The London Magazine
Tolstoy in the Caucasus
Alexander Pushkin’s poem ‘ The Prisoner of the Caucasus’ (1822) and Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time (1840) had romanticised life in the Caucasus. By contrast, Tolstoy’s densely detailed fiction was extremely realistic, even anti-militaristic. In his diary entry of June 12, 1851, soon after he arrived, Tolstoy gave two contrasting definitions of bravery, the dominant theme of his early story ‘The Raid’ (1853). He called bravery ‘an intensification of activity which makes one lose the awareness of danger’ and also ‘physical necessity without making one lose the awareness of danger’. Tolstoy’s ideas strongly influenced Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). In a crucial passage in his introduction to his wartime anthology Men at War (1942) Hemingway, following Tolstoy, defined the courage portrayed in his novel as the ability to ignore the awareness of danger: ‘Learning to suspend your imagination and live completely in the very second of the present minute with no before and no after is the greatest gift a soldier can acquire’. Tolstoy might have added another belief that inspired courage: the soldier’s powerful feeling that he was divinely protected and invulnerable in battle.
‘The Raid’ (1853) is a first-person narrative closely based on Tolstoy’s actual experience. The narrator provides the intellectual framework of the story by asking, ‘[what] was the state of mind that pushes a man, without apparent advantage to himself, to expose himself to danger and, what is even more puzzling, to kill his fellow man?’ He then undermines the familiar concept of courage by questioning the value of abstract ideals, emphasising the base motive of egoism and condemning the desire for meaningless slaughter: ‘Is it a display of courage when a man, out of sheer vanity, risks his own life to kill a fellow creature? . . . What then determines this choice – a noble feeling or a base one?’ The narrator recalls Plato’s definition of bravery (in Laches) as ‘the knowledge of what should and what should not be feared’. But the more experienced Captain Khlopov tells the narrator that a man who rides out in front during battle is not
necessarily brave. He thinks that a brave man, who serves for double pay in the dangerous Caucasus, simply ‘does what he has to do’.
Tolstoy’s description of the spectacular natural scenery and snowcovered mountains, as the soldiers ride to their fort and ford the swiftflowing river, provides an exalted contrast to the sights and sounds of the battle scenes:
Then came the booming report of the guns, followed by the metallic sound of flying grapeshot, the hissing of rockets, and the crackle of rifle fire. Cavalry, infantry, and artillery scattered all over the vast clearing. The puffs of smoke from the cannon, rifles, and rockets fused with the dewy greenness and the mist. . . . [But] without waiting for the attack, the enemy fled, disappearing into the forests and then opening fire.
Though the Russians capture, loot and destroy a Chechen village, the narrator unconvincingly concludes that ‘all this commotion, enthusiasm, and shooting seemed rather pointless’.
In the next encounter the young lieutenant Alanin, disobeying orders, not afraid of anything and seeking military glory, rides into a burst of enemy fire and is meaninglessly killed. Tolstoy’s description also had a profound impact on T. E. Lawrence, who claimed to be a pale blond Circassian when captured by the Turks during the Arab Revolt. In chapter 117 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935), after the inhabitants of an Arab village have been massacred by the Turks, a suicidal warrior also charges into a rain of fire: ‘he sat up in the saddle and cried his war-cry, “Tallal, Tallal,” twice in a tremendous shout. Instantly their rifles and machine guns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points’. Since the devastated Tallal no longer has a reason to live, his death is a noble sacrifice. By contrast, Captain Khlopov excuses Alanin’s fatal bravery by euphemistically calling it ‘God’s will’. At the end of the story Tolstoy again contrasts the majestic beauty of nature with the bloody violence of war and condemns the savage quest for military glory.
