of the first Chechen war to 2000 and the beginning of the second Chechen war. Uchitel’s version also downplays, although does not completely do away with, the erotic tension between Rubakhin and Jamal (the Chechen captive’s name in the movie)
Iraklii Mskhalaia as the Chechen captive Jamal in the 2008 film version
in favor of a more brotherly camaraderie, and gives Jamal’s backstory in more detail, eliciting sympathy for an unfortunate teenager caught up in political and psychological events beyond his control. Like the story, it is not a typical war movie as Westerners would envision it, with almost no combat action to speak of, which heightens rather than minimizes the drama. Very different from what Westerners generally watch, but a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary Russian cinema or the Chechen wars.
And now for something completely different! There’s still time to pick up loads of free fantasy in the Fantasy Books for Fantasy Lovers giveaway here, and even more free fantasy in the Ultimate Fantasy and SciFi Giveaway here.