The Cossacks – notes 2

cossacksThe Cossacks notes 2
by Leo Tolstoy
1865 / 104 pages
read by David Thorne – 7h 16m
rating –  8.5 /  classic

<—– Notes 1 

Chapter 21 –  Olenin is happy – no reason.  It’s understood to be the environment and the freedom –  some Chechens are waiting to ransom the body of their deceased comrade while some Cossacks are waiting for their own commanding officer.  Olenin is snubbed by a Chechen – a scout explains.  Captain thinks Cossacks are “playing” soldiers  but Lukashka is proud and commended by the captain.

“… he (Olenin)  was sorry for Lukashka and his want of culture.

“What confusion it is,’ he thought. ‘A man kills another and is happy and satisfied with himself as if he had done something excellent. Can it be that nothing tells him that it is not a reason for any rejoicing, and that happiness lies not in killing, but in sacrificing oneself?”


‘What are you glad about?’ asked Olenin. ‘Supposing your brother had been killed; would you be glad?’

The Cossack looked at Olenin with laughing eyes. He seemed to have understood all that Olenin wished to say to him, but to be above such considerations.

‘Well, that happens too! Don’t our fellows get killed sometimes?’

Chapter 22   Lukashka and Olenin ride back to the village – they are the same in some ways but not at all in others.  (Olenin can never – ever – be a peasant like Lukashka,  the captain listens to Olenin’s request to let Lukashka go.  Olenin’s position is superior.   But they both love Maryanka –  Lukashka needs a horse to marry.   They compare situations.  –  Olenin enjoys the village – Lukashka doesn’t understand at all how he could leave his mansion and serfs.

Olenin feels this is home. He’s home in the village.  He likes the villagers.  He gives Lukashka a horse.   Now they are Kunaks – (?) –  common villagers? Friends?  Lukashka says he will be Olenin’s “murid” if they go hunting.

Lukashka takes the horse home -gives it to his mother for the corral – Mom does not beileve the story of a gift and Lukashka  thinks why Olenin would give it to him.   Rouses unfriendly feelings in Lukashka and he’s on guard – same with others.  But folks are different about it –

Chapter 23  Monotony –  a rich cadet in the corps does not have work or get training.  He is treated with respect.  Olenin doesn’t associate with the other officers – he’s always been a bit of a rebel and he wants to be a villager.  He really just wants to go hunting with his dog.

This is Tolstoy’s idea of the natural man –

He loved Maryanka – “…or so he thought.”  (?) –

Prince Beletski, a new young man from the Moscow society of Olenin  comes to visit.  He brags and  generally acts like a young Russian aristocrat.  Olenin reverts to that behavior.

Chapter 24 – Olenin goes to see Vanyusha  and watches Maryanka when Beletski rides up.  Beletski is at ease with Maryanka – Olenin denies interest. Only at home with Eroshka.  He respects the Cossack women for some reason.   Beletski invites Olenin to his party –  at Ustenka’s house – his landlady.  Beletski will introduce Maryanka and Olenin.   Olenin knows they won’t fit in –

Talk of the company being sent elsewhere –  Olenin does not like the sound of the party but he goes.  Beletski has lots of goodies,  lot of

Chapter 25  Olenin is introduced to Maryanka but the tone of the party disgusts him and he wants to get away.  He thinks he has to “drink like a Cossack.”  It works – he’s more comfortable.  But although Beletski kisses Maryanka,  she won’t let Olenin. There’s a little disagreement but in the end Olenin kisses her twice.

Chapter 26 – Back at home in the evenings Olenin is shy around Maryanka and vice versa but they are very aware of each other.  But also,

“…he seemed to see the falseness of his former life. That falseness used to rouse his
indignation even before, but now it seemed inexpressibly vile and ridiculous. Here he felt freer and freer every day and more and more of a man.”

He comes to want to stay with the Cossacks,  marry a woman (not Maryanka) and stay with Eroshka to hunt and fish.   But he knows that his happiness is not like theirs – his is based on conscious self-sacrifice.

