Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Essays Muslims in the Russian literary tradition tolstoy crossing the line

In literature, the opposition between Russian Christians and Muslims was established early on in the folk epics, in the “historical songs” told by the bards in the oral tradition. Several of them deal with the capturing of the khanate of Kazan, the northernmost Tatar realm. From the “Tatars” conquered by Ivan the Terrible in Kazan and depicted in Russian folk songs to Tolstoy’s thistle called “the Tatar” (tatarin) there is a winding line of literary works.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 45-48, 2 2011
Published on on August 1, 2011

No Comments on tolstoy crossing the line Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

In Russian literature, we can follow a theme that begins as early as the folk epic: the creation of an opposition between Orthodox Christianity and the Muslim creed. The year 1453 was made into a watershed in Russian historiography. For political reasons the newly arisen Moscow state claimed to be the inheritor and defender of true Christianity in its Byzantine version. The recapturing of Constantinople, “the center of the world”, was to haunt the Russian leaders through the centuries, well into the 20th, when, ironically enough, the Orthodox religion had already lost its position and been removed from the agenda.1

In literature, the opposition between Russian Christians and Muslims was established early on in the folk epics, in the “historical songs” told by the bards in the oral tradition. Several of them deal with the capturing of the khanate of Kazan, the northernmost Tatar realm. The hero in these songs is Ivan IV, who beat the khan in 1552. The songs tell about Ivan’s siege of Kazan, and the arrogance of the Tatars, who, after the capture, are gruesomely punished. The khan is blinded but his wife who has welcomed Ivan “with bread and salt” is spared. She is christened and put into a monastery.

And Tsarina Elena guessed it,

She poured salt on the bread,

She gladly welcomed the Prince of Moscow,

Lord Ivan Vasiliyevich the Visionary.

And he rewarded the Tsarina accordingly

And brought her into the Christian faith,

So she took the vows.

And he punished Tsar Semion for his arrogance,

And not having welcomed the Grand Prince, And with sharp straws tore out his bright eyes.

Что царица Елена догадалаь,/ Она сыпала соли на ковригу, / Она с радостью московского князя встречала, / А того ли Ивана сударь Васильевича прозрителя. / И за то он царицу пожаловал / И привел в крещеную веру, / В монастырь царицу постригли. / И за гордость царя Семиона, / Что не встретил великого князя, / Он и вынял ясны очи косицами.

The epic songs were sung among the people for centuries and were not written down until the 19th century.

Russian written literature has a short history. It begins in the 18th century with the linguistic reforms started by Tsar Peter. From the beginning, it closely follows Peter’s attempt to create an empire. Since the Russian empire was built largely upon the capturing of areas previously under Osmanic rule, we can see a build-up of symbolic imagery that will influence poets and writers for centuries. This takes place especially in the odic tradition, lyric poetry exalting “important events” such as the enthronement of rulers or the capturing of fortresses that increasingly expand the borders of Russia.

Interestingly enough, one of the first literary works written in the Russian language2 is dedicated to the warfare between the Osman Empire and the expanding Russia. I am speaking of Mikhail Lomonosov’s ode “To the Victory over the Turks and Tatars and to the Capture of Khotin in the Year 1739”. In 1739, Mikhail Lomonosov, a fisherman’s son from Arkhangelsk, was studying natural science in Germany on a stipend from the Russian Academy of Sciences. When he heard that the Russians had captured the fortress of Khotin on the Dniester River, he wrote a lyrical praise of the Russian army and the ruler Empress Anna. In Lomonosov’s poem, the Turks are called “Tatars” — Tatars and Turks are thus equated through their Moslem faith.

The Tatar hosts have circled round,

thirsting for Russian power;

The steam from the horses hides the very

sky! What then? Headlong, they fall dead.

К российской силе так стремятся, / Кругом объехав, тьмы татар; / Скрывает небо конской пар! Что ж в том? стремглав без душ валятся.

