When he set off for the Caucasus in the early 1850s, the young Leo Tolstoy was in many ways much the same as most other young noblemen: caught up in gambling and chasing women, concerned with appearances and enjoying the moment. But even then Tolstoy was already thinking about other, more serious, more permanent things. The novella “Cossacks” was one of the earlier books he began, in the early 1850s, although it was not completed until 1862 and not published in its final form until January 1863.
“Cossacks” has many of the hallmarks of early Tolstoy: the writing is, while not as spare as his later work, elegant and clear, with considerable use of dialogue to convey both plot and character. The setting is delineated with local details on every level: clothes, horses, food, housing, landscape, and language are all used to convey the life of the Caucasian Cossack life. The impression is one of total immersion into a vibrant, foreign culture, one that attracts and repels the reader just as it does Olenin (“Deer”), the Russian officer who is the main character.
Olenin is drawn to the Cossack lifestyle for its simplicity and its closeness to nature. He believes that they are happier than he is because they think less about life and their place in it, a common belief amongst his aristocratic characters. In retrospect it’s easy to criticize that belief–surely all people think about life and their place in it, and probably even very “simple” people live fully fledged inner lives–but “Cossacks” does bring up the eternal issue of how much of the experience of all living beings (Tolstoy, as do I, includes non-human animals in his considerations) is shared, and how much is dependent on specific, individual experience. Olenin, the educated aristocrat, can comprehend his life through his knowledge of European and Classical literature, while Lukashka, his simple Cossack counterpart, tells tales and sings folk songs, and the “abreks”–Caucasian warriors–rarely speak at all and are seen only from the outside, although they, too, it is suggested, are living full inner lives, complete with recognizable emotions such as sorrow and fear. The Cossacks speak Tatar almost as much as they do Russian–when Lukashka is wounded he curses in a mixture of Tatar and Russian, for example, and most of the Cossacks drop Tatar and Arabic words into their speech at important moments–dress like Abreks, and “dzhigit”–act the dashing hero, from the Caucasian word for it–on their horses when they want to show off; in many ways they are more Caucasian than they are Russian, and they admire their Chechen counterparts more than they do their Russian masters. This attraction-repulsion, and simultaneous sensation of total merging with the Other and total inability to ever understand and become one with the Other, is characteristic of Tolstoy’s work and shows a lifelong concern of his in all his writings.
For all its philosophy, though, “Cossacks” is at its heart a ripping yarn, with hunts, battles, and a tense love triangle between the refined, reflective Olenin, the spontaneous child of nature Lukashka, and the strong-willed, independent Maryana, who like all the Cossack women is treated both by the characters and the author as something between a unique and powerful individual and a piece of goods to be bought and sold. Longtime fans of Tolstoy owe it to themselves to read this story, while readers who want to try some Tolstoy but are intimidated by the big novels will find this a much more approachable introduction to the great master’s work.
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