How Tolstoy immortalised Russia’s Caucasus forever war

Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat resonates with enduring themes of betrayal, collaboration and resistance in Russia's wars in its Caucasus borderlands.

'The Meeting of General Klüke von Klügenau and Imam Shamil in 1837', 1849. The artist was Grigory Gagarin.
'The Meeting of General Klüke von Klügenau and Imam Shamil in 1837', 1849. The artist was Grigory Gagarin. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Be warned: this story does not end at all well (if it has ended at all), although it does have a curious postscript. Tolstoy wrote the novella Hadji Murat at the end of the 19th century, 50 years after his own experiences in the Caucasus, and it is considered to be one of his finest works. It is laced with an enduring enchantment with the landscape and culture of the warrior mountaineers of Dagestan and Chechnya, who rose up against the Tsar and fought a 25-year campaign against becoming part of the Russian Empire. There are parallels with the romance which pervades similar historical tales of those who fought the British on the North-West Frontier. And, as with British India, this literature not only teaches us history but about loyalty, proxies, trust and vengeance. It could have been written yesterday.

Caught between the Russian, Persian and Ottoman empires, the land from the Black Sea to the Caspian was invaded, then contested, then invaded again. After absorbing Georgia in 1800, the Russian Imperial army struck south for Dagestan and Chechnya. From 1817 onwards the Tsar’s military commanders pummelled their way into the harsh mountain terrain against stiff resistance. In response, a Holy War (Ghazawat) was proclaimed against the Russians by the first Imam of the Caucasian Imamate, Ghazi Muhammed, who introduced Sharia law to replace both local customs and laws imposed by Russia. By the winter of 1851 – when the book is set – they had already been fighting for more than three decades.

At that time the armed resistance to Russia was led by Imam Shamil, an Avar from Dagestan born in 1797. Shamil had become the third Imam of the Caucasian Imamate in 1834 and fought Russia tenaciously and wisely in a guerrilla campaign for 25 years until he was finally captured in 1859. There is no question of Shamil’s capability and status as a Holy Warrior. Tolstoy paints him as a man of dignity and modest simplicity, a ‘tall, erect, powerful figure’ in plain clothes, and allows him a rousing speech to his council: ‘It is better to die at war with the Russians than to live with the infidels. Be patient and I shall come with the Koran and the sword to lead you against the Russians. For the present I strictly command you to have neither intention, nor even any thoughts of submitting to the Russians.’

Hadji Murat of Khunzakh was like Imam Shamil an Avar from Dagestan, although 20 years younger (born in 1818). Both had almost mythical status even at the time, horse-riding warriors with bands of loyal followers. We meet Hajdi Murat in a Chechnyan village wreathed in the fragrant smoke of dung fires in November 1851. Having been a deputy of Shamil, he is now riding with a single follower, wrapped in a hood and felt cloak, sneaking into the house of a loyalist. He learns that Shamil has demanded he be taken dead or alive. This is a tale of two warrior leaders with competing agendas. The tension builds as Hadji Murat’s emissary is sent to disturb the nearby frontier fort and the Russian Prince and his guests playing cards with a message that he wants to come over to the Russian side.

What makes a brave rebel commander betray his cause and join the enemy? As so often, it was not the attractiveness of the Russian offer but the ruthless rival dynamics within his own leadership structures that drove Hadji Murat to betray his cause. His calculations were only about the best ways to achieve his own aims, namely revenge on his enemies. He was motivated to join Shamil’s fight against the Russians because he did not otherwise have the men or means to fight his own enemy, Akhmet Khan. But their relationship soured.

‘There was never any friendship between me and Shamil,’ he told a Russian solider in Tiblisi, ‘but he feared me and had need of me.’ Like many military partnerships of convenience it started to creak over the question of succession: ‘It so happened then that someone asked me who would be Imam after Shamil, and I said it would be the man whose sword was sharp. This was passed on to Shamil and he decided to get rid of me…. He sent his men to capture me but I fought my way out and came over to Vorontsov.’ Shamil replaced Hadji Murat as one of his deputies, confiscated his property and seized his family. ‘I am bound hand and foot and the end of the rope is in Shamil’s hand,’ he says.

The Russians faced the perennial question of whether the defection was a victory or a trap.  The opportunity was exciting and tempting, particularly for the local officers who stood to take the credit. But they had to decide if Hadji Murat could be trusted, or whether in kidnapping his family Shamil had ensured that he could always be controlled. Tolstoy’s perspective allows us to see debates within the Russian command about the risks of taking Hadji Murat at his word; indeed the reader is with the Russian generals as they try and work out which side he’s on. Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, Viceroy of the Caucasus, writes from Tiblisi to the minister of war: ‘It would be exceedingly rash to trust him entirely. But if we wished to deprive him of all means for escape we should have to lock him up, and in my view this would be neither just nor politic. News of such a measure would quickly spread throughout Daghestan and it would be very damaging to our interests there since it would discourage all those – and there are many – who are prepared to go more or less openly against Shamil… Once we treat Hadji Murat as a prisoner the beneficial effect of his desertion of Shamil will be totally lost to us.’ He is ‘conscious that I might be held guilty of a major error of judgement’.

