Ermolov - Proconsul of the Caucasus, by Michael Whittock

Russian Review, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Jan., 1959), pp. 53-60.

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Ermolov - Proconsul of the Caucasus

Michael Whittock

The Caucasus came to occupy a unique place in Russian life and literature during the first half of the nineteenth century. It provided an important theme for Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and several lesser but still significant writers. It was also the breeding-ground of a ‘‘school’’ or ‘‘generation’’ of soldiers and administrators who were, for varying reasons (and often unconsciously), out of tune with official policy and who found among the wild mountains of the south an atmosphere of free thought and positive action which could not exist in the rigid pomposity of St. Petersburg or in the ennui of provincial garrison life. Some of these men came to the "warm Siberia" as political exiles, banished from the north for their suspected or proven hostility to the regime; some were romantic young officers who volunteered for the hard-worked and unfashionable Caucasian regiments, having been influenced by Pushkin’s Prisoner or the Caucasus" or the highly-colored novels of ‘‘Marlinsky’’; some were men of small fortune in search of quick advancement who came to the south "with large hopes and small portmanteaux,’’prepared for death or glory; some had been banished for drunkenness, gambling, duelling, and similar misdemeanors. For those sent south as "transgressors," the punishment varied: a civilian might remain a civilian or be forced into the army as a private soldier, an officer might be reduced to private or NCO or allowed to keep his rank. But whatever category these men came into, they were all, with very few exceptions, members of the dvoryanstvo, the land-owning and serf-holding nobility, and this common social origin bound them together, giving them in time a remarkable esprit de corps, a ‘‘Caucasian’’ outlook.
This spirit first developed during the period from 1816 to 1827, when Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov was Russian commander -in-chief in the Caucasus and ambassador-extraordinary to the Persian court. General Ermolov assumed his command at a time when Russian supremacy in the Caucasus was in great danger; Tsar Alexander's pre-occupation with the European peace settlement had encouraged Turkey and Persia to attempt, by subversion and force of arms, the re-conquest of territories they had lost to Russia in the recent past. Christian Georgia was again threatened with a Moslem invasion; in the northern Caucasus, the thin and scattered units (mostly local Cossacks) manning the defense cordons along the Terek and Kuban rivers were under continual harassment by raiding bands of Moslem tribesmen—Adygs (Circassians) on the Kuban and the Black Sea Coast, and Chechens and Lezgins along the Terek and in the mountain districts of Dagestan.

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