Russia Captive and Captivated: Sergej Bodrov's Kavkazskij plennik

Gerald McCausland, University of Pittsburgh

The political maelstrom into which Russia has been drawn in the Caucasus during the 1990s has run parallel with a turn to the Caucasus in Russian culture. In Russian cinema, the "Caucasian theme" has become a significant trend in the work of post-Soviet filmmakers. This clearly has its roots in the Golden Age of Russian literature. Sergej Bodrov's Kavkazskij plennik (1996), echoing the story by Lev Tolstoj, is only the most obvious recent example of the theme's continuing vitality. Since Pushkin's time, the Caucasus has been an arena in which individual personal battles have been inflected with issues of empire and national identity. The Caucasus has never been simply "foreign," nor has Russia ever been able to formulate a self-definition within a binary opposition as it has repeatedly attempted to do vis--vis the West. Whether in the context of the Russian empire of the nineteenth century or the Soviet Union of the twentieth, the Caucasus has always been a part of Russia's "body," culturally as well as politically. It thus presents itself as a lure and a problem for those who would attempt to construct a post-Soviet Russian identity.

This paper will suggest that the Caucasian theme in recent Russian cinema has been a deliberate and largely failed attempt to construct a new (or to reformulate an old) national identity for post-Soviet Russia. After a brief overview of the topic in films such as Musul'manin (Xotinenko, 1995), Blokpost (Rogozhkin, 1998), and Vremja tancora (Abdrashitov/Mindadze, 1997), I will devote the bulk of my time to an analysis of Sergej Bodrov's Kavkazskii plennik. The film demonstrates the many ways in which any attempt to construct the Caucasus as a cultural Other, against which Russia can achieve self-definition, must fail. The breakdown and decay of the patriarchal order in both the Russian army and in society is contrasted with the strength of the Chechen father whose attempts to rescue his son mirror the Russian mother's attempts to rescue hers. The two cultures in this way form two halves of one dysfunctional whole. The circulation of people, money, and weapons underscores the Russo-Chechen relationship as that of one organism. When analyzed through the prism of recent theoretical work on national identity and subjectivity (that of Slavoj Zizek in particular), the tragedy portrayed in this film reveals the way in which the peculiar structure of the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus dooms any attempt to forge a stable identity for the Russian subject. At the same time, the long history of Russia's attempts to "incorporate" the Caucasus leaves the former with no way to free itself of its captivity within the structure of a fatal relationship.