For about a generation now fierce Chechen warriors have been trying to wrest from Russia their land in the Caucasus Mountains. The fighting was so deadly at one point that their capital, Grozny, was leveled.
In recent years a tense peace has prevailed, but the Chechens still hate the Russians and Russian still the Chechens. It was ever thus.
Recently, I was preparing for a trip to San Francisco for back surgery. I knew I would have room (and time) to read only something light in weight. Browsing our bookshelves I pulled out a thin trade paperback (from McGraw-Hill 1965) between several thick Russian novels. It was Hadji Murat, a late novella by Leo Tolstoy (1904). No telling how long it had been on that shelf, but I knew I’d not seen it before.
What time I did have to read had me in Tolstoy’s grip. Hadji Murat was a real Chechen warrior, c. 1852. Tolstoy brings both his physical appearance and his character to life (lined face, boyish smile, rugged but muscular body). We learn he is respected by his people, feared by his enemies. He is calm and deliberate in making decisions; remorseless in battle, but civil and even conciliatory in private.
Murat is skilled in the fighting techniques common to his time and place. Many practices seem barbaric to us, but perfectly normal in mid-19th century Chechen tribal society. Loyalty is first to family, then tribe, then alliances with other tribes.
The story begins when he is on the run from the fighters of one Shamil, who has usurped the clan chieftainship from the family that had held it for several generations. He has taken Hadji’s family hostage, for which Hadji has vowed revenge. He has decided that the only way to do this is to go over to the Russians and use their manpower and firepower to dispose of Shamil. His agents negotiate and he meets with the nobleman officer Vorontsov to pledge his loyalty to the Tsar in exchange for the Russians helping him overthrow Shamil.
Although each knows the other’s underlying opposition remains, the two bond almost at once. Vorontsov, civilized, sophisticated and with a subtle mind, seems to know at once that Hadji Murat is true to his word, is single-minded and fearless.
With each unfolding scene, Tolstoy re-creates the sights and sounds of the Caucasus as if we can see and hear them.
Word gets to Hadji Murat that his wife and his son will be maimed or killed if he attempts to rescue them. He tells the Russians he cannot participate in an all-out assault on the cruel and despotic Shamil until his family members are safe.
Faced with a terrible dilemma, he decides that he and his own companions will slip away in dark of night from the Russian fort and quietly go to Shamil’s camp to attack. Although he has permission to take short local rides, it is always with an escort. This time, in the dark, he eludes the escort, the others join him and together they ride toward Shamil’s camp. Nightingales are singing. Their horses bog down in a marsh. They retreat to a clump of shrubs, but a Cossack detail finds them and a climactic and bloody battle ensues.
On my bookshelf my small Hadji Murat sits nearby Tolstoy’s grand opus, War and Peace. There is a gulf in size, but not intensity. Hadji Murat is Tolstoy at his best.
Peter Hannaford is the author or eleven books. The latest is “Presidential Retreats.”