“Listen Then, Avars, to What I Tell You”: The Unification of Chechen and Avar Oral Culture in Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and Hadji Murat
This essay examines the subversive potential of folk song and performance in Tolstoy’s first novel, The Cossacks  and his final novel, Hadji Murat . I trace Tolstoy’s ethnographic interest in the Dagestani Avar Song of Khochbar back to his pioneering transliteration and translation of Chechen uzami in 1852 and examine how Avar and Chechen folk song traditions influenced these novels. Arguing that Tolstoy privileged the oral tradition over written text as an instance of ethical cultural expression, I show how this position informed The Cossacks in the novel’s presentation of Chechen resistance to Russian imperialism, and addressed the conflicting identities of Russians, Terek Cossacks, Chechens, and Dagestani Avars. I argue that Tolstoy revisited the distinction between oral performance and writing in Hadji Murat by adapting the Song of Khochbar to his representation of the historical Avar resistance fighter, Hadji Murat. Finally, I discuss how the oral performance characteristic of Chechen and Avar communities poses a sociopolitical challenge to the Russian empire’s colonial hegemony by troubling and resisting the writing culture that represents and legitimizes it.
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