The narrator prefaces this story by remarking on a crimson thistle he finds in a ditch while walking across a field one midsummer's day. This particular plant is often referred to as a Tartar. The narrator has been picking a bouquet of wildflowers and hopes to add this thistle to it. However, he remarks that this flower is usually avoided due to its thorniness.
The narrator finds it to be a difficult task picking this flower. It pricks his hand, and it refuses to break easily. By the time he has removed the flower from the ground, it has been mangled. He feels bad for ruining such a beautiful and stubborn plant. However, he throws it away, as it no longer has a place in his bouquet.
A little while later, the narrator happens upon another thistle. This one has been crushed and mangled by a passing cartwheel. Yet it still lives and bares flowers. He is struck by the fact that despite all that people can do to living things, they refuse to yield.
"What energy!" I thought. "Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit."
Though permanently scarred, they still live and refuse to be annihilated.
These thistles are a metaphor for the indomitable Chechen spirit in general and for Hadji Murat in particular. Despite what the Russian overlords may do to them, the Chechens will not go without a fight. In the end, they will continue to survive, just as a thistle might after being crushed by a cart.