Tolstoy’s ‘The Cossacks’

[spoiler alert] 

Phew! Now I’ve got that modelling stuff off my chest (for the time being at least…) I can move on to lighter and hopefully more entertaining things! So this week I’m going to start what will hopefully become a regular feature on what I’ve been reading. In these I’ll discuss the books a bit and see if anything interesting has come out of them for me. Obviously I’ll limit this to relevant stuff – I probably won’t review Peter Criss’s Makeup to Breakup which I’m reading now but I will give a few thoughts on the less bubble-gummy stuff.

So this week I’m looking back at Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Cossacks [Казаки]. He started it in 1853 and eventually finished in 1862, publishing it the following year. I finished this a week or so ago (the English translation of course) and was somewhat surprised to read that it was Turgenev’s favourite Tolstoy work. Given that this is the first of his I’ve read I hope that isn’t a bad sign for the rest. I didn’t hate it, it’s just that nothing really happened – but that was the point. It’s the second ‘Cossack novel’ I’ve read after Mikhail Sholokhov’s 1920s/30s epic And quiet flows the Don [also spoiler alert] and the interesting thing is that in Sholokhov’s epic everything happens! In that novel you get the late Tsarist period, the First World War, the February Revolution, the October Revolution and the Civil War as a backdrop to the lives of Cossacks caught up in the turmoil.

Clearly I’m not expecting that from this short story but I was expecting something. In this story nothing happens. To go through it simply, an upper class young man from Moscow, Dmitry Olenin, disenchanted with his superficial life joins the army and goes to the Caucasus, moving into a Cossack village near the Terek River. He lives there, realises that simple Cossack living is the ideal existence, falls in love with the beautiful Maryana, who is strangely cold and not really developed by Tolstoy, and set to be married to a local Cossack Petrushka, and then (after a raid by Chechens)… he leaves. The whole story is based around the lack of events – it’s about the rhythm of life in a Cossack village and the internal changes in Olenin as he moves from disenchantment at Moscow life to appreciating the simplicity of rural life. The lack of incident is crucial to the mental development of Olenin and attraction of Cossack life. They hunt, drink, sleep together, have children and die – and so do their children and their grandchildren. Village life is presented as unchanging over time – uncorrupted and genuine compared to the falseness of elite Moscow life. The ending is crucial in cementing this image – Olenin leaves to the tears of his kunak (friend/guest), the old Cossack ‘Uncle’ Yeroshka declares his love for him, but once he sets off and looks back down the street life has returned to normal: Yeroshka is back in conversation and has seemingly forgotten him. Life goes on in the village as it has before and will in the future – uncorrupted by ‘modernity’.

I’ve realised in writing this review I’m somewhat appreciating the story more. It’s a romantic portrayal of simple rural life – where people are genuine rather than particularly moral, and things go on as they are isolated from the falseness of aristocratic life. It actually makes an interesting prequel to Sholokhov’s epic – this is the ‘uncontaminated’ Cossack life before being thrown into turmoil by the events of the 1910s. So all in all this story has more depth than I initially gave it credit for. Given it’s seen as semi-autobiographical and based on Tolstoy’s own experiences in the Caucasus then this is a very interesting and realistic portrayal of the contrasts of life within the Russian Empire at the time, and in hindsight he captured a moment in time of ‘simple’ Cossack life 70 years before the disastrous upheavals that disrupted this world forever.


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