Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad
“What vitality!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.”
Hadji Murad is one of Tolstoy‘s last works and perhaps his most perfect. This short novella is War and Peace in microcosm. Many of the same themes, issues and characters appear in Hadji Murad but they are stripped down to the most essential. We see the threat to life and happiness by two competing despotisms, the helplessness of those in power, leaders that are as unreflective as ordinary people in their daily life, but with larger and more tragic consequences and the futility of individual heroism, strength and character in a world of inertia and chaos.
His portrait of Nicholas is comic and quite hilarious were it not for bitter consequences of his buffoonery.“Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them.”
Nicholas is a master of inconsistency which allows him to be both smug at how enlightened and civilized his Empire is while inflicting the most inhumane and senseless tortures. “It pleased him to be ruthlessly cruel and it also pleased him to think that we have abolished capital punishment in Russia.”
He fancies himself to be a benevolent and enlightened ruler as well as a master of global Realpolitik. This notion was not so much confirmed by events as it was by his retinue of sycophants. “Approval of his strategic talents was particularly pleasant to Nicholas because, though he prided himself upon them, at the bottom of his heart he knew that they did not really exist, and he now desired to hear more detailed praise of himself.”
He makes up for his personal deficiencies with theatrics. Ornamented with epaulets, orders and ribbons “his chest expanded, his stomach bulging out above and below its bandages, and feeling everybody’s gaze tremulously and obsequiously fixed upon him he assumed an even more triumphant air.”
His opposing despot, Imam Shamil, is less complex but more consistent. He lacks the self-deception of Nicholas and fully embraces vengeful cruelty without qualification. While Nicholas hides behind confused rationalizations, Shamil is blunt, direct and violent.
Hadji Murad, on the other hand, is quiet and cautious. Carefully observing and balancing the competing motivations of friends and adversaries. Looking for opportunities, even in the most adverse circumstances. Willing to take risks, but equally willing to accept the consequences. Aware the difference between success and failure is not always within his control, but always looking for new stratagems to tip the balance in his favor.
Butler, who admires and emulates Hadji Murad, is in many ways his Russian counterpart. “He was filled with a buoyant sense of the joy of living, the danger of death, a wish for action, and the consciousness of being a part of an immense whole directed by a single will. This was his second time of going into action and he thought how in a moment they would be fired at, and he would not only not stoop when the shells flew overhead, or heed the whistle of the bullets, but would carry his head even more erect than before and would look round at this comrades and the soldiers with smiling eyes, and begin to talk in a perfectly calm voice about quite other matters.”
While Hadji Murad must fight in order to live, Butler’s glamorous idea of fighting comes not from necessity but from novels–full of romantic illusions of heroism, the embodiment of “the single will” and the “poetry of war.” “Dressed in his Circasian costume, he rode and swaggered about, and twice went into ambush with Bogdanóvich, thought neither time did they discover or kill anyone.” Like Nicholas, Butler concentrates on the appearance and theatrics of heroism. He imitates the external trappings of Hadji Murad but lacks honor and seriousness. Failing to find the excitement he desires he succumbs to boredom and gambling, his losses leaving him compromised.
“He tried not to think of his position, and to find oblivion not only in the poetry of warfare but also in wine. He drank more and more every day, and day by day grew morally weaker. He was now no longer the chaste Joseph he had been towards Márya Dmitríevna, but on the contrary began courting her grossly, meeting to his surprise with a strong and decided repulse which put him to shame.”
Butler is on a downward spiral of romantic illusion, boredom, gambling, drinking–eventually failing to seduce the major’s mistress. Both Hadji Murad and Butler are gamblers. But Butler wagers his money out of boredom or addiction and to no purpose. Hadji Murad wagers his life in an attempt to rescue his family. They both fail. Butler’s failure is ridiculous and pointless. Hadji Murad dies brutally but honorably, attempting to accomplish something larger than himself.
Strength of character is only good as an end in itself–not for what it can accomplish, for no character in Hadji Murad is able to exact their will upon the chaos–but for what it does to the person. It is more important who you are and how you act, than what you accomplish.
The narrator in the frame story looks on the thistle, emblematic of Hadji Murad and what he lived for, as a bit of vitality in the large, lifeless black field and regrets that he, like those in the tale, have “vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.”