The Sabres of Paradise Lesley Blanch, Philip Marsden Review

The Sabres of Paradise was first published in 1960, a hundred years after the story it recounts had ended, after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was at last complete. Nikita Khrushchev was in the Kremlin. President Kennedy was running for the White House. Soviet power was at its height. The republics of the Caucasus were just another comer of the vast Soviet empire cowed into conformity by the brutalities of Stalin. The episode of Imam Shamyl’s thirty-year resistance to Russian expansion − perhaps the most dramatic story ever to emerge from the Caucasus (where dramatic stories are hardly in short supply) − had receded to its rightful place in ancient history. The days of small bands of mountain guerrillas raiding, hostage-taking, hiding up in the thick Chechen forests were long gone; whole divisions being tied down by such tactics was unthinkable in an age overshadowed by nuclear weapons.

Forty years on, the story looks a little different and a lot more relevant; now − post-Vietnam, post-Afghanistan, post-Soviet Union and post-September 11. Who, in 1960, would have dared predict that the heirs of the Red Army − that vast force which had done so much to shape the geo-politics of the late twentieth century, already humiliated by the Afghan mujahideen − should in 1996 be defeated, run out of its own territory by a band of lightly-armed Chechens which rarely exceeded a few thousand in number?

The Roots of Chechen Rage

Imam Shamyl and his band of holy warriors, his Murids, stand at one end of Russian rule in the Caucasus. Soon after the publication of The Sabres of Paradise, another Shamyl was born in the Chechen mountains who would emerge to stand at the other. Shamil Basayev was raised just outside Vedeno, the Great Aôul, the village from where Imam Shamyl had conducted his campaign. The boldest, most ruthless commander of the post-Soviet Chechen wars, Basayev ran rings around the Russians. Like his Avar namesake, he was frequently wounded, escaped from several impossible positions and developed a mythical reputation − equally potent for both sides − for invincibility.

In truth Imam Shamyl’s war never really ended. It was merely stifled by Russian power. Whenever that power weakened − in 1877, 1905, 1917 and 1990 − the peoples of the Eastern Caucasus became restive. Dzokhar Dudayev, president of the self-proclaimed Chechen republic in the early 1990s, spoke of continuing the ‘three hundred years of struggle with Russia’.

The Caucasus is a dazzling mosaic of ethnic groups and rival clans. More than fifty different languages are spoken in its towns and settlements. Its fantastic topography has provided both the terrain and the spirit for a tradition of hearty defiance. Add to that the region’s strategic importance, its traditional position at the meeting-place of empires, faiths and ideologies, mix in a little Caspian oil, a spark from an isolated killing, and bang! Another Caucasian war is underway.

For two centuries Russia’s empire included the entire Caucasus range. As its power ebbed north at the end of the twentieth century, old enmities re-emerged. Armenians fought Azerbaijanis over Nagorny Karabagh, Ossetians fought Georgians in South Ossetia, Georgians fought Abkhazians in Abkhazia, Georgians fought each other in Georgia. The Russian rearguard played its divisive part. Of all these conflicts, the fiercest and most persistent has been in the north Caucasus, in Chechnya, fought with the same tactics, the same brutality, often around the same mountain villages, the same gorges, the same river banks and between descendants of the same combatants who rallied around Imam Shamyl a century-and-a-half earlier.

The Caucasian Wars

Lesley Blanch’s account of the Caucasian wars is as grand in its sweep and style as the mountains themselves. Driven by the Orientalist passion that produced many of her other works − The Wilder Shores of Love, Pierre Loti and Journey into the Mind’s Eye − it is the product of years of diligent and scholarly research. The particulars of clothing (‘the sea otter collar of his fur-lined pelisse’), the colours of an Ossetian market store, herbal remedies, the dried-dung smoke of the dusty aôuls, the crushing ennui of the Russian aristocracy, the mood of a garrison town are all evoked with sensual enthusiasm; the lives of the main players − and many minor ones − are sketched with a novelist’s relish for moments and details.

These are not mere digressions. Each adds to the central drama, a drama that builds scene by scene until it has established the compelling duality at the heart of the story. For it is essentially the story of two worlds − two faiths, two societies, two ages, two continents − brought into sudden juxtaposition. The outcome was never in doubt; what is surprising is that it took so long.

It would be easy, using contemporary parlance, to explain the Caucasian wars of the mid-nineteenth century as part of the ‘clash of civilizations’, as a chapter in the age-old conflict between Islam and Christianity, as the bloody result of an expansive modernity coming face-to-face with a recalcitrant piety. How gleefully then, one could pluck out and explain Islamist uprisings from Malaysia to Morocco.

At one level of course, the wars do neatly fit this pattern. While Russia was hardly at the forefront of European technological advance, it had in the early nineteenth century experienced a rise in production significant enough to propel its forces outwards on a confident tide of prosperity. For more than a century, its imperium had been growing − four thousand miles eastwards into Siberia, more slowly southwards to the Black Sea and by the early nineteenth century to the border with Persia. One of the curious aspects of Shamyl’s war is that the Russians were already well-established to the south of his territory; from the annexation of Georgia in 1801, it took another sixty years to gain full control of the mountainous land to the north, between Georgia and Russia.

Likewise Russia’s colonization of Islamic peoples mirrored that of its fellow Christian powers − the British in India and Aden, the French – briefly − in Egypt and Syria, less briefly in Algeria. Russia was an early participant in that game, having annexed the Tartar khanates to the south of Moscow. In Karen Armstrong’s Islam, she writes of the long-term impact of this gradual squeezing of the Muslim states: ‘Instead of being one of the leaders of world civilization, Islamdom was quickly and permanently reduced to a dependent bloc by the European powers . . . Western people are often bewildered by the hostility and rage that Muslims feel for their culture which, because of their different experience, they have found to be liberating and overpowering.’

