The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy is a short novel about the experiences of Olenin, a young Russian aristocrat, who decides to join the army and finds himself in a Cossack village during the Caucasian War (1817-1864). The novel explores a number of themes that were to become ever more important to Tolstoy as he developed as a writer: the purpose of life and nature of happiness and the truth of primitive rural life contrasted with the sophisticated culture of Russian urbane society. Tolstoy went on to write two of the most famous novels in history: War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but it was in The Cossacks that he started to find his voice as a writer.
The Cossacks was Tolstoy’s first masterpiece. Published in 1863, it is the supreme example of Tolstoy’s ability to make the familiar strange: at first glance it appears to be a retelling of the Russian romantic cliché of a young man riding off to the Caucasus, but rather than following the cliché Tolstoy instead examines a number of themes that he would develop in his later works: such as the interaction of different social classes, pacifism, and the nature of happiness and man’s purpose in life.
The Cossacks begins with Olenin in Moscow rejecting his life as a dissolute aristocrat for a stint in the army. The narrative then shifts to a Cossack village on the Caucasian border, where we are introduced to three characters that Olenin will meet later: Lukashka, a young Cossack soldier; Maryanka, a young woman who Lukashka plans to marry, and Eroshka, an experienced Cossack huntsman and rogue. Tolstoy lays the foundations for the rest of the novel here by describing the village, the life of the Cossacks defending the border against the Muslim Chechens, as well as the characters of the other three main protagonists of the story.
Olenin arrives with part of an infantry regiment and is quartered in the house of Maryanka’s parents (her father is an officer in the Cossack regiment that guards the border). He has very little contact with her though, despite falling in love with her at first sight. Instead he prefers the company of Eroshka, who shows him how to hunt in the woods along the Terek River. Olenin is content with life – he enjoys nature and the simplicity of life and the beauty around him. He decides that to be happy is to help others, and when he meets Lukashka, he befriends him and attempts to do him a favour. When he finds out that the young Cossack does not have his own horse, he gives him one of his own (Olenin is rich and owns several).
Lukashka and Maryanka are to be wed, but due to Lukashka’s duties guarding the border, the marriage is delayed. The sexual tension between Olenin and Maryanka builds as she complains to her friend that he has never paid her any attention. Olenin’s friend Beletsky, another Russian aristocrat, encourages him to make advances upon Maryanka. Olenin does this, and when hearing about this Lukashka does not invite him to the betrothal party – instead he spends the night with Eroshka. However, Maryanka promises to consider Olenin’s marriage proposal.
The novel ends with a military encounter as Olenin joins a group of Cossacks, including Lukashka, who intercept a group of Chechen raiders. The Chechens are defeated, but Lukashka is wounded and dies. Olenin asks Maryanka to marry him and his angrily rejected. He leaves the village, saying his goodbyes to Eroshka, who appears sad to see him go, but once his back is turned gets on with his life in the village once more.
Tolstoy’s own experiences in the Caucasian War
The Cossacks was not finished until nine years after Tolstoy’s own journey to the Caucasus. The novel was influenced by his time there, but as we shall see was not strictly autobiographical.
In 1851, like Olenin Tolstoy ran away from a difficult situation – in this case gambling debts, and decided to accompany his elder brother Nikolay, an army officer, when he returned from leave. They left the family home, Yasnaya Polyana, on 29th April 1851, spending a few days in Moscow and then to the Caucasus via Kazan. At the time he expressed his ‘contempt for society’ in his diary. They then travelled south by barge on the Volga. Along the banks of the river Tolstoy had his first sight of the exotically clad Cossacks.
Their destination was the village of Starogladkovskaya on the banks of the Terek. In physical terms it was very much like the village in The Cossacks – the forest, the Terek, the low, thatched houses, the beautiful women, the Oriental style of clothing borrowed from the Tartars across the river, the beauty of the mountains in the distance.
Leo Tolstoy was at a loose end in Starogladkovskaya. He was a civilian with nothing to do except gambling with his brother’s officer colleagues – a vice that he was dangerously addicted to.
The two brothers were billeted in the house of Yepishka Sekhin, an octogenarian Cossack, very similar to Eroshka of The Cossacks in his personality and outlook on life. Yepishka was described in Tolstoy’s diaries as ‘a rogue and a joker’.
In The Cossacks Olenin’s desire for romance with a Cossack woman is never fulfilled, yet in reality Tolstoy enjoyed a steady stream of sexual encounters with women in the village, Eroshka acting as a procurer for him. For instance there was Katya, whose ‘songs, eyes, smiles, breasts and tender words’ entranced him. These liaisons continued through the summer, until in the autumn, under Nikolay’s guidance he decided to join the regular army and moved to Tiflis with the intention of signing up, which he duly did in October, entering the same artillery battery as his brother as a non-commissioned officer, 4th class. As well as being in Tiflis to take the necessary military exams, he was also in need of medical attention for venereal disease caught while in the Cossack village.
In the Caucasus Tolstoy found the beauty of nature and the lifestyle of the Cossacks which was to bring such inspiration to his novel, but unlike Olenin, he did not look upon the local women of the village with high romantic ideals.