The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

The Cossacks

The Cossacks is an early novella by Tolstoy, based on his tour of duty in the Caucasus region with the Russian army, when he lived amongst Cossacks. Tolstoy was stationed in the Caucasus in the early 1850s. He worked on The Cossacks off and on starting then for about a decade before completing it. In the meantime he had some other works published, but the major novels that he is most famous for came later.

The stand-in for Tolstoy in the book is Dmitri Olenin. How autobiographical the book is I’m not sure (Wikipedia says it is “believed to be somewhat autobiographical”), but I suspect it’s much more autobiographical in terms of the psychological and emotional state and changing values of Olenin/Tolstoy than in terms of the details of the specific events.

Olenin’s lifestyle as not only a nobleman but among the richest of noblemen is scandalously dissolute—drunkenness, chasing women, running up gambling debts, etc.—yet at the same time he has a tendency toward moralism and is always searching for the meaning of life and how one ought to live.

Dissatisfied with the phoniness and superficiality of his wild life in Russian society, he enters the army as a cadet rather than an officer (though he’s still accompanied by a servant and has pretty much unlimited money to toss around to make his army life as comfortable as he chooses).

There is certainly awkwardness in his relations with the Cossacks as they get to know each other, but he comes to really appreciate them. He sees their simple life as genuine in a way that the life he came from was not. He “goes native”—hunting with them and drinking with them (Cossacks apparently spend about 23 hours and 58 minutes per day drinking “chikhir,” a type of wine), and speculates about relinquishing all his money and privileges and settling down in a Cossack village to live the rest of his life as a Cossack and marry a Cossack woman.

He is thrilled to discover that with this change of scene he is becoming a much more moral person—altruistic, able to love without sexual desire, happy to commit himself to a life of serving others.

But he goes back and forth on this, because he remains a young man of very strong passions, and of longstanding habits very much at odds with his moral sensibilities. As a result of his interaction with an old acquaintance who is also now in the army and arrives in the same Cossack village, his falling in love with a Cossack girl who may or may not reciprocate his feelings, and his frequent drunkenness (he can’t very well become a Cossack without imbibing massive amounts of chikhir after all), he backslides into more self-interested behavior. At times, but only at times, seeking happiness by following one’s passions in an uninhibited way seems to him to be more the natural and right way to live than sticking to his determination to practice self-restraint and live for others.

I say that in terms of Olenin’s psychological development I suspect this is highly autobiographical because all of this sounds very, very much like Tolstoy to me. In real life he eventually decided that an extreme moral purity was obligatory, but his passions were always in conflict with this.

I’m a little surprised Tolstoy chose an omniscient narrator for a semi-autobiographical work. You would think the story would be told from Olenin’s perspective, but while we are indeed kept informed of what is going on inside Olenin’s head, there is much that happens in this book that doesn’t involve Olenin at all, neither as a participant nor an observer. It’s sort of the story of this Cossack village during the time Olenin lived there, rather than (just) the story of Olenin’s living there.

The dialogue amongst the Cossacks is oddly stilted. (It generally sounds like: “Will you go now for the horses?” “I will go now for the horses.” “That is good that you will go for the horses.”) I doubt a novelist of Tolstoy’s abilities has such a tin ear for dialogue, so I assume this is accurate, that the Cossacks typically talked like this in real life. Or I suppose it could be a rotten translation.

There is a fair amount of conflict between the Russians and the Cossacks. Though they are nominally on the same side—the Cossacks being a part of the Russian empire and fighting with the Russians against the Chechens and others along the border—the Cossacks have contempt for the Russians.

The Russian soldiers are billeted in Cossack homes, much to the inconvenience and indignation of the Cossacks. Their opposition does not rise to the level of actual violence against the Russian troops, at least not in this novel, but is more along the lines of resentment and verbal abuse. (The woman whose house Olenin is to stay in’s first words to him upon meeting him are, “What have you come for, to scoff at us? I’ll teach you scoffing, may the Black Plague strike you down!”)

The Cossacks speak of having more respect for the Chechens than for the Russians. Certainly they regard the Chechens as superior fighters. It’s true that they kill Chechens when the opportunity arises, but they seem to treat that as just kind of random chance of who is on what side of a given war. They recognize the Chechens as much like themselves, people with similar values and lifestyles that when they’re not killing each other they can get drunk with and haggle with, whereas the Russians are overbearing oaf outsiders.

I’m sure the contempt isn’t all one way. Most of the Russians have contempt for the Cossacks as well, seeing them as primitive folks who bring little of value to the table beyond being good to party with and having beautiful women who are often available to Russian soldiers. But beyond the chikhir and the pussy, there’s not much in these Cossack villages to interest the typical Russian.

Olenin of course is the exception. He not only doesn’t think the Cossacks are inferior to Russians, he thinks that if anything they are superior. He very much wants to fit in with them, and if possible marry the Cossack woman he has fallen in love with and live happily ever after as a Cossack. But it’s ambiguous how receptive they are to him. Various Cossacks to varying degrees respond favorably to him, but there’s always the sense that when push comes to shove their loyalty will be to each other, not to this peculiar outsider.

Here’s an obscure reference, but for some reason what kept running through my head in contemplating Olenin’s flirtations with the Cossack woman and how that does or doesn’t work out for him was the 1988 gang film Colors with Robert Duvall and Sean Penn as cops, in which the Penn character becomes enamored with Latina gang girl Maria Conchita Alonso and thinks a “love conquers all” dynamic will allow the large cultural divide between them to be bridged, only to be ultimately disillusioned on this point.

In the end, I tend to agree more with Olenin’s distaste for Russian high society than his embracing of the Cossacks. The Cossacks as depicted in the book don’t totally lack admirable qualities, but they come across as a pretty ignorant, savage bunch of drunks. (The edition of The Cossacks that I have includes an Introduction by Cynthia Ozick, and Ozick implies that in real life they were even worse, i.e., that Tolstoy romanticizes them here. She points out that they have an especially high volume of blood on their hands from their frequent and enthusiastic participation in genocidal pogroms against Jews.)

The story in The Cossacks is mildly interesting, though certainly not on a par with Tolstoy’s best work. For me its greatest value is the autobiographical one of gaining some insight into the young Tolstoy’s thought processes during the time of his life when he was living roughly as Olenin does here.

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