War and Peace (1869) is the Mount Everest of all novels, and Anna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899) stand tall and stately within the towering Himalayan peaks of world literature. It is 100 years this year since Lev Tolstoy died (1910-2010), and many is the event that is being put on to celebrate the life of this literary genius and prophetic visionary. Tolstoy is very much a man for all seasons, and the perennial themes he grappled with in his novels, short stories, plays and parables are as relevant today as they were when written and published.
There is little doubt that one of the finest short stories that Tolstoy wrote in his latter years was Hadji Murad (viewable online). Hadji Murad was written between 1896-1904, and published after Tolstoy had died in 1912. The tale told is probing, evocative and apt. We often hear in the news about the clash between the Russian state and the Muslim Chechens and Grozny. The Chechens are viewed as the terrorists and the Russians the law abiding citizens. The contemporary clash between Russia and the Chechens has a much longer history, of course, and Hadji Murad tells part of that older tale. The young Tolstoy was in the Russian army in the 1850s when the Russian state and military had launched a campaign to colonize, dominate and control the Muslim Chechens. Needless to say, such an aggressive stance by the Russians created much opposition and resistance by the Chechens. The conflict led to the deaths of many lives, and one of the leading Muslim liberation fighters was Hadji Murad. It would have been natural for Tolstoy, as a Russian, to view Murad as a terrorist. But, did he? Murad led many attacks on the Russians, won many a campaign and was a living myth and legend to the Russians. He was the Osama Bin Laden of the time. The Russians hunted him down like a fox, and any true and patriotic Russian was expected to see Murad as a Muslim terrorist in the same way the West views the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.Tolstoy was never, though, an uncritical or patriotic Russian.
Hadji Murad begins with Tolstoy turning to home from the fields with a vibrant bouquet of flowers, and as he nears his home he spots a crimson coloured ‘Tartar thistle’. The thistle is prickly and most avoid it. Tolstoy longs to have the thistle for his bouquet, but in the process of pulling it from its roots and soil, he destroys it. He continues home, and finds yet another ‘Tartar thistle’ that had been run over by a cart, and yet it still stands in a deformed sort of way. The thistle is tough, obstinate but Russians are wary of it. Tolstoy decides to leave this ‘Tartar thistle’ and continues on his way home. Murad, for Tolstoy, becomes the ‘Tartar thistle’ that has grown on Russian soil, but Russians either ignore or seek to destroy the plant.
The Russian imperial state and military, as I mentioned above, were involved in a ‘clash of civilizations’: the Orthodox and Russian West versus the Muslim and Chechen East. The Russian Tsar (Nicholas I) and his military led the assault on the Muslims, and Shamil was the main leader of the Muslims. It was, though, Hadji Murad that was the real military genius of the Muslims. ‘Had he been born in Europe he might have been another Napoleon’. The Russians feared Murad as they feared Napoleon who had invaded and occupied Moscow in 1812.
The clash between Nicholas I and Shamil is played out in graphic detail in Hadji Marad. The 25 short yet pithy chapters unpack, in poignant detail, the brutal and authoritarian tendencies of both leaders in this ideological clash. Tolstoy turns with much sympathy to Hadji Murad for the simple reason that Hadji, for a variety of reasons, comes to differ with Shamil. He wants no more to engage in hit and run killings and massacres. Hadji knows that by making such a decision his life will be of little value to Shamil. Hadji is no fan of the Russians, but he decides with a few faithful friends to turn himself in to the Russians. Much of the story hinges on Hadji’s life and experiences with the Russians. It does not take long to realize that he is going to be used by the Russians for bait, and Shamil has kidnapped Hadji’s wife and children, and he is using them as a means to get Hadji to return. Hadji is torn between two options, and neither is likely to have a happy ending.
Hadji decides to escape from his Russian prison, flees, is hunted down and finally killed by the Russians. Tolstoy concludes the short story by saying, ‘It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the ploughed field’.
The Russian-Chechen clash continues to this day, and Tolstoy, if he were still alive, would certainly not take either the side of the militaristic Russians or many Chechens who use violence as a way of opposing their colonizers. It is important to note that Tolstoy did lean more to the painful plight of Hadji than he did to the Russians or Shamil. Needless to say, such an empathetic position would not win him many a kudo amongst the Russians. Hadji Murad stands, also, an as in depth probe and analysis of why people become freedom fighters. North America has become, since 9-11, preoccupied with terrorism and the Muslim question. Who are Muslims, and how are those of us living in North America to understand and live with the growing presence and reality of Islam? Again, Hadji Murad can teach us much. Why did 9-11 occur, and what was the nature of American foreign policy in the Middle East in the 20th century that has led to the stark opposition between some Muslims and North Americans? What are the sort of conditions that create a Nicholas I-Shamil clash, and how does a Hadji Murad find their way when they beg to differ with both ideological positions positions?
Hadji Murad was written between 1896-1904 and published in 1912. The questions Tolstoy dared to raise in this short story threatened the ideological positions of the Russian. They would do so today. But, this sort of story can also be applied to the post-9-11 way of thinking in North America. There is no doubt that Hadji Murad is a tale for our time, and much can be learned by reading such a story many times.