Dwight's Reviews > Hadji Murad

Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
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Jul 06, 2010

Read in July, 2010


Tolstoy’s empathy for his characters makes them that much more engaging, drawing the reader into the story. A soldier’s innocent love for his superior’s wife feels to the reader as painful as the emotions the character experiences. As with most characters, there are “doubles” within the story. We see this young soldier’s innocent love echoed in and contrasted with another soldier’s lewd behavior toward a fellow soldier’s wife.

Tolstoy can be particularly brutal with Tsar Nicholas, portraying him as a weak, ignorant and petty tyrant driven more by flattery and lust than any consideration for his country. Despite his ineptness as a leader, Nicholas can still be ruthless, whether in ordering a student to be flogged enough to cause his death (despite the ban on capital punishment) or in his scorched earth policy in the Caucasus (which insures hardening his enemies). There are still some sympathetic moments, if you can classify them as such. Nicholas reaps a system that accepts no report other than success—in other words, reports bear no relationship to what happened in the field. If all you hear are flattery and success, it takes a certain level of talent to recognize and understand the true status of affairs.

Shamil, the other power opposing Hadji Murad, appears as a leader direct from Machiavelli’s The Prince, wielding cruelty and an iron fist out of necessity, not desire. Yet Tolstoy provides humor and humanness in Shamil’s situation as the iman’s youngest wife denies him her presence for the evening, inconveniencing him as much as he tortures others. While there is no doubt Tolstoy has disdain for the Russia under Nicholas, his contempt for Shamil’s world is apparent, even if much more subtly drawn.

Hadji Murad’s interview with Voronstov provides a foretaste of his relationship with the Russians, where both men talk past each other while, on another level, they understand each other completely:

The eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said. Without words they told each other the whole truth. Vorontsov’s eyes said that he did not believe a single word Hadji Murad was saying and that he knew he was and always would be an enemy to everything Russian and had surrendered only because he was obliged to. Hadji Murad understood this and yet continued to give assurances of his fidelity. His eyes said, “That old man ought to be thinking of his death and not of war, but though he is old he is cunning, and I must be careful.” Vorontsov understood this also, but nevertheless spoke to Hadji Murad in the way he considered necessary for the success of the war.
Hadji Murad understands his quandary and the hopelessness of his situation yet he remains resolute in his undertakings. He knows Shamil’s offer to return and fight for the iman is a sham, but he also recalls the fable of a falcon that had been caught and tamed by men. Escaping captivity and desiring to live at home again, the falcon returns only to be pecked to death by the other falcons which would not allow him to stay with the marking of humans on him. “And they [Shamil’s men:] would peck me to death in the same way,” thought Hadji Murad. “Shall I remain here and conquer Caucasia for the Russian Tsar and earn renown, titles, riches?” While Murad knows he could achieve that, he never wavers in attempting to rescue his family.

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