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 Cossacks. The novel revolves around the concern for humanity’s return to a more natural state from the debilitating influences of urban civilization. This idea is embodied in Olyenin’s flight from the whirl of Moscow society to the Caucasus. The important question to be answered, however, is what Tolstoy does with the nature-versus-civilization hypothesis. Certainly, in the first chapters, it would appear that the hero is headed toward an environment that will heal and renew him. However, the extent to which the remaining course of the narrative proves the Caucasus to be the natural life that Olyenin is seeking remains in question.
Tolstoy is able to see both strengths and shortcomings in each way of life and condemns neither one. One illustration of his objectivity is seen in his characterization of old Yeroshka, who, if this novel were a polemic against civilization, would be the obvious candidate to represent Cossack wisdom and the superiority of the Cossack way of life. Instead, he is portrayed as a brave hunter and fighter but a fault-ridden and quite human individual; he is a lovable, if slightly lecherous old reprobate. Rather than...
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