Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Tolstoy's novella is an examination of the culture of an ethnic group, the Cossacks, that has retained a specific and independent character within the Russian Empire and its borderlands for centuries. The story is seen through the eyes of a Russian officer, Olenin, who is of upper-class background. By serving in the army and being posted to the Caucasus region where an ongoing war between the Russians and Chechens is taking place, Olenin hopes to re-start his life in the wake of an unhappy love affair.
The Cossacks, though allies of the Great Russians, are unique in their own character and cultural values. ("Great Russian" is the term for the large, central Russian nationality—as opposed to other ethnicities living chiefly in the Empire's borderlands, including Cossacks, who may speak Russian or a closely related language but consider themselves separate nations.) This simple fact is the central point of the story, and Tolstoy's implicit judgment is that the "wild," unsophisticated Cossacks are an uncorrupted culture, separate from the jaded world from which Olenin comes (as Tolstoy himself did). In some ways, the Cossacks have more in common with the enemy Chechens than with the Russians, with whom the Cossacks are allied. The Russian effort to control the Caucasus is an imperialist one, though (as with European imperialism in Asia and Africa) it is partly rationalized by religion. The Chechens are Muslim. Though the Cossacks wish to be independent, they ally themselves with the Russians because both groups are Eastern Orthodox Christians.
This religious dynamic is also at the heart of the story. Throughout his works, Tolstoy was heavily critical of the Russian upper classes and their hypocrisy over religion and morality. The Cossacks are depicted as genuine Christians in a way Tolstoy judges Russians not to be. To Western observers, this might seem ironic, given the historical reputation Cossacks have for cruelty. As is typical of his period, Tolstoy praises "manly" virtues of courage and independence. Olenin falls in love with a Cossack girl, Maryanka. To him, she represents purity, in contrast to the less "virtuous" women of his own background and class. Elsewhere in Tolstoy's fiction, we see a similar idealization of certain women and a harsh judgment of others: an attitude typical of his period. Yet after a battle takes place, Maryanka wants no part of Olenin, because the only thing of importance to her, overriding everything else, is that "Cossacks have been killed." He realizes, finally, that there is an unbridgeable gulf between their cultures.
An undeniable message of The Cossacks is that of the wrongness of one culture's efforts to impose its ways and values on another group. Tolstoy has an underlying sympathy for the Chechen "enemy." When at the conclusion of the battle the Chechens know they are doomed, Tolstoy describes them singing "their death song." His point is ultimately that the Russians should simply leave these people alone, and that each culture—Cossack, Chechen, or Great Russian—should manage itself and its own ways.