The Turks are furthermore called “the descendants of the rejected slave woman”, alluding to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael (Gen. 16, 21, 25), while the Russians are described as “the chosen people”.

Two earlier Russian rulers and war heroes are brought into the poem, Tsar Peter and Ivan the Terrible. Lomonosov refers to Peter’s warfare in the Black Sea area (the Azov Campaign) and Ivan’s triumph over the Kazan Tatars. These two are hailed as having laid the foundations for a great Russia that “will frighten the whole world”.

Uttered then Hero to Hero:

“Not in vain have we two labored.

Neither your nor my feats were in vain,

To make the whole world fear the Russians.

Through us our borders have expanded

To North, West, and East.”

Герою молвил тут Герой:/ «Нетщетно я с тобой трудился./ Нетщетен подвиг мой и твой, / Чтоб россов целой свет страшился./ Чрез нас предел наш стал широк / На север, запад и восток.

The image of the moon is used to designate the Turks: “When the moon saw its people flee, it covered its face in shame”. Finally, Lomonosov even has recourse to images from the folk epic, and the enemy is depicted as a snake/dragon that tries to find refuge in the fortress away from the Russian eagle that flies high above.

The snake winds itself into a ball,

Hissing, it hides its sting under a stone,

So fearful it is of the Russian eagle;

and escapes into its Khotin.

Как в клуб змия себя крутит, / Шипит, под камень жало кроет,/ Пред росской так дрожит Орлицей,/ Стесняет внутрь Хотин своих.3

Lomonosov sent his poem to the Academy in St. Petersburg, but they decided not to publish it since at that point peace talks were underway with the Turks. But later the poem was published over and over again, not only in Lomonosov’s works, but in schoolbooks and anthologies as well. It set the standard for a certain kind of patriotic literature.

Gavriil Derzhavin sings a laudatio in his ode “Na vziatie Izmaila” (To the capturing of Izmail) to the bravery of the Russian generals, and especially to Grigorii Potemkin, who managed to besiege and storm the fortress of Izmail on the Danube  in 1790. Here, we once again find the image of an “eagle shading the moon”: the Russian state symbol is taking over the sky and the Muslim half-moon is being put in the shade. The opposition between “eagle” and “moon” or “half-moon” is by now stock imagery in Russian literature. Russia is also presented as “the light from the North” that will make “Muhammad” “pale” and “turn his dark looks in another direction”:

And at the northern light

Mohamed’s face grows pale,

And he turns his frowning glance away.

Уже от северного света / Лице бледнеет Магомета, / И мрачный отвратил он взор.

The Russian mission is clearly defined (even if Derzhavin rhetorically puts it into a question): “Will the Russian fighting spirit, helped by the Christian faith, save the Achaeans (Greeks) and crush the sons of Hagar (Turks)?” The greatness of Russia is sung in different tones: a “forest of laurels” has grown up around the “invincible colossus” that has captured the Crimea and the Black Sea coast and soon will put its foot in “the center of the universe” (Constantinople), thus “reaching heaven”. (“I see laurel woods around you; / You make the Caucasus and Tauris bow [down], / And with your foot in the center of the universe / You reach the far off heavens.”) The image of “reaching heaven” is symbolic of Constantinople/Byzantium as the haven of true Christianity. Such words refer to the text in the first Russian Chronicle, where we have a description of the people from Kiev coming to Constantinople to “find a religion” and being present at a ceremony in the Hagia Sophia where they were so taken with the liturgy that they “did not know whether they were on earth or in heaven”.

However, we can see from Derzhavin’s poem that there is a merging of the Christian mission (“fighting the sons of Hagar”, now sitting on the Byzantine throne) and the imperial aspirations of Russia. The Caucasus is also drawn into the sphere where Russia considers her rights to rule to be inviolable. In Derzhavin’s words: “You [Russia] make Caucasus and Tauris [the Crimea] bend the head and bow before you.”

