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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Olenin is a young man who has reached age twenty-four without accomplishing much of anything, except for squandering half his fortune. His decision to become an army officer, in part so he can leave Moscow, emerges from his notion that in the city and society, he could not accomplish his life’s work—although he had deliberately put off deciding on what that work would be. Leo Tolstoy portrays him as selfish and easily swayed, constantly becoming infatuated with one young woman after another, and dabbling in various pursuits, from music to farming. Olenin is devoted to maintaining his freedom, and also very conscious that one is only young once.

He meditated on the use to which he should devote that power of youth which is granted to man only once in a lifetime: that force which gives a man the power of making himself, or even—as it seemed to him—of making the universe, into anything he wishes: should it be to art, to science, to love of woman, or to practical activities? . . . Olenin was too strongly conscious of the presence of that all-powerful God of Youth—of that capacity to be entirely transformed into an aspiration or idea—the capacity to wish and to do—to throw oneself headlong into a bottomless abyss without knowing why or wherefore.

At the remote Terek River village where Olenin and his unit are stationed, he has few regular duties because he is a cadet officer. The unit is largely providing reinforcements for the Cossacks who protect the villagers from tribal raids. The Cossacks spurn the Russian troops, seeing them as weak and poorly trained. Olenin and his servant, Vanyusha, are quartered in the home of a Cossack family. Olenin soon becomes infatuated with their daughter, Maryanka, drawn to her “wild” and simple ways yet realizing a relationship would never work. She is developing a relationship with a local man, Lukashka, although he is also courting Nazarka. Lukashka is considered a hero because he saved a boy from drowning. He is a tall man with broad cheekbones. The reader first meets him arriving in the village square.

He stood and spoke softly and sedately, but in his tranquillity and sedateness there was more of animation and strength than in all Nazarka’s loquacity and bustle. He reminded one of a playful colt that with a snort and a flourish of its tail suddenly stops short and stands as though nailed to the ground with all four feet.

During the first few weeks, Olenin befriends an old Cossack hunter, Eroshka, by constantly buy him drinks. He tells the Russian tales of Cossack life in the old days, and boasts of his hunting skills, and takes him out hunting. Olenin starts to settle into the routine, content in a way he had never known before.

Again, to the west, the mountains rose before his eyes. Again the old man told his endless stories of hunting, of abreks, of sweethearts, and of all that free and reckless life. Again the fair Maryanka went in and out and across the yard, her beautiful powerful form outlined by her smock.

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