Who is "civilized" in Tolstoy's Hadji Murad?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The question of who is civilized is central to Tolstoy's short novel Hadji Murad which explores the notion of moral presumption and moral relativism in a number of ways. 

The notion of being civilized becomes problematic in the text as it is rather expressly demonstrated as a relative concept. 

"Though Hadji Murad twice changes sides, he does so only under extreme provocation; otherwise, he is intensely loyal to his family, friends, and followers, and the Caucasians hold him in great respect. On the other hand, the Russian soldiers spend much of their time in debauchery, while the self-serving Russian leaders maneuver for personal advancement" (eNotes).

Is the idea of being civilized best understood as an adherence to social customs and a refinement of manners? If this is the case, Hadji Murad and his people are equal or superior to many of the Russians in the narrative in their respect for customs and in their self-restraint, manners and speech.

Hadji Murad and his cohort participate in the elaborate and highly refined customs local to the region. We see this when he visits Sado to take shelter for a night.

The visit is used in the text as a way to show Murad's gentility, his piety, his social stature and his restraint. Each of these traits is often closely associated with the idea of being civilized. Thus we can say that Hadji Murad is civilized. 

At the same time, Murad is a soldier willing to kill. He has lived a violent life. The fact that this life has been dictated by a system of customs and aligned with a code of conduct does not erase the violence that his life has a soldier has generated. Killing, even in war, is not closely associated with being civilized. 

The novel complicates the idea of brutality, however, by clearly demonstrating the notion that soldiers are not responsible for their own orders. Decisions of warfare that lead to brutal death and violence are made by people who often never step foot on a battle field. Is it civilized to order men to slaughter others? 

This question is articulated specifically in the character of the Czar, a figure at the head of Russian civilization. 

"A large man with a protruding stomach, [Nicholas] is haughty, wrathful, and full of thoughts of his own greatness. He takes pleasure in being relentlessly cruel" (eNotes).

The narrative presents the reader with a question of whether or not civility is a product of outward signs or careful speech or a product of a relationship to ideas of respect for custom. One can be genteel yet cruel, as the Czar is. Does this gentility equate to civility? 

Also, the two Vorontsov men present a point-counterpoint pair that functions well within the context of the question of civility. The younger Vorontsov is excited by the prospect of warfare and battle. He craves action and expresses his eagerness without regard to the idea that lives will be lost and that one man's family (Murad's) has been kidnapped.

The older Vorontsov is well-mannered and detached. He takes little joy in the prospect of war, but instead plays a calculated role in exploiting Hadji Murad to his greatest benefit -- also without concern for the welfare of Murad's family. 

Which of these two figures is the more civilized? The eager, adventure-thirsty son or the manipulative, well-mannered father? 

A passage early in the narrative deals with the notion of a material relativism that can connects to the more conceptual and morally-laden relativism of civility that characterizes the major themes of the text.

"Vorontsov lived with his wife [...] in this little Caucasian fort more luxuriously than any one had ever lived there before. To Vorontsov, and especially to his wife, it seemed that they were not only living a very modest life, but one full of privations; while to the inhabitants of the place their luxury was surprising and extraordinary."

Privation and luxury are taken up as relative concepts here, suggesting that subjectivity will always determine one's views on these ideas. Civility, it would seem, functions in the same way. 

The most substantial way to respond to the question of who is civilized in the text becomes one that examines the point of view from which civility is judged. In this line of investigation, the novel's commentary on morality and civility serves as a rich conversation on the tendency for self-serving bias within any social group, the vulnerabilities that become inevitable vis a vis moral standing when two groups interact and the nature of one's own perceptions of customs, morality and ethical conduct. 

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