Tolstoy: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (Part IV)

Tolstoy’s Conundrum

Some of the opening paragraphs of Khadzhi-Murat traditionally set the tone for its interpretation as an anti-imperialist text.

Ia nabral bol’shoi buket raznykh tsvetov i shel domoi, kogda zametil v kanave chudnyi malinovyi, v polnom tsvetu, repei togo sorta, kotoryi u nas nazyvaetiia “tatarinom” i kotoryi staratel’no okashivaiut, a kogda on nechaianno skoshen, vykidyvaiut iz sena pokosniki, chtoby ne kolot’ na nego ruk. Mne vzdumalos’ sorvat’ etot repei i polozhit’ ego v seredinu buketa. Ja slez v kanavu i, sognav vpivshegosia v seredinu tsvetka i sladko i vialo zasnuvshego tam mokhnatogo shmelia, prinialsia sryvat’ tsvetok. No jto bylo ochen’ trudno: malo togo chto stebel’ kololsia so vsekh storon, dazhe cherez platok, kotorym ja zavernul ruku, — on byl tak strashno krepok, chto ia bilsia s nim minut piat’, po odnomu razryvaia volokna. Kogda ia, nakonets, otorval tsvetok, stebel’ uzhe byl ves’ v lokhmot’jakh, da i tsvetok uzhe ne kazalsia tak svezh i krasiv. Krome togo, on po svoei grubosti i aliapovatosti ne podkhodil k nezhnym tsvetam buketa. Ia pozhalel, chto naprasno pogubil tsvetok, kotoryi byl khorosh v svoem meste, i brosil ego. “Kakaia, odnako, energiia i sila zhizni, — podumal ia, vspominaia te usiliia, s kotorymi ia otryval tsvetok. — Kak on usilenno zashchishchal i dorogo prodal svoiu zhizn'”.[1]

The captivating power of Tolstoyan language draws the image of the protagonist pulling up the plant he calls ‘the Tatar’, in a pressing manner, which ensures that the comparison of the plant to Khadzhi-Murat is not overlooked by the reader. The detailed, meticulous description of the plant and its wreck are so powerful and catching that in the end of the story, when reading of Khadzhi-Murat’s death, one cannot help but recall in detail the opening passages and ruminate, once again, of the parallel between protagonists’s destroying the stubborn plant, and Khadzhi-Murat’s death in the millstones of the empire.

Kust “tatarina” sostoial iz treh otrostkov. Odin byl otorvan, i, kak otrublennajia ruka, torchal ostatok vetki. Na drugikh dvukh bylo na kazhdom po tsvetku. Tsvetki eti kogda-to byli krasnye, teper’ zhe byli chernye. Odin stebel’ byl sloman, i polovina ego, s grjiaznym tsvetkom na kontse, visela knizu; drugoi, hotia i vymazannyi chernozemnoi griaz’iu, vse eshche torchal kkverhu. Vidno bylo, chto ves’ kustik byl pereekhan kolesom i uzhe posle podnialsia i potomu stojial bokom, no vse-taki stoial. Tochno vyrvali u nego kusok tela, vyvernuli vnutrennosti, otorvali ruku, vykololi glaz. No on vse stoit i ne sdaetsia cheloveku, unichtozhivshemu vsekh ego bratii krugom ego.

“Ekaia energiia! — podumal ja. — Vse pobedil chelovek, milliony trav unichtozhil, a etot vse ne sdaetsia”.

I mne vspomnilas’ odna davnishniaia kavkazskajia istoriia, chast’ kotoroi ia videl, chast’ slyshal ot ochevidtsev, a chast’ voobrazil sebe.[2]

Perhaps due to these passages, straightforward and persistent to the degree they cannot but feel excessive, the anti-imperialist stance of the story is seldom called into question but never fully believed. Even during those years of the Soviet regime when the rights of non-Russian ethnies enjoyed most protection and support, and the imperial conquest was most strongly condemned, Khadzhi-Murat, though not regarded as offensive towards the Caucasians in the way the works of some other Russian classics were, remained ‘not entirely acceptable’[3] as a culturally sensitive and trustworthy fictional work.

