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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

Tolstoy's complex story is a depiction of and criticism of Russian imperialism in the Caucasus during the mid-nineteenth century. It was part of the plan of Russian expansionism to secure control of both "Ciscaucasia," the region directly north of the main range of the Caucasus mountains, and "Transcaucasia," the area on the southern side of the range. The Avars, a Muslim people including those living in present-day Chechnya and Daghestan, resisted the Russian advance. We can see that this conflict is still going on with the continuing Chechen separatist movement. Tolstoy uses the plight of the Caucasus people as an example of the injustice of Russian Imperialism, and by extension, European imperialism in general. He frames the story with a description of nature in which a wild thistle is shown as crushed into the earth. The thistle is, arguably, emblematic of foreign peoples exploited and victimized by a corrupt and cynical ruling class in Russia.

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Tolstoy's main character Murat ("Hadji" is an honorific title for a leader or warrior) is caught between his own people's corrupt leader Shamil, who has kidnapped Murat's family, and the Russians with whom he attempts to negotiate. Both sides are ruthless and carry out atrocities. Tolstoy seems to show the impossibility of an incorruptible and genuinely good man such as Murat surviving in this situation. The Russians do not trust him either and end up killing him. Arguably, the chief villain of the story is the Czar, Nicholas I, who is shown as corrupt, lazy and amoral. Tolstoy tends in his fiction always to depict the Russian upper class negatively. His basic message in this novella seems to be that if the Russians had simply left the Caucasus people alone, a people whose lives the Russians had no business interfering with, all of this tragedy could have been avoided.

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