The Stranger from the East was the title given by Konstantin Chkheidze, a well-known author, thinker, and journalist, to one of his first novels. He wrote this novel in Prague in 1941 after living for twenty-one years as an émigré. Chkheidze was writing a story about the Caucasus as seen through the eyes of the protagonist called Alyosha, a name directly linked to Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, a novel which Chkheidze had admired since his youth. The story was about the people of the Caucasus and about the unpredictable twists and turns his life took as a result of meeting these people. The title of the novel was symbolic and intertwined with the autobiographical details of the author's life. The title also had an historiosophical meaning, putting the author alongside other strangers, pilgrims, and seekers of the Celestial City, who walked the earth throughout the centuries in search of the higher truth.
Konstantin Chkheidze was born on September 19, 1897, in the southern Russian town of Mozdok. He was of a mixed Georgian-Russian descent. On his father's Georgian side, his ancestors had become Russian citizens in the 18th century and received lands from the government of the Empress Catherine I. The aristocratic Georgian princely family of Chkheidze was very loyal to the Russian state. The family's coat of arms depicted a sword thrown on the scales which portrayed the brave and faithful character of the Chkheidzes. His father, Alexander Chkheidze, went to the Russo-Turkish war in the Balkans as a volunteer when he was still a youth. He participated in the famous battles around Shipka in Bulgaria.
His parents had six children, five girls and only one boy, Konstantin himself. He was the only son through whom the Chkheidze family line would continue. The boy inherited independent and firm character from his father. From his Russian mother he inherited sensitivity, kindness and a sharp mind. He was a very impressionable boy. He was absorbing everything that went on around him, including family traditions, old stories from the previous generations, and the details of the contemporary town life. In the beginning of the 20th century, the town of Mozdok had only around four thousand inhabitants. Yet, it was a very diverse multi-ethnic and multi-cultural town. Peoples of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds lived there, including Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Ossetians, Kabardians (Circassians), Chechens, Ingush, Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, etc. Despite this diversity, the townsfolk never had any religious or ethnic tensions or strife.
Konstantin was fascinated with mountains ever since his early childhood. The landscape of the Caucasus Mountains remained in his memory as the model of beauty and perfection. When he ended up as an émigré in Central Europe, far away from home, he always compared what he saw there with his beloved Caucasus. Wherever he ended up in his life, whether surviving in the refugee tents on the Greek island of Lemnos, or working in the Bulgarian mines, or living in the tiny dormitory room in Prague, his mind would always bring him back to the Caucasus.
When Konstantin turned eleven he had to leave his parents' home. His fate was prescribed by the family tradition. All the males in the Chkheidze family served in the military. The family saber was passed from father to son, from one generation to another. First, he was enlisted at the Poltava Cadets Corps. After that, young Konstantin was transferred to the Tver School of Cavalry. In the summer of 1916, while waiting for his school year to start, Konstantin traveled through Kabardia and Balkaria, regions in the Central Caucasus. The beauty and the magnificence of these places, as well as the culture and traditions of the Kabardian and the Balkar peoples, conquered his heart forever. The images of Kabardia and Balkaria would appear constantly in his books many years later, when Chkheidze became a writer. Such novels as The Land of Prometheus (written in 1930), The Gazer at the Sun (written in 1935), and Facing the Storm (written in 1940) use a lot of Kabardian and Balkar imagery. The other two novels, The Wings over the Cliff (written in 1942), and The Mountain Bride (written in 1944), are exclusively based on the Balkar folk stories and legends.
Chkheidze graduated from the Tver Cavalry School in the autumn of 1917. On the 25th of October, the day of the Bolshevik coup which changed the course of Russian history, Chkheidze joined the Kabardian Regiment. In the ensuing Russian Civil War, he served under the leadership of Zaurbek Dautokov-Serebryakov, a famous Circassian leader of the White (anti-Bolshevik) Movement in the Caucasus and southern Russia. Konstantin went through all the stages of the revolutionary time of troubles, and through all the chaos of the Civil War. He saw the war's cruel and bloody, beastly face, combined with the idealism and heroism of both parties fighting on opposite sides of the trenches. Later, when he gave his evaluation of those turbulent times, he wrote that both warring sides were not able to look beyond their own truths in order to see the whole picture, the whole truth which could have reconciled the ideological enemies. This truth was free of bitter divisions and radical political factions. This truth was able to synthesize different views and present something that all individuals, classes, societies and nations, could uphold.