The ambiguity of Khadzhi-Murat really lies in the plane of the ideological, though. As it comes to the knowledge of the background landscape and accuracy, Tolstoy (similarly to, and probably even excelling Lermontov) enjoys a high degree of ethnographic accuracy, with a few exceptions, which often represent the cultural gaps and misconception of the time in general rather than Tolstoy’s mistakes. Perhaps the most prominent of such details is the fact that Tolstoy consistently refers to Khadzhi-Murat as a ‘Tatar’, and mentions that he spoke Tatar – which, obviously, cannot be true as Tatar was not a language known and spoken in the Caucasus. However, keeping in mind that Tolstoy has been a student at the department of Arabic and Turkic languages at the Kazan’ Imperial University, where he showed brilliant results at the ‘Turkic-Tatar’ language[4], it deems impossible that he would fail to distinguish between Tatar and a Caucasian language. The more probable explanation is that in referring to Khadzhi-Murat’s speech as ‘Tatar’, Tolstoy conveys the general attitude and misapprehension of the Russian aristocrats (or, more likely, Russians in general) regarding the language spoken in the Caucasian region. It is known that Khadzhi Murat could only read in Avar, and write in ajameeah, that is, the Avar language in Arabic script. Avar, however, belongs to the Avar-Andic language of the North-Caucasian group, so it is unlikely that Tolstoy could mistake it for Tatar, a Turkic language. However, one of the languages spoken in Dagestan continues to be Kumyk, which belongs to the Turkic group, and has also used Arabic script throughout the 19th century. Moreover, Kumyk was used as the lingua franca in Nothern Dagestan,[5] and Khadzhi-Murat, having served as a governor of Avaria, most certainly knew the language. However, it is most likely that neither the Russian command, nor the ordinary military men in the Caucasus had much insight into the linguistic details of the Caucasian languages. On the other hand, one Muslim-professing, Turkic ethnicity within the Russian Empire were the Tatars; and Crimea, whose 1783 annexation could have still been memorable, was, in the popular imagination, a part of Russia’s vague ‘Orient’ along with the Caucasus (which is also clear from the stylistic affinity of Pushkin’s three ‘Southern’ poems as discussed earlier). This cluster of reasons could explain the use of the word ‘Tatar’ as a generic word to refer to any non-Russian speech in the region.

Most likely, though, Tolstoy used the misnomer consciously; his prolonged time in the Caucasus in the period when Shamil’ was in power, provided him with a firm grasp of situation and attitudes in the Caucasus.

Ethnographic accuracy and transparency, however, were definitely not the primary in his work on Khadzhi-Murat. One very strong argument illustrating this statement is the way Tolstoy handled Khadzhi-Murat’s autobiography.

While at the Russian quarters in 1951, Khadzhi-Murat wrote an autobiographical statement, which has since served as the point of origin for any research on this historical figure. Comparing the original text with its selective use by Tolstoy, and seeing what framework he set for his story, provides an unmatched insight for understanding the creative impulse and the author’s intention behind the story.

Khadzhi-Murat’s youth coincided with the first wave of general Ermolov’s campaign’s active development, and the rise of the Caucasian Imamate. Khadzhi-Murat’s native Avar Khanate successfully manoeuvred between the two, sustaining its independence. This made Avaria a region of strategic importance for both sides. The town of Khunzakh, where Khadzhi-Murat grew up, suffered from the continuous attacks of murids, headed first by Qazi-Muhammad, and later by Gamzat-Bek. In 1834, Gamzat-Bek set up a mass murder of the Avar khanes, which for a long time turned Khunzakh citizens away from muridism movement and prompted to connect themselves to the Russians. After his brother Osman was killed during a (successful) attempt to take revenge upon Gamzat-bek, Khadzhi-Murat assumed the leadership of Khunkazh for the next 9 years. He continued the struggle against the strengthening muridism and made Khunzakh one of the main centers of Russian resistance. However, when Khadzhi-Murat was made the governor of Avaria, his popularity started to threaten the authority of Russian deputy governors in Khunzakh. Through this competition and enmity, he got arrested in 1840, and accused of collaboration with Shamil’. This made Khadzhi-Murat switch sides and join the imamate.

What made him defect from Shamil’ and return to the Russians in 1851, is not entirely clear. The fight between Shamil’ and his naib has never been proved, and some historians argue against it. For example, Adallo Aliev suggests that this move was an intelligence plan designed by Shamil’ and Khadzhi-Murat. [6]

Glavnoi zadachei Khadzhi-Murada bylo dobit’sia ot imperatora Rossii peremiriia na ravnykh usloviiakh […] Khadzhi-Murad ubezhdal shtab Vorontsova v bespoleznosti vedeniia voiny i v bespomoshchnosti vsei ikh imperskoi mashiny na sklonakh Imamata […] On hotel dobit’sia peredachi v ego rasporiazhenie kak mozhno bol’shei voennoi sily i privesti eti voiska v takie debri Kavkazskikh gor, otkuda oni nikogda ne vernulis’ by.[7]

But perhaps largely to Tolstoy’s story, the version which became more common is that in 1851, enraged by the capture of his wife and children, Khadzhi-Murat left Shamil’, and offered his service to Russian colonel Semen Vorontsov.

