Moscow -- When Prometheus delivered mankind from ignorance and misery with the gift of fire, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain, where an eagle preyed on his liver. According to Greek legend, that mountain was in the Caucasus.
In the thousands of years since, the myths of the Caucasian Mountains have kept coming back to such themes: vengeance and cruelty, and heroism tragically brought low.
Today, those themes seem to be playing themselves out once more in that thorny, bristling region.
Boris N. Yeltsin, of course, is certainly no Prometheus. But it was just a little over three years ago that he climbed atop a tank and virtually delivered the Russian people from the malignant forces then at work within the Kremlin. He played the heroic role, or at least the audacious one. Now, perhaps, the gods have chosen the Caucasus as the place from which to mete out his punishment.
The poor people of Chechnya, and the miserable Russian draftees, are the ones actually being killed, of course. But President Yeltsin, isolated and mum in the Kremlin he now occupies, deserted by his allies, closeted with generals and secret police chiefs, is undergoing his own peculiar agony.
Polls show that solid majorities of Russians oppose a military solution to Chechnya's secession, and their numbers have only increased since the fighting began. Yegor Gaidar, leader of the reformist Russia's Choice bloc in parliament, has bitterly condemned the military operation and predicted that an attack on Grozny, the Chechen capital, will bring about Mr. Yeltsin's own downfall.
Len Karpinsky of Moscow News wrote last week that Mr. Yeltsin, having had a taste of blood a year ago when tanks attacked the Russian White House, was unable to resist following such a course again.
"Could the demonstration of power itself be the real aim?" he wrote. "We recently marked a one-year anniversary of the legalization of violence as the most important means of governing the country."
Hardly anyone here still thinks of Mr. Yeltsin as the leader of a great popular movement toward democracy.
We in the modern world would say that Mr. Yeltsin has brought his troubles on himself -- but the mythmakers of antiquity might prefer to say that forces over which he has no control led him down the path he has taken, toward tragedy.
The path, it must be said, was never a well-marked one. Russia was faced with a secessionist impulse that it clearly had to do something about. Important pipelines and an even more vital rail link have been cut off for more than a year by President Dzhokhar Dudayev's regime.
But, understandably unhappy with the Dudayev regime, the Yeltsin government first tried to foment a rebellion by other Chechen clans. When that didn't work, it secretly sent in Russian soldiers to fight alongside the opposition. But that not only didn't work, it was exposed and became a humiliating affair for Moscow. The current invasion looks to many like something cooked up to negate the previous failures.
But the Caucasus is a dangerous place to be fooling around with honor or fate.
The Russians first began pushing down toward this formidable mountain range in the late 1700s. Georgia, an ancient Christian nation on the southern flank, asked the government in St. Petersburg for protection from its Muslim neighbors, especially Persia, in 1783.
Over the next 80 years, Russian military adventurers gradually filled in the gaps on the north side of the mountains. But it wasn't easy. The most famous of the tribal chieftains who resisted them was a man named Shamyl, who called for a Muslim holy war against the Russians in 1836 and kept up the fight until 1859.
A Russian expeditionary force finally seized him that year, and packed him off to Russia proper. He was later released so that he could make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
During those long years, the Russians used the town of Mozdok, on the steppe north of the mountains, as a staging point against the mountain people. Today they are putting it to the same use.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, an order to serve in the Caucasus was often considered to be tantamount to a death warrant. Yet these haunted mountains, and the wild people who lived in them, captured the Russian imagination.
Mikhail Lermontov, whom Russians think of as their second-greatest poet, served as an officer in the Caucasus before his death in a duel in 1841, at the age of 26. He had started out as a Romantic, Byron-like poet, but the mountain duty brought out a bleaker and sadder view of the world.
In a long poem called "The Demon," which reflected his Caucasian experiences, he wrote:
"I am he, whose gaze destroys hope,
As soon as hope blooms;
I am he, whom nobody loves,
And everything that lives curses."