Chapter 27  Lukashka has traded Olenin’s horse for a better one – they are “kunak”s (friend).  Lakuska offers Olenin the horse but Olenin refuses – offers him a dagger.  This is in friendship – Olenin takes it.   Although he and Maryanka are to be betrothed,  Lakushka is being sent out with his company but he goes to see Maryanka – kisses in the window.  Eroshka said he got a gun from Olenin in exchange for Maryanka, but Lakuska says he lies and rides away singing.

Chapter 28 –  the day of the betrothal there is a party but Olenin does not go.  Eroshka gets drunk and comes to visit Olenin while the latter is writing.  Eroshka is rather ignorant.  So he plays the balalayka –   – sings some Tartar songs and tells Olenin to be happy while he can. Then Eroshka starts crying – misses his young life sings an old song of the Russians burning a town (“aoul“) leaving a young shepherd alone.  Eroshka fires a gun a couple times.  The partiers continue next door – Eroshka is not there because there are lies that say he will get Maryanka for Olenin – they’re not true but he will do it.   Olenin refuses because if she doesn’t love him it’s no use.

Eroshka gets very drunk and Vanyusha has to call the soldiers to help drag him out.  Vanyusha is very angry – no French words.

Chapter 29  Natural environment of the Terek area of Caucasus in August – harvest time fot the grapes.  Lots of sensual prose – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile – the beauty of nature again – and natural working man.   Romantic or realistic ??? –  Depends on how you see things I guess –  Can a person have a romantic notion of reality?

Wedding plans for Lukashka and Maryanka are discussed but Maryanka has to work because it’s harvest season –  Lukashka is gone but Maryanka enjoys the way Olenin looks at her.   This is definitely the aristocrat’s view of simple peasant life – hard work and sunshine  are good for the soul –  the peasants have a good life.

Chapter 30   Maryanka and Uteska at night gossiping – Maryanka reveals herself to be pure and not interested in being otherwise –  “I’ll have no nonsense.”   (If this were written today there would be a lesbian overtones –  there are none here.) –  Olenin once told Maryanka he’d like to be Lukashka or another peasant.  Olenin worked in the vineyard.

Chapter 31 – Olenin talking to the Cornet – Cornet is so pretentious – he wants Maryanka to get together with Olenin) .  Gossip has it that Olenin gave a 50 ruble horse to Lukashka –

Olenin and Maryanka meet in the orchard.  They talk – she pretends indifference but she’s pleased with his interest -his fumbling words.  “She does not wish to understand – does not wish to reply.”   Ustenka interupts them but Olenin leaves.

Chapter 32  – evening – Ustenka and Maryanka return from work,  Maryanka and Olenin watch each other going in and out of their huts,  but nothing happens.  He stays awake listening for her – at dawn he goes to her door.  She opens it and closes the door.

Ustenka’s brother Nazarka sees them – threatens to tell Maryanka’s father.  Olenin pays him while denying any guilt – only responsibility for being there.  Nazarka had been helping Lukashka hide a stolen horse.  Next morning he told his buddy.

Also next morning no one seems to know anything at Cornet’s house.  He was awake all night again and the next day he went hunting.  The next day he went to a 4-day raid.  The commander offered him  a position but Olenin wants to stay with the village.  He got an award which he had wanted but is now indifferent to.

He goes back to watching Maryanka.

Chapter 33 – Olenin is alone at the house and thinking,  writes”   This is an intersting chapter in that it relates from Olenin’s point of view – 1st person – how he feeels about the last few days even though he doesn’t think anyone will understand him –  he needs to understand himself.

“One must taste life.”   Moscow’s social life seems “dispicable” to him.  He is “revolted.”  Rich and eligible girls with matchmaking and pretense – the ennui in the blood (the French thing)

About happiness – “the one thing I desire is to be  quite lost in your sense of the word.  I wish to marry a Cossack girl, and dare not becasuse it woul d be the height of happiness of which I am not worthy.”

