Analyze the significance of Tolstoy’s reflection on “Tartar thistle” in terms of the conflict of the Caucasus depicted in his book Hadji Murat.

  • Consider the significance of the thistle in Vambery’s Sketches, p. 340–341.
  • Compare and contrast Tolstoy’s depictions of Hadji Murat, Shamil, and Tsar Nikolas I.
  • Discuss Hadji Murat as a “man of action” and transgressor of traditional social and cultural norms and values.

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In Tolstoy's parable that frames the story of Hadji Murat, the thistle symbolizes the indigenous people of the Caucasus. It persists through the attempts to stamp it out.

Tolstoy, though he had served in the Russian army and was a member of the Russian ruling class, became increasingly opposed throughout...

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In Tolstoy's parable that frames the story of Hadji Murat, the thistle symbolizes the indigenous people of the Caucasus. It persists through the attempts to stamp it out.

Tolstoy, though he had served in the Russian army and was a member of the Russian ruling class, became increasingly opposed throughout his life to the imperialist ventures his country undertook. Even in the early story "The Cossacks," he sees virtues in both the Caucasus peoples (variously known to the Russians as Tartars, Chechens, Avars, and Circassians) and the Cossacks which the Russians lack, though the Cossacks are allied with the Russians. In Hadji Murat, the focal point of all that is negative about Russia is the tsar himself, the arrogant, hypocritical Nicholas I. The simple courage and devotion to family and people of Murat are the opposite of the tsar's character. Murat goes over to the Russian side because of the internal dispute he has with Shamil, who represents the more brutal side of the Chechens. Hadji Murat is not so much a transgressor of social norms and values as a man driven to undertake a desperate step when he comes into conflict with members his own national group.

In some way, Murat is a symbol of plain humanity without fanatical devotion to one side or the other in the Caucasus conflict. The immediate change in loyalty he experiences is due to an internal dispute, but even after he does change sides, the Russians do not trust him either. He ends up being the Other both to his own people and to those who seek to conquer them.

Tolstoy himself does not spare anything in describing the cynicism of the tsar and the Russian command, who see nothing wrong in burning the Chechens out of their farms and homes in order to carry out their imperial policy. The tsar's amorality, with his mistresses, his laziness, and his general air of corruption, contrasts with Hadji Murat's honesty, his gentlemanliness, and his loyalty to his family. This is so in spite of his being a "heathen" with respect to the Russians. Though Tolstoy himself was a man whose Christian piety became more intense as he reached old age, he did not believe the Russians (or any European power) had the right to impose their beliefs—including their religion and way of life—on other peoples. The parable of the thistle is his message that men and women will withstand the attempts of others to take over their lands and to destroy their separate ethnic and religious identities.

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