Mar 8, 2014
Steve Wasserman on the Scourge of Czarist Russia
Posted on May 20, 2010
It is the aim of Truthdig to go behind the headlines, to consider books, new and old, that shed light on issues of the day. “The Sabres of Paradise” by the late Lesley Blanch, published 50 years ago, is one such book. It is a remarkable story of resistance to empire, heroism and treachery, savagery and generosity, religious fanaticism and imperial ambition. Though the tale it tells occurred more than 150 years ago, its implications for our era are evident on nearly every page. If you want to understand something of the futility and hubris of the American effort to pacify Afghanistan and the unruly clans of Pakistan, or the forlorn and ruthless Russian war against Chechnya’s murderous insurgents, you would do well to consider the story of Shamyl, Imam of Daghestan.
Blanch, a nearly forgotten writer, died three years ago in the south of France just one month shy of 103. She had been a features editor of Vogue in England from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s and gained a considerable reputation as a book illustrator, columnist, war reporter, movie and drama critic, theatrical designer and book reviewer. The author of more than a dozen books, she is perhaps best known for her international best-seller “The Wilder Shores of Love,” a compelling if overly romantic portrait of a quartet of intrepid 19th century Englishwomen who were drawn to the seductions of what they imagined were the more authentic passions of the East. Blanch admired these women as “realists of romance who broke with their century’s dream, to live it, robustly.”
The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus
By Lesley Blanch
Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 512 pages
She herself was always fascinated by Russia, her imagination inflamed by Tolstoy and Lermontov’s imperishable stories set in the Caucasus—stories which vividly portray the effort by the czarist Court of St. Petersburg to subdue the proud tribal peoples, mostly of the Islamic persuasion, who fought to preserve their rituals and traditional ways against the encroachments of a rapacious Russian empire. She loved the bloodcurdling stories handed down from generation to generation. Atrocities excited her: She wrote in a characteristically empurpled passage that “it had been secretly every [Russian] woman’s dream to be seized, flung over the saddle of a pure-bred Kabarda steed, and forced to submit to the advances of some darkling mountaineer.” From the opening pages of “The Sabres of Paradise,” she breathlessly recounts the diabolical ways the tribes of the Caucasus went to battle, how they “wrote love-poems to their daggers, as to a mistress, and went to battle, as to a rendezvous.” They were a hard and hardened people: “Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.” Collections of severed rebel heads were matters of competitive pride; a girl’s dowry might be reckoned in such trophies. Caucasian warriors, she writes, would dress their saddle-bows with the severed hands of their enemies, which dangled provocatively from the prize mounts they rode with enviable skill. Brutality was a way of life, the ability to suffer abuse without complaint a sign of virtue. Stoicism was synonymous with nobility.
The peoples of the Caucasus were legendary for their refusal to submit to would-be conquerors. Neither Alexander the Great nor successive invaders from the Roman legions to Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, nor Tamerlane nor the shahs of Persia could crush these fierce tribes, secure in their nearly inaccessible mountain redoubts, mighty ranges that dwarfed the Alps. In Persia there was even a much-ignored proverb: “When a Shah is a fool, he attacks Daghestan.” Into this vortex of violence and stubbornness came Czar Nicholas I with his dream of extending St. Petersburg’s writ. His nemesis was the towering figure of Shamyl of Daghestan, who strove tirelessly to unite the disparate Caucasian tribes to resist their Russian invaders. He issued a call for holy war and imposed Shariah law wherever he could. For 25 years, from 1839 until his surrender in 1864, Shamyl was an implacable foe of Russian ambitions, forging an army of religious fanatics “whose private feuds,” Blanch writes, “were submerged in their common hatred of the Infidel invaders.” His word was law. His four wives and several sons submitted to his least whim and every command. His fury knew no bounds. Osama bin Laden is his heir.
The quarter-century war Shamyl waged was unrelenting: an estimated half-million men would die, soldiers sent by the czar into the bloody, bottomless maw of Caucasian hatred. The Russians had greater resources, the backing of a mighty and expanding empire. But Shamyl’s men were better able to withstand climatic extremes, to utilize the nimble and disciplined tactics of partisans who fought for their independence, for Allah, and for Allah’s prophet, the indefatigable and unforgiving Shamyl. A single story from his remarkable career, wonderfully and indelibly recounted by Blanch, reveals something of the man’s austere and rigid character and his charismatic power. (Blanch’s book offers up a trove of such stories, rooted in her admirable research and excellent reporting on several continents.) It is a story that suggests the many ways “Shamyl dramatized himself, turning to his own advantage events which, less imaginatively treated, would have spelled disaster.”
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