Locklin on science

The Fremen are Chechens: “Sabres of Paradise” as inspiration for Dune

Posted in Book reviews, manhood by Scott Locklin on January 21, 2021

I remember the Grozny war in the 90s. A Polish colleague in the physics department had told me of the reputation of Chechen drill sergeants in the Warsaw Pact military (where he and every other adult man of his generation served). Apparently if you got a Chechen NCO you’d really learn yourself some fighting. He thought the Russians would be in for a tough time of it, and he was right; the Chechens are a mighty and terrifying warrior race with few rivals in the modern world. I never really gave it much thought; mountain people are often tough, from the Scottish Highlanders to the Appalachians. Every once in a while, people from the Caucasus would show up in the news; generally by committing acts of extreme violence

A few years ago I was made aware of the fact that much of Dune was inspired by a popular history book from the 1950s called “Sabres of Paradise” by Leslie Blanch, a British travel writer of the day. Upon reading the thing, it’s almost self evidently true. 

One of the things that needs to be understood about the time of Blanch’s writing: the political prejudices weren’t much different from today. The Anglosphere absolutely hated Russia, both from the British worries about the Russians overrunning the Raj, and the US foreign policy elite worrying about Russian expansionism then as they continue to do today. As such, of course the Chechens were the heroes of a 1950s book on Russian history written by someone with at least some British intelligence ties. Imagine that nitwit Samantha Power writing a historical account of Russia’s wars in the Caucasus. After you pick yourself up off the floor from laughing at someone like that actually attempting such a thing, you can at least make the prediction that the Russians wouldn’t be portrayed as the heroes of the story.

It’s little remarked upon, but the Grozny wars were basically funded and somewhat organized by a coven of similar unholy rat bastard neocon lizards in the West who brought us such wonders as perpetual middle east wars and the surveillance dystopia we presently live in (but … muh cheap chalupas). Go look at the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya for a blast from the recent past. Everyone from Eliot Cohen, Midge Decter, Brzezinsky, Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Geraldine Ferraro, James Woolsey, Michael Ledeen; a real rogues gallery of neocon fiends, no doubt backed by Saudi money, who were encouraging revolts by people who were slaughtering Russian schoolchildren. The Anglo fears the Rooskie, both in 1950, and in 2000 to this very day, when they’re blamed for everything from Donald Trump’s necktie to people laughing at the wrong things on Twatter to Rachel Maddow’s bacterial vaginosis. So, of course the Chechens were treated as the heroes in this book. The last time the Anglo was sympathetic to the Russian was during WW-1 when one of the King’s cousins was in charge of the place.

The Galactic Empire in Dune is the Russian Empire. David Lynch (ridiculously underrated) understood this in the 1980s and made the uniforms of Noble families the uniforms of the Russian empire. The Harkonnens were, roughly speaking, the Russian generals; great bears of men like Yermolov and Prince Baryantinsky. I mean Vladimir Harkonnen sounds pretty Russian; Lynch even kind of cast them that way. While the Atreides family had no real direct parallels, echoes of them perhaps in figures like Lermontov  and the eagle-faced Chechens themselves.

Lermontov is a figure worth mentioning in detail for his lack of Western recognition; a sort of Gurney Halleck figure; multitalented artist, bon-vivant, “poet of the Caucasus,” fierce warrior and duelist, he’s actually even more bad-ass than the fictional character. While he never fell in with Caucasian warriors like the fictional character, he deeply admired their courage. His sarcastic humor, charisma and womanizing ways were legendary and made him many enemies; more or less like the fictional Halleck. His poetry and sense of the epic pretty much incomparable in Russian history. He was, like Halleck, a skilled musician; rather than just the “baliset” he played many instruments. He was exiled to the Caucasus for his excesses, which, while it’s never mentioned in Dune, it is kind of alluded to that the Atreides adopted Gurney Halleck as a wandering wastrel without a house to serve. Lermontov was also a talented painter. And he wrote one of the greatest novels of Russian literature; a literature filled to the nostrils with great novels. Amusingly he was of partial Scottish descent; Gurney is a Scottish (and anglo-norman) name. Had Herbert written his witty troubador swordmaster Gurney Halleck as absurdly badass as Lermontov actually was in real life, Halleck would come off as an unbelievable Byronic Mary Sue. Really, Byron was a piker in comparison; Lermontov deserves his own adjective.

