THE SABRES OF PARADISE, Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus

LESLEY BLANCH:  “General de Gaulle wrote me a lovely letter about The Sabres of Paradise, and I have heard that he said it was remarkable that a woman should be able to understand the battles so well and describe them so vividly

The definitive biography of the Muslim chieftain Imam Shamyl, the ‘Lion of Daghestan’, it took six years to complete, with research done in Russia and the Caucasus, including tracing his descendants in Turkey and Egypt. Also a historical narrative, there are beautiful descriptions of the Caucasus  – a region of supreme natural beauty and mighty mountain ranges – and the campaigns in which Lermontov and Tolstoy participated.

During the Caucasian Wars of Independence of 1834-1859, the warring mountain tribes of Daghestan and Chechnya united under the charismatic leadership of Imam Shamyl – strengthened only by the desire for an independent Caucasus and their religious faith. For years Shamyl defied his enemy, the Tsar, who had taken his eldest son as a hostage to St Petersburg. Shamyl captured in turn two Georgian princesses (from the Tzarina’s entourage), a French governess, and the children, and kept them in his harem until they could be exchanged for his son.

Lesley Blanch’s epic account of the heroic and bloody struggles, and her vivid portrayal of the strange and magnetic rebel Imam who became a legend, is particularly relevant in light of the continuing conflict in Chechnya. The great leader and his fiercely proud warriors haunt the Russian psyche to this day.

REBECCA WEST [letter dated 12-09-1960]: “Nobody, but nobody else could have written your book. It is not often I think that about a book. But all that engineering work of organising the material and the exquisite reaction to its sensual values. Only you can do the whole job. May it have the success it deserves.”

NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW: “Twentieth-century Russia is only nineteenth-century Russia writ large. Miss Blanch’s book is therefore especially welcome for she has provided a gallery of Russian portraits and in the course of her story outlined Russian foreign policy through most of the nineteenth century. I can imagine no better introduction to modern Russia”

THE TIMES: “A masterly account of Chechnya’s struggle against 19th-century Tsarist Russia, ominously relevant to today’s conflict. Lesley Blanch’s portrait of Shamyl, the Chechen leader-prophet, is widely admired and she is still consulted by historians”

PHILIP MARSDEN: “Like Tolstoy’s, her [Lesley Blanch’s] sense of history is ultimately convincing not because of any sweeping theses, but because of its particularities, the quirks of individuals and their personal narratives, their deluded ambitions, their vanities and passions”

HAMISH BOWLES in JACQUELINE KENNEDY: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York & Bulfinch Press, 2001) “Jacqueline Kennedy and Khrushchev maintained a spirited badinage through dinner. Mrs Kennedy had recently read The Sabres of Paradise, Lesley Blanch’s dashing history of the Muslim tribes’ resistance to Russian expansionism in the Caucasus, and attempted to engage the Soviet premier in conversation on the subject. He responded with the comparative numbers of teachers per capita in the Soviet and Czarist Ukraine. She cut him off with the playful riposte, ‘Oh, Mr Chairman, don’t bore me with statistics’”

BRIAN ALDISS: “A book as thick with flavour as roast wild boar, tusks and all. One of the most nutritious books I have ever read”

LAURENCE KELLY, THE GREAT BRITAIN RUSSIAN JOURNAL: “An amazingly original contribution to the history of the Caucasus, Georgia and Daghestan in the 19th century and of Russian imperial and military policy at that time . . . The result of four years of research and local travel, this is a uniquely original and fresh introduction to a forgotten world and in particular to that of the most important colonial war of the 19th century . . . All is conveyed in a rich and evocative style that carries the reader effortlessly through an exceptionally complex and confusing period of history . . . Blanch opens vistas which might elude more strictly academic historians . . . It is on The Sabres of Paradise that her reputation rests most firmly”

Read the guest review by Philip Marsden for The BookBlast Diary (Feb, 2015)

Biography. John Murray, 1960, illus.
UK edition: BookBlast ePublishing, 2015 PB 488 pages £9.99 ISBN 978-0993092725
Turkish edition of The Sabres of Paradise, Ketebe Yayınları, September 2020
French edition translated by Jean Lambert. (OP) Editions Denoel, (2004).