Catching a Tartar

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In April 1851 Leo Tolstoy was a university dropout, troubled by gambling debts and plagued by venereal disease. To escape his drifter’s life in Moscow, he set out to join his brother Nikolai’s artillery unit in Chechnya with the vague intention of enlisting in the army. By the time Tolstoy made his journey, many well-educated young men, inspired by Pushkin and Lermontov, had already gone to fight the peoples inhabiting the mountain fastnesses on Russia’s southern frontier (and perhaps win the heart of a demure tribal princess). The Caucasus quickly became a staple of the empire’s popular fiction, populated by Russian Flashmans.

Tolstoy partially succumbed to the fantasy in his early novel The Cossacks, but he found the reality a bit of a sham. He later confided to his diary that his fellow officers were ‘Stupid people. All – especially my brother – drink, and it is very unpleasant for me. War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle their consciences. Am I doing right? My God, teach me and forgive me if I’m doing wrong.’

Whatever misgivings he may have had, Tolstoy signed up to the Russian empire’s war against the mountain tribesmen and went raiding. It was a merciless conflict in which the Chechens killed their own women and children rather than let them fall into the hands of Russian soldiers. Russia’s strategy, outlined by General Alexey Yermolov, was simple: ‘I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains of fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death.’

In 1894, by which time the irascible old count had supposedly abandoned literature to preach against autocracy in a belted peasant’s shirt, he returned to fiction and to the mountains where his literary career had begun with the novel Hadji Murat. It is a book that for me has great personal resonance.

In 1851 the Avar warrior Hadji

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About the contributor

Chris Bird reported the 1994–6 war in Chechnya for the Associated Press. He is now a paediatrician.

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