The Pequod Review:
Leo Tolstoy's final major work (which he revised extensively between 1896 and 1904, and would not publish until after his death) is one of his best, the fictionalized story of a real-life Chechen rebel (Hadji Murat) who flees the separatist cause and sides with the Russians in order to try to save his family.
The story is at once simple and complex. While it is short — just over 100 pages — and its broad outline is of the life and death of a single individual, Tolstoy uses an impressively diverse range of character perspectives to show the tragic impact of the war and the dignity of ordinary people. This is apparent not just in Hadji Murat himself, who (despite other flaws) was brave and loyal all the way until the very end of his life:
Another bullet hit Hadji Murat in the left side. He lay back in the ditch and, tearing another wad of cotton wool from his beshmet, stopped the wound. This wound in the side was fatal, and he felt that he was dying. Memories and images replaced one another with extraordinary swiftness in his imagination. Now he saw before him the mighty Abununtsal Khan, holding in place his severed, hanging cheek as he rushed at the enemy with a dagger in his hand; now he saw the weak, bloodless old Vorontsov, with his sly, white face, and heard his soft voice; now he saw his son Yusuf, now his wife Sofiat, now the pale face, red beard, and narrowed eyes of his enemy Shamil.
And all these memories ran through his imagination without calling up any feeling in him: no pity, no anger, no desire of any sort. It all seemed so insignificant compared with what was beginning and had already begun for him. But meanwhile his strong body went on doing what had been started. He gathered his last strength, rose up from behind the mound, and fired his pistol at a man running towards him and hit him. The man fell. Then he got out of the hole altogether and, limping badly, walked straight ahead with his dagger to meet his enemies. Several shots rang out, he staggered and fell. Several militiamen, with a triumphant shriek, rushed to the fallen body. But what had seemed to them a dead body suddenly stirred. First the bloodied, shaven head, without a papakha, rose, then the body rose, and then, catching hold of a tree, he rose up entirely. He looked so terrible that the men running at him stopped. But he suddenly shuddered, staggered away from the tree, and, like a mowed-down thistle, fell full length on his face and no longer moved.
He no longer moved, but he still felt. When Ghadji Aga, who was the first to run up to him, struck him on the head with his big dagger, it seemed to him that he had been hit with a hammer, and he could not understand who was doing it and why. That was his last conscious connection with his body. After that he no longer felt anything, and his enemies trampled and hacked at what no longer had anything in common with him. Ghadji Aga, placing his foot on the back of the body, cut the head off with two strokes, and carefully, so as not to stain his chuviaki with blood, rolled it aside with his foot. Bright red blood gushed from the neck arteries and black blood from the head, flowing over the grass.
Karganov, and Ghadji Aga, and Akhmet Khan, and all the militiamen, like hunters over a slain animal, gathered over the bodies of Hadji Murat and his men (Hanefi, Kurban, and Gamzalo had been bound) and, standing there in the bushes amid the powder smoke, talked merrily, exulting in their victory.
The nightingales, who had fallen silent during the shooting, again started trilling, first one close by and then others further off.
But Tolstoy finds deep virtues in other seemingly minor characters too. A good-natured Russian soldier named Butler strikes up a friendship with Hadji Murat before a card game. Later, another ordinary soldier (Avdeev) who earlier in the book been mentioned only in passing is given more significance and appreciation by Tolstoy when he dies:
Avdeev was turned back over, and the doctor picked in his stomach with the probe for a long time and found the bullet, but could not remove it. Having bandaged the wound and pasted a sticking plaster over it, the doctor left. All through the picking in the wound and the bandaging of it, Avdeev lay with clenched teeth and closed eyes. When the doctor left, he opened his eyes and looked around him in surprise. His eyes were directed at the patients and the orderly, but it was as if he did not see them, but saw something else that surprised him very much.
Avdeev's comrades came -- Panov and Seryogin. Avdeev went on lying in the same way, gazing straight ahead in surprise. For a long time he could not recognize his comrades, though his eyes were looking straight at them.
"Don't you want to have somebody write home, Pyotr?" said Panov.
Avdeev did not answer, though he was looking at Panov's face.
"I said, don't you want to have somebody write home?" Panov asked again, touching his cold, broad-boned hand.
It was as if Avdeev came to.
"Ah, Antonych has come!"
