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The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Blanch

The Sabres of Paradise

by Lesley Blanch

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1142162,042 (3.58)1
The Caucasus--a region of supreme natural beauty and fiercely proud warriors--has throughout history been characterized by violence and turmoil. During the Great Caucasus War of 1834-1859, the warring mountain tribes of Daghestan and Chechnya united under the charismatic leadership of the Muslim chieftain Imam Shamyl, the "Lion of Daghestan", and held at bay the invading Russian army for nearly 25 years. Lesley Blanch vividly recounts the epic story of their heroic and bloody struggle for freedom and the life of a man still legendary in the Caucasus.… (more)



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I read this after reading a LA Times essay on this book's influence on Frank Herbert's Dune. Many of the terms and some themes borrowed are readily apparent.

The author writes in a now dated, 'grand' style of narrative history. Think of smoke drifting up chimneys or the dust rising from a thundering heard of horses etc etc.

I felt this book could have easily been half as long if not for the unnecessary details added that the author could not possibly have known occurred.

I stuck with it to the end anyway because I became interested enough in the subject and wanted to hear how it turned out - what a fascinating corner of history. ( )
  kcshankd | Dec 4, 2018 |
A reprint of the 1960 original with a new introduction. When the book was written, the Caucasus had been at “peace” for 100 years, first under the firm hand of the Tsar and then under the even firmer hand of the Soviet Union. The events of the Murid Wars were forgotten by all but specialist historians, and militant Islam was a quaint phenomena of the past. How about that?

The book is essentially a biography, with a lot of historical background and digressions into the lives of other participants, of Imam Shamyl the Avar, who held off a succession of Russian armies and generals for thirty years. His colorized Daguerreotype adorns the front cover of this edition, and he does look like somebody that it would be a bad idea to mess with. Shamyl belonged to a militant branch of Sufism; he became its leader by survival - he had five or six sword wounds by the time he came into power, and finished with eighteen. (If he’d been an outfielder instead of a warrior, everyone would have suspected he used steroids). As Imam, he was both absolute religious and military leader, and achieved the previously impossible accomplishment of uniting mountain tribes who devoted themselves to raiding each other, called “saying hello with sabres” in the Caucasian idiom. His regime was one of monastic adherence to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam - whole villages in the mountains were male-only “murids”, a sort of Islamic-warrior-monk - and he had his own mother stripped and flogged when she begged for mercy for a neighboring tribe who had resisted him. And he was a master of theatrics - he went everywhere with an executioner at his side, his troops (except the leaders) dressed entirely in black, with black banners, and he used his extensive and excellent spy system to detect and announce events he’d “seen in a vision” long before the common people were aware of them. He staged a dramatic raid on a Georgian estate to kidnap a princely family, who were eventually ransomed for Shamyl’s own son.

Shamyl, however, was also honorable; in the aforementioned flogging-his-own-mother incident, after five strokes he declared it had come to him from God that he could take the remainder of the punishment on himself and proceeded to receive the remaining 95 on his own back, threatening the floggers with summary execution if they held back their blows (of course, there’s a little theater in that, too). He treated prisoners reasonably, considering they were being held in mountain villages that were just a little bad luck away from starvation. And he always respected brave enemies, regardless of religion.

Shamyl’s task was helped by the Russians, who could have anticipated the WWI description of the BEF as “lions led by donkeys”. For years, the constant tactic of the Russian army in the Caucasus was to engage guerilla cavalry with infantry bayonet charges. Didn’t work very well. Matters were profoundly hindered by Tsar Nicolas I, who was so conservative that he insisted that the Russian stay with flintlock muskets long after the rest of the world had switched to percussion rifles, and who tried to manage the campaigns from St. Petersburg - something of a problem for military flexibility when it took more than a month to get a message to Tblisi and back. It’s telling that when Tsar Alexander took over and allowed his generals to run things their own way, the war ended swiftly.

Shamyl’s life after his surrender continues to be fascinating. He expected to be brutally executed and instead found himself surrounded everywhere he went by cheering crowds. He was fascinated by railroads, telegraphs, music boxes, and the ballet, and the Tsar often invited him to military maneuvers - as sort of a color commentator. Russian veterans of the Caucasus often visited him to discuss the campaigns and compare wounds, and he was allowed to leave Russia to end his life in Mecca.

The whole story, of course, had a disturbing resonance today. A leader of the Chechen terrorists/freedom fighters/whatever is Shamil Basayev (same name, different transliteration), who has acquired something of the same reputation as the Imam Shamyl among the mountain tribes. And violently militant Islamic leaders with long beards and powerful gazes who use fanatic followers to strike from mountain refuges have an unpleasant familiarity.

Lesley Blanch, the author, is almost as interesting as Shamyl. She’s 102 and still working on her autobiography. Her main career was as an editor with Vogue, and it shows in her writing style. This can be a little florid - we keep reading of “languishing Georgian beauties” and “steely-eyed mountaineers”, and there are some romance-novel type hints that being seized by a handsome raider and carried off to his harem might break the monotony of daily life. A reviewer on Amazon claims that Blanch has not allowed the exact facts to get in her way when telling a good story. I would have liked some better descriptions of the military tactics on both sides. Although there’s a good general map of the Caucasus, some smaller scale maps, especially topographic maps, would have been a great help, and some photographs or portraits of the participants would have been nice as well. Nevertheless, this is a delightful and instructive read; I want to read some more standard histories but I’ll probably check out some of Blanch’s other books, too.

Frank Herbert must have read this book; a couple of terms cross over into Dune. The Caucasian word for vendetta is kanly, the national short sword is a kindjal, and a Cossack fortified camp is a seitch. The basic plot of resistance to a mighty empire by small bands of fighters is also there, transferred from mountains to desert. ( )
3 vote setnahkt | Dec 29, 2017 |
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