The story of Khadzhi-Murat was not untypical in its time. Mikhael Khodarkovsky’s Bitter Choices explores the fate of Semen Atarschikov, whose trajectory was quite similar to Khadzhi-Murat’s. Atarschikov, a Chechen/Kumyk and Cossack/Nogai by descent, was raised as a Chechen but rooted both in Russian and Chechen cultures, so his knowledge of both languages brought him quick promotion in the Russian army where he served as an interpreter.

His literary portrait can easily be mistaken for Khadzhi-Murat’s:

Eto byl chelovek izvestnyi na levom flange vsem, ot mala do velika, – chelovek, soediniavshii v sebe vse dostoinstva i vse nedostatki tipa, sozdannogo samoi zhizn’iu kazaka-porubezhnika. Smolodu on imel mnogo kunakov sredi nemirnykh chechentsev, iakshalsia s nimi, vmeste ezdil otbivat’ nogaiskie tabuny, perepravlial vo vremia chumy burki na russkuiu storonu, vel ozhestochennuiu vonu s karantinnoi strazhei, i za svoi deianiia emu ne raz dovodilos’ progulivat’sia po “zelenoj ulitse”. […] Byt’ mozhet, drugomu davno by uzhe byt’ na viselitse, no Atarshhikova spasala neobyknovennaia khrabrost’, udal’, smetlivost’ i, nakonets, ta bezuslovnaia gotovnost’, s kotoroi on v ravnoi stepeni brosalsia i na durnoe, i na khoroshee rytsarskoe delo.[8]

At some point Atarschikov suddenly deserted the army and joined the highlanders; however, after two months he returned and received clemency only to flee again a year later, this time adopting Islam, marrying a Nogai woman and bying back another deserted Cossack to serve as his valet. The end of his story was as tragic a Khadzhi-Murat’s: his valet killed him in 1845, using this as an argument to secure clemency back in the Russian army.

The similarity of the two stories is striking; and so is the authoritative manner with which Tolstoy handles this trajectory of moving back and forth between opposing sides and unstable identities. He all but cuts out the background story of Khadzhi-Murat: it is squeezed into the text, very economically, in form of direct speech, but its placement in the beginning of the story, the abundance of unfamiliar names which seem to make no sense to the reader, and the tongue-twister manner in which it is pronounced, rule off the possibility of it actually being integrated in the reader’s imagination as Khadzhi-Murat’s background story. Tolstoy clearly intends for the reader to size up Khadzhi-Murat’s persona based solely on the author’s fictional account and his presentation of information.

We encounter Khadzhi-Murat, therefore, right after his falling-out with Shamil’, the moment when he is devoid of everything which defined his life and position before: of family, position of naib, army, all of his possessions, and reputation of a loyal and trustworthy subject. One thing he still has, though, is his reputation, fame, and charisma, to which almost everyone he faces falls victim. Tolstoy emphasizes how easily people got under Khadzhi-Murat’s unfluence. Be it Butler, who very soon ‘zavel sebe beshmet, cherkesku, nogovitsy, i emu kazalos’, chto on sam gorets i chto zhivet takoiu zhe, kak i eti liudi, zhizn’iu,’[9] or Mar’ia Dmitrievna who claimed that ‘krome horoshego, nichego ot nego ne vidali […] Obkhoditel’nyi, umnyi, spravedlivyi.’[10] In other words, Khadzhi-Murat appeas before us as a personage with no home and no point of reference, unclear present stance yet exercising great control and influence onto other people – that is, a typical trickster by formal characteristics.

His trickster nature is much more strongly pronounced than it was in the other texts analyzed in this paper; moreover, it is virtually laid bare as we are aware of his treachery, and the suggestion he makes to the Russian side – which is, plainly put, tricking his former ally. The story also articulated very distinctly his suspended state between the two worlds, and his inability to transfer from one to the other. The world of Shamil’, imamate, and muridism is on the one side, and the Russian Empire, and Avaria as its subject, are on the other. And since it seems that Khadzhi-Murat’s connection to both is equally strong, his making a choice seems nearly impossible.

It is interesting that outside of the rigid narrative structure set by Tolstoy, the life of Khadzhi-Murat seems to demonstrate much more mobility and barely any restraints inflicted by his double loyalties. Hence, Tolstoy’s framing of the story is a deliberate intent to exclude the background story and the ‘roots’ of Khadzhi-Murat’s loyalties and doubts, with the intent to re-focus the reader’s attention on the moment of his choice per se. The question is, why did Tolstoy choose to do so?

