Rating 4 stars
Hadji Murat is Tolstoy’s final novel, drafted and redrafted between 1896 and 1904, going through eight iterations before the final version was created. It is an examination of war and political posturing between opposing cultures that has relevance to the world we live in today.
In the introduction, the translator of the work, Hugh Aplin, suggests that the story of Hadji Murat, the Chechen chieftain who fought to resist the Russians in the Caucasus region before unexpectedly changing sides, had rested within Tolstoy’s mind since he first heard of Russia’s adversary while serving as an army officer in the region at the time of Hadji Murat’s defection.
I can’t recall why I wanted to read Hadji Murat. I think it was mentioned in something else that I read, perhaps around the time the decades long conflict between Russia and Chechnya was declared officially over, and it sounded interesting. So when I saw it in Westwood Books, Sedbergh, I bought it. And now it’s book six in my version of Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.
It’s a short book for Tolstoy, without the depth of detail of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, although it shares themes with each in Tolstoy’s view of war as a poetic adventure and his depiction of lower ranked men yearning after the wives of their social superiors. In length and style, it’s closer to The Death of Ivan Ilych, a well crafted novella that encapsulates a short period of time, focused on the thoughts and decisions of an ill-fated central character. In the introduction to Hadji Murat, a case is made for this being an unpolished novel, because Tolstoy died before it was published and therefore couldn’t refine it as was his usual way. I could see what Aplin meant – there are moments where the prose could be tightened – but it doesn’t detract from what is a compelling examination of two different cultures.
The story opens with Tolstoy walking home through summer fields and coming across a thistle. He tries to pick it and ends up destroying it through the plant’s natural defenses against being picked. He sees another thistle plant, apparently crushed beneath the wheel of a vehicle, with one flower still standing proud. The thistle reminds him of the story of Hadji Murat.
Tolstoy tells us that, one November day in 1851, Hadji Murat rides into a hostile Chechen village, but we don’t discover the root of the hostility until later. Instead, Tolstoy describes the village in a way that conjures a picture. The phrase that struck me most was “the huts of the village which were stuck tight to one another like honeycomb”. It gave a sense of a habitation squeezed in where nature would permit, formed of necessity to sustain a community.
We learn from Hadji Murat’s brief sojourn that he is at odds with the Chechen leader Shamil, is man on the run, but also a man who commands great loyalty from his followers. His aim is to reach the Russians, to offer his skills as a warrior to them.
Tolstoy’s depiction of the comradeship of the Chechens, their social rituals that derive from their Muslim faith, their loyalty and respect for each other, contrasts with the privileged society of the Russian court, underpinned as it is by the brutality of serfdom and the excesses of the aristocracy. Within the army, too, the men who serve under commanding officers drawn from the upper classes are fawning in their deference, their bodies bearing the scars of whippings administered as punishment for perceived insubordination. It surprised me, because I had briefly forgotten how late the feudal system persisted in Russia, that even in 1851 serfs still existed in a nation clinging to the feudal system, that it took another ten years for serfdom to be abolished and another 56 years after that for the last vestiges of feudalism to be removed.
Tolstoy also comments on the nature of war, particularly the myth writing around battles, intended to assure those far away that the Russian army was all conquering. When a soldier dies, shot in a brief exchange between the troops commanded by Prince Simon Vorontsov, son of the Governor General, and the handful of Chechens who are pursuing Hadji Murat as a traitor, the report to the Governor General overstates both the size of the attacking force and its losses in the face of a similarly inflated Russian company. At a dinner hosted by the Governor General, Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, a guest recalls with truth a shameful episode in Vorontsov’s military career, involving the near death of his detachment, that had been spun by Vorontsov in his report to the Tsar as a brilliant feat of Russian warfare.
Tolstoy offers a view of Russian society through Hadji Murat’s eyes, too. He chooses to surrender to Prince Simon Vorontsov, and is taken to his father, the Governor General. At Vorontsov’s court, Hadji Murat witnesses and silently passes judgement on the decadence of Western society. His only comment when asked if he likes what he sees is that his society doesn’t have such spectacles, with no indication of whether this is a good or bad thing.
