Between Love and Honour by Alexandra Lapierre


Dagestan possibly isn’t the most obvious of places from which you might expect a chivalric romantic hero to come.    The words people most associate with it these days are probably, and quite understandably, “lawlessness” and “terrorism”.   It’s sad: Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya have a fascinating history.  And this book, set against the background of the Caucasian Wars, is based on a true story.  Jamal Eddin, our chivalric, romantic hero from Dagestan, was a real person, and Alexandra Lapierre’s done rather a good job of telling his story.

The expansion of Russia does rather tend to get lost in the wider course of European history – which is daft, really, because it’s had far more effect on European and world history than short-lived conflicts like the War of the Austrian Succession or the Seven Years’ War.  The Great Northern War gets a lot of attention, and I suppose the Polish partitions do too, but Russia’s expansion southwards and eastwards only tends to become a “thing” in English language history books once you get to the Great Game and the fear that Russia might barge through Afghanistan into India.  Obviously the whole issue of the Dardanelles and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire gets a lot of coverage, but Russia never actually got involved in any sort of land grab there, other than with the Danubian Principalities.   The Caucasian Wars, on the other hand, get ignored.

Admittedly, that’s partly because the early part of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus clashed with the Napoleonic Wars.  Everyone knows about 1812.  But what about Russia versus Persia?  Yes, Persia.  By the 1820s, Russia was in control of what would later become the three Transcaucasian republics of the Soviet Union – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  And needed to take over the rest of the Caucasus – the area that’s still part of the country which we all call “Russia” and should really call “the Russian Federation” – to link everything up.  The leaders of the resistance formed the imamate of Chechnya and Dagestan, and turned it into a holy war, in which the local population were pushed into following sharia law.  Some of this sounds really rather familiar, doesn’t it?

So, we have Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan, Imam of the Caucasian Imamate.  Following his defeat in the long siege of Akulgo in 1839, he was forced to give up his eldest son, Jamal Eddin, as a hostage, to be brought up in St Petersburg.  Common enough practice in medieval times – think England v France or England v Scotland – but unusual by the 19th century, but it happened.

Nicholas I, Mr Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, usually seen as a bit of a baddie, crushing the Decembrists and refusing to consider the sort of reforms later made by his son Alexander II, comes across as being rather nice in this book.  He takes a deep personal interest in Jamal Eddin, who is allowed to follow his own religion and dress in Circassian clothing, whilst receiving the education of a Russian nobleman at a military college and then entering the Russian army.   However, inevitably, Jamal Eddin finds himself caught between two worlds, and it all comes to a head when he falls in love with a Russian girl and wants to marry her – and decides to convert to Orthodoxy and become a true Russian.

This happens just as the Crimean War breaks out.  I don’t like the Crimean War.  I always feel rather guilty for saying that, because my great-great-great-grandfather fought in it; but I don’t.  The whole thing was largely due to Louis Napoleon wanting to look like a big shot.  There’s no way Britain should have gone to war with Russia.  It’s the same old thing that happened again in the 1870s, and is happening now – the press whip up this silly paranoia about Russia, and people believe it.  Gah!!  Anyway, this book shows it all in a rather romantic Slavophile way.  Russia wanting to be the defender of Orthodoxy and all that.  Yay!!  Come on, it’s true!  What was Nicholas I’s middle brother called?  Constantine!  Because Catherine the Great genuinely thought that conquering Constantinople was a possibility.  Yes, all right, it does sound a bit land grab-ish, but there genuinely is this idea of being the protector of the Orthodox Slavs and all that.  Bulgaria believes it.  Serbia believes it.   Sorry, I’m way off the point now!

Anyway, back at the ranch, or, rather, back in the Caucasus, Shamil has kidnapped two Georgian princesses and their children and household staff.  In the book, one of the princesses was Jamal Eddin’s first love: I’m not convinced about that, but it makes it all a bit more romantic.  He says he’ll release them if Jamal Eddin is returned to him.  Seeing as it’s apparently unthinkable (no-one actually sees to consider it) for Jamal’s fiancée to go to the Caucasus with him, this means that poor Jamal Eddin is – and this is where the title comes from – caught between love and honour.  (The title’s actually “Between Love and Honor” (sic) but I’m not keen on using American spellings.  How much choice he was given in reality, I don’t know, but, in this book, he nobly sacrifices his own happiness and that of his fiancée for the safety of the hostages.

And so the hostages are freed, and the engagement is broken off.  His fiancée eventually married someone else, but, according to her memoirs, never forgot him and always thought of him as her true love.  Poor Jamal Eddin failed to adapt to life back in the Caucasus, fell ill, and died three years late, still only in his twenties.   Not long afterwards, in 1859, Shamil surrendered.

I just need to get totally off the point again.  When I was in Russia in 2012, another British tourist started talking about “You know, the team with the unpronounceable name”.  “You mean Anzhi Makhachkala!” said I.  They’d just been bought by a zillionaire.  They signed some world-class players, and got Guus Hiddink to be their manager.  When Hiddink left, Rene Meulensteen, who’d been United’s first team coach in Alex Ferguson’s later years but hadn’t been wanted by David Moyes, took over.  He was sacked after 16 days.  Anzhi later made major budget cuts and have now gone down the pan.  This doesn’t have an awful lot to do with the Caucasian Wars.  But, if things had gone differently, maybe Dagestan would actually have become known for something other than violence.

I think that a lot of people forget that the Russian Federation is not just mainly Slavic and mainly Orthodox.  Not enough is generally known about the Caucasian areas.  That’s one reason to read this book.  Another is that it’s a genuinely interesting true story.  And … well, how many books these days talk about “honour”?    If anything, it’s a word associated with the losing side – think Richard Lovelace’s poems, or Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.  It’s a concept that isn’t much talked about these days.  Maybe we could do with bringing it back.  Although it all ends in tragedy anyway.  But how very Russian is that?!

This is good.  It’s not the best-written book ever, but the story is really something different.