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Tolstoy explores the dissatisfaction a young Russian aristocrat holds towards the emptiness of high-society, and his subsequent journey in search of meaning. The aristocrat finds himself as a young Russian army officer, serving at a remote Cossack outpost in the Caucasus. Here he finds that his wealth and breeding do not garner him respect. Instead he is looked upon as an outsider, and an unwelcome one at that.
Nevertheless, the aristocrat finds himself in love with a beautiful Cossack girl, who is promised to a Cossack warrior. Tolstoy discusses the emotions that rise between these three parties regarding love, class, and sacrifice.
Indeed, The Cossacks is great first exposure to Leo Tolstoy and his descriptive writing style is sure to lead the reader to explore more of his works.
Leo Tolstoy's _The Cossacks_ (begun in 1852 and published in 1862) is about a young aristocrat's quest for happiness and his uncertainty about what will make him happy--whether a life given up to the senses or a life devoted to others. The novel begins with a late night discussion in a Moscow alehouse about Olenin's relationship with a wealthy Moscow woman whom he is about to abandon. One of his friends responds, "You have not yet loved, and you don't know what love is!" Dmitri bids his friends adieu and sets out by carriage for a military assignment in the faraway Caucasus to start life anew and to find out what love means (ironically, while serving as a military cadet in a war).
The novel contrasts Dmitri Olenin with Lukashka the Snatcher, a young fearless Cossack soldier admired by everyone in his village. While Dmitri's life lacks purpose and direction, Lukashka is driven to become an ideal Cossack warrior. Lukashka is a carouser who is a brave fighter. Dmitri envies Lukashka's life and, in particular, the defined Cossack traditions to which Lukashka devotes himself.
In an incredible early scene, Tolstoy introduces Lukashka on duty at a military look-out point that protects the Cossack village from Chechen "marauders." The tension of the scene and the philosophical undertones also reminded me immediately of Hemingway--as another reviewer commented. In a brilliant transition, Tolstoy revisits this scene later in the novel as seen through Olenin's eyes.
The novel, while mythic in its discussions of love and youthful idealism, takes place in a background of ethnic conflict and suspicion. The Russian troops are quartered in a Cossack village, and the Russians, Cossacks, and Chechens are all in conflict, either in outright war or deep distrust. One of the most endearing characters of the novel, Uncle Eroksha, a rogish seventy year old villager and hunter, suggests the pointlessness of all this division. Uncle Eroksha, who is "a blood brother to all," maintains that "Everyone has his own rules. But if you ask me, it's all the same."
For the contemporary reader, the book also offers some historical context to the current conflict in Chechnia, between the Chechens and the Russians. Cynthia Ozick's introduction provides useful historical background information and challenges Tolstoy's romanticized depiction of Cossack society. Ozick discusses a history of ethnic cleansing in the region that goes back many centuries. The fierce pride in culture and clan often has dangerous effects, a subject that Tolstoy does not really address.
The novel is steeped in sensuous passages, of nature, war, and physical attraction, which are unforgettable. Over the course of the novel, Dmitri becomes obsessed with a Cossack peasant woman named Maryanka. The passages describing his infatuation are intense. The narrator describes Dmitri's first long look at Maryanka as follows: "With the quick and hungry curiosity of youth, he noticed despite himself the strong virginal lines that stood out beneath the thin calico smock, and her beautiful eyes were fixed on him with childish terror and wild curiousity." This gives a taste of the vividness of Tolstoy's writing and the wonderful skill of the translator, Peter Constantine.
This is a truly excellent novel. I agree with the reviewer who says that it is a great novel to introduce Tolstoy to new readers since it is short and accessible. I would recommend this edition in particular because the translation is great and Ozick's introduction is astute. Many of the major themes in Tolstoy's work are evident here, particularly the conflict between sensual and spiritual impulses.
The stories are:
The Cossacks: In this semi-autobiographical story a young Moscow nobleman joins the army. He is posted to the distant Caucasus where he becomes friends with people living in a Cossack village. He is infatuated with a Cossack beauty and is involved in a romantic triangle. Olenin meets and befriends an old Cossack who imparts wisdom and the customs of his people to Olenin. The story is filled with information on the customs and lifestyles of the Cossacks. It also includes beautiful descriptions of nature and ponderings on life by Olenin. The Cossacks of Tsarist Russia were a strong,proud and fierce people who loved to drink, love and fight across the vast stretches of the steppes. When Olenin leaves the Cossacks he has grown in maturity.
Sevastopol Sketches is a story concerning the siege of that Crimean City by the French, English and Turks during the Crimean War of the 1850s. Tolstoy was himself present during the siege. The Russians were defeated. We experience in these pages the experience of bombardment, instant death from shells and see the horrific condition of the wounded. The lives and deaths of two brothers are described. This story provides excitement and shows Tolstoy's ability to draw characters and scenes with superb skill. There are three sketches which show us what it is like to be in a beseiged city during war. Tolstoy became a pacificist. This short work shows us the horror of warfare.
Hadji Murat is a tragic tale of a proud Chechen warrior who switches sides to fight with the Russians. In a classic chapter Tolstoy paints the Court of Nicholas I the cruel Czar of all the Russias. Hadji Murat is a man torn by political loyalties. He was a historical character.
Tolstoy wrote in a clear style easy to comphrehend. You will never forget these short works of fiction. Enjoy the words put on paper by a great author!
Based on his younger days as a soldier, he wrote four novels or novellas: The Raid (1835), Wood-Felling (1855), The Cossacks (1863), and the last was Hadji Murat, written between 1896 to 1904.
The Cossacks was written just before Tolstoy's peak as a fictional writer or artist, and the writing is acknowledged as an important work for Tolstoy and an important work of Western literature, marking the rise of an important new writer.
The story is about a young and wealthy Russian nobleman, Olenin, who joins the army as an officer cadet and goes to the Caucasus, leaving Moscow life behind. In this story Tolstoy explores the universal theme of a young man falling in love with a woman of a different cultural background. The young woman is called Marianka, and the mystery of the story is will the relationship develop? Will they get married and will he settle in the Caucasus. Will Marianka and her family accept him, or is he simply a short term novelty in the community?
Olenin, who is an army officer, lives in a Cossack community with a Cossack family. He spends a lot of his spare time hunting in the local woods, having discussions with the natives, going to parties with the natives, drinking, etc. It gives Tolstoy the framework to explore his well known themes: "man, society, and nature." The novel contains many beautiful descriptions of the forests and the plants and animals, along with descriptions of the native people and their social customs.
This is an excellent novel. It has some good characters and they display a range of emotions. The first third of the novel is a bit slow and contains many non-fictional comments on the Caucasus, but then as the story develops, the reading becomes much more compelling and the element of drama increases. This is a good novel but it is far less complex and shorter than Anna Karenina.
The Penguin version comes with two other stories: "The Sevastopol Sketches" and "Hadji Murat." I was somewhat neutral about the last story - although it is based on real events - because it lacks a strong central protagonist. Because of that weakness, I preferred the more complex novel, The Cossacks, which has the strong character Olenin.