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Hadji Murat is an intriguing read from Leo Tolstoy. It is atypical for Tolstoy given its very short length (just 164 pages) compared to his better known novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Yet at the same time the story is quintessential Tolstoy with its focus on war and battles, with several key characters derived from the French-speaking Russian aristocracy. The narrative in Hadji Murat is centered on the Russian military’s tenuous conquest of the intractable Caucasus region, around Chechnya and Georgia, which to this day remains politically contentious.

The Russian army is fighting a slow war of attrition against the Muslim, Chechen tribes entrenched in the Caucasus mountains in the late 19th century. Amid constantly shifting allegiances, a notorious Chechen warlord, Hadji Murat, decides to join forces with the Russians, against the backdrop of a falling out with his erstwhile mentor, the powerful dissident, Chechen warlord, Imam Shamil. Tolstoy, tells the story of Hadji Murat’s time under Russian protection, as he skillfully tries to gain the Russian’s trust and support in mounting an attack on Shamil.

What I found most interesting in Hadji Murat, was that Tolstoy was critical of the Russian army and government, highlighting aspects of corruption and incompetence. At the same time he presents Hadji Murat, in a human light – as an honorable, well-mannered gentleman – despite being preceded by a reputation as a savage brute. Tolstoy’s writing is sublime, in particular in his description of the mountain landscape and flora in the Caucasus, as well as the battle scenes, which belie his experience as a soldier in the Russian army. My only very minor disappointment, is that the story was not longer; more like one of his other novels!

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