The prize for the Russians is the possibility of exploiting Hadji Murat’s quarrel with Shamil and turn the mountaineers. We see elsewhere that Shamil himself was worried about the loyalty of the Chechens (‘Shamil knew… that the Chechens – a fickle and lightheaded people – were wavering and some of them, nearest to the Russians, were already prepared to go over to them.’). The attrition from the brutal Russian campaign meant individual Chechens were taking personal decisions about whether or not to change sides in order to keep themselves alive and their villages and families safe.

And so Hadji Murat and his men become Russian proxies; and as usual with proxies the Russians get not only him and his resources but his complicated life, too. They accept a need to meet him culturally half-way, placing officers beside him who can speak his language and build bonds of trust. ‘I hope to be of service in the war against Shamil, who is my enemy and yours,’ Hadji Murat tells Vorontzov. There is talk of providing him with a force of men, for which he would guarantee to raise the whole of Dagestan. But there is a catch: they are stuck with the fact that his plans for getting his own back on Shamil involve taking prisoners and swapping them for his own family.

Here the tale eloquently gives the lie to the always alluring Idea of achieving one’s geopolitical objectives by turning one set of tribes against the other. Neither side stands to get what they hope from this alliance of convenience. The disappointment of a lukewarm Russian response to his demands (‘We will think it over’) leads Hadji Murat to take matters into his own hands. All night he lies awake thinking: ‘Should I stay here? Win the Caucasus for the Russian tsar, gain fame and wealth and titles?’ He decides instead to free his family or die in the attempt. His final day sees him attempting to outwit his Cossack escort and then outrun 200 mounted Cossacks, making a fatal decision to route through a quagmire of a rice field rather than to break for the mountains. He is betrayed by an old Tartar and his last stand takes place the following dawn; he is killed not by Russians but by militiamen in their service, one of whom is the son of his former enemy Ahmet Khan. Hadji Murat’s body is buried where it fell, but his head is cut off and sent to Tblisi, where it was embalmed and sent on to the Tsar.

Tolstoy was in Tblisi when Hadji Murat defected, and the freshness of the events in his mind is evident even though he wrote the novella 50 years later. He made no attempt to publish it so it was only published posthumously in 1912, having been severely censored. Two chapters were excised, one which depicts an unflattering interview with the Tsar, and – more tellingly – a second which gives a stark, very short, description of a Chechen village in the aftermath of a raid by Cossack troops: ‘The two small hayricks he had there were burnt; the apricot and cherry trees which he had planted and tended were broken and scorched; and, worst of all, every one of his hives had been burnt together with the bees. The wailing of women sounded in every house…’ There is a haunting passage which describes the resilience of spirit after an attack: ‘Nobody spoke a word of hatred for the Russians. The emotion felt by every Chechen, old and young alike, was stronger than hatred… The villagers were faced with a choice: either to remain as before and by terrible exertions restore all that had been created with such labour and so easily and senselessly destroyed, while every minute expecting a repetition of the same thing, or they could act contrary to the law of their religion and, despite the revulsion and scorn they felt for the Russians, submit to them. The old men prayed and resolved unanimously to send envoys to ask Shamil for help, and straightaway they set about rebuilding what had been destroyed.’

Imam Shamil’s war continued for another seven years until he was caught in 1859. He was treated unusually well by the Russian army, being taken to St Petersburg to meet Tsar Alexander II, and in 1868 being given permission to move to Kyiv. He left Kyiv a year later for the Hajj to Mecca, where he died in 1871. He still plays a powerful role in the region, as a hero in Dagestan and an inspiration for resistance to Russia in Chechnya, and also in some cases an inspiration to Islamist jihadism. His ghost continues to be a problem for Putin-supporting Ramzan Kadyrov, the current leader of Chechnya.

There are multiple modern versions of this tug of loyalty at the same edges of Russia’s empire. Both Chechnya and Dagestan are led by Putin’s men – Ramzan Kadyrov and Sergey Melikov, respectively. Kadyrov’s father Akhmad was Chief Mufti in Chechnya and supported the cause of Chechen independence during the first war (1994-6), but in 1999 split with the Chechen government of President Aslan Maskhadov. As the second Chechen war unfolded through the bitter winter siege of Grozny (1999-2000) he turned to Putin, and when Russian forces seized control in June 2000, Kadyrov was installed by Putin as Head of the Republic. Melikov was also involved in the suppression of the uprisings in Chechnya in the 1990s. That period of war and conquest were fundamental in Putin’s own coming-of-age, establishing direct Russian rule over Chechnya, although the resistance continued, including through the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, and the Beslan school siege in 2004, both with large civilian death tolls. Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004 in a bomb attack on the VIP stand of a football stadium during the Soviet Victory Day Parade in Grozny. His son was made first deputy prime minister the following day. The government operation in Chechnya didn’t officially end until 2009.

