The Chechen Grievance: Tolstoy’s ‘Hadji Murad’ After Boston
Benjamin Lytal checks in on Tolstoy’s tale of anti-heroism and betrayal, ‘Hadji Murad.’
On Friday, while CNN was making constant reference to the Tsarnaev brothers' attempt “to go out in a blaze of glory,” a micro-meme lit up social media: didn’t Leo Tolstoy have a novel about Chechnyan rebels, called Hadji Murad? He does: it was his last, a thin book that everyone should read. While it offers few overt parallels to a case of 21st-century terrorism, Tolstoy’s novel sets the stage for the Chechen grievance—and tribal dysfunction. But what is more piercing, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s image is haunting the public eye, is Tolstoy’s insight into the dire symbiosis between heroic desires and boyish innocence.
Tolstoy would have been the first to reject an idea like "“going out in a blaze of glory.” In battle scenes he was a master of anticlimax: perhaps the best-remembered moment in all of War and Peace is young Nikolai Rostov’s first cavalry charge: knocked from the saddle by a bullet the bewildered 20-year-old turns tail: “They’re not after me! They can’t be after me! Why? They can’t want to kill me! Me. Everybody loves me!” Like, one suspects, many a hunted young man-boy, Nikolai is haunted by “all the love he had from his mother, from his family and his friends.” He can’t reconcile such a background with all the trouble he has gotten into.
Tolstoy was a complicated man, however. He understood glory, even in its shallowness. Maxim Gorky tells the story, in his priceless Recollections, of Tolstoy’s reaction to two proud young cuirassiers, walking down the street in their shining armor. As they approached, he cursed them: “What magnificent idiocy! They’re nothing but circus animals trained with a stick ...” But as they passed, Tolstoy gazed on admiringly: “How beautiful they are! Ancient Romans, eh, Lyovushka?”
Tolstoy’s 1904 novel begins with a 15-year-old boy staring at the eponymous hero. “Everyone in the mountains knew Hadji Murad, and how he slew the Russian swine.” Betrayed by the Chechnyan chieftain, Shamil, Murad is at the novel’s beginning a fugitive, wrapped in a burqa. The boy can’t stop staring at him—indeed, the boy’s “sparkling eyes, black as ripe sloes” contain all the sickly-sweet potential of a desperate boy’s life. Several chapters later the boy’s village, where Murad had taken refuge, will be razed by Russian troops.
The Russians, no less than the Chechnyans, are eager to get a look at Murad. Forced by his feud with Shamil to defect, he arranges to ride over to the Russians: the officer who takes him into custody has no translator, and has to gesture and smile. Murad smiles back, “and that smile struck Poltorátsky by its childlike kindliness ... He expected to see a morose, hard-featured man; and here was a vivacious person, whose smile was so kindly that Poltorátsky felt as if he were an old acquaintance. He had but one peculiarity: his eyes, set wide apart, gazed from under their black brows attentively, penetratingly and calmly into the eyes of others.” The much-feared Murad charms the Russians. They give him a translator and allow him to pray at the appointed times. “He is delightful, your brigand!” reports an officer’s wife. Tolstoy is very sensitive to the way we look at our baby-faced enemies: our outward condescension, our inner relief, our deluded, liberal belief that we already know them.
It is strange that Tolstoy, by this time a guru of peaceful resistance who would inspire Gandhi, wrote his final novel about a hero who kept multiple daggers on his person. To be clear: neither Murad nor the other Chechnyans in Tolstoy’s book are terrorists. They are rebel insurgents defending their homeland against Russian invaders, who want to annex the Caucasus in order to connect their empire to Georgia. Murad hopes that the Russians will give him an army that he might march against Shamil. He dreams about how he would “take [Shamil] prisoner, and revenge himself on him; and how the Russian Tsar would reward him, and he would again rule over not only Avaria, but also over the whole of Chechnya.” Most Chechnyans in this book are sworn to some form of political violence. But it is usually directed at other Chechnyans: theirs is a world of mutually recognized blood feuds. It is a function of their myopic passion that they think of the Russian Empire as a pawn in their game.
As with War & Peace or Anna Karenina, Tolstoy built Hadji Murad out of multiple plots, which he cycles between to cunning, highly contrastive effect. But because Hadji Murad is only 100 pages long, its structure is more obvious, even flashy. Ludwig Wittgenstein, of all people, admired it. It has the cold, distilled clarity of late work. Critic John Bayley reads the book as a fantasy, for Tolstoy, of certainty: the ruthless Murad being the opposite of the Tolstoy who, dying at the Astapovo railway station repeated over and over, “I do not understand what it is I have to do.” But the book must also be read as a study in just this kind of indecision. Fit into its 100 pages is every viewpoint: Tolstoy fully characterizes and motivates everyone from Tsar Nicholas I (a useless letch) to individual soldiers—like Butler, a good man heartbreakingly addicted to gambling, or Avdeev, whose death opens up a startling sidelight on his peasant parents—to several of Murad’s disciples (notably shy Eldár, with his ram’s eyes) to Shamil himself.
In so much context, anybody’s brave death basically has to be meaningless. If Murad is a hero, perhaps Bayley is right: it is simply because he is resolute. Tired of waiting on the Russians to make up their minds about his cause, he rides out with his disciples one day, shakes his escort, and makes for the mountains. However, in trying to cut across a flooded rice field, he and his friends are bogged down. They decide to hide, and sleep through the night. Meanwhile, a peasant tips off the army. At dawn, Murad finds a line of Russians advancing on one side. On the other—and this is the decisive tactical fact—are Chechnyan fighters who have betrayed him.
With the right soundtrack, in the hands of a Hollywood director, it could have been a blaze of glory. But we know that Murad’s life is no longer glorious. He has spent the entire novel in the waiting rooms of Russian generals. The decision to cross the rice field seems stupid, meaningless. Tolstoy is a master of anticlimax. Apocalypse is not, as some terrorists have it, now. If his final novel presents a more balanced view of imperialist politics than even Heart of Darkness (with which it was contemporary), it is because Tolstoy knows there are no climaxes: conflicts like this one will drag on forever.
Ultimately, Tolstoy cares less about glory than about another theme: he’s interested in the way that childhood haunts heroism. Murad’s head is cut off and carried from camp to camp: “The shaven skull was cleft, but not right through, and there was congealed blood in the nose ... Notwithstanding the many wounds on the head, the blue lips still bore a kindly, childlike expression.” The Russians who had befriended Murad turn away, shocked.
It is just before his final, rebellious escape, that Murad meditates on his own childhood—and on that of his son, whom he fatefully, tragically wants to rescue. He is reminded of a song, one his mother composed at his birth, addressed to his father:
“Thy sword of Damascus-steel tore my white bosom;But close on it laid I my own little boy;In my hot-streaming blood him I laved; and the woundWithout herbs or specifics was soon fully healed.As I, facing death, remained fearless, so he,My boy, my dzhigit, from all fear shall be free!”
**All quotes are from Aylmer Maud’s translation of Hadji Murad (Orchises: Alexandria, Virginia, 1996).