"Yes, here I am. Don't you want to have somebody write home? Seryogin will write for you."
"Seryogin," said Avdeev, shifting his gaze with difficulty to Seryogin,
"will you write? ... Write this, then: 'Your son, Petrukha, wishes you long life.' I envied my brother. I told you today. But now I'm glad. I mean, let him live on and on. God grant it, I'm glad. Write that."
Having said that, he fell silent for a long time, his eyes fixed on Panov.
"Well, and did you find your pipe?" he suddenly asked.
Panov shook his head and did not answer.
"Your pipe, your pipe, I'm saying, did you find it?" Avdeev repeated.
"It was in my bag.
"So there. Well, and now give me a candle, I'll be dying," said Avdeev.
Just then Poltoratsky came to visit his soldier.
"What, brother, is it bad?" he said.
Avdeev closed his eyes and shook his head nepatively. His hich-cheekboned face was pale and stern. He said nothing in reply and only repeated again, addressing Panov:
"Give me a candle. I'll be dying."
They put a candle in his hand, but his fingers would not bend, so they stuck it between his fingers and held it there. Poltoratsky left, and five minutes after he left, the orderly put his ear to Avdeev's heart and said it was all over.
In the report sent to Tiflis, Avdeev's death was described in the following way: "On November 23rd two companies of the Kurinsky regiment went out of the fortress to eut wood. In the middle of the day, a considerable body of mountaineers suddenly attacked the woodcutters. The picket line began to drop back, and at that moment the second company fell upon the mountaineers with bayonets and overcame them. Two privates were lightly wounded in the action and one was killed. The mountaineers lost around a hundred men killed and wounded."
After his death, Tolstoy takes us to Avdeev's home where we witness just how important he was to his family — he had only volunteered to fight in order to take the place of his brother, who (unlike Avdeev) had children to care for — and how much his death is likely to further strain existing familial tensions.
These compare to the cruelty and foolishness of Tsar Nicholas I, whose flaws are enumerated by Tolstoy over the course of an entire chapter:
Nicholas, in a black tunic without epaulettes, but with small shoulder straps, sat at the table, his enormous body tight-laced across the overgrown belly, and looked at the entering men with his immobile, lifeless gaze. His long, white face with its enormous, receding brow emerging from the slicked-down hair at his temples, artfully joined to the wig that covered his bald patch, was especially cold and immobile that day. His eyes, always dull, looked duller than usual; his compressed lips under the wirled mustaches, and his fat cheeks propped on his high collar, freshly shaven, with regular, sausage-shaped side-whiskers left on them, and his chin pressed into the collar, gave his face an expression of displeasure and even of wrath. The cause of this mood was fatigue. And the cause of the fatigue was that he had been at a masked ball the night before, and, strolling as usual in his horse guards helmet with a bird on its head, among the public who either pressed towards him or timidly avoided his enormous and self-assured figure, had again met that mask who, at the last masked ball, having aroused his old man's sensuality by her white-ness. beautiful build, and tender voice, had hidden from him, promising to meet him at the next masked ball. At last night's ball she had come up to him, and he had not let her go. He had led her to the box kept in readiness especially for that purpose, where he could remain alone with his lady. Having come silently to the door of the box, Nicholas looked around. his eves searching for the usher, but he was not there. Nicholas frowned and pushed open the door of the box himself, allowing his lady to go in first.
"Il y a quelqu'un," the mask said, stopping. The box was indeed occupied. On a little velvet divan, close to each other, sat an uhlan officer and a young, pretty, blond, curly-haired woman in a domino, with her mask off. Seeing the drawn-up, towering, and wrathful figure of Nicholas the blood woman hastily covered herself with the mask, and the uhlan officer, dumbfounded with terror, not getting up from the divan, stared at Nicholas with fixed eyes.
Accustorned though Nicholas was to the terror he aroused in people, that terror had always been pleasing to him, and he liked on occasion to astound the people thrown into terror, addressing them by contrast with affable words. And so he did now.
The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.
Hadji Murat has a chaotic structure and its narrative threads are never really pulled together, but in many ways that is the point — that single events have wide-ranging impacts, and that honor and persistence are possible even in the midst of struggle. The result is an enormously rich novel that despite its short length still matches the power and depth of Tolstoy's longer masterpieces. If you are new to Tolstoy and find the prospect of his novels daunting, this is a much better place to start.