unbelievable human

much more believable fictional human

Very small details that made Dune a charming young-adult science fiction book are taken from Russia. It was obvious that he took a lot of influence from Islam. Less obvious it was all Caucasian Islam. Chakobsa was Chechen nobleman hunting language (supposedly a sort of pig latin; don’t murder me Chechen bros if that’s your secret: blame google). Kanly is the Caucasian rites of vengeance, just as in Dune. Sietch and Tabr are Cossack names for “camps.” Siridar was the Russian name for local political governors; also that of Landsraad governors. The Duniverse fought with kindjals; Caucasian weapon. Padishah was the Caucasian name for the Tsar; also the name of the Galactic Padishah Emperor.

“There had been a legend in the mountains, that on the night of Shamyl’s death a strange light was seen in the sky” (like Duke Leto). “To kill with the point lacked artistry.” Lifted wholesale from Sabres of Paradise. Imam Shamil in his letter to the Tsar “I have oft-times met your treachery, and this all men know.” There are more; “polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills(or the sand),” “O! You who know what we suffer here, do not forget us in your prayers.” “When Allah hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, he causeth his wants to direct him to that place.” It’s some of the best lines in Dune are taken from Sabres of Paradise; things men (and Lesley Blanch) actually said to each other.

Muad’ib was mostly the Imam Shamyl, who was an absolutely legendary superman rightly still idolized by modern day Caucasians. He was Avar rather than related to a Russian royal family, and a fierce Islamic Imam rather than an inventor of a new religion. His exploits and those of his warriors are so absurdly badass they make a science fiction novel with giant worms living in psychedelic fungus sand more believable and realistic.


Of course, Dune was more than a flat out copy of the story of Shamyl and the Murid uprising. Herbert’s genius was in the character arc; the heroes journey; the bits and pieces taken from ancient Greece, India and so on (not much from China, oddly). Real life doesn’t quite work that way, though Shamyl remains a hero to many of his people; his character arc through recorded history wasn’t so obvious, and he obviously didn’t become Tsar of all the Russias in the end. The world building of Dune was pretty amazing as well, even if it was (very) loosely based on the history of the Russian Empire. The fact that there were no great books like “Sabres of Paradise” to steal ideas and world from later is probably why the books after Dune Messiah were such a weird trash fire. Nobody expects to write a legendary story when they sit down to crank out an adolescent science fiction book; Herbert didn’t have a plan B to milk the cow he’d created. His other books are pretty good too, but not as epic and lasting. Every teenage boy that reads Dune can relate to the heroes journey of Paul Atriedes. The other books were good too, but didn’t rise to culture altering legends like Dune.
They’re apparently remaking Dune as a film. Villeneuve has an interesting eye, and has done some good stories, but he’s a turkey when it comes to character development and arc, and so it will probably fail. Lynch’s Dune failed on the cutting floor; there was a good movie in it, and spergs like spicedriver were able to uncover he outlines of it. Lynch definitely read Sabres of Paradise; Villeneuve probably just watched Lynch’s mutilated film. I suspect it will at least look good, as most modern movies do. Hopefully I’m wrong, as it’s a great movie or series of movies. The material deserves it. Meanwhile we have spicedriver’s cut of Lynch’s movie which is almost there.
History is replete with unbelievable heroes and giants like Imam Shamyl, Lermontov, Tsar Nicholas I, General Yermolov. Most of them are recorded as dry footnotes in scholarly books. But on occasion, some popular historians rise to the level of poet troubadors themselves in writing of them. Leslie Blanch is one of them, and her book is vastly better than Dune as a work of literature and a story; and her life was also more interesting than Herbert’s in an era where that was really hard for a woman to pull off. Blanch was an amazing person: a female adventure travel writer in an era where such shennanegins were incredibly dangerous and very rarely done. She married a hero, worked as a spy, was a genius writer and lived an eventful and amusing life up to the age of 102. Despite the profusion of would-be lady adventuresses writing today, there are literally no anglophone women alive now who are as interesting and badass as Leslie Blanch, let alone as good at writing.

