As a Russian artillery officer, the author of War and Peace saw his first combat in an all-too-familiar setting: Chechnya.
Given that most Americans’ experience with Leo Tolstoy consists of 1,424-page forced march through War and Peace during freshman English, it is not surprising that comparatively few readers return for a second look at his other works. But many of Tolstoy’s other writings, especially some of his early stories on Chechnya and the Chechen fighters of his time, still resonate today. As a young artillery officer in the Russian army, he served in Chechnya and in Crimea, and it was in those campaigns that Tolstoy got his firsthand experience of war.
The Russians’ occupation of the Caucasus in the mid-19th century seems eerily parallel to the Russian army’s present-day experience there. Chechen insurgents were deemed terrorists and criminals by the Russian occupiers and were called patriots by the local people who supported them. Russian troops were shelling Chechen villages. There were the unfathomable intrigues among rival warlords who changed sides several times a year. There were even attempts to establish an Islamic state under sharia law, particularly by the Avar Imam Shamil, who fought against the Russians during Tolstoy’s 1851-1854 tenure in Chechnya. Russia countered with a horrific campaign against the Imam Shamil’s resistance movement in 1859, a campaign that fired Tolstoy’s sensibilities and writing.
That Tolstoy was on the scene to witness this combat and to write about it came as a result of several failures that changed his life. The son of a count, Tolstoy misspent his adolescence in the classic fashion of dissolute young Russian noblemen of that era—gambling, drinking and whoring. He first failed at language school, then dropped out of law school when he was hospitalized for syphilis. He tried his hand at humanitarian work in a peasant village, but was considered useless by the villagers themselves.
Then in 1852 he joined an artillery regiment at age 24 with an older brother, Nicholai, who was an officer at a Cossack outpost on the Chechen front. As a young officer, Leo Tolstoy participated in a few counterinsurgency raids, and evidently was considered a reasonably conscientious soldier. But his was mainly the life of a noble officer with plenty of money as well as spare time to write the short stories and dispatches that illuminate that portion of military history in which he participated, and which inform his later writings on warfare.
Tolstoy cared little for military history as such or for those who write it. Military historians, Tolstoy said, “are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” He was not interested in knowing “how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.”
Instead, Tolstoy wanted to understand what in society drove men to kill other men. In his early stories, and in his final novel, he portrayed the struggles of a complex Chechen society, its Muslims and Christians, and its fighters unsparingly. He detailed both its cruelty— as often as not against its own people—and its authentic piety. Nor did Tolstoy spare his own people, depicting the Russians in all their drunkenness, gluttony, low-life sexuality and generally banal and cruel existence, save for those few Russian officers and enlisted men who showed sympathy for the Chechen cause.
His writings based on his experiences in Chechnya were among his earliest successes, especially a short story titled “The Raid: A Volunteer’s Story,” published in 1853 by The Contemporary, St. Petersburg’s leading literary journal. The nighttime raid recounted was strictly a punitive exercise that is remarkably evocative of 21st-century Russian crackdowns targeting villages suspected of harboring guerrillas.
When “The Raid” was originally published, the passages depicting the brutality of the Russian army toward the native insurgents were excised by the tsar’s all-powerful literary censor. Even after the Russian subjugation of the Chechens in 1854, and his own transfer to serve at the Crimean War siege of Sevastapol, Tolstoy continued to write about Chechnya, in a story titled “The Woodfelling,” which was again widely acclaimed.
The Chechens may not love Russians in general, then or now, but they do love Tolstoy. In the village of Starogladovskaya, where he served for three years, a museum is dedicated to him, one that has amazingly survived the two most recent Chechen wars and continues to operate despite lack of formal funding, thanks to Chechen volunteers. There is even a Leo Tolstoy school and a monument, neither of which was bombed by the Russians in the recent fighting, though whether it was spared out of Russian respect for the literary giant, as the locals claim, or mere providence, is unknown.
Tolstoy loved the Chechens in return. While much of what he saw in the Caucasian people was eventually described in his 1863 novel The Cossacks, his most important work on Chechnya was written in his last years. In 1911 his powerful short novel Hadji Murat was published. The title character is a confusing and self-contradictory Muslim chieftain who fights the great military strength of Russia. Sympathetic to Chechens and unsympathetic toward the tsar, this was Tolstoy’s last substantial work, and it was not published until after his death in 1910. It remains his least known and perhaps his least popular novel in the United States and Russia, though the views it expresses seem quite contemporary:
What happened was what always happens when a state possessing great military strength enters into relations with primitive, small peoples living their independent lives. Either on the pretext of self-defense, even though any attacks are always provoked by the offenses of the strong neighbor, or on the pretext of bringing civilization to a wild people, even though this wild people lives incomparably better and more peacefully than its civilizers…the servants of large military states commit all sorts of villainy against small nations, insisting that it is impossible to deal with them in any other way.
During the 1990s Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Federation, developed a Chechen war plan that flew in the face of Russia’s top military advisers. Among them was Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of Russia’s State Duma Defense Committee and a retired military officer, who in November 1994 tried desperately to forestall the disastrous invasion of Chechnya, which did take place two weeks later.
Along with Caucasus specialist Sergei Arutyunov, Yushenkov tried to explain to the Kremlin leadership that Chechens had very long memories, and know seven generations of ancestors’ names, how they died under Catherine the Great, under Nicholas I, under Josef Stalin, even the location of their tombstones. “Even the smallest Chechen boy,” Arutyunov noted, “already knows well the entire history of the sufferings of his people.”
But Yeltsin’s advisers were unswayed and continued to believe that Russia would be in and out of Chechnya in the same quick and successful fashion as the U.S. invasion of Haiti.
Yushenkov realized at last that he could never convince them of their hubris.
“Please then,” Yushenkov said finally, “at least read Tolstoy.”
Victor Verney is a history writer in Des Moines, Iowa. For further reading, he recommends: The Crimean War 1853-1856, by Winfried Baumgart; and Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, by Dominic Lieven.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.