The character of Olyenin, the hero of The Cossacks, is largely autobiographical in origin. Like his young hero, Leo Tolstoy left Moscow in 1852 and joined an army regiment stationed in the Caucasus, the land of the Cossacks. Throughout his four years of service—during which he fought in expeditions in the Caucasus, the Danube, and the Crimea—Tolstoy kept very careful, detailed diaries, which years later were to provide invaluable material for his fiction. In the Caucasus diaries, he recorded all aspects of his life as a soldier, including not only the fighting but also the hunting and the drinking, the time spent reading and writing, and the periods of idleness and boredom. It is to this minute observation and recording of firsthand experience that The Cossacks owes much of its verisimilitude of plot and setting, its vividness of atmosphere and impression. In addition to using his army experiences in molding the character of Olyenin, Tolstoy provided his hero with a background nearly identical to his own; both Olyenin and his creator were young noblemen who left Moscow as a result of large debts and an unsuccessful love affair, and both were concerned with discovering new values amid a different way of life from that to which they were accustomed.
This escape from life in a teeming city, with its juxtaposition of culture and decadence, attractiveness and corruption, creativeness and stagnation, is at the thematic center of The...
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