Those who forget history are condemned to relive it. It is interesting to see how one can learn so much by going back a century to life after the Second World War, or even further back when Tolstoy wrote his last book about Hadji Murat.
The situation across the world was in turmoil then, and it is that way even now – as one can see in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Ukraine among other hotspots of conflict today. These conflicts will occupy historians and for years to come. They will have enough material to work on. Traumas are being played out on our television screens and mobile phones. Information – whether true or fake – is rampant on social media.
Now that Russia is spreading its tentacles back into regions that were once part of the Soviet Union, it seems timely to see how historical fiction can teach us lessons.
Tolstoy wrote his story of a historical warrior Hadji Murat, a Checehn rebel who fought against the Tsarist Russian Empire for over thirty years. After a feud with his commander, Murat defects to the other side, and then is not to be trusted by either side.
The backdrop of Tolstoy’s tale is a Russian Empire that had begun expanding into the Caucasus region during the 1780s. That area was inhabited by Muslim Chechens. Various local alliances banded together to help rescue their land. Murat became the warrior who serves to protect their nation. Tolstoy’s narrative encapsulated an understanding of how people behave during wartime.
Tolstoy himself had fought in the Caucasus region in 1851, shortly after joining the military the year before as a 23-year-old. He witnessed events which he relived through fiction almost five decades later.
It is said that memories come to us in waves. It was perhaps natural for Tolstoy, as he entered the last phase of his life, to recall his younger days as a fighting soldier. Jung referred to two halves of life. In the first, we grow and build our own sense of identity, importance and security. Ego or the Self matters. By the second phase of life, that Ego holds you together. We endure without breaking.
According to Jung, in the second half of life, it is no longer enough to be wealthy or successful. One needs a deeper sense of purpose. The nostalgia of youth converts into the present, in Tolstoy’s case through fiction.
His book is fascinating as it reveals what we know to be true even now – that troops in the field during a war have very little to do with decision-makers, whose personal and political concerns dictate whether to enter into war, or the course of it, or when to end it. Countless lives are lost in the process – of sons, fathers, mothers and wives. And then there are those lives are forever changed.
Hajdi Murat tries to escape and to rescue his family. When his severed head is brought to the Russian veterans, they express shock as they had learnt to respect him as a warrior.
Today countless people are caught in a crossfire of violence that is not of their own making. Countless people live out their own reality version of fictionalised events.
Fiction is intended to teach us moral lessons and reminds us of timeless truths about the nature of war. Walt Whitman wrote about the US Civil War that the real war will never get into books. There are many who experience the current horrors of war who will never make it into fiction or history, rather like the tomb of unnamed soldiers which I drive past in Washington DC on a weekly basis.
Whoever could have thought that what Tolstoy wrote about that time would be a precursor to what would recur two centuries later? It is a powerful reminder that we are condemned to relive history, over and over again.