“Hadji Murad” by Leo Tolstoy

Hadji Murad

Hadji Murad 2

Delphi Classics edition, with portrait of Tolstoy

Decades after his time in the Caucasus, and years after he had turned his back on writing the kind of fashionable, worldly novels that had propelled him to fame, Tolstoy took up his fiction-writing pen again in order to create “Hadji Murad,” often considered to be his best late work and one of his best works of his long career.

Although only a novella, “Hadji Murad” took Tolstoy 8 years to write, from 1896 to 1904, and it was not published until after his death. Based on a true event–the capture of the Caucasian rebel Hadji Murad 1851 by the Russians–it, like Tolstoy’s other historical novels, uses history as a launching pad for philosophical musings.

In Tolstoy’s telling, Hadji Murad is a staunch opponent of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, but has an uneasy relationship with Imam Shamil (also a historical personage, who led a successful resistance against the Russian conquest of Chechnya for a number of years in the mid-19th century; it is not a coincidence that Shamil Basayev, the infamous rebel leader from the most recent Chechen wars, shares his name), which leads him to break with Shamil and go over to the Russians. Shamil captures Hadji Murad’s family, however, thus setting up would ultimately be a tragic and violent conclusion.

Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad is one of his most unequivocally positive characters, a particular achievement given that Tolstoy had served against Chechen rebels himself in the 1850s, and was also not Muslim. Or perhaps that was why Tolstoy was able to depict Hadji Murad so positively: Tolstoy’s keen gaze was always able to pierce the lies and deceptions of the society around him, but Hadji Murad’s life was just distant enough to remain decently veiled. Be that as it may, Hadji Murad is shown as a true child of nature, taciturn and brave, but still able to see into the hearts of others; he has strong reactions to all the Russians he meets, and is kind and patient with those who are well disposed towards him, but brusque and short with those who are vain and self-centered.

Hadji Murad is also devout, something that is seen in his very title “Hadji,” and his Muslim faith is a repeated topic of conversation. He always wears the turban of the hadji, and everyone he meets wants to know why, forcing him to explain repeatedly that he undertook the hadj and now wears the turban as a sign of his personal faith, not as a sign of his devotion to Shamil.

And indeed, Hadji Murad’s faith is shown as the real deal, in contrast with two other overtly religious characters, Shamil and Nicholas I. Shamil, of course, is also an outwardly devout Muslim, but Tolstoy depicts him as making his devotions out of habit and duty, because that is what is expected of him, with no particular feeling of reverence or faith as he does so. Nicholas’s prayers are even more empty, and his thin veneer of piety is contrasted with his debauched habits, as he chases after ballerinas and seduces teenage girls, unable even to keep up appearances as a faithful husband and the spiritual leader of his country.

Still, Tolstoy is not in the business of promoting Islam, any more than he is of trumpeting Christianity. Organized religion of whatever denomination or confession was for him just one, partial, path to the truth, and at this point in his life he was becoming ever more dissatisfied with it. Hadji Murad is a good Muslim because he is a good man, while Shamil and Nicholas are less worthy examples of their respective faiths because they are less worthy as people. For Tolstoy it is not religion that elevates people from the outside, but people who elevate religion from the inside, by their inner worth. The end of the story and the historical end of the 19th-century warring in Chechnya could be seen as the destruction of personal inner worth by the deadening, corrupting effects of a society that focuses on frivolities rather than the real, true truth.

The cover of this particular edition, which shows what appears to be a modern Chechen rebel holding a Kalashnikov,

Hadji Murad

The Modern Library Classics edition, translated by Aylmer Maude

could be misleading, but only on the surface level. In fact, the conflict that Tolstoy depicts in “Hadji Murad” is still going on to this day, and students of the Caucasus, or anyone seeking to understand “Islamist radicalism,” should take the time to read this story.

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