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Steve Wasserman on the Scourge of Czarist Russia

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Posted on May 20, 2010
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By Steve Wasserman

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.”

 

book cover

 

The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus

 

By Lesley Blanch

 

Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 512 pages

 

Buy the book

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.

To see long excerpts from “The Sabres of Paradise,” click here.

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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By Eugenio Costa, May 22, 2010 at 12:43 pm Link to this comment

While still being Russian, Lermontov is sublty sympathetic to the Chechens—in a very Russian way, aware of a profound human dialectic, and not blinded to the savagery of either, or their distinctive humanity.

They are old enemies, but recall the Chechens under the Soviets were an important part of the Red Army.

A telling incident in the first Russian attack on Chehcyna: The Chechens had captured scores of young Russian soldiers and the Chechen leader told the Russian comander—“Let these boys’ mothers come and fetch them and we will let them go.”

This review and what it reviews are trash.

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By GoyToy, May 22, 2010 at 4:59 am Link to this comment

Nice but not so subtle racist hit job. Watch out for those mad mullahs to come riding over the pond. Question is do our womenfolk wish to abducted by them. This is Mandigo updated with a bushy, Islamic beard.

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By Eugenio Costa, May 22, 2010 at 1:13 am Link to this comment

Lermontov is worth the time.

All this is a crock.

It appears now because the Anglo-Saxon Alliance is still trying to encricle and destroy Russia.

Israel rehabilitates Hitler with their own little Warsaw Ghetto in Gaza.

The US and Britain are now rehabilitating Stalin by showing just how right he was.

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By von Kaufman, May 21, 2010 at 8:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That was a grade 10-level book review.
And OBL is not Shamyl’s heir.
This seems like a pretty bald-faced commercial for a site like Truthdig. But I understand money doesn’t grow on trees.

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By David E, May 21, 2010 at 7:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The barbarians,thieves, murders, racists, warlords of the Caucasus are not to be admired, for anything.  True, they were very good at being very bad. Sounds to me like this book is pure reverse propaganda for some really nasty people.  Like we haven’t seen enough of THAT lately.  Truthdig is usually above this sort of garbage.

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By msgmi, May 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

History has its lessons. Russian empire expansion toward the east created a Shamyl of Daghestan and others like him followed, whether they be muslim or whatever. The French i.e., faced a similar Shamyl of Daghestan in Algeria and later in Vietnam…expansionism seems to breed resistance leaders in all corners of the world. Those who learn from history and eschew its repetition need not pay a heavy price in national treasure.

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By ofersince72, May 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm Link to this comment

He already has choked.

I can’t believe TD put this piece of trash up here.
This could be like an open blog space.
God is Love…..abstract philosophy ain’t bad if you have
the time.  All those greats that wrote all that stuff had
limitless time to ponder and write all lifes meanings.

Life philosophy to the average person is getting up
every morning , putting on their work boots and humping
all day, coming home, try to spend a few valuable hours
with the kids (hopefully) and passing out so they can do
it again.
And their is whole lot of philosophy wrapped in that.

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By ofersince72, May 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

Hey TD3

Only part I liked was how all the woman fantisized
being thrown over a horse, tied up and abused

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By truedigger3, May 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm Link to this comment

One thing is sure. That Rand Paul has a very flexible body. He keeps putting his foot in his mouth and eventually he will choke on it.

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By truedigger3, May 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

I am not sure how accurate is this book? Why is it “resurrected” NOW??!! Things and situations are completely different now. This book is pure bullshit and bullshitting. It might be good entertaining read, but deffinitely is not a guide to understanding the present , which as I said is completely different.

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By ofersince72, May 21, 2010 at 9:30 am Link to this comment

Today, it is all about OIL.  period

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By my two cents, May 21, 2010 at 8:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How is this not totally ridiculous romanticizing of exotic savages?  How does this not play into the fantasies of the islamophobes and others who want to reduce the people of the Caucasus to caricatures?  Whether this indirectly discourages war in Afghanistan or not, it uses the same fantasy characterizations of madmen and fanatics.  There are human beings, innocents being killed, maimed and impoverished by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Silly books like this are just more war porn.

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By my two cents, May 21, 2010 at 8:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How is this not totally ridiculous romanticizing of exotic savages?  How does this not play into the fantasies of the islamophobes and others who want to reduce the people of the Caucasus to caricatures?  Whether or not this indirectly discourages war in Afghanistan or not, it uses the same fantasy characterizations of madmen and fanatics.  There are human beings, innocents being killed, maimed and impoverished by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Silly books like this are just more war porn.

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