Tolstoy questions courage in ‘The Raid,’ primitivism in The Cossacks (1863). But The Cossacks lacks the dramatic compression and intensity of ‘The Raid’. While portraying the background and characters, Tolstoy
winds quite leisurely into the main narrative of the longer work. The novella contains four elements: Cossack ethnography, wartime raids, a conventional love triangle and a heroic friendship. Despite frequent skirmishes, the Cossacks and Chechens often cross the Terek River to trade food, daggers and horses, and even to attend weddings and festivals. Tolstoy writes that the Cossacks are a ‘small Christian tribe, lost in one small corner of the world, surrounded by half-savage Mohammedans and by soldiers from the North’. They spend most of their time hunting and fishing, patrolling the roads and raiding enemy territory.
The Cossacks begins as the hero Dmitri Olenin leaves the decadent ambience of Moscow. Yearning for love and freedom and seeking happiness in the Caucasus, he moves from idealism to disillusionment. Throughout the book Olenin variously defines happiness as egoistic self-love, being at one with nature, self-sacrifice and living for others. But at the end of the novella he rejects these noble ideals: ‘All I’ve been thinking the whole time is just rubbish: love is rubbish, and self-sacrifice is rubbish’. Without knowing how to achieve his goal, he vaguely declares, ‘There is only happiness and he who is happy is right’.
In Moscow the nihilistic Olenin ‘was a young man who had never managed to complete a university course, who did not work . . . who had squandered half his inheritance . . . [and] had yet to decide on a career. . . . He had no family, no country, no religion, no wants. He believed in nothing, respected nothing’. Dazzled by romantic dreams of a transfigured life in an exotic region, ‘his visions of the future were combined with shadows of characters from novels set in the Caucasus, with pictures of Circassian women, mountains, awesome precipices, and waterfalls in that land of dangerous living. . . . Beckoning glory and the danger of death were the main ingredients of this future’. But after a few years his illusions are shattered: ‘The Caucasus differed from what he had imagined. He had found here nothing even remotely resembling his previous ideas about it or the descriptions he had read’.
Three Cossack characters – Luke, Marianka and Eroshka – represent to Olenin three possible ways of life. Luke, a young hero on a night patrol near the Terek River, wins glory by killing a Chechen whose corpse is later ransomed by his brother. Olenin gives Luke a horse, which he trades up for a valuable thoroughbred, but he feels no gratitude for the gift. Luke loves
the beautiful, idealised Marianka, who accepts his proposal and plans their wedding ceremony. But Marianka does little more than crack sunflower seeds and tend cattle, flirt with men and play the prude. A pure child of nature, she never says anything more profound than, ‘Come on, lay off me, will you!’ while she ‘looked gaily at two men out of her magnificent eyes’.
Competing unequally with Luke, the agonisingly shy Olenin also falls in love with Marianka, his landlord’s daughter, whose primeval beauty he associates with the majestic mountains that surround her. Beletsky, a Moscow acquaintance who suddenly turns up in the Caucasus, draws Olenin back into his corrupt old life and gives a party at which Marianka tempts and bewitches him. Though Olenin fears he will ‘become coarse, lose contact and take to drink’ if he marries a Cossack girl, he declares his love in precisely the same subservient way as his rival. Luke says, ‘I’ll do anything you want’; Olenin repeats, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me’. Though their marriage would have been disastrous, Marianka agrees to accept Olenin’s proposal if her father consents. But when Luke is gravely wounded in a second raid by the brother of the man he killed, Marianka recognises Luke’s sacrifice, bonds with her own tribe and roughly rejects the unsuitable Olenin.
The old Cossack warrior Eroshka – huge, muscular, strong, whitebearded, furrow-faced, sinewy and scarred – is the most charismatic figure in the book. Like heroes from The Iliad to Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi (1941) and Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek (1946) – both influenced by Tolstoy – he refers to himself in the third person and indulges in epic boasting: ‘My name rang through the regiment. Who had the fastest horse, the sharpest saber? Who’d get you a drink, who’d give you a good time? Who had to be sent into the mountains to kill Akmet Khan? Always Eroshka. Who’d the girls love? Again, always Eroshka. Because I was quite a lad: a drunkard, a horse thief, a singer’. A complete hedonist, he is happy and believes, ‘God has made everything for man’s joy. And there is no sin in anything’. In chapter 38 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom Auda, Eroshka’s heroic descendent, boasts that ‘he himself had slain seventy-five men, Arabs, with his own hand in battle. . . . Of the number of dead Turks he could give no account’.