Chkheidze ended up on the side of the White Movement in the Civil War. Together with his brothers-in-arms, he experienced the anti-Communist crusade against the Reds, the retreat, the utter defeat of the White Army, and the naval escape across the Black Sea to Constantinople. From there, he, along with the other soldiers and officers of the White Army, was transferred to the Greek island of Lemnos on the Aegean Sea. Under most horrible conditions, living in tents and barracks with hardly any food or fuel, the White Guards not only tried to survive, but also to keep their military bearing, their honor, and their faith in Russia.
In October of 1921 the refugee White Guards were given permission to move from the isolated island of Lemnos, to Bulgaria. The aristocratic officer Chkheidze became a low-paid, unskilled laborer. In two years, he changed trades fourteen times. He worked as a lumberjack, a coal shoveler, a mason, a loader, a trench digger, and so on. It was here, under the scorching sun of the Balkans, where Chkeidze became a real man of character, not on the battlefields of the Civil War or in the refugee camp on the island of Lemnos. Konstantin Chkheidze would later write about his difficult life experiences in such stories as Photographs and Thoughts (1925), The Naked People (1930), and in the novel A Stranger from the East (1941).
Working hard at low-paying jobs that hardly provided room and board, Chkheidze thought that his life would always be like this. But in 1923, his life changed drastically. He crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and came to Prague, where he entered the Russian Department of Law at the local university. This department was opened with the help of Czechoslovakia's president Thomas Masaryk, who was an ardent supporter of the Russian "white" émigré community.
Chkheidze quickly became part of the Russian literary circles in Prague. He was published in the Russian, and later Czech journals and magazines, and he became a member of the Russian Union of Writers and Journalists of Czechoslovakia. The main subject of Chkheidze's writings appeared almost immediately. It was the Caucasus. The image of the Caucasus, in all of its cultural, historical, and spiritual complexity, entered the Czech readers' consciousness, due primarily to Chkheidze, although Chkheidze never wrote in Czech. All of his works were written in Russian. They were hand-written, then typed on an old typewriter which served him faithfully for many years. Finally, they were translated into Czech.
In the 1920s-1930s Konstantin Chkheidze gave lectures about the peoples of the Caucasus, their history, traditions, and their way of life. For him, the Caucasus did not just constitute a unique ethno-cultural world. The Caucasus, for him, was the concentration of the best moral values passed from generation to generation throughout the centuries. The author attempted to understand the spiritual experience of the Caucasian peoples. He contrasted the patriarchal traditions of the mountain peoples, their cult of the ancestors, their filial piety and respect for elders, their mutual neighborly assistance, their warm relations between family and even distant relatives, with the egotistical and estranged individualistic civilization of western Europe, which did not want to know love, which drove man into the stone jungles of the big cities and to the isolated, airless apartment cells where man had only one choice – to die, alone and abandoned.
Konstantin Chkheidze was inspired to be a mediator between the Czech and the Russian cultures. He was a talented literary critic, and an essayist who introduced Russian philosophy and literature to the Czech readers. He wrote about the classicist "golden age" authors, such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, as well as about the contemporary writers like Gorky, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, Pasternak, etc. He also wrote about Fedorov (the so-called "Socrates of Moscow"), about the Soviet and the émigré literature, and about the Slavic writers of the Carpathian Mountains.
