Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

After the publication of Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), Tolstoy experienced a brief bout of profound depression, followed, in 1879, by a religious conversion. The conversion caused him to reject the concept of art for aesthetic or entertainment value and to endorse only that art which advanced a high moral purpose and could be understood by the simplest people. Thereafter, he wrote comparatively little fiction, devoting himself more to religious, philosophical, and political essays; his short stories were often parables aimed at a popular audience. In 1898, he published his literary manifesto, “What Is Art?” In it, he maintains that people have no real need for most music, painting, and literature—which are mere idle distractions—and that the true artist should be a prophet, preaching moral values and confronting urgent problems of politics, economics, and human relations.

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Yet, in the same year, he began Hadji Murad, which is free from this sort of didacticism and is generally considered one of his supreme artistic works. Written between 1898 and 1904 and published posthumously in 1911, Hadji Murad is Tolstoy’s last major work of fiction. In it, he returns to the manner and subject matter of such youthful stories of Caucasian adventure as “Nabeg: Razskaz volontera” (“The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story”), “Rubka lesa” (“The Wood-Felling”), and Kazaki (1863; The Cossacks, 1872). From 1851 to 1854, Tolstoy served in the Caucasus as an officer in the Russian army and took part in numerous raids against Shamil and the Chechen. The major events and characters in Hadji Murad, including Hadji Murad himself, are historically accurate, drawn from firsthand experience and observation. In addition, Tolstoy did extensive research on the Caucasus and the war between Shamil and the Russians. One of the merits of Hadji Murad is the vividness with which Tolstoy reconstructs the sense of time, place, customs, and conflicting cultures of the mountain people and the Russian soldiers and imperialists. Tolstoy the young officer who fought carelessly in the Caucasus and...

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