To answer this question I suggest we look at two intersecting vectors holding together the structure of the story. One is the Islamic idea of fate and predetermination we already encountered in Lermontov; the other is the emphatic opposition of Khadzhi-Murat and Shamil’, pronounced as strongly as perhaps the opening paragraphs depicting plucking the ‘Tatar’ plant are.

As a departure point for discussing predetermination, let us consider the seeming ease of Khadzhi-Murat’s decision to flee the Russian camp, and his air of complete composure and quiet, accompanying this resolve. Even though we are aware that Khadzhi-Murat has taken a lot of time for long deliberations and prayer, we do not actually see him torn over his ruminations, or demonstrating any signs of heart ache over his separation with his family. Our awareness of these rests on Khadzhi-Murat’s informing others of his thoughts and conditions yet not through becoming direct witness to his emotional or spiritual experiences.

The composure demonstrated by Khadzhi-Murat indeed comes as a surprise and may seem unusual to the reader. While one possible angle of interpretation lies in attributing Khadzhi-Murat’s behavior to the cultural specifics of his Weltanschauung, and the traditional behavioral code of men in the Caucasus, there is definitely more to it. Tolstoy portrays Khadzhi-Murat as a devoted, passionate believer of Islam. Khadzhi-Murat may have been Shamil’s supporter, and his foe at other times, but ultimately his switching loyalty had to do with the movement of muridism and Shamil’ and his military enterprise specifically rather than with Islam at large. In support of this, Aliev brings up a letter of Prince Bariatinskii, governor of the Caucasus, where he calls Khadzhi-Murat a religious fanatic; or one of count Vorontsov’s letter mentioning that the vigour of Khadzhi-Murat’s religious convictions was deemed one of the main arguments against involving him. [11]

The idea of predestination has already been prominent in Lermontov, as we have seen, and it recurs forcefully in Tolstoy. For one thing, it gives a persuasive explanation of Khadzhi-Murat’s seeming composure in the situation where his family is seized by Shamil’, while he himself is kept helpless in the Russian headquarters. For another, it also helps understand Khadzhi-Murat’s ultimate decision to flee the Russian fort despite the obvious adversity of this enterprise. Both from Tolstoy’s text and from the background knowledge of Khadzhi-Murat’s life story we know of the latter’s undisputed military fame, and his reputation of a daring yet well-considered commander whose strategy, as it is common for leaders of guerilla wars, is routinely based on getting the most gain with the least effort and losses – a principle which is clearly incongruent with his escape plan. At the same time, Khadzhi-Murat is shown as a wholesome, thought-out character guided by a strong inner logic; and the idea of predetermination seems to be very consistent with this logic.

Along with the concept of faith, the opposition of the characters of Shamil’ and Khadzhi-Murat is another bearing construct of the story. Not only the two personages themselves are different, but also the way their characters are introduced and presented to us. The dignified purity of Khadzhi-Murat’s image and the striking combination of simplicity and sophistication make his character the fascinating image it is. In scholarship, the character of Khadzhi-Murat is often regarded as some sort of Naturmensch, one of those many freedom-loving barbarians, savages, or wild people who inhabit the imaginary Caucasus of Russian literature. His biography, written in a reserved, unassuming tone, adds to this impression, presenting its author as someone smart and stately yet not educated in a traditional way, and too dissimilar to a Russian nobleman to avoid seeming artless and exotic. Khadzhi-Murat’s childishness, indeed, speaks to his greater affinity to nature as opposed to, say, that of the Russian aristocrats of Vorontsov’s milieu. This, however, is not related to naiveté and primitivity. It is helpful to keep in mind Khadzhi-Murat’s position of Shamil’s naib, an executive, both military and administrative, of an allotted territory. Only a person of outstanding feats of arms could be appointed a naib; at the same time, the position of naib implied other capabilities and achievements. Recurring to the earlier discussion of muridism with its sequence of the four stages of spiritual development, it seems important now to mention another detail: that the third stage of maarifah, or knowledge, which involved the experience of mystical ecstasy, was so rare and prominent that reaching it would allow one to take up the position of naib within the imamate.[12]

There is no indication in Tolstoy’s text or Khadzhi-Murat’s autobiography as to whether his position in the imamate was indeed related to his place in the hierarchy of the Sufi brotherhood – which comes as no surprise given that Sufi orders traditionally operate under a high degree of secrecy, and very often murids would altogether conceal their belonging to the tariqah. However, both texts leave no doubt that Khadzhi-Murat did occupy a special position in Shamil’s circle. Whether such position did or did not arise from his special religious and spiritual enlightenment, Khadzhi-Murat’s outstanding sensitivity to things going beyond the limits of the material world, strikes us as very important in Tolstoy’s portrayal.