Hadji Murat combines charm with a blank diplomatic front to try to achieve his ends with Vorontsov and his courtiers, but Vorontsov is suspicious of Hadji Murat’s intentions, not believing him when he says that he is now a servant of the Tsar and an enemy of Shamil. Vorontsov makes vague promises about equipping Hadji Murat so that he can lead a final attack against Shamil and defeat him. He has good reason. Tolstoy has Hadji Murat flattered into recounting his past, for the benefit of the Tsar. It’s a complicated tale of loyalty, betrayal and Holy War, with Hadji Murat briefly an ally of the Russians but betrayed by them, leading him to throw in his lot with his enemy, the Imam Shamil, leader of the Chechen Holy War and the man responsible for the murder of the family Hadji Murat grew up in, to join forces with him against the Russians. And in the days leading up to the timeframe of Tolstoy’s novel, his loose alliance with Shamil had collapsed over who would succeed the Imam as leader, he had had his family taken hostage, and decided to throw his lot back in with the Russians. What is clear in Tolstoy’s telling is that Hadji Murat is his own man, a leader, loyal to those who treat him with respect, but a formidable enemy to those who wrong him.
Tolstoy skewers the machinations of the Russian court, that include jealousy, ambition and subterfuge. Men like Vorontsov, who are true aristocrats with bountiful wealth and a sense of entitlement where power is concerned, are hated by the new men, who have worked their way up society’s ranks to occupy positions of power and will do anything to undermine their perceived rivals. At the top of the tree, though, is the Tsar, the supreme aristocrat, who is contrary and more inclined to trust those he is inevitably somehow related to over the arrivistes and parvenus.
His portrait of Tsar Nicholas I is even more barbed. Tolstoy relishes the chance to depict this vainglorious head of state as an obese, debauched and deluded tyrant. He’s also a boor, suspicious of those who embrace enlightened ways of thinking, who understand science and appreciate poetry, who believe that democracy is preferable to autocracy. And the obsequious behaviour of his courtiers enables his self-delusion.
The constant, clear, vile blatancy of the flattery of those around him had brought him to the point where he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer adapted his actions and words to reality, to logic, or even to simple good sense, but was absolutely certain that all his instructions, no matter how senseless, unjust and mutually incompatible, became entirely sensible, just and mutually compatible simply because it was he that gave them.
So much between these pages made me think of the buffoons in British politics, particularly those currently in power, who seem to want nothing more than to return to a time almost 200 years in the past, where privilege is everything and notions of meritocracy are tolerated if only the social climbers who amplify privilege are allowed into the hallowed halls of power by the gatekeepers. For all their self-aggrandisement, they are such small individuals. And it feels like they are everywhere in positions of ‘leadership’ at the moment, flaunting their grossness with relish.
The Tsar’s response to the news that Hadji Murat has surrendered to the Russians is to double down and order the sacking of Chechen villages and destruction of food supplies and other provisions. The aim is to push against weakened loyalty and bring the villagers over to the Russian side in the conflict. While this does happen in some villages, in the case of the village where Hadji Murat paused on the way to his surrender, the Russian raid involves not just the destruction of property and the slaughter of livestock, but the desecration of the village mosque, an action that, far from cowing the villagers and forcing their submission, only galvanises them against the Russians.
Hadji Murat is sent to Grozny, now the capital of the Chechen Republic, then a fortress town and home to a drunk military commander, Ivan Matveyevich. Here, Hadji Murat is held under house arrest, only allowed out accompanied by Cossack horsemen. He sends and receives messages via Chechen scouts, attempting to assess the lay of the land where the safety of his family is concerned, all the while petitioning Vorontsov to help him release his family from Shamil’s control.
Hadji Murat ends up taking his fate into his own hands, stymied by the Russians’ refusal to help him carry out his plan to rescue his family and threatened by Shamil in a way that leaves death as his only destiny. He chooses death on his own terms, like the warrior he is. Tolstoy brings the book full circle with a final image of a cut down thistle in a field.
I enjoyed Tolstoy’s descriptions of the mountainous land in Chechnya, and his understanding of human nature. None of the characters who appear in the book is wasted, they are each fully formed and have weight, even when they aren’t a major part of the plot. I found the gung-ho attitude towards war less to my taste. Unlike Tolstoy, I see neither glory nor beauty in war, just sorrow at the waste of life.