Leo Tolstoy: Hadji Murat

December 4, 2014

41AtezQcGSL._AA160_To most people, the name Tolstoy suggests door-stoppers; if War & Peace or Anna Kerenina are all you’ve come across, then it’s true. But there are novellas, that look almost like afterthoughts in the face of the greats – The Death of Ivan Illich, that I wrote about a couple of months ago, Hadji Murat, which I’ve just finished reading for the next meeting of our Russian literature group, and Resurrection, which is next on my list, and which apparently brought about Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.

I don’t think Tolstoy’s methods of writing are any different, just the scale. In Hadji Murat, apart from the eponymous hero who is present or backgrounded throughout the book, the story is populated by strongly but quite briefly delineated characters, sketched in as they move through Hadji Murat’s story in various ways. So, at various times, we get Russian military men, the Tsar himself, various Chechen companions, and his deadly enemy Shamil.

The novella is very strong on what would have been called ‘couleur locale‘ in its day, and which surely would have been extremely exotic to Tolstoy’s readers. There are the local landscapes of Chechnya, the Muslim tribes of the region with their customs, feuds, villages and religious practices, all deftly sketched in, along with the mutual incomprehension between the Russians and the local people.

Feuding and warfare are at the heart of the tragedy in this story; Hadji Murat is caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Russians to whom he surrenders in an attempt to save his family and honour from Shamil, and the tribal feuding which has given Shamil the upper hand in the region; Murat is the better soldier and campaigner and would be the ideal ally against the Russian invaders, but honour is at stake. The ending is brutal.

It is clear that nothing has changed in a century and a half: the Russians are still pursuing their attempts to overpower and control the fierce and independent Chechens; there is still senseless carnage on both sides, and Tolstoy is surely suggesting that warfare is utterly senseless, through this microcosm of the conflict. And I could make exactly the same observation about what the British have been up to in Afghanistan. Hadji Murat is a small masterpiece from a great writer.

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