In 1827, that rage manifested itself in Yaraghl in the north Caucasus with the re-emergence of Naqshband Sufism and the preaching of Ghazavat, or holy war. Initially, under the pacific teaching of Mollah Jamul u’din, Shamyl resisted these calls. His militancy came later, overlaying a faith of unswerving austerity. He always stressed that he and his followers were exercising the will of God by resisting the infidel invader.

So, a classic holy war? A close examination of the Caucasian wars, as with all such wars, reveals just how simplistic and dangerous it is to explain them in terms of a clash between Christian and Muslim. As Blanch shows, the Islamic peoples of the north Caucasus were never united under Shamyl − many fought for the Russians against him. He himself appealed for support to that great infidel leader Queen Victoria (without success), and became a popular hero in Victorian Britain. Nor do religious or cultural differences between the Russians and the Caucasians serve to explain the war. It was not so much spiritual devotion that led men to the black banners of Shamyl’s Ghazavat as the more worldly threat of Russian occupation. Conflicts tend to arise not from religious differences but from political realities − territorial threat, local disenfranchisement, opportunism. Only once underway do the differences take on their totemic significance, the participants elevating them to distinguish themselves from their adversaries to seek wider alliances in their struggle. It often suits everyone − combatants, observers and ideologues − to label a conflict ‘religious’ when it is, at heart, political.

The distinction is an important one. In the more recent post-Soviet Chechen wars, the dangers of ignoring it have been well illustrated. The Russian authorities put much of the blame for the continuing war on Islamist groups, ‘fundamentalists’. Linking the war to that unassailable cause − the global war against terror − has to some degree exonerated the Russians’ own often brutal part in it. Likewise the Islamists − who have certainly been involved − exploit the religious aspects of the conflict for their own ends. The problem of grand global rhetoric is that it overshadows the local causes, the particular causes, in which the resolution often resides. ‘From my own observations,’ wrote journalist Anatol Lieven after several years covering the war, ‘I would say . . . that the Chechen struggle of the 1990s has been overwhelmingly a national or nationalist one . . . Islam seems less of a motive force in itself than something which has been adopted both by the Dudayev regime and by individual fighters as a spiritual clothing for their national struggle.’

It is the range of The Sabres of Paradise that enables Lesley Blanch to avoid this trap. While she dwells on the differences between the warring parties, they are too various to be linked to any wider pattern. She presents the parties as distinct from each other in almost every respect − but the differences are an end in themselves. Like Tolstoy’s, her sense of history is ultimately convincing not because of its sweeping theses, but because of its particularities, the quirks of individuals and their personal narratives, their deluded ambitions, their vanities and passions. The figures of the Russian commanders Yermolov, Voronzov, Bariatinsky stride these pages like uniformed colossuses. Shamyl’s son, Djemmal-Eddin, plays his own tragic role, the Georgian hostages and their French governess languish, Shamyl’s Naibs all have their parts. But ultimately the story belongs to its two towering central figures − Tsar Nicholas I and Imam Shamyl himself.

None of its rulers better embodied the excessive pomp and blind arrogance of imperial Russia than Nicholas I. He is Shakespearean in his majesty and his mortal flaws. Belief in his own military might not only led to the bloody and fruitless Crimean War, but also the unnecessary protraction of the Caucasian campaigns. In Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, a reading of which makes an excellent accompaniment to The Sabres of Paradise, the brief cameo of Nicholas I is one of the clearest, most convincing portraits of power to be found in literature. Having seduced the daughter of a Swedish governess, the tsar returned to his quarters in the Winter Palace: ‘. . . and lay down on the narrow, hard bed of which he was so proud, and covered himself with his cape which he considered (and said as much) just as renowned as Napoleon’s hat . . . But despite the fact that he was certain that he had behaved as he should, a certain unpleasant aftertaste remained with him and, in order to stifle this feeling, he began thinking about the thing that always reassured him: about what a great man he was.’

Blanch’s Nicholas is drawn with the same vividness. She tells of an unfortunate officer being banished by him to the Caucasus − forced to travel there in winter in nothing but his nightshirt. Her Nicholas is a fabulous autocrat, whose merest whim becomes policy, but he is ultimately a tragic, failed figure. Her real sympathies lie with Shamyl − the battling underdog, the determined ascetic. She does not shy from his brutalities (he who travels through the mountains with his attendant executioner) but recognises in him a man, like Nicholas, who appears as something rather more than mortal to those around him. Instead of relying on the gilded throne of imperial St. Petersburg for his elevation, Shamyl derived his legitimacy directly from God. In fact, his life shows uncanny parallels with that of Muhammad. Like the Prophet, he was known to disappear into a high rocky region above his home-town, was persecuted by jealous compatriots, built up a vast following after narrowly escaping death, was a devout man driven to pursue his ambitions with the sword, was touchingly devoted to his various wives and had a particular fondness for cats.

His defeat, when it comes, is not a surprise − but its coda certainly is. While there are obvious parallels with the current war, his final treatment by the Russian people shows how far removed that age is from ours. It is impossible to imagine that, were he to surrender or be captured, Shamil Basayev would receive the reception of the Imam − cheered by a huge crowd when he arrived in St. Petersburg, and permitted a quiet retirement in the provinces. His surrender is just one of the bizarre twists in Shamyl’s extraordinary story. Lesley Blanch has recreated a historical drama which has all the universality of a Greek play, proving that history is at its most compelling not when focusing on the great collective context, but on the lives of those individuals caught up in it.

Copyright © Philip Marsden, Cornwall, 2004. All rights reserved. Enquiries: Please use the contact form HERE

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