The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy – notes 1

cossacks.jpgThe Cossacks
by Leo Tolstoy  (Russian)
1864/ 104 pages (Kindle)
read by David Thorne – 7h 16m
rating –  8.5 /  classic
(read and listened)

NOTES 2 —-> 


As I was reading and rereading I got interested in the life of Tolstoy – especially the part in the Caucasus which I knew little about.  (I know some about the last part of Tolstoy’s life probably because it’s more interesting.)  I found (by the translator of our book):

The Life of Tolstoy- The First Fifty Years”  by Maude Almyer

FIrst edition – 1908  –  this one was 1911:

(I downloaded the pdf – it’s a very good bio, imo,  although the assumptions are distinctly those of the US circa 1908.   It’s 400+ pages long but  easy to read.)
Almyer says in the Preface that he knew Tolstoy and that Sophia Tolstoy helped revise parts of the book and consulted with Almyer on it.   Almyer  says he doesn’t agree with all of Tolstoy’s ideas,  but because he was careful to understand them it meant he was “impartial.”
Anyway,  (I do blab),  the upshot of the bio,  Chapter 3.  entitled “The Caucasus”  and starting on p. 59:
Just prior to leaving the greater Moscow area Tolstoy, a gambler, womanizer and generally a man of “society,”  went visiting the larger area with his brother, Nicholas, a soldier who had talked Leo into going with him to the Caucasus.  While visiting in Moscow Leo met a young woman with whom he fell in love but was too shy to pursue.  There’s nothing more about her,  not even her name,  in his diaries and notes.  – He told his aunt he had wanted to meet more “society ladies,”  but he visited the gypsies.
***  I’ll bet that was an influence when he got around to writing the first chapter of The Cossacks about 10 years later.  There are lots of correlations between the reality of Tolstoy’s life in the Caucasus (or what we read in his diaries and letters about it) and the life of Olenin in The Cossacks.
When they got to the Caucasus Leo eventually became what they call a “junker” – a gentleman-volunteer a “cadet,”  but his main occupations were drinking, sleeping, womanizing and an occasional fight.  He also enjoyed hunting but never got anything bigger than a fox – no bears or deer – mostly rabbits.
** Pretty much like the novel – cleaned up a bit.  lol –   (several chapters including 19)
He mostly lived in Starogládovsk which is the basis for The Cossacks, but he traveled a bit in those few years.
In a letter to an aunt,  Tolstoy says (and Almyer quotes):
“All day long, above and below these mills, Tartar women come unceasingly to wash clothes.  I should mention that they wash with their feet. It’s like an ant-hill, always in motion.  The women, for the most part, are beautiful and well-formed.  In s site of their poverty the costumes of Oriental women are graceful.  The picturesque groups formed by the women, added to the savage beauty of the place, furnish a really admirable coup d’ail.  graceful and well.”
His moods changed rapidly while he was there – he prayed a lot and wrote in his diaries and then he worried about the women.
He did play cards and lost a lot of money but he helped an ignorant young man who was being cheated play properly and the friend gave him some money.  Tolstoy  also says trading gifts with people made you life-long friends – it was a custom.  This same friend gave Tolstoy a horse when his was sick.
** Giving gifts and the horse-  Chapter 22 –
He did change a lot between 1851 and 1861,  when he started writing The Cossacks.
“His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61.”

**  It was more than the Caucasus which changed him during that time but the basics for many of his later ideas is there – in the story and in his life.

There was even a guy like Lukashka in Tolstoy’s Caucasus life –

 In real life Tolstoy and his brother moved on to other military adventures – to Sevastopol in Ukraine in November 1854, where he fought in the Crimean War through August 1855.
he eventually went back to Moscow and married Sophia – he showed her his diaries on their wedding night – he was so remorseful.
THE BOOK:In 1851, while he was still a young man,  Leo Tolstoy joined the Russian military to get out of Moscow and his piling gambling debts.  He was sent to the Caucasus.  It was during his time in the military that he started writing,  but he didn’t write about his Caucasus experience until 1863 with The Cossacks.

Also during this time and somewhat later,  when he traveled in Europe,  that Tolstoy began to think seriously about wars and governments and love and pacifism and laws – religion.  These are the basic ideas of all his novels.  These ideas can be seen in The Cossacks although they are not as developed as they later became.

