Leo Tolstoy – the greatest novelist of all – and yet lots of readers, even serious ones, have never read him. Why? Partly it’s because his two most famous works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are on the long side. That’s true, but even so, if you read just an hour a day, and typically read a short novel in a week, it might take a month to read Anna Karenina, and six weeks or two months to read War and Peace. Not that long. And you’ll probably read them faster, because they’re so good you’ll find yourself reading more at weekends and on evenings when you have time. But let’s say you’re really busy, and intimidated by these monuments of Russian literature. What you should do is attack Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories. I recommend the Richard Pevear translation of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, which not only contains the titular masterpiece, but a number of other masterpieces, including Master and Man, Father Sergius, The Kreutzer Sonata, and last but definitely not least, Hadji Murat. Although it’s only about 100 pages long, it has the scope, and the complexity, of a far longer novel. It was the last thing the Count wrote – he finished it when he was seventy-five and it was published posthumously – and it may be the most succinct novel he ever wrote. Harold Bloom called it ‘the greatest story in the world’.
Based on a true story (as the patter goes), it’s set in the Caucasus Mountains, in present day Georgia, Chechnya and Dagestan, in 1851. The Russians are fighting a war against the Muslim locals – as indeed they are to this day. It smoulders, seems to go out, then flares up again, over and over again. This is one of the reasons the story seems so timeless. Hadji Murat is an important warrior who has an even more important enemy – Shamil, who is both imam or religious leader and also the political leader of the religion. When the story opens, in medias res, Shamil has kidnapped Hadji Murat’s family, and is demanding that his enemy surrender to him, on pain of the death of his family. But Hadji Murat (‘hadji’ is not a name but a title, which means ‘one has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) does not trust Shamil, and decides instead to defect to the Russians, and persuade them to help him free his family, either by military force or ransom. In fact the Russians are delighted to receive such an important former enemy—at least most of them are, though some for political reasons advise against it—but prevaricate and make vague promises, and never do anything concrete, let alone give Murat the army he requests so that he can destroy Shamil. For much of the novel, Hadji Murat is a ‘guest’ of the Russians, though in practice he’s in semi-captivity, as they don’t trust him, and require him to be accompanied at all times by a Cossack escort. Eventually tiring of this, he breaks free, killing a number of his guards, and sets off to free his family, but he’s pursued and forced to fight a battle for his life against overwhelming odds. As this summary shows, I hope, the story is as much about political machinations as it is about military operations, though there are several superbly described engagements too. (Just this Sunday I took part in a podcast with David James and Adrian Bonenberger, both former US Army officers, and they agreed that the action was wholly convincing and unromanticised.)
Some of the battle scenes are brilliant vignettes. The Russians launch an attack on a Chechen village and carry out a massacre. One of the most poignant details is that a boy, Bata, whom we have met in the first chapter, and know to be an eager, cheerful lad, has been bayoneted – in the back. Despite the fact that he is Russian himself, Tolstoy is merciless in describing his countrymen’s cruelty.
And he’s equally relentless in exposing the hypocrisy of many of the upper-class officers and politicians, right up to Tsar Nicholas, who receives the most scathing treatment of all: he’s described as ‘dishonest and insane.’ Another remarkable feature of the novel is the sympathetic portrayal of the Muslim protagonist, Hadji Murat, who, while far from being a paragon – he too can be a cruel fighter – is by far the most honourable character we encounter. Even the Russians can’t help admiring him, because he’s always true to himself. He may lie about his motivations in order to survive, but never lacks the conviction to act in the way he believes is right. He is unfailingly brave and courteous, except to fools and frauds, for whom he shows utter contempt. (He actually strikes one government official, even though the latter is a colonel, because he regards him with scorn.) And he has true faith—as he prepares to take part in the engagement in which he expects to die, he prays, as usual. There are one or two good simple Russians in the story too, such as the soldier Avdeev, who is a conscript who’s voluntarily taken the place of his brother, and is wounded, and dies – all without any complaint, simply accepting God’s will, and even feeling glad that he has died, and not his brother. These sub-plots, brief as they are, and perhaps digressive, help make the work seem much larger than it is, and lend it much of its complexity and depth.
The story is also a textbook exercise in showing, not telling, with wonderful action sequences and very little exposition or description – just the bare minimum needed to set the scene. Perhaps only Tolstoy could make us feel sympathy for a Muslim warrior – one who would now certainly be referred to as a terrorist – but he does. Nowadays we are constantly told to value diversity, and yet those who shout loudest about it seem the most divisive of all. Tolstoy, on the other hand, quietly yet brilliantly puts us in the man’s shoes, through an act of imagination and empathy. Is that cultural appropriation? It is not. It is art. And that is the way to end racism.