Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
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.
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
*Caucasus Mountains. Mountain range south of Moscow between the Black and Caspian Seas that has historically been regarded as the dividing line between Europe and Asia. Now divided among several former Soviet republics, the region was under Russian domination in the nineteenth century. With its picturesque mountains and many fiercely independent tribes, the region occupies a place in Russian literary tradition similar to that of the Wild West in American literature. The various tribes of Tatars, Chechens, Circassians, Azeris, Georgians, Armenians, and others were often regarded as “noble savages” in a manner similar to the literary romanticization of Native Americans.
The Chechens in particular were renowned as fierce fighters, and the appellation dzhigit is often compared to the expression “brave” for a Native American warrior, although it is inextricably linked to expert horsemanship in a way that even the great Plains Indians never attained. The Chechens were also far more successful at resisting Russian overlordship than any Native American societies were at resisting the westward expansion of the United States. Indeed, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, the Chechens have continued to resist Russian domination.
Although Tolstoy’s novel is to some degree the Russian equivalent of an American Western story, Tolstoy tempers the romantic imagery of the half-wild Cossacks and Chechens with knowledge taken from his own experiences as a soldier serving in the Caucasus. In fact, Tolstoy has Olenin thinking of how the reality of the area differs from the romantic stories he heard and dreamed about while living in Moscow.
*Terek River (TEH-rehk). Dividing line between the Christian Cossacks and the various Islamic tribes including the Tatars and Chechens. The Grebenskiye Cossacks were granted an area along the northern bank of the Terek to build their villages, with the understanding that they would defend the area against the depredations of Chechen bandits who rejected the czar’s authority.
Novomlinsk (no-vom-LIHNSK). Cossack village where Olenin is stationed. It is a typical village of the Grebenskiye Cossacks, larger than the peasant villages of central Russia, with neat thatch-roofed houses raised on pillars. The houses do not huddle close together as in a typical Russian peasant village, but all have ample space around them, and are located along several streets and lanes instead of a single central street. By each house is a small vegetable garden, orchard, and grape arbor, all carefully tended. The village is surrounded by an earthen berm upon which prickly hedges grow, and at the gates a sentry stands. In many ways the Cossack village resembles a military camp, with its watchposts and patrols of Cossack men bearing weapons; however, there is little of the spit and polish of a regular military installation. Rather, this is a sort of rough camaraderie of warriors who fight at one another’s back against tribes they often respect more than the regular soldiers of the czar, who are regarded as oppressors and intruders. It is believed that Starogladovskaya, a village in the area, home of a Tolstoy museum, served as the basis for Tolstoy’s fictional village.
*Moscow. Traditional capital and largest city of Russia. To Olenin it represents everything that is wrong with his life, effete and over-civilized. At the time the story takes place, Moscow is not Russia’s political capital. Peter the Great moved the seat of government to his new city of St. Petersburg in 1712, and it would not return to Moscow until 1918, when the Bolsheviks rejected the northern capital as too risky strategically. However, even during the period of this novel, Moscow remained in many ways a cultural capital.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248
Bayley, John. Tolstoy and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. For the nonspecialist, this book is the most readable survey of Tolstoy’s long fiction in the English language. Compares The Cossacks with other examples of Tolstoy’s fiction set in the Caucasus and finds it wanting.
Kornblatt, Judith Deutsch. The Cossack Hero in Russian Literature: A Study in Cultural Mythology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Kornblatt places Tolstoy’s The Cossacks in a Russian tradition that runs from early nineteenth century writer Alexander Pushkin through twentieth century novelist Mikhail Sholokhov.
Turner, C. J. G. “Tolstoy’s The Cossacks: The Question of Genre.” Modern Language Review 73, no. 3 (July, 1978): 563-572. A detailed examination of Tolstoy’s conflicting intentions in The Cossacks, which he declares “a hybrid” of such genres as sketch, tale, novel, idyll, and autobiography. Elucidates this position by recounting the decade-long process of the novel’s composition.
Wasiolek, Edward. Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Notes that The Cossacks “has some clear deficiencies,” particularly in terms of the point of view it presents, but differs with Bayley as to the nature and extent of the problem. Argues that Tolstoy needed to establish two points of view, subjective and objective, but did not handle their juxtaposition skillfully.
Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A lengthy biography in which Wilson calls The Cossacks Tolstoy’s “first masterpiece” and an example of his ability to make new, fresh use of clichéd material.