Human Flower Project
In the last years of his life, the great novelist began his final work inspired by an intractable thistle and an 18th C. Muslim chieftan, just as tough.
Leo Tolstoy with hyacinths and one of his grandchildren
Photo: via Lance Mannion
The conflict between Russia and Chechnya goes back at least two centuries. A young Leo Tolstoy, in his years as a soldier, served in the Caucuses and learned first hand of the Muslim tribes’ resistance to Russian rule.
Many decades later, he wrote, “I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago which I had partly seen myself, partly heard from eyewitnesses, and in part imagined.” From 1896-1904, Tolstoy wrote his fictionalized account of Hadji Murad, a tribal chieftan and warrior whose life was wrenched apart by the strife between his homeland and the great power to the East. This story was the author’s final work. Tolstoy said that catching sight of a wild thistle, he remembered the great Muslim, his resistance, endurance and tragic end.
Photo: Victoria, a.k.a. vi4kin
So the book Hadji Murat begins…
“I was returning home by fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers – red, white and pink scented tufty clover; milk white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centres and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plantains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder toward evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly.
“I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighbourhood they call ‘Tartar’ and carefully avoid when mowing – or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands.
Thistle, also known as the “Tartar”
“Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the centre of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side—even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand – but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to its coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.
“But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!”