The military capture of the Caucasian areas takes place over the course of about fifty years in the 19th century, concluding around 1860. I will point to only one of the many literary works where the Caucasus is present, since it is such a widespread theme in Russia, up to this very day. I am speaking of the poet Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “A Cossack Lullaby”. It is written in the form of a literary lullaby (a genre that arose in Russia towards the end of the 18th century) with the refrain from folk poetry: baiushki-baiu. A Cossack woman is singing to her baby son about his future — the singing conveys her wishes for his future. The setting is the mountains of the northern Caucasus where the Russians were well entrenched (bringing with them the Cossacks) by 1840, the year of Lermontov’s lullaby. In the song there appears the treacherous Terek River, where the waves are “turbid” and “muddy” (“The Terek trills over stones, / And troubled waves are splashing”). But an even more precise reference to the enemy is in the following lines: “The evil Chechen creeps up the river bank, sharpening his dagger.” The Cossack mother soothes her child, a future fighter “in foreign lands”, and promises him a talisman that will keep him safe in battle — a holy icon. (“I’ll think about you missing me in foreign lands […] /And give you a holy icon for the road: / So when you pray to God, / You will hold it before you.”)

Lermontov’s poem immediately entered the body of texts that for centuries made up schoolbooks in Russia. These texts are learned by heart by the young and, as early as the second half of the 19th century, non-literate Russian village people were singing it. Lermontov’s poem is a unique example of a literary text becoming folklore. In the schoolbooks, the texts are generally followed by instructions for the teacher about how to explain them. In a Soviet schoolbook from 1970 special attention is paid to the line, “The evil Chechen creeps up the river bank, sharpening his dagger.” The word “creeps” (polzet) is underlined with the explanation: “to advance by stealth, like a snake, quietly. He prefers to attack by ambush”. (Golovin 2000, p. 391.) Thus the snake image from Lomonosov’s poem (there depicting the Turks) is repeated in the interpretations of Lermontov’s picture of the Chechens. Since Lomonosov’s poem also belongs to Russian chrestomathic school literature, we can see with what constancy the fiends of the Russian Fatherland are depicted.

It is against this literary background that Lev Tolstoy would write his stories about the Caucasus. But Tolstoy had an immediate experience of the area himself. As soon as he arrived in Chechnya in 1851 (aged 23) together with his brother Nikolai, he started writing in the genre of ethnographic sketches about the country and its peoples. He is clearly intent on “deconstructing” the images of the Caucasus that he has been brought up on (works by Lermontov and Marlinskii). In his draft “Notes from the Caucasus: A journey to Mamakai-Iurt”, he begins by explaining: “There are no Circassians, there are Chechens, Kumyks, Abazekhis and so on, but no Circassians. There are no plane trees (platanos), there are beeches, a tree well known to the Russians.” (Tolstoy 2002, p. 208)

Tolstoy’s message is clear: do not mythologize and generalize, speak about things as they are, call everything by its true name — a beech is not a platano.

Quite soon, in 1853, the story “The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story” (Nabeg: Rasskaz volontera) was published in Moscow. Tolstoy’s focus is now on the war, on warfare, on the motives of people going to war. While writing the story, he was reading a historical account of the Napoleonic war in Russia (“Opisanie voiny 1813 goda” by A. I. Mikhailovskii-Danilevskii) and an opposition to descriptions of war started growing in him. Questions tormenting the young volunteer included “What is bravery?” and “How did a soldier kill another soldier and what did he feel?” War equals killing, murder — such was Tolstoy’s experience from his time in Chechnya, and the crucial question of the justification of warfare will stay with him for the rest of his life. It permeates, naturally, all of War and Peace, but we find it in the last part of Anna Karenina (Vronskii going to war in Serbia) as well.

