Olyenin, a young Russian aristocrat, decides to leave the society of Moscow and enter the army as a junior officer for service in the Caucasus. There are a number of reasons for his decision. He squandered a large part of his estate, he is bored with what he considers an empty life, and he is in some embarrassment because of a love affair in which he could not reciprocate the woman’s love.
Olyenin leaves the city after a farewell party one cold, wintry night. He and his servant, Vanyusha, travel steadily southward toward the Caucasus, land of the Cossacks. The farther Olyenin goes on his journey the better he feels about the new life he is about to begin. In a year’s service, he sees the opportunity to save money, to rearrange his philosophy, and to escape from a mental state that does not permit him to love. He is sure that in a new environment he can become less egocentric and can learn to love others as he loves himself.
Shortly after he joins his unit, he is one of a force sent out along the Terek River to guard against depredations by the tribes who live in the mountains and on the steppes south of the river. The troops are to reinforce the Cossacks who live in the narrow strip of verdant land that borders the river. Olyenin’s unit is stationed in the village of Novomlin, a small settlement of houses and farms with a population of less than two thousand people, mainly Cossacks.
The Cossack men spend their time in hunting and standing guard at posts along the Terek River, while the women tend the homes and farms. When Olyenin’s unit moves into the village, he, as an aristocrat, is not assigned duties with the troops, and so his time is largely his own. The Cossacks do not like the Russian troops, for the tensions of differing cultures and the years of enmity between them are not assuaged. Olyenin is quartered in the house of a Cossack ensign and soon learns that he is not welcome. They are accepting him and his servant only because the household has to take them.
In the house lives an ensign, his wife, and their daughter Maryanka. Maryanka is spoken for in marriage by a young Cossack, Lukashka, a hero in his village because he saved a boy from death by drowning and killed a mountain tribesman who attempted to swim across the river during a raid. Olyenin quickly becomes infatuated with Maryanka. He does not know how to act in her presence, however, because he is bewildered by the possibility of a love affair between himself and the young, uncultured...
(The entire section is 1025 words.)