A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

Even though this final work of Tolstoy’s, not published until after his death, is rather brief, the narrative techniques are similar to his greatest historical novel, War and Peace. The eponymous hero of the book is Hadji Murat, a well-respected, Muslim tribal leader. During the 1851 Chechen revolt against the Russians, Murat helped lead the locals in the charge against the Russians who claimed that they were bringing modern government and prosperity to an archaic, Muslim state. Tolstoy’s story constantly switches back and forth between characters that range from the lowest peasants in the Chechen villages to Prince Nicholas I. This incessant picking up and dropping off of different narrative threads is what causes me to devour his novels. What will happen to the soldier who is shot while on night watch? Which lover will Prince Nicholas choose? And how will Murat meet his tragic end?

Murat is drawn into an argument with Shamil, the leader of the Chechen revolt, and defects to the Russian side when Shamil captures and threatens Murat’s family. Tolstoy portrays both sides as flawed and Murat is caught between two ruthless, cruel and unpredictable dictators. There may be cultural difference between east and west—in dress, religion, social habits, etc. But one thing they have in common is the brutality of an all-powerful despot. My favorite passage in the book is Tolstoy’s description of Nicholas I, which could also just as easily describe many a world leader in the 21st century:

The flattery, continuous, obvious, completely divorced from reality—of the people around him had distorted his vision of himself to such an extent that he no longer saw his own contradictions, did not attempt to reconcile his actions and words with reality or logic or even basic common sense and was quite convinced that all his directions, however senseless, unfair and contradictory they might be, became unreasonable, fair and consistent with each other simply because he had delivered them.

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11 responses to “A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

  1. I’ve read this a couple of times and really like it, possibly because it shows that Tolstoy was just as good writing a novella as a door-stopper – there’s still the detail, the humanity and the empathy. Small, but perfectly formed. A question: you’re a translator, so do you have any preference among translators of Russian literature?

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    • I liked the Maudes’ translation of War and Peace very much. This novella is an Alma Classics edition and although I like the translation very much there were several typos in the text.

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  2. Liz

    I have not come across this before – always nice to hear about more treasures to add to the TBR pile!

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  3. The downside to Tolstoy being famous for two very long novels is that his shorter works often don’t get noticed even though they are well worth reading. In any list of the 100 best novellas I’m sure he would feature!

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  4. Kaggsysbookishramblings

    This is a short Tolstoy I’ve still to read. It sounds less problematic than some of his other works – definitely one I’ll have to pick up. And sounds particularly relevant to our modern age, too…

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  5. Hadji Murat is a great novel; everyone should read it. I hadn’t thought about the formal similarities between it and War and Peace, but you’re right. Someday I’ll read Anna Karenina and no doubt say, “Hey, this is constructed the same way War and Peace is!”

    The Nicholas-as-evil-clown chapter made me laugh out loud. It’s very similar to the chapter in War and Peace where the Russian envoy has a meeting with Napoleon. Tolstoy did satire and comedy very well (though sometimes he could go too far, like in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” a vile little thing).

    I read W&P again last year, in the Maude translation, the same translation I used when I first read the novel forty years ago.

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    • That chapter with Nicolas was great! My favorite one. The Maude translation was wonderful, I thought. I’m not sure I will try a different one for a reread. And Anna Karenina felt a bit different than these two. I think because they are both historical novels.

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  6. I usually need to use cheat sheets to read Tolstoy, but he was so very good.

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