However, Chechnya did not give Tolstoy any peace either. In the 1890s, when the writer had seriously questioned the meaning of writing artistic literature, he took up the theme again and embarked upon what was to become the short novel Hadji Murat. We find the last marks of Tolstoy on Hadji Murat in the year 1905. The novel was published in 1912, not long after his death.4

The story of Hadji Murat is based on real events in Chechnya in the 1850s when Russian rule, having begun in 1818 with the building of the fortress Groznaya, was finally established by crushing the “mountain fighters” (gortsy) and their leader Shamil (1798—1871). Shamil was captured in 1859, brought to live in Russian exile in Kaluga, from where he was allowed to go to Mecca in 1870. He died in Medina in 1871.

The fighting in the Caucasus Mountains was ferocious, especially in the 1840s. The siege of the village Salty in Dagestan in 1847 lasted for 52 days and the losses among Russian officers totalled several hundred, and well over two thousand soldiers of lower ranks were killed in the operation. Since the Russian army had great difficulties gaining control over Chechnya and Dagestan, a plan was devised to cut down the forests and build forts, army strongholds, all over the area. Furthermore, Chechen food supplies were to be destroyed by the army.

In his devastating critique of Tsar Nicholas I in Hadji Murat, Tolstoy brings in this side of Russian warfare:

Although the plan of a gradual advance into the enemy’s territory by means of felling forests and destroying the food supplies was Ermolov’s and Velyaminov’s plan, and was quite contrary to Nicholas’s own plan of seizing Shamil’s place of residence and destroying that nest of robbers — which was the plan on which the Dargo expedition in 1845 (that cost so many lives) had been undertaken — Nicholas nevertheless attributed to himself also the plan of slow advance and a systematic felling of forests and devastation of the country. It would seem that to believe the plan of a slow movement by felling forests and destroying food supplies to have been his own would have necessitated the fact that he had insisted on quite contrary operations in 1845. But he did not hide it and was proud of the plan of the 1845 expedition as well as of the plan of slow advance — though the two were obviously contrary to one another. Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them. (Tolstoy 2004, pp. 619—629)

By bringing in an “in-between figure”, Hadji Murat, into his work, Tolstoy does not take sides in the Chechen conflict. He is free to criticize both the Russian ruler and the army as well as Shamil and his mountain fighters. Hadji Murat, who has earlier been in the camp of Shamil, has gone over to the Russians after having been betrayed and humiliated by Shamil. In his description of the Chechens, Tolstoy lifts to the foreground the big role played by dignity and pride in the culture of the mountaineers. To humiliate another person is a deadly sin that demands retaliation. Tolstoy does not make Hadji Murat a hero with no blood on his hands. We are told, by Hadji Murat himself, about his murders. Tolstoy’s merit is rather to investigate the inner life of the people entangled in the Chechen war. Why do they act as they do? Why do they take such decisions? As Tolstoy says himself in a letter (1899): for him as a writer “the main thing is the inner life expressed in scenes”.

Just like the tsar who is driven to take certain actions by his fears and likings5 so does Hadji Murat. As he explains to the Russian Loris-Melikov, the aide-de-camp of general Vorontsov:

I wrote [to the Russian commander Klügenau] I wore a turban not for Shamil’s sake but for my soul’s salvation; that I neither wished nor could go over to Shamil, because he had caused the death of my father, my brothers, and my relations; but that I could not join the Russians because I had been dishonored by them. (In Khunzakh, a scoundrel had spat on me while I was bound, and I could not join your people until that man was killed.) But above all I feared that liar, Akhmet Khan. (p.607) […] The chief thing for me was to revenge myself on Akhmet Khan, and that I could not do through the Russians. ) […] Just then came an envoy with a letter from Shamil promising to help me to defeat and kill Akhmet Khan and making me ruler over the whole of Avaria. I considered the matter for a long time and then went over to Shamil, and from that time I fought the Russians continually. (Tolstoy 2004, p. 608)

We can see that Hadji Murat is guided in his actions by blood feud and vengeance for humiliation/dishonor, slander, and treachery. He cannot live without what he understands as his human dignity. By resorting to the Russians, he hopes to get their help to free his family which is in the hands of Shamil. Hadji Murat’s conflict with Shamil is again based on a lack of trust, on false accusations, and robbing of property.