“Life is a present; one can’t have enough of it, can one?”

Similarly, our degenerate era of 0-dimensional Mary Sue NPC action heroes, we need better stories, and better heroes and villains. We need character arc and amusing relatable personalities which embody something like real people who actually lived, rather than unrelatable superhero robots which act like invincible video game avatars. A biography of Leslie Blanch would be amazing as a film or fictionalized story; though I am certain the temptation to turn into some awful sassy office-harridan trash would be ineluctable if it’s done in Hollywood or the UK today. I’m not asking for Lermontov tier genius like “A hero for our time” or Herbert-tier genius like … Destination Void, The White Plague (very current year) or the Santaroga Barrier (very “my last blog”). Simply writing middle to low brow popular entertainments with a pleasant story arc, fun two or three dimensional characters, and some food for thought would be nice. Barring that, just novel or even old stories that don’t suck, like old Hammer movies. I suspect such stuff will come from inspiration from history, which is a giant untapped reservoir of amazing people and ideas.


28 Responses

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  1. Oleh said, on January 21, 2021 at 10:57 pm

    Interesting observations. Chechens are great warriors indeed. Two comments.
    1. You forgot to mention that during the first and second Chechen wars almost quarter of the whole population of Chechnya was killed by Russians. They did not stand a chance after such a heavy losses.
    2. The story is not over. Russia pays them a contribution to be part of the empire and Chechens de-facto already have their own laws inside Russia. Nevertheless, I bet that within a few years time (after the death of Putin), Chechens will start another war for independence.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 21, 2021 at 11:41 pm

      With a name like Oleh you probably know more about it than me. It’s an interesting situation to be sure; the Scots ended up being shock troops for the British empire. Chechens were sort of like that for the soviets, though with smaller relative population, and they were considered an unreliable people in WW-2, but Kadyrov seems to have something like this in mind. I just wish Kadyrov would wack Zuckerberg for messing with his amazing Instagram.

      I’ve never been there; the only half-chechen I ever knew well was Christian and not representative.

      • Oleh said, on January 22, 2021 at 11:06 am

        > just wish Kadyrov would wack Zuckerberg for messing with his amazing Instagram.
        That is cruel. Zuckerberg deserves better.

        I am Ukrainian, we are on one side with Chechens. I don’t personally know Chechens either, I knew guys from Dagestan, which is not far away and the mentality is similar. I just follow their struggle for independence. A friend of mine, a retired officer of the Soviet army who served in Grozny, told me two things which I remember: a Chechen would never clean barracks because it is a women’s job – they would rather go to jail for disobeying an order. Additionally there was a rule not to put two Chechens in one unit/barrack: they would team up and bully everyone.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 1:31 pm

          Kadyrov seems pretty loyal to Putin to me. Never been there though, and have no idea what the man in the street thinks.

          FWIIW the CIA cultivates other tribes in Dagestan; Ruslan Tsarni was some kind of asset/Dagestan warlord. His scumbag nephews came to america as part of the spooks package deal as “refugees” (both their parents are now back in Dagestan -some refugees) and blew up a marathon in Boston. Of course, nobody in the American media is allowed to point out the CIA is subverting our immigration laws and bringing actual violent terrorists to the country for …. reasons. I hate those guys. Hate what they did to Ukraine also. I mean, maybe it looked like a good idea at the time, but inviting American spooks to assist you against enemies, you’re not likely to have much of a country left by the time they get through.

          Zuck gets no sympathy from me. I support Kadyrov in this feud.

