Letter from a listener

One of our regular podcast listeners – John Weeks – shared these reflections with us recently, inspired particularly by the episode we recorded with Prof. Anders Engberg-Pedersen on the impact of the Napoleonic wars:

‘Your podcasts have sent me back to Tolstoy. His short story of 1912, Hadji Murat, contains examples of ways in which war is visualised.

The context of the story is the fighting in Chechnya in 1851.To use Phillips O`Brien`s distinction, the grand policy of the Tsar was to stabilise the southern border of the Russian Empire, while the strategy chosen by his Generals was to kill Chechen Warlords and to sack and destroy the villages where they recruited their bands of fighters. The story’s eponymous hero, Hadji Murat, was one of the Chechen warlords.

The story is presented as a narration by a Russian, who makes the following claims : I was reminded of a story from long ago in the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from eyewitnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself.

The first visualisation is of warfare as a series of exciting, hand to hand engagements, fought at close quarters with sabres and bayonets. The narrator suggests that that visualisation, a product perhaps of contemporary journalism and popular fiction, had an influence upon the officers commanding a Russian company. The officers knew well enough that it was false, but it nevertheless served to animate them with a certain bravado and swagger. The narrator relates:

Although they all, especially the officers who had seen action, knew and were in a position to know that neither in the war in the Caucasus at that time, nor indeed anywhere at any time, was there any of that hand to hand hacking with sabres which is always imagined and described (and even if there is such hand to hand fighting with sabres and bayonets, then it is always and only those who are fleeing that are hacked and stabbed), this fiction of hand to hand fighting was acknowledged by the officers and lent them that calm pride and cheerfulness with which they sat on the drums, some in dashing, others, by contrast in the most modest poses, smoked , drank and joked, not worrying about the death which might at any time strike down each of them…

The officers described by the narrator are lounging about when they hear a single shot: …in the middle of their conversation, there rang out to the left of the road the invigorating, attractive sound of a rifle-shot’s sharp crack, and the bullet, whistling cheerfully, flew by somewhere in the misty air and cracked into a tree. Several loud and heavy shots from soldiers` rifles replied to the enemy shot. Several Chechen horsemen, drawn up over two hundred metres away, had fired in the direction of the Russian company.

The narrator has here introduced a fresh visualisation. His words – “invigorating”, “attractive” and ”cheerfully” – present a visualisation of this momentary exchange as a bit of fun. Earlier he had indicated that the company had set out from its base not in pursuit of its enemy, but to cut down some trees for timber. He describes the sun coming out and the officers sitting around campfires, eating and drinking.

The narrator goes on to clarify that for the Chechen horsemen their random shot, fired from a safe distance, had been a desultory gesture, made just to show that they were still around: on the opposite side of the gully..several horsemen could be seen. One of them had shot at the line Several soldiers in the line had replied to him. The Chechens had moved away again and the shooting had ceased. The Chechens apparently lost interest and withdrew.

The officer in charge of the Russian company, however, was dissatisfied. He seemed to want more fun, so he ordered his men to open fire again:

no sooner had the command been given, than along the whole length of the line there could be heard the incessant, cheerful, invigorating crackling of rifles, accompanied by attractively diffusing puffs of smoke. The soldiers, pleased with the diversion, hurried their loading and fired round after round. The Chechens evidently sensed the enthusiasm and galloping forward, one after another they fired several shots at the soldiers.

Both sides having enjoyed this fleeting diversion, the Chechens rode off.

Another, and contrasting, visualisation is then introduced, of war as a force which, in the midst of its chaos, selects its victims at random. The Chechen horsemen were not snipers, deliberately focusing upon a target. They fired without aim, simply loosing off shots in the direction of the Russians. It was sheer chance that one Russian happened to get hit by a stray bullet: One of their shots wounded a soldier.

The soldier, Pyotr Avdeyev, is taken to the camp hospital, where he is placed in a ward alongside a man with typhus. Avdeyev endures, without anaesthetic, a prolonged and painful probing of his wound by a doctor, attempting in vain to find and remove the bullet. Avdeyev dies, more it seems from the inadequacy of his medical care than from the severity of his wound.

A new visualisation is then presented in the form of the communiqué about the engagement sent back by the officer in command of the company:

On the 23rd. Of November two companies of the Kurinsky Regiment marched out of the fortress to fell trees. In the middle of the day a significant gathering of mountaineers suddenly attacked the woodcutters. The line began to withdraw, and at this point the Second Company attacked with bayonets and overran the mountaineers. Two privates were slightly wounded in the action and one was killed, while the mountaineers lost about one hundred men, dead and wounded.

That visualisation is evidently shaped by the dynamic of power within the military hierarchy. The officer knows what sort of report will enhance his standing within that hierarchy and what his superiors want to hear about the progress of their strategy. He knows too that, well back from the action, they are in no position to evaluate the accuracy of his report. That report is a work of fiction. The “significant gathering” was just a couple of horsemen. Their “sudden attack” was no more than a pointless gesture of defiance. The Chechens suffered no casualties.

Yet another visualisation comes in the formulaic consolation of the State. A military clerk drafts a standard letter to Avdeyev`s parents, informing them that their son has been killed “defending the Tsar, his homeland and the Orthodox faith”—a grandiose fiction aimed at comforting a family for the loss of a son who was a random casualty in a silly and pointless exchange of fire.

A final visualisation is presented back in Pyotr Avdeyev`s home village. The narrator relates that Avdeyev`s widow, Aksinya, formally laments his death, but he continues:

But in the depths of her soul Aksinya was pleased at Pyotr’s death. She was pregnant again by the shop assistant she lived with, and now nobody could abuse her any more, and the shop assistant could marry her, as he told her he would when he was persuading her to make love.

Aksinya, it seems, visualises war as an accidental, but welcome resolver of relationship tangles. Shocking though it might appear, war, as a terminator of ties, may well have been visualised not so much as a tragedy as an opportunity by some women who had grown apart from their partners.

In just a few pages in a short story, Tolstoy presents a variety of visualisations of war: war as a swashbuckling affair of sabres and spears, war as an entertaining diversion from the monotony of camp life and discipline, war as a random killer that picks hapless victims by chance, war as an arena in which the dynamics of hierarchical power are played out, war as the setting of patriotic self sacrifice in the cause of Empire, and war as a liberator from relationships gone stale. He shows too how those visualisations interact with one another and how they serve particular interests. His fiction highlights the reality that many wars consist not so much of big, planned battles, but of fleeting and inconsequential exchanges of fire.

The story of Hadji Murat acquires additional meanings for modern readers who know that Tolstoy served as an officer in the Russian army in the Caucasus and that the Russians were still fighting Chechen warlords in the first decade of the 21st. Century.