The mind often functioning associatively, this work by Tolstoy (set in Chechnya; one of the last stories he ever wrote) reminded me of Sri Lanka and of a certain Tamil militant now turned government supporter. Subservient and still useful to the government, he is permitted to have an armed gang; as a reward, he is above the helpless and hapless Tamil population.
Russia attempted to absorb Chechnya into its empire but met with fierce resistance: the leitmotif of the novella is the thistle which defends itself using its thorns with ferocious determination. The mountains and thick forests they knew so well were an advantage. Their resistance made the Russians fear and hate the Chechens, and they resorted to all means to vanquish the guerrillas, including attacks on civilians (children and women not exempt) and the deliberate destruction of their livelihood. Many were killed, and many more fled the region. In 1847, the Chechen population was about 1. 5 million; in 1861 it was 140, 000 and in 1867 it was down to 116,000. (Tamil dispersal and dwindling are on-going.)
The leader of the struggle against Russian hegemony was Imam Shamil (1797-1871); his bravest and most successful general, the eponymous Hadji Murad whom Tolstoy met in 1851. Next to Imam Shamil, Hadji Murad was the most active and feared of the resistance fighters (page 33. Reference is to the Dover edition, 2009). However, ambitious Murad began to feel he was not getting the recognition and reward his ability and service merited; his disaffection came to the notice of Shamil who decided to arrest and dispose of him, as he had done with several others without hesitation or compunction. Warned of this, Murad escaped and had no choice but to join up with his bitter enemy, the Russians. (Sri Lankan parallels are evident and there’s no need for them to be spelt out here.) Murad dreamt of marching with Russian soldiers against Shamal, taking revenge on him and, in turn, being made ruler of Chechnya: one thinks of the Kandyan chiefs who fondly believed the British would, once they had defeated the last king with their help, hand over power to them. (The word “fond” is used here with the earlier meaning of “foolish” also in mind.) The Russians, with their quite different plans, knew that the defection of Murad and his men would make the defeat of Shamil that much more certain and easier (p. 51).
While narrating the story behind this fragment of history, Tolstoy criticises Russian society. I quote from the Preface written in 1912 by Aylmer Maude: “Tolstoy makes us feel how repugnant to him were the customary ways of the life we call ‘civilised’, with its selfishness and self-indulgence, its officialism, banquets, balls, and masquerade”. Tsar Nicholas the First, portrayed as being stupid and cruel, arouses our antipathy. Wilfred Owen, killed during the First World War at the age of twenty-five, in his powerful poem ‘Strange meeting’ wrote of the pity war distils. In Hadji Murad, the eldest son of a peasant family is called up for military service; the son is married and has children, so the second son, much better in every sense, is sent instead and is killed. The devastation from which the old parents never recover is given a passing and soon forgotten reference in the official report: “In this affair two privates were slightly wounded and one killed”. (cf. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.)
Far away from the battlefield, life at the centres of political and social power is hypocritical, false and corrupt. Everyone tries to gain or retain his position or advance it, usually at the expense of another. Among those at the court of a man with access to the Tsar (for “Tsar” read “President”), there’s a commander about to be charged with embezzling funds; another attempting to secure his monopoly to sell vodka; the widow of an officer come to beg for a pension; “a ruined Georgian Prince trying to obtain for himself some confiscated church property” (p. 53), and many others. In such a country and at such times what matters is not what you know in terms of qualification and knowledge; or are in terms of integrity and proven ability, but whom you know. What counts is contact and “influence”, termed wasta in Arabic.
The Tsar takes credit for successful plans which were not his, and blames others for those of his ideas that go awry. Military blunders and disasters are presented to the people as brilliant tactical manoeuvre. He sentences a man to twelve thousand strokes, knowing full well that “five thousand strokes were sufficient to kill the strongest man (p. 87). But in this way, Nicholas gives vent to his cruelty and yet takes pride in thinking that he is an advanced, enlightened, ruler who has abolished capital punishment in Russia (ibid). Nicholas hated the Poles and the Chechens because he had done them wrong. He “hated them accordingly in proportion to the evil he had done them” (p. 87). Wise and perceptive, Tolstoy understood what psychologists have since established: often, we dislike, even hate, those whom we have treated unjustly. The individual or the group then must set about finding reasons to justify attitude, policy and conduct. It’s an unfortunate but complex and interesting psychological reaction, perhaps not entirely inapplicable to Sri Lanka?
The famous observation of Lord Acton (1834 – 1902) that absolute power corrupts absolutely is usually taken as referring to those who possess power. But absolute and corrupted power also contaminates, if not corrupts, those without power. Living in a corrupt context, those with less or no power are forced to make compromises, shed any morals, principles and ideals they may once have possessed and cherished. In an un-free situation, anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion, though well-meaning, loses position, wealth and influence – if not worse. However foolish or unjust an action by those with power, it is politic to keep silent; better still, stifling the inner voice of conscience, to express loud support. With practise, this becomes easier; even habitual and automatic. Absolute power, and the violence and corruption that go with it, inevitably contaminate the whole of society: to remain silent and passive is to acquiesce. When mere diurnal survival becomes a struggle, only a few individuals stand separate. I am reminded of the title of Joachim Fest’s family memoir, translated into English from the original German as “Not I”. (The phrase is from the Latin, Etiam si omnes – ego non! Freely rendered, it reads: “Even if all others do, I won’t!” Employing understatement, one could say it was not an easy posture for the Fest family to adopt under Nazi rule.)
Politics and power make Russia’s rulers overlook the fact that the Hadji Murad whom they had welcomed was the very man who had killed many Russian soldiers thereby turning wives into widows; making children fatherless, and old parents bereft of the comfort of their sons. When reminded of this fact, it’s brushed off with a casual shrug and a “War is war” (p. 51). Similarly, the Tamil militant who now personally profits from government patronage is alleged to have participated in, if not led, the slaughter of Sinhalese policemen who had surrendered, and in the massacre of Sinhalese Buddhist monks. There are other and more useful concerns, aims and priorities. (Strangely, even those Buddhist monks who are not renowned for their restraint and generous forgiveness are silent on this, showing yet again, as elsewhere in the world and at other times, the collusion between established religion and the state.) However, Hadji Murad was not as fortunate as our erstwhile Tamil militant has been to date. Murad attempted to escape from his Russians guards pretending to be hosts but was hunted down, trapped and killed. True to form, he fought bravely to the end.
In modern times, “9/11” (the attack on the United States on 11 September 2001) was a major setback to the Chechen struggle. In the words of a commentator, it robbed them even of that small modicum of attention and sympathy they had previously received. The Russian government adroitly and cunningly cast their “legitimate struggle for freedom” as terrorism. The root causes of the conflict were forgotten, and the large-scale terrorism unleashed by the state ignored. Today, it suits some governments to see Chechnya as enjoying peace and stability, ignoring the reality that Raman Kadyrov (President since he turned thirty which is the minimum age for the post) owes his position to President Putin who conferred on him the medal ‘Hero of Russia’; that Chechens exist under a brutal tyrant in a country where violence and corruption are rampant, and fear silently pervasive like the autumn mist.