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The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy is a short Russian novel published in 1863. Understanding Russian naming conventions helps in keeping track of characters as one reads. Unlike English names, Russian names consist of three elements:

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  1. First Name: these are individual first names chosen by a person's parents, just like English first names. They can be shortened to "short names" or "half names." Alexander, for example, may be referred to as Sasha or Yekaterina as Katya (just as the English Timothy might be abbreviated as Tim). There are also affectionate and diminutive variants of first names.
  2. Patronymic: The patronymic is a variant of a father's first name usually combined with "vich" or "ich" for a son and a vowel plus "vna" for a daughter.
  3. Family Name: These are the equivalent of English surnames.

Most students will find it helpful to create index cards listing the common names and nicknames used for each major character to avoid confusion when reading Russian novels.

Some of the main characters in The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy are:

Dmitry Andreich Olenin: The protagonist of the novel is a Russian aristocrat and military officer who leaves Moscow for the more primitive surroundings of a Cossack village. He falls in love with a local girl, Maryanka, who is betrothed to Luka. He proposes to Maryanka but she rejects him and eventually he leaves the village and returns home.

Maryanka: She is a young, attractive woman, the daughter of an important local figure. She eventually chooses to marry Luka because he is a fellow Cossack.

Ensign Ilya Vasilyevitch: Maryanka’s father is an important figure in the village and very concerned about enhancing his local power, wealth, and prestige.

Lukashka: Engaged to Maryanka, Luka is a Cossack and war hero. He has a mistress and drinks excessively, but Maryanka loves him because he is a true and heroic Cossack.

Uncle Yeroshka: An elderly Cossack, Uncle Yeroshka serves as a mentor to Olenin, teaching him about Cossack culture and hunting.

Dame Ulitka: Maryanka’s mother is an unsympathetic character who initially despises Olenin because he is not a Cossack but then is impressed by his wealth.

Characters Discussed

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Dmitri Andreyevitch Olyenin

Dmitri Andreyevitch Olyenin (dih-MIHT-rihy ahnd-RAY-ehv-ihch ohl-YEHN-ihn), a young man of noble birth attached to a Russian military company. Stationed in a Cossack village, Olyenin feels a strong sympathy for these wild and happy people so different from the effete, useless society that he knew at home. An idealistic young man, he lives in the home of a beautiful Cossack girl who is alternately affectionate and disdainful toward him. In his somewhat confused idealism, he at first believes that “happiness consists in living for others.” He decides to renounce self and find happiness in the love of beautiful, proud Maryanka. Later, realizing the vast cultural gulf between them, he rides sadly out of the village, his going barely noticed by the young girl.


Maryanka (mah-rih-AHN-kuh), the attractive daughter of a Cossack ensign, a man of property and position in the village. The girl has no objection to a temporary connection with Olyenin, but he is unable to hold her affections for long because she loves Lukashka, a vigorous warrior. At the last, she drives Olyenin off with loathing and scorn. She is not to be won by a lover who is not a Cossack.


Lukashka (loo-KAHSH -kuh), the young Cossack who is to marry Maryanka if he can quit carousing long enough for the ceremony. During his infrequent leaves from guard duty, the...

(The entire section contains 901 words.)

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