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Prisoners of the Caucasus Article

© UKC Articles

Matthew Shipton writes about the competing narratives that have sought to define the Caucasus mountains – of imperial ambition, of adventure, and of climbing. But also as a place where climbing technique began to change and mountain literature styles were influenced...


On a barren outcrop in the foothills of the Caucasus the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument sits like a magic lantern made concrete. Constructed to mark the bicentenary of the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk, its psychedelic, constructivist reliefs present images from Russian and Georgian mythologies, flanking a mother figure holding a dove and child. Guarding the southern approach to the Javri Pass and the Terek River beyond, or the road down the valley to Tbilisi, it's a relic of a past age and faded kaleidoscope of long dead ideologies.

The southern slopes of Mqinvartsveri.  © UKC Articles
The southern slopes of Mqinvartsveri.

It commemorates a friendship that was not a friendship, a Soviet era monument to a pre-revolutionary period of Imperial expansion, if not subjugation, into historical Georgia. It still draws Russian tourists; some fleeing conscription, some revisiting sites of nationalist pride. As is common to all mountains, points of commemoration, be they lithified political statements or individual stone cairns, are highly contestable.

'...the Caucasus, with its seemingly unlimited capacity to host both tradition and innovation, formed the stage on which both mountain literature and climbing would transmute into identifiably modern forms.'

The Terek River rises to the northwest, in the partitioned territory of South Ossetia, annexed by Russia since their invasion of Georgia in 2010. Swinging south and then back to the northwest, it meanders beside the Georgian Military Highway, before transforming into a torrent as it passes the Darial Gorge to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. Then, it softens again as it winds through Chechnya and Dagestan to the Caspian Sea.

It was the Darial through which invaders of many nationalities traversed this section of the Caucasus over many centuries – Macedonians under Alexander, Ghengis Khan and later the Golden Horde and, in the late eighteenth century, the Imperial Russian Army of Catherine the Great. Marching along the Terek, beneath the shadow of the collapsed cone of mighty Mqinvartsveri (commonly known as Mount Kazbek), the Russians opened the Caucasian front in the Russian-Ottoman War as self-proclaimed protectors of their fellow Christian Georgians from the threat from both Persia and Ottoman Empires. 

The Tsars were not alone in their quest for land, power and wealth; indeed the Russians actively sought their very own 'Orient' by which to measure their imperial credentials against rivals in Europe, namely the French and British. The Caucasus was their own blank space on a map.

In this period of expansion by the great imperial powers, colonial forces projected not just their own military might but also deployed an auxiliary of symbols of their occupying power. From the early days of Russian occupation of Georgia, a cultural superstructure of Russian romantic literature began the process of buttressing brutal reality of invasion.

Harsha Ram (Author of The Imperial Sublime) explains: "a romantic myth quickly developed around the Caucasus, replete with spectacular mountain scenery and ethnographic color, combining the artist's need to flee the suffocating constraints of civilisation and a paradoxical awareness that this path to freedom had first to be cleared by the Tsar's armies." Or put differently by Rebecca Gould, another expert on the Caucasus and poetics: "The romantic aesthetic was thereby yoked to the imperial mission, and hunger for power was harnessed to the quest for the sublime."

These impulses are most readily appreciable in a narrative poem by Russia's foremost writer of the period, Lev Pushkin, in his work The Prisoner of the Caucasus of 1821. Here, the Romantic hero, seeking escape from conformity through travel to the mountains, finds adventure, love and death. In short, an orientalised highlands in which to redeem himself through conquest.

Others followed Pushkin's example and these writers, poets and artists extended this narrative prison to enclose spaces in an act of Imperial overwriting of local culture, asserting stories that justified Russian encroachment. As in stone as in literature, a mark on a rock or one on a page, mountain narratives precipitated the colonialists' cause. 

***

The early 1820s were one of the most significant decades in the long, complicated history of the Caucasus not only due to the literary movement sparked by Pushkin's landmark poem. In politics, the Russian occupation of Georgia was made complete and a significant, if unreliably witnessed, development in mountaineering was purported to have taken place in the first ascent of the eastern summit of Elbruz by the Circassian, Killar Khasirov.

A thousand miles away to the west, the Golden Age of Alpinism was still yet to begin. The cultural outlook on mountains here was still clouded by Sturm und Drang, prefiguring the sublime of the Romantic era view of the Alps. In the imagination of the European, the Caucasus was a distant, semi-mythical land, mapped only imaginatively, by poets such as Shelley and Byron. Indeed, the language used by Shelley to describe the Arve Valley bears striking comparison to that used of the 'Indian' Caucasus in his poem "Prometheus", whose mythology binds the Titan metaphorically and literally to a Caucasian mountainside. The lack of first-hand European accounts of the range's geography were well summed up in the words of one Alpine Club President: "British geographers of repute would speculate of the Caucasus that 'its peaks are mostly flat…the existence of glaciers is uncertain." The Caucasus, like Russia itself, were an enduring mystery to the major European powers.

