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To Bury, or Not to Bury? Russia Undecided about Legendary Hadji Murad’s Skull

The Kremlin set up an interagency commission to consider whether to reunite Murad's skull with his body.

P. Pinkisevich's illustration of Haji Murad, 1984. "Pravda" Publishing House.

A head severed almost 180 years ago is causing a stir in Russia today, with the government trying to decide where the skull of a storied Caucasus rebel belongs – in a museum or in a grave.

Somewhere Leo Tolstoy is smiling, watching the title character of his novel Hadji Murad haunt Russia almost two centuries later. Murad was a fearsome warrior, immortalized by Tolstoy in his classic work, which served as a literary indictment of Russia’s brutal subjugation of the peoples of the Caucasus.

Now, Russian authorities are pondering the possibility of reuniting the skull of the real life Hadji Murad, now in a museum in St. Petersburg, with his other skeletal remains, believed to lie in a little-visited grave in a remote part of Azerbaijan.

Hadji Murad's grave
Hadji Murad's grave in Azerbaijan. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, in Murad’s native Dagestan, his descendants and activists petitioned to retrieve his skull from St. Petersburg and bury it with the rest of his remains.

“All my ancestors dreamed of burying the skull of Hadji Murad along with his remains…This dream passed down the generations. I hope it will become a reality before I leave this world,” Magomedarip Hadjimuradov, a great grandson of Murad, and his Georgian wife, Gulla, said at a conference in Makhachkala last November, the RIA news service reported.

The launch of the burial campaign generated enthusiasm in Azerbaijan, where some hope that the reburial will attract visitors to Murad’s grave in Qakh, a northern district bordering Dagestan and Georgia. “If this monument is included in the list of tourist sites, it will definitely become popular with visitors given Hadji Murad’s historic significance, and that he was Tolstoy’s character,” local historian Natiq Mantash told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site.

In his homeland, and across much of the wider region, many view Murad, an ethnic Avar, as a national hero, the William Wallace of the North Caucasus, as one observer put it.

Murad once famously escaped Russian captivity by jumping from a clifftop, dragging along to their deaths his guards by the chains with which they were holding him. Landing on top of one of his guards, he suffered only a broken leg, an injury that a century later helped Azerbaijani researchers identify his remains.

Murad’s head and body went different ways after he was killed in a skirmish between Russian troops and Caucasus tribesmen in May of 1852. “He felt he was being hit on the head with a hammer and failed to understand who was doing this and why. This was the last conscious link to his body. He felt no more, and the object that was trampled and slashed by his enemies had no longer any connection with him,” Tolstoy wrote in his novel.

Said head was sent to Tbilisi, Georgia, then Russia’s key imperial outpost in the Caucasus, while the body was buried near the site where Murad made his final stand. The skull then travelled all the way to St. Petersburg and is now gathering dust in the Kunstkamera, a museum established by Peter the Great in the early 18th century and dedicated to anthropology and ethnography.

Azerbaijani authorities have not publicly weighed in on the calls to bury the skull in the grave in Qakh, but activists in Dagestan say that Azerbaijani officials are receptive to the idea. The ball, however, is in Russia’s court.

Kunstkamera museum officials in St. Petersburg do not appeared particularly eager to surrender the skull. Some Russian scientists reportedly expressed concern that the reburial would somehow encourage separatism and Islamic insurgency, which has survived in the North Caucasus from Hadji Murad's time to the present. Subsequently, the Kremlin stepped in to set up an interagency commission to consider the matter.

The Kunstkamera administration now refers all inquiries about the fate of Murad’s remains to the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the commission’s work. “Pursuant to the order of the Ministry of Culture, work documents of the commission are classified as ‘for internal use only.’ The museum’s administration is not authorized to comment on these documents,” a Kunstkamera representative told Eurasianet.org in an emailed statement.

The skull commission is now working to identify and cross-reference all of Murad's remains, according to the Russian Ministry of Culture. “After the results of the forensic expertise come in, the commission will proceed to the next stage, where all interested parties will get involved,” the Ministry of Culture told Eurasianet.

The Kremlin has reasons to tread carefully. Matters of death are as important as those of life in the Caucasus, with all its elaborate traditions of burial and commemoration. But it is not just about weighing the value of human remains as an anthropological exhibit against the emotional significance they constitute for the descendants and countrymen. There are worries, too, about relighting the historic grudges that nations in the North Caucasus hold against the Russian rule. Murad, both as a historic figure and literary character, came to epitomize the struggle of North Caucasian people against imperialist Russian politics.

For all his fame as a resistance hero, Murad did make attempts to forge tactical alliances with the Russians to help deal with domestic enemies in his homeland, then torn by infighting no less than by the Russian invasion. He eventually turned himself over to the Russians after falling out with Imam Shamil, a fellow ethnic Avar and the powerful leader of the Muslims of the North Caucasus.

Hadji Murad
"Hadji Murad of Khunzakh" portrait by Grigory Grigorievich Gagarin. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

But Murad’s hopes that the Russians would provide him with men and guns to fight the common enemy, Shamil, never materialized. Mistrusted by Russian commanders, he was kept in a gilded cage at a court in Tbilisi, “a very civilized town, quite successfully imitating St. Petersburg,” in Tolstoy’s recollection.

“As both a mountaineer and a devout Muslim, Haji Murad, can only have been horrified at the sybaritic comforts of the city, with its marble hallways, women rude enough to address him, wine poured and drunk before him,” British author Nicholas Griffin wrote in his book, “Caucasus: in the Wake of the Warriors.”

Murad eventually attempted an escape that ultimately cost him his much-debated head. If Tolstoy were to weigh in on this debate, perhaps it would be through the voice of his character Marya Dimitriyevna, a compassionate and humane commentator on the vain cruelty of war. “You are butchers and that’s all there is to it,” she remarks in the final pages of the book, after Russian soldiers fetch Murad’s head. “A dead body should be buried and they make a mockery of it.”

Giorgi Lomsadze is a Tbilisi-based journalist and author of Eurasianet's "Tamada Tales" blog. 

To Bury, or Not to Bury? Russia Undecided about Legendary Hadji Murad’s Skull

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