But Eroshka’s boasts are full of contradictions. He tells Luke to trust the enemy Girey-Khan, yet ‘make him take an oath just to make sure, and
also keep your pistol handy’. He says it is wrong to kill a man, yet has slaughtered many men. Though the hero-worshipping Olenin takes Eroshka at face value, the old warrior has serious weaknesses and faults. His wife has left him and he has no children to carry on the greatness of his name. He may be a font of heroic stories, but is really a killer, thief, parasite, drunkard and blowhard. Olenin is tormented by conscience, Eroshka has no concept of conscience. Olenin struggles to find meaning in life, Eroshka simplistically reduces its meaning to ‘Once you go, grass’ll grow on your grave, and that’s all there’s to it’. Though Eroshka is a Christian who invokes the Trinity in times of danger, he does not believe that he will be judged for his sins and punished in hell.
At the end of The Cossacks Olenin rejects both the primitive and the cultured worlds. He gives his rifle to Eroshka as he gave his horse to Luke. But when he takes emotional leave of their village, Marianka and Eroshka, who live in the present moment, immediately forget him and don’t even bother to wave goodbye. As he circles back, reluctantly but inevitably, to his decadent existence in Moscow, he confesses, ‘He himself knew only too well that everything was humbug in the world from which he had come and to which he was returning’.
Toward the end of his long life Tolstoy returned, in his last major work, to historical events in the Caucasus that had taken place fifty years earlier when he’d served as an officer and fought against the Moslems. The warrior Hadji Murat, a chieftain in Dagestan, was famed for killing Russians. In 1840 he joined Shamil, who led the Murid religious movement and preached a holy war against the invading infidels. In December 1851 Hadji quarrelled with Shamil, who ordered his death, killed his brother, captured his family, and threatened to blind his son and dishonour his wife. Hadji then boldly escaped from the mountains, swore a blood feud with Shamil and surrendered to the Russians. He naturally aroused the suspicions of his old enemy and was honourably confined while awaiting orders from the tsar. In April 1852, realising by now that the Russians would not help him fight Shamil, he tried to escape in order to avenge himself and free his captive family. In a last desperate effort, outnumbered by the Cossack troops who pursued him, he was killed and decapitated.
Hadji Murat (completed after several drafts in 1904 and published posthumously in 1912) focuses on the last four months of Hadji’s life and
follows the well-known historical facts. In a letter of December 23, 1851, Tolstoy wrote that ‘Hadji Murat went over to the Russian government the other day. He was the leading horseman and brave in the whole of Chechnya, but it was a base thing to do’. At that time Tolstoy distrusted Hadji and ignored the great blow to Shamil and the considerable advantage to the Russians. He felt it was shameful for Hadji to betray his own people and desert to the hated enemy.
Unlike ‘The Raid’ and The Cossacks, Hadji Murat, written in simple sentences and divided into short chapters, emphasises the Moslem – not the Russian – point of view. Tolstoy describes Hadji’s confinement and dress: the billowing turban on his head, dagger in his belt and bandoleer of bullets across his chest. Hadji belongs to a tribal, hospitable, ceremonious, pious, violent, feuding and fanatical religious sect that despises and hates the Russian ‘dogs’. Torn between the Chechens and the Russians, Hadji is distrusted by both. He is not loyal to either army, but must decide which one to fight for. As his name and symbolic turban suggest, he has made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and spends a lot of time praying while plotting his pitiless revenge. He can’t do much, while confined, but waits for the propitious moment to make his final, fatal breakout. If he is killed in battle, his death will free his captured family, who would no longer be useful as hostages. Tolstoy misses the chance to strengthen his story by psychologically probing Hadji’s furious, complex and tortured character.
