A decade or so before his death, Leo Tolstoy completed a novella (published posthumously however) derived in part from his experiences in the Russian military during Russia’s drive to conquer the various predominately Muslim tribesmen of the North Caucasus region. Titled Hadji Murad (available here for free if you don’t mind reading long on-line texts) after its protagonist, the story is tightly crafted and reflective of a mature novelist- for despite its brevity, Tolstoy manages to construct, a la War and Peace, a number of stories within the overall narrative, with several developed characters whose lives all, in some way or another, intersect with that of Hadji Murad. Hadji Murad himself is a Chechen warrior whose varying fortunes and clashes lead him to fight other Caucasus factions, then the Russian invaders, before aligning himself tenuously with the Russians in an ultimately tragic bid to save his family from a powerful Chechen imam.

While Tolstoy is careful to offer little interpretative commentary within the story, his sympathies quite clearly lie with Hadji Murad first, then the Chechen people, and finally the conscripted Russian soldiers sent into the war. The closest he comes to outright moral proclamation within the narrative itself lies in his subtle and not-so-subtle digs at Russian- and by extension, Western- society are quite evident as he describes the moral habits- or lack thereof- of various levels of Russian society, culminating in a deliciously scathing portrayal of Czar Nicholas:

Although the plan of a gradual advance into the enemy’s territory by means of felling forests and destroying the food supplies was Ermolov’s and Velyaminov’s plan, and was quite contrary to Nicholas’s own plan of seizing Shamil’s place of residence and destroying that nest of robbers — which was the plan on which the dargo expedition in 1845 (that cost so many lives) had been undertaken — Nicholas nevertheless attributed to himself also the plan of a slow advance and a systematic felling of forests and devastation of the country. It would seem that to believe the plan of a slow movement by felling forests and destroying food supplies to have been his own would have necessitated hiding the fact that he had insisted on quite contrary operations in 1845.

But he did not hide it and was proud of the plan of the 1845 expedition as well as of the plan of a slow advance — though the two were obviously contrary to one another. Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them.

Tolstoy’s depiction of Islamic society is generally sympathetic and carries very little “Orientalistic” baggage; there is a sense of determinism throughout, but this is perhaps as much for Tolstoy an aspect of history in general as it is a mirror of “Oriental fatalism.” One of the strengths of the book lies in its depection of Chechnya and the war there as being complex, consisting of all sorts of cross-currents, as subject to change as the people making them up- an element that in some ways struggles with the theme of tragic determination. While it’s rather cliche to speak of contemporary relevance, it’s also hard not to notice it: the present conflicts raging in various parts of the Islamic world- including Chechnya- are multi-faceted, tragic affairs. Hadji Murad presents, on one level, a “clash” of East and West: but Tolstoy is far to insightful to imagine even a morally neutral clash of civilisations. Instead, he presents clashes within civilisations, across cultural lines, alongside bonds formed across cultures, as in the friendship formed between Murad and a Russian soldier, Butler:

With the arrival of Hadji Murad and his close acquaintance with him and his murids, Butler was even more captivated by the poetry of the peculiar, vigorous life led by the mountaineers. He got himself a jacket, cherkeska and leggings, and he felt he was a mountaineer too, living the same life as these people.

The narrative structure of the novel itself reflects the complexity of reality in the Caucasus: people, groups, and conflicts all collide, collude, and collide again. Certainly, Tolstoy rejects the Russian imperial project, but he does not pretend the Chechens are immaculate, quietist victims of imperialism, or even noble militant resistors of an unjust war against them. Instead a wide range of motives, tactics, and ideologies inhere in the various peoples making up the cast of Muslim characters. Yet despite a recognition of complexity, Hadji Murad emerges as a hero- a tragic (in the proper sense of the word) and flawed hero, but still a hero, struggling against fate in a convoluted world. And Tolstoy’s stance towards war is equally evident, as in this scene that comes in an interluding vignette describing the Russian campaign of “pacification”:

Sado and his family had left the aoul on the approach of the Russian detachment, and when he returned he found his saklya in ruins — the roof fallen in, the door and the posts supporting the penthouse burned, and the interior filthy. His son, the handsome bright-eyed boy who had gazed with such ecstasy at Hadji Murad, was brought dead to the mosque on a horse covered with a barka; he had been stabbed in the back with a bayonet. The dignified woman who had served Hadji Murad when he was at the house now stood over her son’s body, her smock torn in front, her withered old breasts exposed, her hair down, and she dug her hails into her face till it bled, and wailed incessantly.

Sado, taking a pick-axe and spade, had gone with his relatives to dig a grave for his son. The old grandfather sat by the wall of the ruined saklya cutting a stick and gazing stolidly in front of him. He had only just returned from the apiary. The two stacks of hay there had been burnt, the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched, and worse still all the beehives and bees had been burnt. The wailing of the women and the little children, who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle for whom there was no food. The bigger children, instead of playing, followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out.