The Russians and Cossacks were involved in various border disputes  with the Muslim Chechens.  The Russians and Cossacks are very different from each other –

Olenin –  young and free Moscow aristocrat joined the military to get away from troubles
Vanyushka Olenin’s serf – goes with Olenin – they’re really friends
Maryanka – beautiful village girl
Lukeskava –
Eroshka  – old bachelor woodsman,  friend of Lukashka and his mother – drinks a lot – wise in some ways. Likes Olenin and teaches him.
Granny U

Themes – the beauty of nature and how man fits there better than in the city.  How the people of the countryside are more in tune with their own essence.  Seeking happiness – what is happiness?  –

Plot Summary

Chap 1:   The young rich and dissolute Olenin is saying goodbye to a friend in Moscow as he leaves for a position with the army, stationed in the Caucasus.  In doing so he’s rejecting a woman who apparently loves him although he has fallen out of love.  He says he never lied and so on but the feeling is that he’s a scoundrel.   Brief discussion of what love might be and how Olenin has never felt it.  Olenin is quite sad.

Chap 2:  More on Olenin – he’s 24 years old and totally free of the usual restraints – parents, religion, education,  money concerns.  To this point he’s only experimented with various things but now he wants to start over and he really wants to fall in love – although he’s not quite sure he believes in it.  He doesn’t really want to be “free.”  –  He has some remorse for the way he has treated some people like the tailor and others.

**  Amalat-Beks: Amalat-Bek is the eponymous hero of a popular novel about the Caucasus written by A. Bestuzhev-Marlinski (1797-1837); the name became …

Chapter 3: –  Olenin and his serf, Vanyusha,  travel  southeast toward the mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea – the Caucasus.   Olenin marvels at the


landscape of snow-capped mountains.

Chapter 4 –  a bit of Cossack history along with the scenery – Old Believers the Grebensk and the Chechens. Purity of Russian language and the Old Faith of the Cossacks were kept. Ivan the Terrible –  It is the soldier who is the alien and despised as he is an oppressor.  This is where some of the “Old Believers” settled a couple centuries prior – and Ivan the Terrible (16th century) blessed them there.

Women are their property – free until marriage then working for her husband.  Powerful within the household.  No affection shown in public.  He is superior.

Labor is degrading – women do it.  Women are stronger, more intelligent, more developed and handsomer.

Novomlinsk village is fictional – I guess.  Tolstoy describes it. This is where Olenin is stationed.


Chapter 5 –  The narrative then shifts to two village women talking.  Granny Ulitka, a teacher and wife of a Cossack officer (and therefore rich), and her beautiful daughter Maryanka,  are finishing up their work for the day – life is “pastoral,” peaceful, happy.


A Cossack village home

Granny’s neighbor shows up and the two talk about Ulitka’s husband and the neighbor’s son, Lukashka, who is also off standing guard against and fighting  the abreks (invaders).    I guess they call each other “Mother.”    Lukashka’s mother wants him to marry Maryanka but Ulitka is not willing to let her daughter go to a poor boy and and says she’s too young.  (Doesn’t want to let her go to anyone yet.)   neighbor talks matchmakers – and someone called Elias Vasilich.  Ulitka isn’t ready.

Chapter 6 –  the men spend their time defending the village against raiders and the tall, handsome  Lukashka is there.  The guards should be using “special vigilance” because there are abreks (Chechen raiders)  in the area,  but they’re lazing around.  Uncle Eroshka, a huge old Cossack man,  finds them and they tease him as usual.

Chapter 7 –  The men on guard eat supper and Nazarka, his good friend, neighbor and a new recruit,  shows up with a pheasant.  He and Lukashka eat it and discuss life in the unit as well as women –

Chapter 8 – Eroshka, Lukashka and Nazarka go to their guard duty on the Terek.  (Eroshka is “Daddy” to Lukashka although he’s his uncle.)  They stay up and near morning Lukashka hears and shoots an abrek (Tartar,  Chechen) .  Lukashka has no fear – he wants to get any other abreks around.

Chapter 9 – They tell the others – Lukashka is proud. They take his clothes and drag him off somewhere. – Lukashka becomes a hero. “The Angel of Silence” is present –   leaves.  They go to the town to party.