Like Tolstoy himself, Hadji always believed in his destiny or fate. Like the hero of The Cossacks, a Russian officer in Hadji Murat connects the joy of life with the danger of death and agrees with the definition of courage in Tolstoy’s diary: ‘the death and wounds of soldiers, officers and tribesmen, never even occurred to his imagination’. Similarly, ‘the possibility of disaster never even entered’ the head of another officer. To the equally unreflective ordinary soldiers, life was cheap and war was jolly good fun. The merry rattle of shots and elegant tufts of smoke were merely an enjoyable distraction.
Hadji’s almost suicidal escape from Shamil, who is about to arrest and execute him, reveals his reckless character. After being clapped in irons and tied to a cannon for six days, he was escorted to another village. Hadji recalls that a soldier broke his steep fall and that he sustained grave injuries: ‘the path was narrow, with a three-hundred-foot cliff on the right. . . . The
soldier tried to stop me, but I jumped over the cliff and dragged him with me. He was dashed to death, but I remained alive. My ribs, head, arms and leg were all broken’. He wakes up soaked in blood and is rescued by a shepherd.
Hidden by friends, he sends a conciliatory letter to the Russians and arranges a meeting with the local commander. Though it is dangerous to surrender – he might be sent to Siberia or killed outright – he swears loyalty to his lifelong enemies: ‘I promise faithfully, to the last drop of my blood, to serve the White Tsar, and I hope to be useful in the war against Shamil, my enemy and yours’. His defection is a great coup for the Russians, but they don’t trust his forked tongue and consider him a traitor. They ‘did not believe a word that Hadji Murat had said, and knew that he was an enemy of everything Russian, and always would be . . . He had only come over to find out the Russians’ weak points, and then escape to the mountains again and deploy his forces where the Russians were under strength’.
Hadji plans to attack Shamil with the aid of the Russian army, capture him and take revenge. But there is one tremendous obstacle. Hadji declares that while ‘my family is in the hands of my enemy . . . I am tied and I cannot serve. He will kill my wife, my mother and my children if I attack him directly. Let the prince redeem my family, exchange them against prisoners, and then I will either die or exterminate Shamil’. Tolstoy portrays Hadji, who (unlike Eroshka) upholds the heroic ideal, in the most favourable light and makes his oath believable. He has a kind and merry smile; is clever, just, courageous, intelligent and magnanimous. Unlike the condemnation of Hadji in Tolstoy’s letter of 1851, there’s nothing base or shameful about his behaviour in the novella. By contrast, Tolstoy roundly mocks Tsar Nicholas I, who’s considering Hadji’s fate, for his outsized body and overgrown stomach, and savagely satirises him as vain, pompous, stupid and cruel.
After three months in captivity Hadji realises that Shamil will never surrender his family in exchange for Chechen prisoners and that he himself will never be able to fight for the Russians. His motives for escaping from Shamil and from the Russians are, ironically, the same: he is forced to save himself and compelled to kill Shamil. Hadji’s death confirms his courage. Surrounded by an overwhelming force and wounded twice by bullets, his suicide (like Tallal’s) preserves his honour: ‘he clambered right out
of the ditch and went forward with his dagger, limping heavily, towards his enemies. Several shots rang out; he reeled and fell.’ Tolstoy acutely observes that the moment of death ‘was his last conscious connection with his body’. The Cossacks cut off and display his head. But even in death his face still has a characteristically kind, childlike expression.
The Russians and Cossacks both considered their way of life superior and looked down on each other. The young Tolstoy wandered between two worlds, the patrician and the primitive, and did not belong to either one. He believed Russian society was too materialistic and artificial, the Cossacks too violent and crude. But his raiding and writing in the Caucasus taught him to portray soldiers, scenery, peasants, hunting and battle, and the unending quest for freedom, happiness and love. That remote and rebellious region gave Tolstoy the vital preparation – the test of courage and artistic training – that he needed to develop the fictional characters, experience of war and sense of loss in his masterwork War and Peace.