Hadji Murad: The Tragic Hero of Daghestan
By Dr Asif Javed
Napoleon Bonaparte called his Marshal Ney, bravest of the brave; Jackson, a General in the American Civil War, was affectionately called Stonewall, a reflection of his calmness while under attack. There are many other examples: There was Bhagat Singh who walked to the gallows with hardly any sign of fear; there were defenders of Alamo. I was thinking of men like these when I came across Hadji Murad, a novelette by Leo Tolstoy some time ago.
As my hero of this day, continues to roar like a Lion in Islamabad, I began to think of HM: His magnanimity, integrity, daring, almost reckless disregard of danger and personal safety. My hero also has another trait in common with HM: The nation is not supporting him the way they should. While he continues his sagging campaign, Pakistanis, like the Caucasians of 150 years ago, remain divided; we have our own Imam Shamyls and Czars to contend with.
So who was this HM? The introduction to Tolstoy’s HM, calls him ‘an epic hero’. To the invading Russians, he was the Red Devil: He wore a red cap and dyed his beard red. In the Caucasus, he remains a legend to this day. According to Lesley Blanch, the author of Sabers of Paradise, “HM was Shamyl’s greatest Naib, his most valued Lieutenant, and Russia’s most deadly foe after Shamyl.”
HM’s exploits are recalled to this day: He once surprised a Russian garrison town and escaped having done considerable damage while a ball was underway next door. On another occasion, he assassinated Imam Hamzad Beg, to avenge his foster-brother’s death, accompanied by his brother Osman only. Hamzad was surrounded by thirty murids, with drawn swords. While Osman perished during the struggle, HM escaped, having killed Hamzad. Legend has it that he made off with the widow of his arch enemy, Ahmat Khan from Djengoutai, another garrison town, with streets full of soldiers.
As a prisoner, once he was being escorted by forty Russian soldiers in heavy snowfall. The path went over a high mountain, was dangerously narrow and had a precipice on one side.
“HM walked like a prince although his hands were tied. He went sure-footed, stepping cat-like beside the precipices. This was his native terrain,” writes Lesley Blanch. “As they reached the highest, most precipitous ledge, HM suddenly turned on his captors and hurled himself headlong in to the abyss, dragging one of the guards after him….He was written off as dead.”
HM survived the120-yard fall---he had counted on the snow to break his fall---albeit with serious injuries from which he recovered except for a residual limp.
Tolstoy has left a brief physical description of HM: “HM’s smile struck Poltoratsky by its childlike kindliness, a sort of innocence, who had never expected to see the terrible mountain chief look like that; and here was a vivacious person….He had but one peculiarity: his eyes, set wide apart, gazed from under their black brows attentively, penetratingly and calmly into the eyes of others.” While making a serious statement, HM would put his right hand over his chest, as he did while talking to Gen Vorontsov, after defection to the Russians.
HM’s daring made him being elevated to the Naib of Imam Shamyl who was then directing a heroic struggle of the Caucasians against the Czar’s Army. Shamyl fought against the Russians from 1834 through 1859 against heavy odds with hardly any outside support. Shamyl valued HM who was hoping to succeed Shamyl. But Shamyl felt that HM had become too powerful and too arrogant and nominated his own son, as heir. This started a rift and an enraged HM defected to the Russians while his family was taken hostage by Shamyl.
The Russians were thrilled to have HM on their side. HM was hoping to get their support to get his family released from Shamyl in prisoner exchange. After that, he wanted to lead an assault on Shamyl with Russian support. The Russian Viceroy, Gen Vorontsov, promised help but then procrastinated for months while HM family’s fate was hanging by a thread. There were rumors that Shamyl was going to gouge his son’s eyes and give away his mother and wife to his murids unless HM returned to Shamyl.
HM was in a predicament: While Shamyl continued to make offers of pardon, HM knew that the fox-like Shamyl could not be trusted. The Russians, too, never believed his sincerity and kept on making false promises. Time was running out for him. He was very attached to his son and worried about his fate. Though apparently free, he was really in a gilded cage in Tiflis, Georgia.