One beautiful example here would be the episodes in chapters XXII and XXIII, where we unexpectedly see the new side of Khadzhi-Murat’s personality: his shrewd appreciation of art. The sequence starts with Khadzhi-Murat recalling an old tale about a falcon who was captured and lived among people for some time. ‘On vernulsia, no v putakh, i na putakh ostalis’ bubentsy. I sokoly ne priniali ego. “Leti, — skazali oni, — tuda, gde nadeli na tebia serebrianye bubentsy. U nas net bubentsov, net i put”. Sokol ne khotel pokidat’ rodinu i ostalsia. No drugie sokoly ne priniali i zaklevali ego. «Tak zakliuiut i menia», », — думал Хаджи-Мурат.’[13]

A few paragraphes later, we hear Khanefi singing a song about Gamzat-bek. The content of the song is of utmost importance here since Tolstoy’s choice is far from an incidental folk song. Quite the contrary, Khanefi happens to sings about an episode that is particularly memorable for Khadzhi-Murat: the assassination of Gamzat-bek, in which he took part himself. This skirmish and the killing were an act of vengeance for the slaughter of the Avar khans Gamzat-bek set up a few years later, and thus meant a lot for any Avar at that time. Yet for Khadzhi-Murat, whose father had also fallen victim to the murids, Khanefi’s song probably meant much more, since his brother Osman was killed in that encounter.

Further still, it was that very episode sung by Khanefi that became the stepping stone for the rest of Khadzhi-Murat’s military and political career: the latter developed at a splitting pace ever since the murder of the imamate leader of that time. What happens later on, we are aware of: Khadzhi-Murat comes to assume a major role in the defence of the unruly fortress of Khunzakh, which has, for the next nine years, been able to stand up against Shamil’s forces. His contribution to this success, among his other fulfillments, makes him a high-ranking figure in Avaria – an outstanding yet shaky position, leading eventually to his arrest and fleeing to Shamil’s camp.

Hovering over times gone by, Khanefi’s song captivates Khadzhi-Murat so much that he forgets he has been caught amidst the preparations for the morning prayer; and he only comes to oneself when he realizes the water is pouring out of the jug he has been holding. He then proceeds to fulfill the prayer ritual, and afterwards sits idly on his bed, thinking of his family and waiting for the morning to come to attempt liberation. Whiling the time away, Khadzhi-Murat recalls yet another song his mother used to sing him when he was a child:

Bulatnyi kinzhal tvoi prorval moiu beluiu grud’, a ia prilozhila k nei moe solnyshko, moego mal’chika, omyla ego svoei goriachei krov’iu, i rana zazhila bez trav i koren’ev, ne boialas’ ia smerti, ne budet boiat’sia i mal’chik-dzhigit.[14]

This episode of prayer and intense rumination, barely visible to the outsider’s eye, is framed by introducing two songs at its beginning and end. Khadzhi-Murat’s lively reaction to art (again, he is so mesmerized by singing that he completely overlooks water running out of his jug!) and the complete lack of surface expression as it comes to his own feelings and anguish over his family exposed to Shamil’s wreath.

These qualities – childishness, seeing simplicity on the outside combined with strong will, a refined sense of beautiful and love for art – outline Khadzhi-Murat in a new way, different from the persona he first seemed to be; the construction of his full image therefore is accomplished in several stages and gradually develops throughout the story.

While Khadzhi-Murat’s character kept opening to us very slowly, allowing for incoming information to build up gradually, our exposure to Shamil’s image is planned by Tolstoy otherwise. Even though Shamil’s name emerges all the time throughout the text of Khadzhi-Murat, of the story’s twenty-five chapters only one actually shows Shamil’, whereas everywhere else we only hear other characters talking about him. Therefore, initially, our knowledge of Shamil’ is reduced to a mere name, whose sound provokes anger and aversion whenever pronounced. And by the time the imam enters the story ‘in person’, the readers’ expectations of this mysterious figure are substantially strained. The suspense created around Shamil’, works powerfully to create a situation where the readers’ reaction is bound to be biased and somewhat hard-edged.