Russia was then at a geographical and cultural crossroads. The court of the Tsars looked both westwards to what was considered the rarefied culture of Europe, but also eastwards towards cultures perceived as more elemental, whose systems of values chimed with aspects considered fundamental to the Russian national character. In this matrix of identities, the Caucasus represented not a mystery but a paradox. It was both a manly hinterland, a martial testing ground, and an orientalised, exotic feminine landscape. The imperial imperative was to conquer both in order to measure up against the Europeans and demonstrate something unique about the Russian national character. But in another paradox, literary and martial pioneers drew designs from European influences.

The Russian literary correspondence with Western traditions is most obviously found in Pushkin, who at first draw heavily on the established Romantic tropes, especially those of Byron. The opening lines of Prisoner bear comparison with Canto 3 of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage": P.44 (everlasting thrones of snow, Pushkin; thrones eternity in icy halls, Byron). This tradition continued throughout the nineteenth century with exotic travelogues not only by Pushkin, but Lermontov and Marlinsky too. Meanwhile other writers, such as Bronevsky in A New Geography and History of the Caucasus argued for the primacy of Russian literary interpretation over local myths. Bronevsky promoted imperial prose as the ultimate arbiter of truth. 

Georgian flag at Mqinvartsveri base camp, above the Darial Gorge.  © UKC Articles
Georgian flag at Mqinvartsveri base camp, above the Darial Gorge.

In Europe, then enjoying a period of relative peace, the martial impulse to conquer highlands was sublimated into the capture of Alpine summits, almost always followed by a literary narrative, if not justification. With the Alps subsequently cultivated into the Playground of Europe and many a climber denigrating the comfort and ease by which the peaks had become an 'easy day for a lady' (said by Mummery, it must be noted, with some irony), the Caucasus, unknown to most Europeans, proved an attractive ground for future mythmaking. Another president of the Alpine Club remarked: "GO THERE! in that strange country, those giant peaks wait for you – silent, majestic, unvisited."

Many climbers heeded the call, Mummery included, whose writings from this period reflect a radical change in the defining principals of mountaineering. To him, mountaineering was primarily physical rather than aesthetic; a precursor of what we might call the bodily immersion rather than aesthetic appreciation of mountains. The relationship between guide and 'Herr' was changing too, with partnerships rather than clientships becoming normal (except for those in the playgrounds). Mummery was in some way the most modern of all climbers of the period and his literary accounts reflect this, mainly shorn of the romantic and classical affections of some other mountaineers.

The Caucasus was to be a perfect staging ground for this transformation of mountaineering technique given the relative absence of infrastructure, which required more self-reliance. The same was true of Russian literature of the Caucasus too. By the end of the century, the Romanticism of Pushkin was replaced by the realism of Tolstoy, who saw the earlier poetic, literary Caucasus as producing a thick fog through which the real, empirical mountains couldn't be accurately perceived.

Tolstoy asked of realism: what was an honest vista? The answer would acknowledge the horrific realities of colonisation in the Caucasus in works such as Hadji Murat. The British, less invested politically in the region, used it as a springboard to change climbing. Russia, with their intertwined cultural and military endeavour, saw it change literature. Times changed and the Caucasus, with its seemingly unlimited capacity to host both tradition and innovation, formed the stage on which both mountain literature and climbing would transmute into identifiably modern forms.

***

The route that still snakes over the Javri Pass and allows access to the Friendship Monument, the Georgian Military Highway, still connects Tbilisi with the route through the Darial Pass and into Russia. Today, it transmits goods and people quite differently. Russians fleeing enlistment in the brutal Russian miliary machine, mainly young men, have relocated to Georgia in their thousands, while hundreds of huge goods lorries sweep north into Russia each day, carrying the kinds of consumables supposedly denied to Russia via the West's programme of sanctions.

The Monument commemorates the event of Georgia becoming a Russian protectorate, the euphemistic term given to the historic imperial occupation of the region. Fittingly, if not ironically, the monument marks a boundary point of sorts – it sits on an outcrop just below the ridges that mark the border with South Ossetia, the breakaway region backed by Russia, but also the latitudinal watershed of explicit Russian influence. In the capital, there is a strong sense of opposition to Russian interference in the region, even to those fleeing military service. In the north, accessible to Russian day-trippers, the sense of economic dependence on the larger neighbour is stark and no more so than in the village of Stepantsminda.

