As the Boston manhunt blared from TVs, critic Liesl Schillinger found herself turning to Tolstoy’s haunting final novel, Hadji Murat—and its thistle-sharp lessons on heroism and identity.
This week, trying and failing to absorb the import of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I let my unmoored thoughts travel away from questions of motive, politics, and ideology, and let them rest and rove in the fictionalized Chechnya conjured by Leo Tolstoy more than a century ago, in his final book, Hadji Murat. I sought no explanation there, only the reassuring touch of history’s veil, high-colored and shimmering, smoothed and made whole by Tolstoy’s literary imagination. I found refuge in his evocation of the rugged, lawless North Caucasus—a place which belongs equally to the past, to the present, and to no particular time at all.
In that incantantory novel, set in 1851 and 1852, Tolstoy wrote of the charismatic Chechen warlord Hadji Murat, the dark-eyed, wily, fearless leader of a rebel band called the Avar. Armed with daggers, cloaked in sheepskins and burkas, Hadji Murat and his murid entourage rode on horseback across the fields and mountain paths of the Caucasus, fighting rival bands of rebels and the troops of encroaching Imperial Russia.
Tolstoy begins Hadji Murat with an allegory of a blood-red thistle in full bloom, which he uses as a metaphor for the Chechen spirit. As the narrator walks through a midsummer field, picking sweet-smelling clover, ox-eye daisies, cornflowers, and tulip-belled campanulas, he spots a thistle in a ditch—strong, coarse-stalked, and crimson-petaled. Attracted, he reaches to pluck it, to make it the centerpiece of his bouquet; but the thistle’s spines cut and prick him; he cannot dislodge it. When he at last tears it from the earth, its “stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful.” Walking on, he sees another thistle, downtrodden, but still firmly planted and defiantly thriving. “What vitality!” the narrator thinks. “This one won’t submit.”
At the novel’s outset, Hadji Murat has just broken with a rival rebel leader, a warlord named Shamil. His intention is to surrender to Russian generals, encamped not far away, in hope that his allegiance will persuade the Russians to back his blood feud against his foe. But Hadji Murat’s objective is compromised from the start, because Shamil has taken his wife and children prisoner, and Murat has little time to bargain with the Russians. He must contrive to keep his family alive as he strategizes. Conflicting loyalties and aims war in Hadji Murat; valor, violence, mercy, and treachery are meshed within him, inextricable from each other.
Shamil’s henchmen are riding after the Avar warlord and his murids, daggers drawn, when after three nights without sleep, Hadji Murat stops to rest in a humble aoul (village). He seeks a bed in the home of a sworn friend—a kunák in their language—named Sado. Because the great Murat is his kunák, Sado considers it his duty to give him shelter, even though doing so puts his own family at great risk. Sado’s handsome, naïve teenage son, raised on tales of Hadji Murat’s bravery, looks on the warrior with awe. Exhausted, Hadji Murat goes to bed at once, sleeping fully dressed, poised for flight. It is a wise precaution: in the middle of the night, Sado wakes him: Shamil’s henchmen approach. Hadji Murat and his murid mount their horses and ride off just in time. The Russians will welcome them, with courtesy (they too know of Hadji Murat’s renown and respect his feats) and secret contempt, which the Chechen returns in kind.
Before long, everyone will betray everyone: Russians and Chechens, leaders and followers alike, for no particular reason. The houses, haystacks, beehives, and apricot trees of the aoul that harbored Hadji Murat will be broken and burnt by reckless Russians. Sado will pay for his loyalty to his kunák: “His son, the handsome bright-eyed boy who’d gazed with such ecstasy at Hadji Murat, was brought dead to the mosque covered with a búrka; he had been stabbed in the back with a bayonet.”
Even Hadji Murat will not be spared; but his undoing will come not from the Russian overlords, but from his own people, or perhaps, from his own unceasing scheming, whose luck has run its course. One of his former kunáks will ambush him; a man named Hadji Aga, who has shifted his allegiance to the Chechen warlord Akhmet Khan—who, like Shamil, is a mortal enemy of Hadji Murat. His “crimson blood” will flow, Tolstoy writes, “soaking the grass:” he will end “stretched out at full length like a thistle that had been mown down.”
The villagers in Sado’s sacked aoul will rebuild; the orchards will rise again; hooves will ring out on the mountain paths of the Caucasus; the ambushes and wars will continue; victory will be followed by defeat, by victory, and defeat again. And the thistles will never stop growing, in the safely distant landscape of Tolstoy’s Chechnya.