In addition, in Tolstoy’s depiction, Shamil’ is stripped of all the elements shaping his traditional image: selflessness, asceticism, purity, detachment of mundane life and utter dedication to God. The conventional literary images of Shamil’ are generally highly romanticized. The lack of verifiable information, the geographic inaccessibility, the seclusion of Shamil’s lifestyle gave rise to multiple legends surrounding his name. For example, in Zapiski o Shamile Runovskii, describing Shamil’s time in Kaluga claims to have been witness to Shamil’s extrasensory abilities; the latter, in Runovskii’s account, could mentally communicate with people at a distance.[15] His strong (if not psychic) influence on people was noted by many. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine thus wrote of Shamil’s disciples: ‘their fanatical spirit, kindled by his, made him as rich in influence as if he had possessed millions. The lives of his Murids were at his disposal at a moment’s notice and at a slightest sign.’[16] Selfsame edition gave a rapturuous account both of Shamil’s operation against the Russians (stating that Shamil’ and his forces were able to keep back an empire equaling half of the world’s diameter[17]) and of the imam himself.

‘Schamyl […] has ever since remained the acknowledged head of an ultra-Mahomedan sect, the very Jesuits of Islam. He professes to be guided in all he says and does by direct inspirations from Allah. Then a feverish exaltation, not in his case without majesty, affects his words and deeds, and has a strong effect on those who are under him.’[18]

In Khadzhi-Murat, does not need to get further than the first few paragraphs featuring Shamil’ to note the striking difference between his iconic image and one Tolstoy draws. Through this carefully constructed introduction, Shamil’ comes almost immediately to be seen very quickly as a complete opposite of Khadzhi-Murat.

Already the first scene showing Shamil’ and his murids enter Vedeno, aims to point at the delusiveness and disharmony of his image. At a superficial glance, the exterior of Shamil’s life does seem to comply with the Sufi principles he professes: his look is pronouncedly austere and ascetic.

Ubranstvo konia bylo samoe prostoe, bez ukrashenii zolota i serebra […] Na imame byla pokrytaia korichnevym suknom shuba s vidnevshimsia okolo shei i rukavov chernym mehom, stianutaia na tonkom i dlinnom stane chernym remnem s kinzhalom. […] Stupni nog byli v zelenykh chuviakah, i ikry obtianuty chernymi nogovitsami, obshitymi prostym shnurkom. […] Voobshche na imame ne bylo nichego blestiashhego, zolotogo ili serebrianogo, i vysokaia, priamaia, moguchaia figura ego, v odezhde bez ukrashenii, okruzhennaia miuridami s zolotymi i serebrianymi ukrasheniiami na odezhde i oruzhii, proizvodila to samoe vpechatlenie velichiia, kotoroe on zhelal i umel proizvodit’ v narode.[19]

At the same time, his conduct, his stately posture and the emphatic modesty of his looks are oddly discordant with his ordinary, unengaging face.

Blednoe, okaimlennoe podstrizhennoi ryzhei borodoi litso ego s postoianno soshchiurennymi malen’kimi glazami bylo, kak kamennoe, sovershenno nepodvizhno.[20]

Straight away, the one cursory look behind Shamil’s exteriors reveals how much of a gap there is between his manner of behavior and self-presentation, and his actual thoughtway. Tolstoy does credit Shamil’ with personal need to worship; however, he emphasizes very strongly that the imam does that with reluctance and that he is mainly driven by the understanding that his role as the spiritual leader demands officiating prayers.

Nado bylo prezhde vsego sovershit’ poludennyi namaz, k kotoromu on ne imel teper’ ni maleishego raspolozheniia, no neispolnenie kotorogo bylo ne tol’ko nevozmozhno v ego polozhenii religioznogo rukovoditelia naroda, no i bylo dlia nego samogo tak zhe neobkhodimo, kak ezhednevnaia pishcha. I on sovershil omovenie i molitvu.[21]

The passage also implies that Shamil’ has shown to be susceptible to the corrosive influence of power, and that his devotion to religion has vastly abated ever since he ascended to the ruling position. This, and other details in the chapter suggest that the change in Shamil’s has been caused by his hunger for power, and that it corrupted and compromised his earlier integrity. In addition to that, yet another trait of Shamil’s character, lust, is strongly pronounced.

V etu minutu Shamiliu nichego ne khotelos’ delat’, ni o chem ne khotelos’ dumat’. On teper’ khotel tol’ko odnogo: otdykha i prelesti semeinoi laski liubimeishei iz zhen svoikh, vosemnadtsatiletnei chernoglazoi, bystronogoi kistinki Aminet.[22]

While the initial scenes portray Shamil’s public personality, his demonstrative grace, unpretentiousness and detachment of mundane life, as the narrative develops, we shift to seeing Shamil’s real, private persona. In contrast to the way he presents himself to others, here, his behavior is extremely unbecoming and unseemly.

