Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Boston marathon bombing: how it connects Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace

Echoes of one of Tolstoy's great works, inspired by the conflict between Russia and Chechnya, can be found in the final novel by David Foster Wallace.

By Nina MartyrisContributor / April 26, 2013

Tolstoy's novel 'Hadji Murad' reflects the author's fascination with the East-West struggle between the Europeanized rulers of Russia and the Muslims of Chechnya.


The Boston Marathon bombing brought together two disparate worlds: Cambridge and Chechnya. And at the same time it reasserted a connection between two great writers: Leo Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace.

Skip to next paragraph

Recent posts

In the United States, many people became focused on the strife in Chechnya only last week. Tolstoy beat us by more than a century. His 1912 novel "Hadji Murad" (written years earlier) tells a story of violence between Chechens and Russians that was historic even then. 

This slim novel – a sapling when compared to the oaks of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" but with a theme as weighty – tells the tragic story of the eponymous Avar warrior, who, after a falling out with a Chechen chief, turns himself over to the Russians, escapes from them, only to find himself trapped like an animal in a ditch between the Russian militia and his own people. Finally, another tribesman cuts off his head. It is a brutal story but softened with touches of great tenderness and empathy, both for the ordinary Chechen as well as the ordinary Russian soldier.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Long before the Boston Marathon bombing, "Hadji Murad" seems to have left its imprint on the troubled and capacious mind of a writer who made Boston his home for three years: David Foster Wallace, author of the peculiarly brilliant novel "Infinite Jest." It is not in "Infinite Jest," however, that we see the striking influence of Tolstoy. Instead, it is found in Wallace's last work, "The Pale King" – an unfinished novel completed and published in 2011, three years after Wallace's 2008 suicide.

Theme-wise the two novels are completely different. ("The Pale King," set in Illinois in the 1980s, satirizes the Internal Revenue Service.) The similarity is found in the form and style of the first chapter. The opening paragraph of "The Pale King," in which the weeds and wild flowers in an Illinois field are described with a forensic clarity, is an unmistakable bow to the first page of "Hadji Murad," where the flowers and weeds of the Chechen mountains are evoked with the rustic lyricism that Tolstoy did so well.

Consider the opening of Tolstoy’s novel:


  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


What are you reading?

Let me know about a good book you've read recently, or about the book that's currently on your bedside table. Why did you pick it up? Are you enjoying it?

Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!