Humiliation, as a prime mover for arousing hatred and vengeance, is shown by Tolstoy not only on the personal level in his story. The picture of a Chechen village after a raid of Russian soldiers is appalling:

The aoul which had been destroyed was that in which Hadji Murad had spent the night before he went over to the Russians. Sado and his family had left the aoul on the approach of the Russian detachment, and when he returned he found his saklya in ruins — the roof fallen in, the door and the posts supporting the penthouse burned, and the interior filthy. His son, the handsome bright-eyed boy who had gazed with such ecstasy at Hadji Murad, was brought dead to the mosque on a horse covered with a burka: he had been stabbed in the back with a bayonet. The dignified woman who had served Hadji Murad when he was at the house now stood over her son’s body, her smock torn in front, her withered old breasts exposed, her hair down, and she dug her nails into her face till it bled, and wailed incessantly. Sado, taking a pick-axe and spade, had gone with his relatives to dig a grave for his son.The old grandfather sat by the wall of the ruined saklya cutting a stick and gazing stolidly in front of him. He had only just returned from the apiary. The two stacks of hay there had been burned, the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched, and worse still all the beehives and bees had been burned. The wailing of the women and the little children, who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle for whom there was no food. The bigger children, instead of playing, followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out. No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them — like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves — was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation. (Tolstoy 2004, p. 629)

The hero Hadji Murad’s fate is sealed when he leaves the Russian camp, where his life has turned more and more into imprisonment. He has begun to understand that the Russians will not help him. Shamil is threatening to kill his son or blind him. Fleeing, Hadji Murat is surrounded by Russian militiamen joined by Chechens who are his enemies.

When Hadji Aga, who was the first to reach him, struck him on the head with a large dagger, it seemed to Hadji Murad that someone was striking him with a hammer and he could not understand who was doing it or why. That was his last consciousness of any connection with his body. He felt nothing more and his enemies kicked and hacked at what had no longer anything in common with them.

Hadji Aga placed his foot on the back of the corpse and with two blows cut off the head, and carefully — not to soil his shoes with blood — rolled it away with his foot. Crimson blood spurted from the arteries of the neck, and black blood flowed from the head, soaking the grass. (Tolstoy, p. 667)6

The crimson color of Hadji Murad’s blood in the end of Tolstoy’s story was prefigured in the beginning in the image of the crimson thistle that the narrator picks and tries to include in his bouquet of field flowers.

I gathered myself a large bouquet and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call “Tatar” and carefully avoid when moving — or if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. (p. 549)

The author has great difficulty breaking the thistle — “I had to struggle with it […] breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful”. (Tolstoy, p. 549)

From the “Tatars” conquered by Ivan the Terrible in Kazan and depicted in Russian folk songs to Tolstoy’s thistle called “the Tatar” (tatarin) there is a winding line of literary works. Under the name “Tartar” or “Tatar” a variety of peoples appear, joined together by their Muslim creed. But a constant trait of “the Tatar” as he appears in these canonic texts is that he is the enemy of the Russians. In earlier times it was the Russian Christian mission that made “the Tatar” into an enemy, but later it was the presence of “the Tatar” in areas considered to be “true Russian territories” after having been conquered in warfare. Tolstoy questions this historical stereotype in his story Hadji Murat. Long before the word existed, Tolstoy works as a great deconstructionist in his stories. Far into old age he appears as a heretic, fighting clichés and conventions, pointing at falsity and at outright lying. His dissident battle earned him an excommunication from the Russian
Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy was then 73 years old.
Fifty years had passed since he was first confronted with the trampling of human values in the Russian war in the Caucasus. He was finishing his story Hadji
. ≈


G. R. Derzhavin, Sochineniia [Collected works]. Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura 1987.

Valentin Golovin, Russkaia kolybel’naia pesnia v fol’klore i literature [Russian lullabies in folklore and literature]. Åbo Akademi University Press 2000.