V etot vecher, kogda konchilas’ vecherniaia molitva i smerkalos’, Shamil’ nadel beliju shubu i vyshel za zabor v tu chast’ dvora, gde pomeshchalis’ ego zheny, i napravilsia k komnate Aminet. No Aminet ne bylo tam. Ona byla u starshikh zhen. Togda Shamil’, staraias’ byt’ nezametnym, stal za dver’ komnaty, dozhidajas’ ee. No Aminet byla serdita na Shamilia za to, chto on podaril shelkovuiu materiju ne ei, a Zaidet. Ona videla, kak on vyshel i kak vkhodil v ee komnatu, otyskivaia ee, i narochno ne poshla k sebe. Ona dolgo stoiala v dveri komnaty Zaidet i, tikho smeias’, gliadela na beluju figuru, to vkhodivshuiu, to ukhodivshuiu iz ee komnaty. Tshhetno prozhdav ee, Shamil’ vernulsia k sebe uzhe ko vremeni polunochnoi molitvy.[23]

Unlike Khadzhi-Murat, who seems (although deceptively) to make decisions in a flash, Shamil’ is prone to ruminations. This is also quite indicative of the way the two characters’ images fit into the Islamic background, which is so important in the story. Shamil’s demonstrative meditation and subjection to doubt shows him, first and foremost, as an insecure believer. In contrast to Khadzhi-Murat, Shamil’ seems to assume his personal responsibility for the occurrences to come by thinking and acting in a way that calls into question the very idea of predetermination. In this way, he defies and challenges God’s authority and his divine will. This quality in Shamil’ correlates well with his lust for power, suggesting either that acquiring great authority corrupted his faith, or that his yearning towards power was caused by a selfish hunger for dominion.

Tolstoy’s sympathies seem to be quite obvious as it comes to Khadzhi-Murat’s and Shamil’s characters. Shamil’ is portrayed as rather a repulsive character; Khadzhi Murat appears as an enigmatic character prone to unmotivated gestures, yet one deeply sympathetic and depicted with outstanding admiration.

Were the story of Khadzhi-Murat completely fictional and, thus, limited by the spatial and temporal boundaries Tolstoy set for it, the interpretation would be simple. The narrative construction with two antagonistic figures, one firmly rooted in the world where power, religion, and lust are intertwisted; the other, likeable, mysterious and tragic, is very clear and seems to be determined to read in a certain way. Here, however, we reach the point where we once again experience the ‘reversal’ device, set into work by Tolstoy.

In a situation where fictional work follows a true story, reading against the factual background becomes a part of its interpretation. And in this respect, the figures of Khadzhi-Murat and Shamil’ acquire a very different outlook.

Khadzhi-Murat, for all his integrity, arises as a character, continuously attempting to cross the boundaries, which are normally conceived untouchable: those of fidelity, faith, loyalness to one’s home. His stance towards all those parties he claims to be loyal to at different points – Avaria, Shamil’, his family, and then the Russians – is not only permanently unclear, but is broken on many occasions, as we keep observing his story. This pushes the understanding of his tricskterdom from a more superficial level (he tries to deceive either Shamil, or the Russian side, or both) to a more fundamental, metaphysical level (his figure is liminal by nature, and this is the quality driving any and all of his action). This leads him inevitably to a tragic outcome.

Moreover, Khadzhi-Murat’s constant shifts also suggest that however pious and devoted his character maybe, at a founding level, by design of his structure, he is the type of hero who is trying to overcome the role assigned to him, or, in other words, to changed the fate determined for him. Him residing in a metaphysical liminal space makes the outcome of these attempts easy to predict: a major, eventful (in Lotmanian sense) change is self-destructive for him – and also for those around him. Not only Khadzhi-Murat himself dies in his final attempt of challenging fate but so do all of his companions. The profanation of Khadzhi-Murat’s body serves as proof of fate prevailing over his many attempts to escape it.

