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Hadji Murad ()

    I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a
    beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call 'Tartar' and
    carefully avoid when mowing -- or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the
    grass for fear of pricking their hands.  Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my
    nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had
    penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck
    the flower. But this proved a very difficult task.  Not only did the stalk prick on every side
    -- even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand -- but it was so tough that I had to
    struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last
    plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful.
    Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms
    of my nosegay.  I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked
    beautiful in its proper place.

    'But what energy and tenacity!  With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold
    its life!' thought I, remembering the effort it had cost me to pluck the flower.  The way home led
    across black-earth fields that had just been ploughed up.  I ascended the dusty path.  The ploughed
    field belonged to a landed proprietor and was so large that on both sides and before me to the
    top of the hill nothing was visible but evenly furrowed and moist earth.  The land was well tilled
    and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen, it was all black.  'Ah, what
    a destructive creature is man....How many different plant-lives he destroys to support his own
    existence!' thought I, involuntarily looking around for some living thing in this lifeless black field.
    In front of me to the right of the road I saw some kind of little clump, and drawing nearer I found
    it was the same kind of thistle as that which I had vainly plucked and thrown away.  This 'Tartar'
    plant had three branches.  One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm.  Each of
    the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung
    down with a soiled flower at its tip.  The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood
    erect.  Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why,
    though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels
    drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out.  Yet it stood firm and did not surrender
    to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it....

    'What vitality!' I thought.  'Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this
    one won't submit.'  And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen
    myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.

    The episode, as it has taken shape in my memory and imagination, was as follows.
        -Hadji Murad

Thus the famous opening on Tolstoy's short novel and here we are, some hundred years on, and the Chechens still won't submit to the Russians, though they are still being crushed underfoot...

Like most everyone who's read his terrific book The Western Canon, it was Harold Bloom who sent me scurrying to find Hadji Murad.  We, all of us, take a stab at War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and many schools assign the shorter Death of Ivan Ilych as required reading.  But not many of us venture beyond these narrowly circumscribed borders.  Heck, the thousands of pages required just to finish his major works seems like all we should be required to stand.  But then came Bloom's soaring endorsement of this minor work, and suddenly it was back into the breech.

Now, I confess, though I did like the novella and found it much easier reading, perhaps only because shorter, than his other books.  But I can't fathom Bloom's statement that :

    It is my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or
    at least the best that I have ever read.

Bloom seems particularly taken by the character of Hadji Murad, his heroic qualities, and by the "growth" he displays over the course of the tale.  Indeed, he is likable in a roguish way, but he's also utterly unreliable and ultimately foolish.  These are not heroic qualities in my book.

He's unreliable in the sense that his allegiances switch back and forth between the Russians and the Chechens whenever changing circumstances make the one side or the other more personally convenient.  Absent is the kind of consistent political philosophy or moral matrix that makes for a great hero.  And he's foolish in that he rides off to near certain death in a futile effort to rescue his family.  Though appealingly sentimental, this is the suicidal gesture of an unserious person.  What good does adding his death to theirs do anyone?

Tolstoy does an impressive job of detailing many of the layers of the society of the time and of presenting both sides in the conflict.  He is generous with the Chechens, whom, as a Russian, he might be expected to treat ill, and ungentle with the Tsar, who he might be expected to spare.  Hadji Murad, even if he does not rise to the level of archetypal hero, is nonetheless someone we root for and who we are genuinely sorry to see meet tragedy.  All of this is more than enough to recommend the book, without being enough to call it the greatest piece of prose in the history of man.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Russian Literature
Leo Tolstoy Links:

    -REVIEW: of Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian )
    Birth, death, balls and battles: It has no clear beginning, middle or end, but the first translation of War and Peace for 50 years reaffirms its greatness. Tolstoy brilliantly interweaves the historical and the personal (Orlando Figes, 8/27/05, Times of London)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Leo Tolstoi (kirjasto)
    -The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001 : Tolstoy, Leo, Count
    -ETEXTS : Tolstoy, Leo. (
    -ETEXT : HADJI MURAD by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy First Published in 1904 Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude
    -ETEXT : Hadji Murad
    -Tolstoy Library : Dedicated to the collection and dissemination of electronic text material related to the life and work of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
    -Leo Tolstoy (
    -About Leo Tolstoy (Under the Sun)
    -The Last Days of Leo Tolstoy (Leo Finegold)
    -Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910 (Anarchist Library)
    -Leo Tolstoy - Biography and Works (Literature Network)
    -ESSAY : 100 Years After Excommunication, Church Cannot Look Kindly Upon Tolstoy : Russian Orthodox hierarchy rejects request of writer's great-great-grandson. (Andrei Zolotov in Moscow | posted 3/8/01, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY : Tolstoy's prophesy: 'What Is Art?' today. (James Sloan Allen, Dec98, New Criterion)
    -LINKS : Academic Info :  Russian Literature: Leo Tolstoy
    -EXCERPT : from Introduction To Tolstoy's Writings by Ernest J Simmons : 9. Later Short Novels
    -ESSAY : How A Russian Maupassant Was Made in Odessa and Yasnaya Polyana: Isaak Babel' and the Tolstoy Legacy (Alexander Zholkovsky)
    -ESSAY : Death in "Hadji Murad" (Pieris Berreitter)
    -PHOTO : grave marker for Hadji-Murad a folk hero
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Anna Karenina (Spark Notes)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Leo Tolstoy (
    -REVIEW : of Prisoner of the Mountains (director, Sergei Bodrov) (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)

    -REVIEW : of The Western Canon by Harold Bloom (Norman Fruman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Western Canon (Davis Wang, Harvard Salient)

    -ESSAY : The Sabres of Paradise (Mowahid H. Shah, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs)
    -EDITORIAL : Why Chechnya Is Different (Washington Post, October 4, 2001)
    -LINKS : Links to other websites covering Chechnya (chechen Republic Online)