These three works can be seen as showing a continuity of thought in Russian literature dealing with the Caucasus region, but also a progression to a more liberal and tolerant view of foreigners and non-Russian cultures and an implied criticism of Russian actions and values.
Pushkin's narrative poem was written...
in the 1820's, at a time when the Russian incursion into the Caucasus was a process begun relatively recently. The peoples living in the region are variously called Circassians, Chechens, Avars, or, more broadly, Tartars. Pushkin seems to view them in the same manner in which foreign, exotic people were generally seen during the Romantic period, as Byron views even the Greeks inDon Juan and other works. There is a fascination with their lifestyle and customs, as they are depicted as a people still in a kind of state of nature, uncorrupted by the more "civilized" modern world. But Pushkin also describes them as savage and ruthless. They keep the Russian prisoner in chains, and it is only through the help of a Circassian girl who falls in love with him that he manages to escape in the end. Especially in the Epilogue to his narrative, Pushkin makes no secret of his belief that the Russians are endowed with a mission to conquer the Circassians and bring "civilization" and the superiority of Russian, European culture to them.
In Tolstoy's similarly titled story, there is a much more subtle approach. The sharp difference between Russian culture and that of the Tartars is still delineated but without the implied value judgment of Pushkin's story. As in other works dealing with the region, such as The Cossacksand Hadji Murad, Tolstoy seems to respect the indigenous culture of the Caucasus. His overall message is simply that these people should be left alone, that the Russians do not have the right to impose their values upon others. At the same time, there is no sugar-coating. As with Pushkin's prisoner, Tolstoy's Zhilin is kept in chains. The Tartars intend to obtain a ransom for Zhilin and the other soldier, Kostylin, taken prisoner at the same time. After a failed escape attempt, the two men are thrown into a stench-filled pit, shackled, and given nothing to eat but unbaked dough. Eventually, however, the young girl Dina, whom Zhilin had earlier befriended by making toys for her, lowers a long pole into the pit and helps them escape. They reach a squadron of Cossacks, allies of the Russians. Kostylin returns to Russia, but Zhilin stays on to continue serving in the Caucasus. This last fact implies a dual meaning in the title. Zhilin is no longer literally a "prisoner," but he has been captivated by the atmosphere of the region so that even after the cruelty inflicted upon him by the Tartars, he wishes to remain in what is still, essentially, their land.
The film version by Sergei Bodrov needs to be seen in the context of the 1990's war in Chechnya. Over 150 years after the first Russian invasions, the same war was still being fought. The Caucasus peoples never accepted the incorporation of their territory into Russia and continued to resist it. In the film, we see even more of their side of the story. Zhilin's captor, Abdul-Murat, is hoping to exchange Zhilin for his own son who has been taken prisoner by the Russians; in the novella, it was to extract a ransom. And in the film, the ruthlessness of the Russians against the Chechens is shown as well.
Culture-clash and the ongoing theme of the Other—both the Caucasus people as Other with respect to the Russians, and vice versa—are at the heart of all three versions of the same basic scenario. But as stated, the differences are a matter of emphasis. Pushkin was a flag-waving Russian patriot in a time when one could still be so without sacrificing one's artistic integrity. Tolstoy, though he served in the army in the Crimea, had a far more measured view of the virtues of Russian culture and European civilization in general, to the point where he eventually was opposed to Russian imperialism in the Caucasus and elsewhere. By the time of Sergei Bodrov's film, so much had occurred in the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia that it would be difficult for any writer or filmmaker to approach the subject without a deeper melancholy and pessimism than that of the Romantic nineteenth century.