Sh. M. Kaziev, Imam Shamil’ [Imam Shamil]. Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia 2006.

B. G. Kipnis, “Plan voiny protiv Turtsii, prodiktovannyi A.V. Suvorovym inzhener-podpolkovniku de-Volanu, i razvitie soderzhashchikhsia v nem idei v planakh i khode voin Rossii s Osmanskoi imperiei v XIX stoletii” [War plan against Turkey, dictated by A. V. Suvorov to Engineer- Lieutenant-Colonel de Volan, containing developments and ideas in the plans during the wars of Russia with the Osman Empire during the 19th century], in Vestnik Sankt-Peterburgskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta kul’tury i iskusstva [Bulletin of the St. Petersburg State University of Culture and Art], 1(4) / June 6—17, 2006.

Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. New York: Cambridge University Press 1994.

M. Iu. Lermontov, Sochineniia v shesti tomakh [Collected works in six volumes, vol.2]. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR 1954. 

M. V. Lomonosov, Izbrannye Proizvedeniia [Selected works] (Biblioteka Poeta). Leningrad: Sovetskii Pisatel’ 1986.

“Povest vremennykh let” [Primary chronicle], in Pamiatniki literatury Drevnei Rusi, XI — nachalo XII veka [Literary monuments of Ancient Rus]. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literatura 1978.

Russkaia Istoricheskaia pesnia [Russian historical songs] (Biblioteka Poeta). Leningrad: Sovetskii Pisatel’ 1987.

Leo Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii [Complete collected works], vol. 35, Moscow: Gosizdat Khudozhestvennoi Literatury 1950.

Leo Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v sta tomakh [Complete collected works in 100 volumes]. Khudozhestvennye proizvedeniia v vosemnadtsati tomakh [Works of fiction in 18 volumes], Vol. 2, 1852—1856, Moscow: Nauka 2002.

Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Perennial Classics 2004.


The general A.V. Suvorov devised a plan in 1793 to capture Constantinople. The plan was not carried out, but it was renewed in Russia’s war with Turkey in 1828—29 by General I.I. Dibich and approved by Tsar Nicholas I. However, since the Russian troops managed to cross the Balkan Mountains only in the spring of 1829, and suffered great losses in doing so, the plan was not realized. Peace talks followed in Adrianopolis. The idea of capturing Constantinople surfaced again in 1876 during the new war with Turkey, which lasted from 1876 to 1878, but although the troops amassed were considerable, this time, they could not even cross the Balkans. (Kipnis 2006, pp. 6—17.)

Up until the 1730s, written texts were mainly composed in “Slavonic” (later called Church-Slavonic), a variety of Slavic heavily influenced by its South-Slavic origin (Altbulgarische). Russian was a spoken language, and the amalgamation of Russian and Slavonic took place in the 18th century.

Khotin is the name of the Tatar city besieged by the Russians in 1621.

There were deletions in the edition published in Russia, mainly in the parts where Tolstoy criticizes Tsar Nicholas I. The complete text was published abroad.

Nicholas’s constant fear of Polish uprisings makes him, in Tolstoy’s novel, decree a near-to-death sentence (to run the gauntlet) for a Polish student who attacked his professor with a pen-knife.

Ibid., p.667. After the real Hadji Murat’s death in 1852, his head was not only taken around and shown in Chechen villages by Russian militiamen, as Tolstoy describes it in his novel. It was also brought to St. Petersburg and ended up in Kunstkamera, a museum of curiosities founded by Tsar Peter I. There it has stayed to this very day. The Russian writer Andrei Bitov recently made a pledge that the head should be buried in Hadji Murat’s grave in the Caucasus.

  • Essays are scientific articles.

    Essays are selected scholarly articles published without prior peer-review process.

    Would you like to contribute to Baltic Worlds? Click here!