The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy - Pavel BiryukovThe Cossacks was first published in 1863. Leo Tolstoy would go on to publish two of his best known works directly after this novel, War and Peace in 1869 followed by Anna Karenina in 1877. While The Cossacks is not of the calibre of Tolstoy’s two classics, it stands on its own as a work of great power. Tolstoy’s philosophical and intellectual depth permeates every word of the text, and his simple, transparent style brings an aesthetic pleasure to the novel. The Cossacks demands close reading and attention, yet rewards the reader with the questions it asks about society, the individual, and moral and intellectual freedom.

Synopsis of The Cossacks

The story centres on the philosophical Dmitri Olenin (surely based on Tolstoy himself) who leaves the urbane, city pleasures of Moscow for life in the Caucasus. As he gets to know his new environment and its people, he develops a new theory of life that appreciates simple living and the delights of nature. Exactly half way through the novel he experiences a kind of epiphany, where he declares the new direction in which he wants to take his life.

“And he began to recall his former life and he felt disgusted with himself. He appeared to himself to have been terribly exacting and selfish, though he now saw that all the while he really needed nothing for himself. And he looked round at the foliage with the light shining through it, at the setting sun and the clear sky, and he felt just as happy as before. ‘Why am I happy, and what used I to live for?’ thought he. ‘How much I exacted for myself; how I schemed and did not manage to gain anything but shame and sorrow! and, there now, I require nothing to be happy;’ and suddenly a new light seemed to reveal itself to him. ‘Happiness is this! He said to himself. ‘Happiness lies in living for others.’”

Olenin makes friends with the old Cossack Eroshka, who likes to hunt and drink. Eroshka is a tough and wiry old man who has seen many battles and done many brave things in his time. Olenin somewhat romanticises him, and thinks he can almost turn himself into a simple, salt-of-the-earth Cossack merely by the success of this friendship.

Olenin at this time also meets and falls in love with Maryanka. He is attracted to what is described as her muscular and simple beauty. But Maryanka is set to marry Luka, who has recently killed a Chechen and is now noted for his bravery.

Olenin’s Search For The Authentic Self in The Cossacks

Pretty soon Olenin finds his emotions pulling him in all directions. Firstly there is his new found philosophy which calls for giving to others and enjoying the simple life of the Cossacks. This is then confused by the Russian Beletsky, who tells Olenin he should resume the hedonistic pleasures he left back in Moscow and take inappropriate liberties with Maryanka. Finally, Olenin confuses his own lust for Maryanka with a genuine love. Does he really love her and want to marry her? Does he truly want to leave Moscow behind and live as a Cossack?

Somewhat on the spur of the moment, he proposes to Maryanka, and soon asks himself if he is genuine. Yes, he believes he is. This is where the reader comes to know more about Olenin than he knows about himself. It seems more than clear that Olenin is letting his imagination run away with him, and that his culture and upbringing make any genuine change impossible. Society moulds us more than we know, and trying to pretend we can change is ultimately just that, a self-delusion.

At the novel’s end, it is Maryanka who is more in command of reality. Ironically it is the ‘civilised’, rational and cultured Olenin who is made a fool of – more in his own eyes than anyone else’s.

Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks is fascinating and original novel that holds a mirror up to the reader, and challenges whether identity can be found separate to culture and society. It is also Tolstoy engaged in a tough self-examination, where the author is found wanting.