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 dispensing profound insight and ancient wisdom to young Olyenin, Yeroshka simply rides, hunts, drinks, and encourages the youth to enjoy sensual pleasures without worrying about the future. Likewise, the other main Cossack figure, Lukashka, combines strength and virtue, weakness and pettiness. Yeroshka, Lukashka, and their people are admirable in their bravery, their energy, and their closeness to the land; yet at the same time they murder, steal, and lose themselves in drunkenness and debauchery.
In the same way, Tolstoy attacks all the evils of his own and his hero’s class: idleness, selfishness, shortsightedness, hypocrisy, temper, and irresponsibility. Although he sees these vices in the nobility and includes many of them in Olyenin’s personality, he does not lose sight of redeeming qualities in the aristocracy. Olyenin’s merit lies in his basic morality, which will not allow him to be complacent about his weaknesses; he is dissatisfied with his faults and his former way of life and seeks, although in an imperfect fashion, to find remedies and to grow as a person.
Olyenin vacillates throughout the story in his opinion of what comprises happiness. In chapter 20, he exclaims to himself, “Happiness consists in living for others,” while, in chapter 33, he is convinced that “Self-renunciation is all stuff and nonsense . . . in my heart there is nothing but love for...
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