Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murad opens with the image of a beautiful thistle flower, wrenched from a ditch, that the narrator seeks to add to his bouquet. His effort to pluck it, however,
proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side—even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand—but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed, and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful…. But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!
This late masterpiece, written in 1904 but never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime, was based on a real-life episode. In 1851 the Avar warlord Hajimurad al-Khunzaki, a confederate of the Imam Shamil, who led the resistance to Russia’s annexation of the Caucasus, betrayed his ally and went over to the Russians. In Tolstoy’s story he is driven by ambition, hoping to govern the Caucasian tribes under the “white tsar.”
The most telling portrayals in the story—apart from Hadji Murad himself, with his thistle-like mix of bravery, integrity, cunning, confusion, and childlike candor—are the complementary, almost symmetrical descriptions of Tsar Nicholas I and the Imam Shamil, both of whom are depicted as cold-eyed, ruthless autocrats who represent opposing forces of absolutism. As Tolstoy himself explained:
It is not only Haji Murad and his tragic end that interest me. I am fascinated by the parallel between the two main figures pitted against each other: Shamil and Nicholas I. They represent the two poles of absolutism—Asiatic and European.
The reality, however, was a great deal more complicated than a clash of absolutisms. Far from being the cold and ruthless autocrat depicted by Tolstoy, Shamil, as the murshid, or spiritual guide, of the orthodox Muslim Khalidiyya-Naqshbandiyya order, was a leader who sustained the loyalty of the warring Caucasian tribes by diplomacy rather than force. A Russian source described him as “a man of great tact and a subtle politician.” His charismatic appeal was underpinned by his reputation for piety and evenhandedness in dispensing justice in accordance with Islamic sharia norms. These had been severely tested when the Russians introduced alcohol into the region, corrupting, by sharia standards, the tribal chiefs who became their clients.
As a renowned warlord and tribal leader, Hadji Murad had been a Russian loyalist, defending Avaristan in the eastern part of Daghestan against Shamil’s encroachments. It was only after the Russians had replaced him as their client in Avaristan by a rival who had him arrested and abused that Hadji Murad responded to Shamil’s overtures and joined the jihad.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.