Monday, August 23, 2021

The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy

Love and war in the Caucasus
Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Cossacks was originally published in 1863 under the title of Young Manhood. That choice of title would lead one to believe that this book could perhaps be seen as a continuation of Tolstoy’s earlier trilogy of three novels entitled Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Like those three previous novels, The Cossacks is a semi-autobiographical work based on Tolstoy’s real-life experiences. Since this novel is told in the third person with fictional characters, one would assume it is only loosely based on his own life. The love triangle around which the story revolves may be pure invention. Tolstoy did serve in the military during the Caucasian War, however, and his memories no doubt contributed to his vivid depictions of the sights and sounds of the Caucasus and the culture and lifestyle of its inhabitants.

Like Tolstoy, the novel’s protagonist, Dmitry Andreich Olenin, was a bit of a hellraiser in his youth. Olenin apparently made love to a woman he didn’t actually love, and his reputation has been tarnished by the scandalous affair. Fed up with the gossip and pettiness of Moscow society life, Olenin decides to retreat into the rural countryside. He enlists for military service in the Caucasus, where the Russians and Cossacks are fighting the Chechens. An independently wealthy gentleman jaded by big-city life, Olenin has all sorts of romantic notions about the Cossacks and their “simple” way of life. He boards with a Cossack family and to some extent “goes native,” befriending the Cossacks and embracing their lifestyle. His new friends can’t help but view him as an outsider, however, because of his wealth and upbringing. During the Caucasian War it was common for Russian officers to take up with Cossack girls. Burned by his past, Olenin resists this temptation for a more monastic lifestyle. Among the family he boards with, however, is the town’s loveliest maiden, Maryanka, and Olenin can’t help having his head turned by this enchanting young woman.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian authors were the most ardent proponents of realism and the foremost practitioners of the genre. Tolstoy expertly applies the realist lens to Cossack society and the Caucasus environment. This novel, however, still has a touch of Victorian romanticism about it. The rural setting is very idyllic, the love affairs somewhat idealized, and the depictions of the Cossacks come across as bucolic stereotypes. Maybe that’s because of the time period in which it was written, or perhaps because so much of the story is told through the eyes of Olenin. Though the story is related in the third person, Olenin’s perspective amounts to an unreliable narrator, his vision colored by his disappointment in Moscow society and his longing to find a place where he belongs. The reader never really feels like he fits in this environment, however, which was probably Tolstoy’s intention.

The Cossacks is a very good novel, perhaps one of Tolstoy’s best. I may have enjoyed it more had I not recently read Mikhail Sholokhov’s Cossack epic And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea. These twentieth-century novels by the Soviet Nobel laureate are masterpieces of realism that surpass Tolstoy’s Cossacks in just about every aspect. In the roughly 70 years between Tolstoy’s and Sholokhov’s books, realism became grittier and more brutally frank. As a result, Sholokhov’s Cossack novels approach the apex of the art form, achieving a literary artistry almost on a par with Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace.

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