In Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White surveys the history of the Wild Man myth in Western cultural history, from pre-modern times through the eighteenth century, in order to show how “civilized” societies used the notion of “savagery” as a “culturally self-authenticating device.” Using Northrop Frye’s definition of myth as a projection of the ideal of freedom, or redemption, on the one hand, and of complete oppression, or damnation, on the other, White shows how societies either identified with or distanced themselves from those peoples whom they considered politically, economically, and culturally primitive.
It is in this context that I will discuss how Russian and Polish exiles to the Caucasus in the 1820s–40s used myths of the Caucasian “Savage” to encode political conflicts between the Russian state and Russian and Polish dissidents. These alterity myths became a significant part of Russian and Polish national mythology. Using four texts by Aleksandr Bestužev-Marlinskij and Władysław Strzelnicki (“Ammalat-Bek,” “Mula-Nur,” “Bej-Bulat,” “Maxmudek”), I will show the multi-valence of the notion of alterity in these two cultures. I will also show how Russian and Polish myths differ from one another, and particularly how the Polish myths encode references to Poland’s national drama.
The 1825 Decembrist uprising in Russia and the 1830 November uprising in Poland changed the social roles of dissidents and their relationships with the Russian state. I will explore these changes applying an anthropological model of the “rite of passage” (Van Gennep, 1909; Turner, 1969, 1974), according to which every change of man’s social position is accompanied by three stages: separation, marginalization, and reaggregation. Similar “rites of passage” can be identified in the experiences of Russian and Polish dissidents; they found themselves detached from the social structure and marginalized. I will show how the marginalization phase, the phase when the dissidents found themselves “betwixt and between all points of classification,” engendered a number of metaphors and allegories, through which the dissidents reflected on the social and political turmoil. These metaphors are marked by a polarization of the Self-“other” relationship, in which the “other,” the “Savage,” represents changes and ambiguities of the Self. In the case of Russian and Polish dissidents, the myth of the Caucasian “Savage” allowed Russian and Polish authors to rationalize the conflicts and the changes taking place in their relationship to their societies and the Russian state.