Turn to Tolstoy

First published in The New York Times, March 13, 2007.

Politicians have taken to publicizing “reading lists.” President Bush, we were told, last summer was to read a comic historical novel on the first Afghan war and Camus’s “The Stranger.” The Tory members of the British Parliament were issued weighty books on Middle Eastern politics. But why is no one reading Tolstoy’s novel “Hadji Murad”?

Tolstoy served as a soldier in the Russian campaign in the Caucasus in 1851, which was presented as a mission to bring modern government and economic growth to a medieval Muslim state. It was resisted by a bloody jihad, one of whose leaders, Hadji Murad, kidnapped widows, annihilated Russian columns, executed 26 prisoners and twice joined and then defected from the Russian administration.

In a letter at the time to his brother, Tolstoy described Hadji Murad’s actions as “base.” Fifty years later, after having espoused nonviolence and apparently given up on writing novels, Tolstoy decided to make this warlord the center of one of the great portraits of violent occupation.

The action is driven by ignorance and corrosive bureaucracy. The occupiers are isolated: living in a barracks, being rocketed at night and encountering the local population only through raids on villages and sudden ambushes. The tactics switch at whim, the strategy is destabilized by political rivalries.

But the local population is equally fractured and confused. The Chechen leader of the resistance “had declared his campaign victorious but knew it had been a failure, that many Chechen villages had been burned and devastated and that the fickle, frivolous Chechens were vacillating, and those of whom were nearest to the Russians were ready to secede.”

Tolstoy stubbornly records details inside Russian camps and, transcendentally (for he was as isolated as any soldier in a foreign land), inside Chechen homes. He opens the novel with the smell of the dung-fed fire in a mud hut, where Hadji Murad is preparing his defection. The conversation has nothing to do with money or grand theories of progress. Instead, quick sparks of sentiment and honour flicker out of the rituals of greeting, eating and prayers.

This empathy allows Tolstoy to catch the generosity and joy in battle of a young Russian officer attacking a village, but also the burned house and the bayoneted boy. Tolstoy shows how, in the fine texture of the local resistance, self-interest can blend with honour, fury and religion in “a natural instinct akin to the instinct of self-preservation.”

In the simplest interaction between the two sides, different world-views shimmer around the language of the interpreters. Hadji Murad is asked whether he liked the capital, Tiflis:

” ‘Alya’, he replied.

” ‘He says, “Yes,” ’ said the interpreter.

” ‘And what did he like best there?’

“Hadji Murad said something in reply.

” ‘He liked the theater best.’

” ‘Well, and did he like the viceroy’s ball?’

“Hadji Murad frowned. ‘Every tribe has its customs. Our women do not dress so,’ he said.”

The occupiers and occupied both despise and mimic each other. Hadji Murad delights in a modern chiming clock and uses it to time his prayers. The Russian officer dresses like a Chechen. The different national honor codes drive fights but also reconciliations: greed and nobility combine in a single exchange. Hadji Murad presents a sword as an almost contemptuous gesture to a Russian; the recipient examines it to see if it is a fake.

After 50 years of reflection, Tolstoy no longer considers Hadji Murad “base” or even glamorous. He ignores Hadji Murad’s youthful adventures and begins with his defection as a middle-aged man, negotiating with spies for the release of his family and vainly petitioning the bureaucracy. In the viceroy’s palace, crowds of Russians gaze at Hadji Murad, but he disdains to look back. Tolstoy, who is normally judgmental, hardly explores the character of Hadji Murad. Instead, he maintains a respectful distance, concluding perhaps that it is not his place to judge. What Tolstoy recognizes, and what ultimately makes this the great portrait of occupation, is Hadji Murad’s autonomy.

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