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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

The Cossacks is a novel by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who later earned fame for such novels as War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). Published in 1863—and originally titled Young Manhood— the novel represents about a decade of work on the part of the novelist (who had published...

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The Cossacks is a novel by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who later earned fame for such novels as War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). Published in 1863—and originally titled Young Manhood—the novel represents about a decade of work on the part of the novelist (who had published just two pieces before this).

The novel begins with a young man named Olenin in the company of his friends as he goes off to join the army. Olenin is described as a "yunker"—a young man of noble birth who volunteers for military service. He has thus far lived a life of pleasure. He has idealistic notions of love, and he dreams of falling in love himself—perhaps with a Circassian woman while in military service in the Caucasus.

Olenin enters into the world of the stanitsa (a Cossack village) and stays with one Dame Ulitka and her family (her husband is a Cossack ensign and schoolteacher who is often absent from the home). Olenin takes note of Maryanka, his hostess's beautiful (though unrefined) daughter, with whom he eventually falls in love. Dame Ulitka, however, tells Olenin that Luka—a respectable young man who once rescued a drowning man—plans to marry Maryanka.

Olenin, who is somewhat ostracized as a guest in the Cossack village, spends time alone and on hunting trips, where, on one occasion, he meets Luka and his Uncle Eroshka. The three develop a mutual respect and friendship. They continue to hunt together, though Luka is stationed at the Caucasian border to defend against the Chechens (a Muslim ethnic group from in the northern part of the Caucasus). Olenin gives Luka a horse in an attempt to befriend him.

Meanwhile, Olenin grows increasingly fond of Maryanka, and finally declares his love for her. She coyly rebuffs him but does not reject his affections entirely. Olenin is encouraged by a fellow Russian, Beletsky, to pursue Maryanka—who has not consummated her relationship with either Olenin or Luka.

The final part of the novel involves a battle between Chechen raiders and a Cossack unit, of which Olenin is a part of. Luka sustains a stomach wound and eventually dies. Maryanka, distraught by her loss of Luka, now outright rejects Olenin's proposal. Olenin leaves to return to Russia, realizing that his hosts (even his friend Eroshka) will continue in their life without him.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1025

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 Cossack.

Olyenin makes friends with Lukashka, whom he meets at an outpost while hunting, and Uncle Yeroshka, an old Cossack whose days of service are over. In Yeroshka’s company, Olyenin goes hunting almost every day. He dislikes drinking bouts, gambling at cards with the other officers, and the pleasure they find in pursuing the women of the village whose husbands and sweethearts are away on duty. Olyenin is happier alone or hunting with Yeroshka in the woods along the Terek, where he tries to work out his emotional problems.

At last, Olyenin begins to feel that he can be happy through generosity to others. He discovers that he enjoys giving a horse to Lukashka and presenting old Yeroshka with small gifts that mean little to Olyenin but a great deal to the old man. In addition, Olyenin wins the respect of the Cossacks by his ability to shoot pheasants on the wing, a new feat to the Cossacks, who never before saw it done.

As time passes, Olyenin becomes more and more aware of Maryanka’s presence. When her parents announce that she is formally engaged to Lukashka, the announcement makes Olyenin decide that he, too, is really in love with her. He turns over in his mind the possibilities that such a love would entail. He cannot imagine taking her back to Moscow, into the society to which he was expected to return after his tour of duty, nor can he imagine settling down for life in the Cossack village. Although his stay there means a great deal to him, he knows that he can never be happy following the primitive life he sees there, for he has too many ties, both social and material, in the world he temporarily left.

While Olyenin helps Maryanka pick grapes in the vineyards, he has an opportunity to declare his love. Maryanka neither becomes angry nor repulses him, although she gives him little encouragement. Later Olyenin, able to press his suit at various times, promises to marry the Cossack woman. She, on her part, refuses to say that she will marry him, for she, too, realizes the difficulties of such a marriage. Unlike most of the Cossack women, she is not free with her favors and refuses to let either Olyenin or Lukashka share her bed. Lukashka is well aware of what is happening but is not worried; he believes that the situation will right itself because he is the better man.

One day a small band of marauders from across the Terek appear a short distance from the village. When the Cossacks, accompanied by Olyenin, make a sortie against them, the outlaws tie themselves together so that they cannot run away while they make a stand against the Cossacks. After the battle, Lukashka, wounded by a gunshot, is carried back to the village, where it is discovered that he cannot recover from his wound. Faced with the death of the man her parents chose to be her husband, Maryanka realizes that her life and her people are widely separated from Olyenin and the culture for which he stands. Deciding that she can never have any lasting affection for the Russian, she tells Olyenin bluntly of her decision. Olyenin requests a change of duty to another unit. After permission for the transfer is granted, he and his servant leave the village and the kind of life he can never learn to accept.

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