Shamil’, on the other hand, seems to fully reside within the space determined for him, and never tries to violate his role. He may no longer want to preach but he continues to do so because his position prescribes to do so; he may doubt the order of things and hesitate and consider his decisions again and again but he never does anything incompatible with his convictions, status, or the role determined for him. This staying within his limits seems to be rewarded after all. While the historical Shamil’ did surrender to the Russians, he put forth a number of conditions, which were fulfilled by the Russian side, and negotiated extensive autonomy for his people, including freedom of religion, retention of shariah legal proceedings, and keeping madrasas open – in other words, preserving the main goals Shamil’ was fighting for. Shamil’ was not put into irons but rather was allowed to move freely – a privilege, which implied that he was acknowledged and honoured as a ruler rather than some petty mountain princeling. In Saint Petersburg, where has was first taken, he was met by crowds of people greeting and welcoming him as a hero. And in the end of his life he was allowed to undertake Hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Muhammad’s places. He died while in Mecca – which is regarded in Islam as the sign of God’s utmost benevolence towards the deceased.

Reading outside of the very narrative framing which Tolstoy set for Khadzhi-Murat’s narrative, has an effect of complete reversal of judgement, which, probably, gives Khadzhi-Murat that quality of clearly perceived but hard to formulate ambiguity. While inside the story we are made to sympathize with Khadzhi-Murat and dislike Shamil’, reading this narrative beyond its narrative framework proves different. We see Khadzhi-Murat as a character, continuously attempting to change the route, which is assigned to him, and thus change his fate, compromising and sacrificing all attachements and loyalties on his way. And while Shamil’ seems to be an unsympathetic character, he is proved right in fully adhering to his path, disregarding his doubts, and avoiding to digress from the prescribed way. Faith and believe play a very important role in this interpretation, and provide a yardstick, in a way, to think of Shamil’ and Khadzhi-Murat. It almost seems like there is a intentional moral message behind the story, suggesting that regardless of what our humanely sympathies may be in a particularly framed situation, the actual truth lies beyond those limits, and is unrelated to how good or bad, likeable or not someone may seem. These are the metaphysical forces and which define what they are, and what their pathways will be like. Consequently, however sympathetic we may be to Khazhi-Murat, we should be able to see outside our shallow observations, and understand the danger and the precariousness of such characters. And even if we fail do make the right judgement, the universe, with its metaphysical powers, will maintain the right order of things, whether we can understand those, or not.

[1] See Tolstoy L. Sobranie sochinenii v 22 t., v. 14 (Moscow, 1983), pp. 21-22.

[2] Ibid, pp. 22-23.

[3] See Dzh. Naloev. ‘Ot mertvogo k zhivomu’ in Literaturno-Khudozhestvennyi sbornik, vyp. 1: Kabardino-Balkariia (Nal’chik: Kabbalknatsizdat, 1933), 81-89.

[4] See B. Eikhenbaum. O proze (Moscow, 1969), p. 92.

[5] See P. Muysken (ed.) From Linguistic Areas to Areal Linguistics. Studies in Language Companion series, v. 90 (2008), p. 74.

[6] A. Aliev quoted in B. Boiarova. ‘Vsia Pravda o Hadzhimurade’ Makhachkalinskie izvestiia No. 18, 09.05. 2014 [available online at] http://www.mi-dag.ru/print/12335/

[7] See A. Aliev. ‘Khadzhi-Murad. Predatel’stvo ili takticheskii khod?’ in Dagestantsy, 14.11.11; [also available online at] http://www.gazavat.ru/history3.php?rub=32&art=538

[8] See Potto V. Kavkazskaia voina, v. 5. Vremia Paskevicha, ili Bunt Chechni (Moscow: 2007) [available online at] http://royallib.com/book/potto_vasiliy/kavkazskaya_voyna_tom_5_vremya_paskevicha_ili_bunt_chechni.html

[9] See Tolstoy, p. 109.

[10] Ibid, p. 113.

[11] Bariatinskii to Vorontsov; Vorontsov to Dolgorukov: both letters quoted in A. Aliev. ‘Khadzhi-Murad. Predatel’stvo ili takticheskii khod?’ in Dagestantsy, 14.11.11; [also available online at] http://www.gazavat.ru/history3.php?rub=32&art=538

[11] See Aliev [online]

[12] See Krymskii, p. 42.

[13] See Tolstoy, pp. 119-120.

[14] See Tolstoy, p. 122.

[15]See A. Runovskii. Zapiski o Shamile (Moscow, 1860) [online at] https://books.google.com/books/about/Записки_о_Шамиле.html?id=DBt9nQEACAAJ&hl=en

[16] See ‘Schamyl and the War in the Caucasus’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LXXVII (1855). p. 180.

[17] Ibid, p. 173—175.

[18] Ibid, pp. 179-80.

[19] Ibid, p. 103.

[20] Ibid, p. 103.

[21] Ibid, p. 105.

[22] Ibid, p. 104.

[23] Ibid, p. 108.

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