Meanwhile, the idea of the Ghazawat or Holy War, continues. Chechen and Dagestani fighters had already joined Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the outbreak of war in Iraq and Syria saw a new generation join the Jihad. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 Dagestani Muslims went to fight in Syria between 2011-15. Most notable among recruits from the Caucasus was Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen jihadist who became a Shura council member and leader of the Emigrants Brigade (composed of foreign fighters), based in Raqqa. Al-Shishani had been a sergeant in the Georgian army and fought against the Russians during the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Both the United States and Kadyrov wanted him dead; his death was confirmed in 2016 after a confusing series of false claims. The Islamic State Caucasus Province continues to exist and to conduct relatively low-level attacks against Russian law enforcement.

Imam Shamil’s sojurn in Kyiv has not been forgotten. On 29 September 2022, President Zelensky stood beside a monument to Imam Shamil on the streets of Kyiv and addressed the indigenous peoples of Russia, using Shamil’s own words: ‘Anyone who raises a weapon against the truth raises it to his own destruction’, and calling on the people of Dagestan, Chechnya and across Russia to resist mobilisation: ‘Fight to avoid death! Defend your freedom now in the streets and squares, so that later you don’t have to fight in the mountains and forests simply for your right to live.’ It doesn’t appear to have made much difference. On 30 September, President Putin delivered his long speech about the annexation of the four eastern Ukrainian regions partly occupied by his forces. For his part, Ramzan Kadyrov has argued that Chechen fighters in Ukraine were participants in a ‘Holy Jihad’ against ‘Western Satanist ideology’.

And what of Hadji Murad? After his severed head was presented to the Tsar it was kept at the Kunstkamara, the museum of anthropology and ethnography founded by Peter the Great in St Petersburg. The rest of his remains were thought to be buried in Qakh, a remote district of northern Azerbaijan bordering Dagestan and Georgia. His descendants have been agitating for the return of his skull since the 1930s. In 2017 his great grandson and primary heir Magomedarip Hadjimuradov led a gathering in Dagestan to call for it to be returned from St Petersburg and buried with the rest of his remains in Azerbaijan. In 2018 the Kremlin said it was setting up an interagency skull commission to consider the matter. The Russian ministry of culture said: ‘Kunstkamera museum officials do not want to give the skull back, and Russian scientists have expressed concerns that reburial would encourage separatism and Islamist insurgency.’

On 21 January 2019 Vladimir Tolstoy, President Putin’s advisor on culture and a great, great grandson of the writer, announced that the presidential commission had agreed ‘in general,’ to support the return of Murad’s skull to the Russian republic of Daghestan, where he was born. Tolstoy added that after consulting with the Daghestani government, the committee had decided to hand over Murad’s remains to officials in Makhachkala at a ‘later’ date, ‘taking into account the current internal political situation in the republic’. It appears that there was indeed a concern that the return of the legendary warrior might encourage militant Islam.

A new geopolitical dimension then emerged. Given that the body of Hadji Murad was technically in Azerbaijan, the return of the head would also depend on the opinion of the Azeri government. In June 2019, however, anonymous activists exhumed what were believed to be the remains of Hadji Murat from the Azeri grave and smuggled them across the border to Dagestan, where they were reburied in a ceremony in his home village of Khunzakh. Authorities in Azerbaijan launched an investigation and although many photos of Murad’s reburial were posted on social media, Dagestani authorities claimed ignorance. ‘A certain reburial ceremony indeed took place at a graveyard in the village of Khunzakh, but we can’t confirm that the buried remains belong to Haji Murad. No officials from the region were present there,’ Kamil Huseynov, a spokesperson for the Khunzakh District Administration, told the Molodyezh Dagestana news service.

The situation remains unresolved. In 1991 the Kunstkamera said it held 457 skulls in its collection, many of them heads of ethnic group leaders vanquished by Russian forces and given to tsars as proof of their death. After years of unfulfilled requests by his relatives, Russian officials in 2016 returned the head of one of the main leaders of the Kazakh uprising against tsarist Russia in 1916, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1923. The practice of retaining the bodies of militants killed in the Caucasus endures. The bodies of the two presidents of the rebel Chechen Republic – Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed on 8 March 2005 in an FSB operation and his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, who was killed in 2006, are missing. Russian authorities have refused to tell Maskhadov’s family where he is buried. They appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, claiming the refusal to return his body for burial was a breach of human rights. On 6 June 2013 the court ruled that Russia could not be held responsible for his death, but that it had violated the rights of the family by refusing to return the body.

This story hasn’t really ended at all. As Russia repeats endlessly the same pattern of using collaborators to help govern and reinforce their perimeter, a new generation of leaders in the Caucasus are making their own decisions about resistance and collaboration. For some, the examples of Imam Shamil and Hadji Murat provide the inspiration for a new Holy War. As Hadji Murat shows, those who choose to work with Russia do so in their own interests which may – temporarily – be aligned with Moscow’s, but they take a big risk and are unlikely to get the rewards they expect.


Suzanne Raine