HM planned a daring escape in broad daylight. As a desperate measure, he had decided to try and rescue his family from Shamyl on his own. During one of his morning rides that Russians allowed him, HM and his henchmen suddenly galloped away after killing their Cossack guards. Having gone six miles, they stopped to rest for the night in a thicket. They were hoping to resume their flight, expecting to be in the mountains in a few hours where they would be safe. As fate would have it, they were discovered and soon surrounded by Russian Soldiers.
HM’s last stand with five of his followers is beautifully written by Lesly Blanch in Sabres of Paradise; so read on:
Within an hour, the troops had surrounded the coppice, and HM and his five men were trapped and outnumbered, a hundred to one. The game was up, and they knew it. But not one of them spoke of surrender. While the Russian officers were shouting to them to lay down their arms, they set about making their last stand….As the five hundred attackers closed in, they could hear the Murids intoning their ritual death-chant, mournful and glorious. HM and his men unsheathed their shashkas; their ammunition was almost gone, but they still had their steel.
The rest of narrative is by that master story teller Tolstoy:
HM and his men fired only when any of the militiamen came forward, and rarely missed their aim…So it continued for more than an hour….Then HM was wounded, the bullet piercing his shoulder…..Another bullet hit HM in the left side. He lay down in the ditch, and again plugged the wound with cotton. This wound in the side was fatal, and he felt that he was dying. Memories and pictures succeeded one another with extraordinary rapidity in his imagination….Yet his strong body continued the things that he had commenced. Gathering together his last strength, he rose from behind the bank, fired his pistol at a man who was running towards him, and hit him. Then HM got quite out of the ditch, and limping heavily, went dagger in hand straight at the foe…..Some shots cracked, and he reeled and fell…..But the body that seemed to be dead, suddenly moved. First the uncovered bleeding shaven head rose; then, with hands holding to the trunk of the tree, the body rose. He seemed so terrible that those who were running towards him stopped short. But suddenly a shudder passed through him; he staggered away from the tree and fell on his face, stretched out at full length, like a thistle that had been mown down, and he moved no more.
And so it came to pass that the most haunting and extraordinary character among the Caucasian heroes was no more, defiant to the very end. A young Winston Churchill, while working as a war correspondent in Sudan in 1898 had witnessed Khalifa Abdullah’s fearless charge before being shot and with admiration called it “a dramatic dignity sometimes denied to more civilized warriors.” HM certainly had this dramatic dignity in abundance although Mr Churchill may not have been aware of it.
The news of HM’s death was conveyed to the Czar by Gen Vorontsov with a tribute:
Thus on April 24, 1852, HM died, as he had lived, desperately brave. His ambition equaled his courage, and to that there was no bound.
Czar was later to receive HM’s severed head as a battle trophy in St. Petersburg. Little did the despot know that just two generations later, his great grandson Czar Nicholas — along with his entire family -- will be butchered by the Bolsheviks bringing an end to the Romanov Dynasty. As for Shamyl, the so-called Imam was to surrender tamely to the Russians in 1859. Having lost HM, his most daring Naib for nothing else but nepotism, he was never the same force again. His designated successor and son, Khazi Mohammad, also surrendered with him bringing to an end the Murid Wars, a tragic chapter in the history of Caucasia. The memory of HM lives on and he is widely believed to be the most haunting and extraordinary character among the Caucasian heroes.
A mountain song from Daghestan runs like this:
The earth will dry on my grave,
Mother, my Mother!
And thou wilt forget me,
And over me rank grasses wave,
Father, my Father!
Nor wilt thou regret me,
When tears cease thy dark eye to lave,
Sister, dear Sister!
No more will grief fret thee!
But thou my Brother, the Elder, wilt never forget,
With vengeance denied me!
And thou, my Brother, the Younger, wilt ever regret,
Till thou liest beside me!
Hotly thou camest, O death-bearing ball that I spurned,
For thou wast my Slave!
And thou, black earth, that battle-steed trampled and churned,
Wilt cover my grave!
Cold art thou, O Death, yet I was thy Lord and thy Master!
My body sinks fast to earth; my Soul to Heaven flies faster.
We are told that HM was very fond of this song and would often ask one of his followers to sing for him. He would listen intently, and as the song would come to the end with its mournful tone, HM would close his eyes; perhaps the valiant warrior had a premonition of things to come.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)