Chapter 10 –  Three days later Olenin and company come to town – they have been assigned there to help with the Tartar/Chechen problem.  So they all have to find somewhere to live and it’s questionable whether the villagers, the Cossacks, want them there at all.  Olenin goes to the house of Elias and Granny Ulitka.  (home of Maryanka)  Vanyusha,  Olenin’s serf, goes with him.   Maryanka and Olenin flirt very lightly – hiding eyes -attraction.

Chapter 11 –  Olenin settles in and thinks of his life with the


Cossack icon

Caucasians – military force.  He’s happy with his new life and hasn’t made any mistakes in his new life.  He’s in love with the mountains.  Eroshka returns from hunting – he has drunk his dog and kissed his liquor jug.  Everyone teases him.    Olenin invites him in for a drink.  He bows before the icons.

Eroshka and Olenin talk about customs and learning about hunting and fishing.  Finding girls.  Olenin introduces Vanyusha.

Chapter 12 – The men drink and Vanyusha pays for the drinks.  Maryanna fills the decanter and they laugh,  share info. there is definitely a possible romance going on.

Chapter 13 – The villagers come in from their work – bring their cattle.  Lukashka returns and flirts with Maryanka and finds out that Olenin is in the guest house. He says she will marry him.  She is surprised. She kisses him.   He tries to make her stay. She leaves – it’s all very good natured.

Chapter 14 –  Olenin is walking around his yard and talks to Maryanka.  Olenin has been listening to Eroshka’s stories of the old days when he was the hero of the town –  brags quite a lot – drunk.  He says he’s about 70 years old and that a witch has harmed him.

Chapter 15 – Eroshka goes on about being a great hunter and how he will teach Olenin.  Eroshka talks about life and death and wars and women and killing.  Eroshka philosophizes about life and the woods an sky and birds and killing – how animals know things.

Chatter 16 – background on Eroshka – he lives alone and it’s big enough but pretty dirty.  He’s been to jail,  seems to be or have been something of a con-artist but basically a woodsman.   Lukashka (Mark?)  comes to see him.  They like each other and Eroshka tries to teach Lukashka about morals and finding resources and using rhymes – charms –   The Pilgrim Charm which says “kind” and “ever loving.”    Eroshka is a bit worried he’s not up to the action now and that he’ll be forgotten.     They have a rather interesting talk.  “Don’t go to Noway” because you’ll become  immoral – become rubbishy.

Chapter 17 – Lukashka goes home where he tells his mother he has to go back to the guard duty.  He has his sister who is deaf and mute and has to do a lot of the household work.  Lukashka gives her a cookie.  She signs to him that Maryanka loves him.  His mother will sell the wine and arrange a match with Maryanka.

Chapter 18 – Lukashka goes back to guarding and Eroshka appears at Olenin’s house where he finds the Muscovite still in bed while others are ready to hunt.   Elias Vasilich comes to see Olenin – Vasilich is an educated Cossack and the owner of the house,  father of Maryanka.  He’s pretentious are hilarious – this is a funny chapter.  Olenin agrees to rent the room for the exorbitant rate of 6 rubles a month. Eroshka takes Olenin hunting but he is very superstitious –

Chapter 19 – Olenin and Eroshka go hunting – they shoot a couple pheasants then Olenin has a hard time keeping up. They are watching nature now –  A homed stag crashes though and runs away.  They go home, eat, look at mountains – Eroshka thinks of hunting and abreks and sweethearts and freedom and recklessness – and Maryanka walks by.

** Cooper’s Pathfinder? –  lol

Chapter 20
They go hunting again – same place – look for stag.  Gets seven pheasants.  Thinks about mosquitos, thinks about the stag, thinks about himself in nature – but what about happiness?   Will he just live and die and grow grass?  –   He’s repelled by his old self – happiness lies in living for others – unselfishly.  He walks and walks and gets lost.  He has a kind of conversion that makes him want to do something of self-sacrifice.

Chapter 21
Olenin walks into the sunshine and hears Russian – he realizes he is happy.  He looks for someone to help at the Cossack outpost on the Terek.  The post is in trouble because of the Chechen abrek Lukashka killed.