The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus

By Goluboff, Sascha L. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 2011 | Go to article overview

The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus


Goluboff, Sascha L., Canadian Slavonic Papers


Bruce Grant. The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009. xviii, 188 pp. Glossary. References. Index. $65.00, cloth. $21.95, paper.

In this gem of a book, Bruce Grant explicates Russia's complex involvement with the Caucasus through the seemingly simple metaphor of the "gift of empire." As he writes in the introduction, "[claiming sovereignty over another entails the burdens of giving" (p. x), and Grant digs deep through the layers of giving s and takings that have shaped relations in the region. Shifting focus away from the usual state level of analysis, Grant investigates discursive and real-life tales of captivity in the mountains. His rich material reveals how and why Russia's gift of civilization to the people of the Caucasus, as well as their conquest, has never been fully received, nor resolved. Ultimately, Grant argues that the boundaries between Russia and the Caucasus are extremely porous, fostering "evolving codes of engagement" that expose the open and comparative nature of colonial authority (p. xvii).

Grant leads the reader through various facets of the gift. He begins with the myth of Prometheus, who was banned to the top of Mount Caucasus for stealing fire from the Gods. Grant portrays Prometheus as the archetypal "suffering captive giver" (p. 2), whose exile provided a model for "localized forms of sovereignty" (p. 8). Subsequent exchanges of hostages that happened locally, as well as between Russians and Caucasians, show the "porous" nature of sovereign practices, "where bodies move across established social lines and where languages of gift and sacrifice very much narrate the making of new systems of power and authority" (p. 9).

Since the gift establishes a relationship between the giver and receiver, Grant approaches the history of Caucasian conquest as an example of how "mutual appropriations" transformed each side's political and military strategies (p. 21). Grant argues that Russians adopted indigenous practices of theft to develop the myth of the good Russian prisoner. By exploring this narrative, rather than focusing on the over- analyzed victor/colonizer dichotomy, Grant provides a new take on why captive stories have been so popular in the Russian imagination. He advocates that we should see this myth as generating "a powerful symbolic economy of belonging in a highly charged setting" that has naturalized violence and enabled "diverse Russian publics to frame their government's military actions there as persuasive" (p. 17). The Russian prisoner became the ultimate gift of empire that substantiated Russia's expensive expansion as a force of enlightenment in the region. …

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