Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Hadji Murad. I now know that he was a Chechen leader in the mid 19th century, during a period when the Russians, under Tsar Nicholas I, were expanding their empire into the Caucasus.
Hadji Murad (or Murat) surrendered to the Russians in 1851 in the hope that they would help him gain ascendance over another Chechen leader: his former ally and current enemy Shamil (who was holding his family hostage). When the Russian army failed to rescue his family, Hadji Murad escaped from house arrest in a desperate effort to do it himself.
He and his small party of supporters were killed before they had gone more than a few miles. They misjudged their escape route and were surrounded and destroyed by both Russians and other Chechens who had defected to the Russian side. It’s a classic last-stand shoot out that ends with the death of a man who had nothing to lose. His killers gather around his mutilated body ‘like hunters over a dead beast … gaily chatting and celebrating their victory’.
I know all this because one of my supporters in the Winter Readathon suggested I read Leo Tolstoy’s account of the last weeks of Hadji Murad’s life, in exchange for his donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
I admit to feeling dismay when he nominated the book, and a few pages in I was regretting my impulse to get people to nominate titles, rather than defining my own reading list. Why on earth did he think I would like it? What was it about it that appealed to him? I felt mystified by people’s reading preferences and wondered why two of the three men who sponsored me had chosen male Russian authors from the 19th century (the other nominated Dostoevsky).
I’d never read either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, although I’d struggled through some Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov as an adventurous teenager. On the basis of those books (which I barely remember) the thought of reading another ‘classic’ Russian author felt like it would be not merely a worthy chore, but the antithesis of reading pleasure.
I persevered. The whole point of saying people could suggest books that were not on my to-be-read list was to force me out of my comfort zone. It’s the same reason that I joined a book club a couple of years ago, and as a result I’ve read a lot of books I would never have otherwise picked up. Overall, this has been a good thing.
I’m gaining a broader understanding of world literature and a more critical understanding of what makes a ‘good’ book. I’m consolidating my ideas about why my preferred genres (fantasy and science fiction) are important and valid reading choices, and I’m learning all kinds of things I never knew before – like the story of Hadji Murad.
Although I couldn’t always follow the politics, and I felt the translation was at times a bit clunky, in the end I liked the book. It begins with Tolstoy musing on a thistle that’s been crushed by a cartwheel, that he finds while gathering flowers in a field. The broken, bristly, unregarded plant reminds him of Hadji Murad. As you read the book, it becomes clear why this is so.
At its most basic, you could say that the metaphor is the futility of Hadji Murad’s struggle against the overwhelming odds of Russian imperialism. He flowered as a man and as a leader but was flattened by forces outside of his control. Life is fleeting, life is unfair, and then you die. Brutally.
But Hadji Murad’s not the only flower, picked or crushed at whim. His story is interwoven with a series of cameos of many different characters, from the peasant family whose life will be changed forever by the death of their soldier son in a military skirmish, to Tsar Nicholas himself, whose decision on Hadji Murad’s fate when he surrenders is determined by nothing more profound than his mood on the day.
At first I was disconcerted by this jumping around to other stories, but I soon realised that these insights into the inner worlds of sometimes peripheral characters add up to a strong indictment of war and the misuse of political power. When you can see each person as a unique individual, and understand their beliefs and motivations, it becomes clear that it’s not life that is futile, but war. Life may be unfair, but that is often due to the arbitrary decisions of the powerful.
Nicholas’ decision about Hadji Murad, for example, is favourable (he allows a fairly relaxed form of detention instead of prison or execution) but moments later he effectively sentences another man to death for a trivial offence, just because he has a Polish name. His decisive action on this matter helps him to subdue his moral qualms about his sexual mistreatment of a young woman the previous night. He deludes himself into believing his decisions are just and rational, when they are the opposite, because he needs to be respected as a strong man.
By contrast, Hadji Murad commands respect even from his captors not just because of his legendary military exploits, or because he is ‘vivacious’ and charming, but because of his integrity. He’s become a leader due to his own skill and intelligence, not because of being born into a dynasty. Hadji Murad may be misguided, or too single-minded, or dangerously ambitious, but he is not corrupt.
The story of one of the Russian officers, Butler, provides another perspective on a man’s need for respect. Butler must be seen to be confident, unafraid and smiling, as he leads his men into a fight that results in the annihilation of a village that had sheltered Hadji Murad.
Later we learn that Butler’s ‘military romancing’ is his way of managing the financial desperation that’s resulted from his gambling addiction. We also observe that as one of those responsible for Hadji Murad remaining in detention, he likes and respects him (in spite of having killed his friends!).
These insights into Butler’s character humanise a man for whom I’d been feeling contempt, and I’m reminded of my own conviction that behind every brutal act, there’s a human with a personal history that cannot excuse their brutality, but may go some way toward explaining it. With that in mind, we can’t ever reduce conflict to the simplicity of good and evil, black and white, however comforting it may feel to do so. It’s only by facing up to nuance and complexity that we have any hope of finding solutions to what sometimes seems like the unrelenting savagery of human beings.
Tolstoy ends the book with the song of nightingales and a reference to the crushed thistle in the ploughed field. He doesn’t mention the colourful posy he was collecting at the beginning, but it comes immediately into my mind, its beauty and colourful diversity an antidote to despair.
I flick back to read the long paragraph of sensuous description which begins: ‘red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell…’.
I understand now, why my friend proposed the book. And I get it, too, why Tolstoy’s considered a great writer. His insights into human character and society are sobering, but also hopeful. The tragedy is that 100 years on from the publication of this book, there are so many people in the world still mentally and physically trapped by the lack of self awareness and reactive violence that he describes so well.
Have you read this book? What do you think of it?