Sunday, March 08, 2015

A Man and Nature

Hadji MuratHadji Murat 
by Leo Tolstoy

“What energy!' I thought. 'Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit.”   ― Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat

Hadji Murat is a remembered story: "an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself." The story depicts the life of soldiers, of nobility, of family life, of the politics of war and the larger-than-life character of Hadji Murat.

Hadji Murat was a real Chechen leader and Tolstoy probably first heard of him while he was serving in the Caucasus, based on his own letters home to his brother. Although it is historical the story reads like a myth in spite of its realism. The primary theme is Murat's struggle to resist his enemies while remaining faithful to himself and his family. But there are many other ideas that can be found in the novel, such as determinism, the struggle between a Christian Russia and Muslim Chechnya, and the classic West versus East theme.
The story is told in short chapters or vignettes that ultimately introduce dozens of characters from all levels of Russian and Chechen society.  The first two pages of the story are like an overture that depicts the discovery of a thistle bloom in the field that will not "submit" and that reminds the narrator of his memory of the hero, Hadji Murat.  The story as remembered begins with Murat and two of his followers fleeing from Shamil, the commander of the Caucasian separatists, who is at war with the Russians. They find refuge at the house of Sado, a loyal supporter of Murat. However, the local people learn of his presence and chase him out of the village.

Murat decides to make contact with the Russians and sends his aide to them eliciting a promise to meet Murat. Arriving at the fortress of Vozdvizhenskaya, he joins the Russian forces, in hopes of drawing their support in order to overthrow Shamil and save his family. Before his arrival, a small skirmish occurs with some Chechens outside the fortress, and Petrukha Avdeyev, a young Russian soldier bleeds out in a local military hospital after being shot. There is a chapter-length aside about the childless Petrukha who volunteered as a conscript in place of his brother who had a family of his own. Petrukha's father regrets this because he was a dutiful worker compared to his complacent brother.

While at Vozdvizhenskaya, Murat befriends Prince Semyon Vorontsov, his wife Maria and his son, and wins over the good will of the soldiers stationed there. They are at once in awe of his physique and reputation, and enjoy his company and find him honest and upright. The Vorontsovs give him a present of a watch which fascinates him.
On the fifth day of Murat's stay, the governor-general's adjutant, Mikhail Loris-Melikov arrives with orders to write down Murat's story, and through this some of his history is told. He was born in the village of Tselmes and early on became close to the local khans due to his mother being the royal family's wet nurse. When he was fifteen some followers of Muridism came into his village calling for a holy war (ghazavat) against Russia. Murat declines at first but after a learned man is sent to explain how it will be run, he tentatively agrees. However, in their first confrontation, Shamil—then a lieutenant for the Muslims hostile to the Russians—embarrasses Murat when he goes to speak with the leader Gamzat. Gamzat eventually launches an attack on the capital of Khunzakh and kills the pro-Russian khans, taking control of this part of Dagestan. The slaughter of the khans throws Hadji and his brother against Gamzat, and they eventually succeed in tricking and killing him, causing his followers to flee. Unfortunately, Murat's brother is killed in the attempt and Shamil replaces Gazmat as leader. He calls on Murat to join his struggle, but Murat refuses because the blood of his brother and the khans are on Shamil.

Once Murat has joined the Russians, who are aware of his position and bargaining ability, they find him the perfect tool for getting to Shamil. However, Vorontsov's plans are ruined by the War Minister, Chernyshov. A rival prince who is jealous of him, and Murat has to remain in the fortress because the Tsar is told he is possibly a spy. The story digresses into a depiction of the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, which reveals his lethargic and bitter nature and his egotistical complacency, as well as his contempt towards women, his brother-in-law, Frederick William IV of Prussia, and Russian students.
The Tsar orders an attack on the Chechens and Murat's remains in the fortress. Meanwhile, Murat's mother, wife and eldest son Yusuf, whom Shamil hold captive, are moved to a more defensible location. Realizing his position (neither trusted by the Russians to lead an army against Shamil, nor able to return to Shamil because he will be killed), Hadji Murat decides to flee the fortress to gather men to save his family.

At this point the narrative jumps forward in time, to the arrival of a group of soldiers at the fortress bearing Murat's severed head. While Maria Dimitriyevna—the companion of one of the officers and a friend of Murat—comments on the cruelty of men during times of war calling them 'butchers', the soldiers then tell the story of Murat's death. The nightingales, which stopped singing during the battle, begin again and the narrator ends by recalling the thistle that had been the catalyst for his original remembrance of Hadji Murat.

The story is filled with realistic details that bring the family of Murat and his comrades to life. His original decision to go over to the Russian side, while understandable, ultimately puts Murat in an untenable position. A scene between his son and Shamil, who his holding him captive, is both poignant and terrifying when Shamil tells the boy that he will slice off his head. The two cultures seem to be both very different yet similar. For example, the Tsar demonstrates condescension and enmity for his peers but this is also true of Shamil. The literary style of Tolstoy where every detail is important and the structure is held together by the mystical union of man and nature makes this short novel a major masterpiece.

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Brian Joseph said...

Another book that I need to read.

This sounds like a good introduction to Tolstoy. Especially in light of its brevity.

Interesting that we are still talking about Chechen separatists in 2015.

Parrish Lantern said...

Another Author I haven't read in years. I have just picked up a Michael Moorcock I'd never heard of "King of the City" one of his non-fantasy ones.

James said...


It is truly short, less than one hundred fifty pages, but encompasses a tremendous number of characters and cultures.
Tolstoy's depiction of the ravages of war could be seen on the battlefields of current conflicts.

James said...


Thanks for the recommendation. I have read some Moorcock and will look for this work.
The late work by Tolstoy is among his best.