Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Hadji Murad" by Leo Tolstoy

Well, I finished my first book by Tolstoy. The last short story in this collection is "Hadji Murad," set in the 19th Russian war with the Chechnyans. (I know nothing of Russian history, but still found the story enlightening.)

The story starts with the narrator describing the act of destroying a beautiful thistle as he tries to extract it from a plant. The act reminds him of how mankind destroys things when we try to harvest them for our own purposes. Case in point, the narrator remarks, the life of Hadji Murad. Madji Murad was a noble man, destroyed by the politics of the Russians and Chhechnyan Muslims. The story then moves to recount the life and death of this young Muslim "warlord" and his battles with the Russians and with rival Muslim "warlords."

The story is great and it makes some revealing parallels between the ancient Chechnyan Muslim culture (thought to be barbarous by the Russian aristocracy) and the Russian aristocracy itself. Hadji Murad is certainly the hero of the story--he is noble, loyal, proud, pious, and strong. However, he is not idealized. Tolstoy points out that he and his contemporaries are polygamists, they punish rebels by maiming or beheading them, and they maintain blood feuds between rival tribes for generations. At the same time, the Russian artistrocracy is lampooned in the story. Tolstoy exposes their petty jealousy and rivalries, debauchery, and greed.

Tolstoy includes just enough stereotypical ancient Muslim customs to make westerners shake their heads in disapproval, only to follow them up with parallels in Russian culture. (This is the same rhetorical technique many of the ancient Israelite prophets used.) For instance, a westerner might look down on Muslim polygamy, but when Hadji Murad is taken to a Russian ball, topless women are paraded around for the men the gawk at, and only Hadji Murad disaproves. Further, westerners might scoff at the Muslim blood feuds, but Hadji Murad is able to identify "tribalism" within the Russian society. When he surrenders to the Russians, he can tell by way of their mannerisms (he doesn't speak Russian) who is "really" in charge. Although Meller-Zakomelsky was the ranking officer in the camp, Vorontsov, being the son of an aristocrat, was viewed as "more important" by the soldiers. Hadji Murad picks up on this and refuses to talk to anyone except Vorontsov.

As usual, Tolstoy has amazing insight into human behavior. In this case, he is right to point out the similarity of most cultures. In 21st century America, we subconciously think that we are "more civilized" than say the native tribes high in the Andes mountains. In reality, our cultures are structured more or less the same. Further, America prides itself as being a "democracy," but you can see signs of an aristrocracy. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, that means for at least 24 straight years this country will have been run by someone from either the Bush or the Clinton family. Statistically, would that happen in a true democracy? Now, granted, there are systems in place in America in which a "nobody" can rise to the top through innovation, but this is certainly the exception rather than the rule.

I have worked with the urban poor and the suburban rich, and I have to say that the two cultures are pretty similar. People sort themselves through power plays. Among the urban poor, those power plays might look like street fights or drive-bys; among the suburban rich they might look like "networking" with people from the same ivy-league league school or the same country club. (Among pastors it might be sorting based on the size of one's congregation or budget.) It's the same game, just a different context.

To this, Christ confronts us with the challenge to serve people--the last will be first and the first will be last. Application of that message might look slightly different to a gang member in Tacoma than it does to a businessman in Gig Harbor, but it's the same challenge to both groups. But, man, is that a hard message to preach to people.

I loved reading Tolstoy, but War and Peace and Anna Karenina are some big books.

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