Hadji Murat, Tolstoy’s second book with the Caucasus as its setting can be considered a work of historical fiction that is a beautiful tale of resistance, and a window into not only the Caucasian War of the mid-nineteenth century, but also the culture of the Russian Empire during this period. As a work of fiction the reader must be wary of depictions of actual persons such as Tsar Nicholas I, whom Tolstoy was not enamored with, to say the least, but many insights about the period and its people can be gleaned from the story. The novel is one of great contrasts between Chechens and Russians and also of what life was like during this time.
Tolstoy’s emphasizes deeply with the Chechen people as he details their suffering at the hands of the Russians. Through Hadji Murat we get to know the people of the Caucasus and their peaceful existence, followed by the depiction of a brutal Russian raid on a Chechen village. The Russians burn the food reserves of the town, kill livestock, and raze many of the buildings as well. The structures that are not completely destroyed are defiled by the Russian troops, including the village’s mosque. Even the well is fouled. The village chosen by the Russians was the same that gave hospitality to Hadji Murat at the beginning of the novel. Sado, the man who offered his home to Hadji Murat returns to find it destroyed and his son dead, bayoneted in the back by the Russians. The outrage that Tolstoy must have felt in writing this is palpable, played out in the unimaginable hatred that the Chechen villagers feel towards the Russians. To Tolstoy, this feeling of hatred towards the Russians was just as natural a feeling a feeling as the feeling of self-preservation (Tolstoy p85). Like the thistle in the opening of the novel these people would not submit until destroyed. These villagers are left with task of rebuilding and then choosing to continue to resist and have the same thing occur again, or to submit to the destroyers and defilers of their home. They decide to ask Shamil for help, revealing one of Tolstoy’s messages in Hadji Murat; that oppression and violence will only breed more dissent.
The brutal attacks by Russian soldiers can also be likened to Nicholas I’s suppression of dissent in the rest of the Russian empire, particularly political dissent. When he was deciding on the public punishment of a Pole who had attacked his academy professor the Tsar stated that; “It’ll be good for them. I’ll stamp out this spirit of revolution, I’ll tear it out by the roots… (Tolstoy p76).” The crime had nothing to do with politics, but the Tsar saw it as an opportunity to control his subjects through fear. This was the policy of the Russian General Tsitsianov, whose brutal policy of ruling the Caucasus through fear was a major cause in the mountaineers’ rebellion.
The protagonist of the novel, Hadji Murat, became caught between the two despotic leaders Nicholas I, and...