  2. […] The Fremen are Chechens: “Sabres of Paradise” as inspiration for Dune […]

  3. Ben Gimpert said, on January 22, 2021 at 12:29 am

    Speaking of badass Russians: How about a Night Witches series?

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 12:49 am

      Would be cool. Russians should do it; they make better movies than we do. Lots of badass chick history; I knew a Ukranian lady whose grandma was a sniper with crazy medals. Doesn’t fit modern conceptions well; she had a bunch of kids and was a housewife afterwords, but was a real super hero.

      • averros said, on January 22, 2021 at 9:50 am

        There’s a movie about Night Witches (of 588th Night Bomber Regiment) – В небе «ночные ведьмы» (Night Witches in the Sky). The director of the movie was a member of the regiment and flew the missions during WWII.

  4. Walt said, on January 22, 2021 at 12:56 am

    Additionally, Khabib Nurmagomedov is 29-0, probably the most dominant MMA fighter of all time. Possibly the GOAT.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 1:32 pm

      Will be interesting to watch him fight that loudmouth potato-guy. Despite my ethnic handicaps I’ll probably root for Khabib.

  5. averros said, on January 22, 2021 at 9:41 am

    What you need to know about Chechens is that they are basically a medieval semi-nomadic culture. (How do I know? My mother was born in Chechnya.)

    As such, this culture produces fearless warriors and organized crime and nothing else of note. Most of organized crime in Russia is controlled by Chechens. The key to fearlessness is total neglect of value of a human life, including your own.

    And, yes, Russians will always be winning against Chechens. Lermontov was a part of the military force which pacified Chechens back then (climbing the remains of Russian forts from that time was one of my favorites when I was a kid). The reason for that is simple… what Chechens have in fearlessness they lack in rationality. And no matter how fearless you are, a guided missile will kill you. To build and properly use these you need a rational mind.

    Like it or not, the only civilization worth its name is Christian. With St. Thomas’ rationalism being the dogma of the faith.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 1:43 pm

      Well said, and thanks for the comment.

      You never know; the Chechens may civilize themselves into a sort of Caucasian Scotland. If you had to bet on which parts of the British Islands would invent steam engines and great thinkers back in the 1400s, Scotland, which was a savage land of barbaric raiders, would have seemed pretty unlikely to produce James Maxwell, James Watt, Boswell, Robbie Burns, Colin Maclaurin, David Hume and Adam Smith.

      • Leonardo Herrera said, on January 22, 2021 at 5:56 pm

        I’m tired of reading civilized argument after civilized argument around here. I’ll get back to Twitter.

    • Walt said, on January 22, 2021 at 6:39 pm

      There’s some saying that goes, “Pick the Mameluke over the Frenchman in single combat; pick the Frenchmen over the Mamelukes in war.”

      Christianity civilized Scotland.

    • Igor Bukanov said, on January 23, 2021 at 12:48 pm

      The reason Russia wons all those wars was war crime atrocities they committed when they could not win by conventional means. Like killing whole population of vilages in ninteen century or using heavy altirely and rockets against a vilage against Chechn fighters hiding in a single house recently. As for rationality just consider that Chechnya is now probbaly more independent in practice then it was before Russia started recent wars even if Kadyrov is despised by the only Chechen I know personally.

  6. Ivan said, on January 22, 2021 at 11:00 am

    For many russians, including the policital class, the first Chechen War was probably the start of the pivot from rosy-eyed amecianophilia of the early 1990s to cold disdain than is currently the norm. Soviet Chechnya, like many other Union republics, had a substanial Russian minority that vanished without a trace; not even the mass graves remain. There was a literal bona fide slave market in the middle of interwar Grozny, supplied by cross-border raids. Even before the long-running terror campaing which culmitated in the famous children-slaughtering episode, independent Chechen regime was as close to pure evil as humanly possible. Seeing the global West support THAT (against a completely docile, tail-wagging, please-we-want-to-be-like-you Russia) was profoundly sobering. So, I guess, many thanks to Robert Kagan and the guys for the much needed lesson.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      What the US government did to Russia in the 90s was a terrible crime. I guess there’s some consolation in the fact that the same people who are responsible for this are now doing it to the US population. Who are too stupid to notice.