Chkheidze was not only a writer; he was also a social activist and a journalist. He wanted to find the ideal that would be able to give true meaning to the people who went through the horrors of the First World War, the revolution, and the Civil War. He wanted to bring to full life this historical and social work. This is why Chkeidze joined the so-called Eurasian Movement (Eurasianism), whose spiritual center was Prague. The philosophy of Eurasianism gave Chkheidze justification for his immensely deep love of both Russia and the Caucasus. He loved Russia "with her middle geographic location, with her dual semi-European active nature trying to answer the question, 'how?', and her semi-Asiatic contemplative nature trying to answer the question, 'what for?'" In the same way, he loved "the ancient Caucasus, which absorbed in itself all the ages, all the writings, and all the traditions of the times immemorial."
Chkheidze tried to bring the philosophy of Eurasianism to the universal level of all mankind, beyond the mere Russian and Eurasian part of the world. Chkheidze, the philosopher, contemplated the unification of all continents and of all states big and small, as a path to world unity, which would produce a new creative era in the history of mankind. Chkheidze revised the key concept of Eurasianism, called, "local development". He expanded this concept to the planetary level. For him, local development included all the earth, and all of humanity was the subject of history.
In his works and articles, Chkheidze called upon Eurasianism to be fertilized by the values of Russian religious philosophy, with its ideas of the divine image in man, of an active Christianity, and of human history as a continuous act of salvation. Most of all, Chkheidze propagated the ideas of Fedorov, a thinker who planted the seeds of a universal, and even cosmic scale, into Russia's spiritual soil. Chkheidze looked for uncompromising full answers to the dilemma about man, his mortal and immortal natures, and about the purpose of action in culture and history. He was absorbed by the ideas of man as God's co-worker responsible for creation, and by the notions of how to overcome death and how to regulate nature in a wise way so as not to exploit the earth's resources in a shameless and careless manner. He also thought about the ethics of relationships between human beings. For him, the ideal of human relations lay in the universal brotherhood and spiritual unity of mankind. In 1933, Chkheidze created an archive collection, called, Fedoroviana Pragensia, at the Literary Archive of the National Museum of Prague. He wanted it to be the main center for propagation and studies of the works and ideas of Fedorov, the so-called "Socrates of Moscow".
When the Nazi troops occupied Prague, Chkheidze, like another émigré writer, Bunin, found his own path of resistance through writing. He wrote three novels and a long story in the first half of the 1940s. One of the novels, titled, The Wings over the Cliff, written in 1942, was a proverb of sorts, similar to the parables in the Gospels. It was an inspired work for Chkheidze. He left the reality of war and killings to enter the world of legends and of times long gone. There, he found his moral ideals and lessons for the present reality.
When the Soviet troops entered Prague, Chkheidze was arrested by the Red Army's intelligence. From there, he started a long journey toward the East, a journey of suffering. The Soviet authorities transferred him, not to his beloved and blessed Caucasus, but to the prison camps of Siberia. He spent ten years in the camps, in the depth of the abyss. In 1955, he was released and allowed to return to Prague. There, he was able to restore his mental and physical strength, and began writing again. From 1967 to 1971, he wrote his Memoirs for the Czech Literary Foundation. On the six hundred pages of the typewritten text, we see not the mid-twentieth century, but the following: pre-revolutionary life in the Caucasus and in Russia, the Civil War, Chkheidze's emigration, the Second World War, Chkheidze's arrest and interrogation at Lubyanka building in Moscow, and the misery of the Siberian prison camps. In one of his letters, Chkheidze admitted that, "I set a very important task before myself, to give an independent and truthful, albeit personal description, of our unique epoch."
The writer died on July 28, 1974. His grave is situated on a small cemetery, in the little Czech town of Roudnice nad Labem.
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote: "Let's not curse our exile." Konstantin Chkheidze could have repeated the same words. His spiritual and literary maturity sprung from his life as an émigré. Not only did he become a writer in Czechoslovakia, but that country also became his home. The Caucasus, Russia, and Czechoslovakia, symbolically united in the life and fate of the "stranger from the East". He was one of those seekers, who, according to Dostoyevsky, had to achieve "universal happiness," for "he could not accept any less than that".
By Anastasia Gacheva,
PhD in Philology, a leading scholar at the Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and keeper of Nikolay Fedorov's museum and library in Moscow.