Anti-Russian graffiti in Central Tbilisi.  © Matthew Shipton
Anti-Russian graffiti in Central Tbilisi.
© Matthew Shipton

The two major landmarks of this village, straddling the Georgian Military highway and the Terek River, are the historic church of Gergeti and even higher and more remote beyond, Mqinvartsveri. The town has long been a staging point for visits to both, offering the basic amenities you'd expect from a Caucasus mountain resort. New developments are increasingly colonising the valley floor, creeping up the hillside to make the most of the stunning views of the church and mountain. The highest of these is Stepantsminda's premier hotel and restaurant. The panorama from the viewing deck is truly incredible, the building itself an exceptionally stylish Scandi construction. With white, starched service from formal waiting staff, it feels a country apart from the traditional guesthouses below. The constant and ostentatious flow of visitors and money from the Russian side of the Caucasus is a world away from Tbilisi and the resistance to Russian economic hegemony. 

The Georgia here then offers two views, defined by the perception one might bring. To those from the north, it's a friendly playground, a little brother; from the west a friend in waiting, an aspirant member of the EU fraternité. When British climber Douglas Freshfield made the first ascent of Mqinvartsveri in 1868, the same could be said. The region was picked over by the omnivorous appetites for adventure of major imperial powers, with seemingly little space left for the voices of the peoples of the region themselves. In Freshfield's words, the locals had no feelings for the mountains, they were mistrustful of them and terrified of the heights. Sadly, this attitude appears to endure.

***

Mid-September 2023, I was back off the Gergeti glacier, the long, stately corkscrew of ice that winds round Mqinvartsveri. This southern approach is used almost exclusively by Europeans, so it was something of a surprise to find a lone American and his guide taking a break from their descent. A less surprising sight was the two Polish hikers who were, ill-advisedly, on their way up. The steady flow of their overambitious and underprepared compatriots over the years had led to the establishment of a Safe Kazbek, an outpost of Polish mountain rescue on the mountain. The American's guide suggested they might benefit from help, the Poles replying they had no need as they had spent the last year training in the High Tatras. "OK", replied the guide, ignoring the fact that the Tatras are glacier free, "but your harness is on upside down".

If they had climbed earlier, they would have found a circus at the plateau formed by Mqinvartsveri's partially collapsed volcanic cone, just a few hundred metres below the summit. At 8 a.m., it was cold, bitterly so, the saddle - not far from 5000m altitude - offering no protection from a boreal wind. Above, a large group of Russian climbers, all tied into a single rope, struggled with the fixed line below the summit, with a handful of other parties stuck above and below them, slowly freezing. This group has arrived from the Russian side of the mountain and studiously avoided any communication with the other climbers ascending from the south. An hour later, they reached the top before descending in a long yellow line. The scene struck me as incredibly sad. 

A few days later I began making my way back to Tbilisi, where I was due to speak at a conference at Tbilisi State University. What I didn't know then was that the conference reception would be held at the Presidential Palace, partially televised, and used to promote Georgia's ambitions to join the EU.

For now, I was the last to join the morning marshrutka taxi from Stepantsminda and we then began the slow pull up the Javri Pass. Cresting the highest point, I felt a sharp elbow in my ribs and turned to find a weathered man smiling shyly, with one jacket side pulled open to reveal a hidden bottle of Chacha, the local firewater, from which he indicated I take a pull. Having resisted the invitation, my neighbour turned his back on me for the remainder of the journey. We passed the Friendship Monument and I struggled to work out whether I'd made a terrible cultural error or simply denied facilitating an alcoholic. Perhaps I did both. It was only 8:30 a.m.

Solitary climber in the mist on Mqinvartsveri.  © UKC Articles
Solitary climber in the mist on Mqinvartsveri.

In May, violent protests took place in Tbilisi against the ruling party's plans to introduce a law to limit foreign funding of organisations in Georgia, legislation seemingly designed to gain favour with Russia. Thousands marched nightly along Rustaveli Avenue to demonstrate outside the Georgian Parliament building, often ending with bloody skirmishes as riot police prevent encroachment onto the government estate. The country's president is opposed to the law and has even engineered the country's successful application for candidate status of the EU. Neither position can accommodate the other. 

Again, Georgia appears on the verge of losing control of its own narrative while larger global changes take place within its borders. It seems fitting that the backdrop for these events is a thoroughfare named after Georgia's most celebrated poet, Shota Rustaveli, little known outside of the country but who wrote long before birth of English or Russian literature. With the law now passed following the government's quashing of the President's veto, the Friendship Monument looks less like a relic and more like a revenant. 




So let me get this straight, archie duke ferdinand shot a hungry ostrich......

9 Jun

Thank you for such an excellent and well written article.

We visited Georgia in 1996, not long after independence. Having had a failed attempt on Mt Ushba (due to civil unrest) we went to climb Kazbegi. It was a wild place at the time, no formal accomodation in the town. We participated in a festival at the church on the hill which also included obligatory drinking of the fire water, slaughtering of several sheep whilst inside an orthodox christian service with incense continued. Thanks for evoking these and other memories.

10 Jun

A fascinating article bringing mountaineering, literature and the history of the region together to comment on contemporary issues.

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