      There was a joke survey in the early 10’s about what you’d do in a “Red Dawn” situation (funny 80s movie about the US being invaded by the Soviets). “Welcome them as liberators” was the leading answer.

      • Ivan said, on January 22, 2021 at 2:33 pm

        It was a harrowing experience, but ultimately a life-saving one – a sort of inoculation against the neoliberal order. After the Corld War Russia was ready and even eager to roll over and get integrated into the globohomo bugman anthill hierarchy (and would’ve been if the US elites could stop wallowing in their own smugness for a minute). As of now, the window of opportunity for that integration has probably closed for good, and the planet got one more potential holdout of civilization, such as it is.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 4:16 pm

          I have a blog in the queue about how the US made out after 1917 due to all the refugees in aerospace and military technology: Russian national treasures who the communists would have killed. And how Russia (or some other ambitious local power) could benefit from US expertise if they play their cards right and American governmental idiocy continues on same trajectory.

          • Ivan said, on January 22, 2021 at 6:03 pm

            Funny enough, that would basically be a revival of an age-old tradition: a significant subset of old Imperial aristocracy came from russified expat stock (Lermontov’s legendary ancestor, for one). Much will depend on the next Russian regime, though – the current one is passable, but decidedly interim.

            • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 9:02 pm

              My thoughts also; some continuity would inspire more confidence that it won’t turn into crazytown in a few years.

              There’s other candidates for sure; South American countries, Turkey, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Philipines, Taiwan, maybe Serbia (probably not). Russia has the largest military/industrial base for aerospace or weapons engineers though, and the history of immigration of elites as a cultural practice, and similarity to American culture compared to the others makes it the obvious play.

  7. Kagami Taiga said, on January 22, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    Who’s willing to bet Scott Locklin might be a fan of The Boys (since it’s a parody)?

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 1:44 pm

      Bad bet. Cape shit is awful.

      • Kagami Taiga said, on January 22, 2021 at 4:12 pm

        Cape shit haters are Boys fans by default, because they satirize cape shit. Might not be to your taste though (I hate superhero movies with a vengeance, so maybe that’s why I’m a Boys fan)

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 22, 2021 at 4:17 pm

          I tried watching 1-2 episodes based on critical drinker’s recce; it’s still cape shit.

  8. Igor Bukanov said, on January 23, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    Did Sabres of Paradise focus only on Chechnya or was it about the whole North Caucasus?

    The reaction of my friend with whom I studied physics in Belarus 25 years ago and who read Dune in English was total rejection that Dune was based on Chechnya. He claimed it should be obvious that it was based on desert folks or at least people living on flat territories. Plus the language in Dune was based Arabic. That matches how I remember a bad translation of Dune that I read at that time.

    But on other hand people from Dagestan are often mistaken for Chechens. And Dagestan is relatively flat yet even there Russian military sustained heavy casualties in nineteen century.

    • Chiral3 said, on January 24, 2021 at 2:16 pm

      I’ll defer to Scott on his take but the book is ostensibly about Shamyl and his life, conquests, and haunts. But you have to read it to appreciate it: Blanch led a fascinating life and, if Shamyl’s life had several degrees of freedom, Blanch’s perspective adds several more, and this makes the book far reaching. When I read the book I found I was stopping every other page to google and read about some reference and it took me ten times as long to finish the thing even though it’s no door stop. It’s mildly prolix, and maybe a bit purple, but not to a fault, if that makes sense.

      All that said, I am convinced that it served as an unattributed source for Dune. It preceded Herbert by about five years and some of the similarities, if not uncanny, are down right identical.

  9. William O. B'Livion said, on January 23, 2021 at 8:31 pm

    Might want to read One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

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