Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus
by Bruce Grant
200pp. $21.95 (paperback)
Publisher: Cornell University Press (June, 2009)

In his autobiography The Two Lives of My Generation (OLMA Media Group 2006), Russian broadcaster and best-selling author Yuri Kostin quotes a classical poem about Georgia:

"On Georgia godly gifts were showered,
In garden shade they bloomed and flowered,
And have since then, and without fear,
Behind a friendly fringe of spear."

[from "Mtsyri" by Michael Lermontov (1814-1841); my translation]

Kostin, born in 1965, the same year as Russia’s president, Dmitriy Medvedyev, belongs to a pivotal generation now coming into power: it is perhaps the last generation that can clearly recall Soviet times. It is also a generation suckled on the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. Kostin’s implication is that literary notions of "godly gifts" and "friendly spear" in the Caucasus cannot be dismissed as quaint: indeed, in Russia, they have gained traction.

This, too, is the thesis of Bruce Grant’s intriguing The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Cornell 2009)--an exploration of stories and poems (some of them thousands of years old), films, and the recurrent themes in them of capture, hostage-taking, and gift-giving. Grant argues that Russia has couched its empire-building in terms of bringing to others the gifts of civilization, education, language, and even soul--along with a friendly fringe of spear.

Grant contends that Russians have been profoundly influenced by tales of the Caucasus--as have Caucasians themselves, who read the classics as part of the same Soviet curriculum and often came to consider them as historically correct masterpieces. Grant, who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at New York University, encapsulates the problem neatly: Russian writers who sallied into the Caucasus "entered a physical place, found a mythic place, and generated a narrative place."

Unfortunately, Grant also sprinkles his text with undefined terms (’acts of emplacement,’ ’logics of sovereignty,’ ’biopolitics,’ ’idioms of closure,’ ’sleights of power’) that take considerable getting used to. There are also some academic head-scratchers like: "In examples such as these [i.e. a legend about bride kidnapping] we find the logics of Bataille most prominent: beyond pure utility, persons may be stolen foremost to perform sovereignty in an act of power as spectacle."

But all in all, this book will greatly reward the reader. Just as the United States "settled" the Wild West, Russians contended with the Caucasus--and indeed still do. Grant’s labor in The Captive and the Gift is to present us with the interplay between myth, story, and action: between Russian ideas about the Caucasus and their actual relations with it.

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AmazonShop: Books, Maps, Videos, Music & Gifts About The Caucasus

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