He may not be “happy,”  but he is “at peace.”   Olenin really feels he is in love with Maryanka although  he knows she would never understand him.  He tried to talk to her in the orchard but she remained aloof – (“far above such words and above the feeling they were meant to express.”

Olenin imagines Maryanka as his mistress or his wife and neither works.  But could Olenin turn Cossack like Lukashka,  stealing horses and getting drunk,  singing songs and killing people?   It hasn’t worked yet.

He wants to love and live and he loves Maryanka with his whole being  – He feels like “an integral part of God’s joyous world.”   He says he has changed.  (has he?)  –

New way of happiness –  “Live for others and do good,”  So he will go to Maryanka’s house and tell her everything.

Chapter 34  –  That evening he goes to Cornet’s house and Maryanka leaves as she is bare-headed.  Olenin watches Maryanks while her family does some hospitality.

Besides its use for domestic heating, in winter people may sleep on top of the oven to keep warm.[2] The oven is also used for cooking, for example, to bake pancakes or pies.

After a few drinks Olenin confesses his love for Maryanka – he’s ashamed and feels vile – but doesn’t regret saying it.

Chapter 35 – a holiday – like Thanksgiving I suppose – harvest is complete and Cossacks to start a campaign weddings to happen.  Much attention to the scene –  Olenin sees Beletski and the two of them decide to go to Ustenka’s where Maryanka will probabyl be. Eroshka joins them and reminisces.

Chapter 36 – Lukashka and Nazarka ride into the square.  Lukashka is strutting –  they laugh with Maryanka and Ustenka tries to kiss Maryanka but  she is cool.  – Maryanka hugs a baby and looks at Lukashka (she wants a baby).  The mom takes the baby away tells Maryanka to go find the “young fellow.”

Lukashka takes his horse to his own home and has Stepka,  his mute sister, putit away.  She loves the horse – goes to

Lukashka’s mother is surprised he came.  He tells her to get some wine (“chikhir”)  and Nazarka joins them.

Chapter 37 – Nazarka asks Lukashka about stealing horses.  Lukashka shines it on – he wants to party.  Nazarka goes for vodka.  Eroshka and Ergushov (both drunk) arrive – Eroshka asks about stolen horses.  Ergushav says Lukashka has driven the horses across the river.

Girey Khan – some last remaining person of the old dynasty.
” If ever the Ottomans became extinct, it was understood that the Genghisid Girays would succeed them”

Lukashka tells of their adventure and yes,  he has money from the horses –  Mom comes in,  Eroshka starts his own story and Lukashka leaves.

Chapter 38  – It’s now dark,  the party continues out there, love song sung by a skinny girl. Old women, kids, men everyone watches as young men and women dance –  Olenin and Beletski chat and watch – out of place.  Beletski wants amusement but Olenin wants to ask Maryanka to marry him.  The two men arrange to get Maryanka to Ustenka’s house. – another song the girls sing, too.  (ask 3 times – a verse) and then go into the ring of dancing girls.

Lukashka and Nazarka go into ring and ask for a girl.  Maryanka won’t go. Lukashka nods at Olenin – Olenin pushes Maryanka for an answer – she says she’ll answer tonight.  She smiles at him.  She kisses Lukashka who has drunk quite a lot –  he offers his sweetmeats to the girls – he leads her away from the party wants her to go home.  Maryanka wants to go to Usetnka’s for a party.  Lukashka says he will marry her anyway and she says “We’ll see.”

Olenin and Beletski fix for the ball.

Chapter 39  Olenin and Beletski follow Maryanka and Ustenka but they run.  He hugs Maryanka and she kisses him.  – He asks her to marry him and and asks and she accepts if her father says so.  She’d been calm. He will ask tomorrow and is happy tonight.  But she acts like her agreement is only for tonight.  He will tell everyone tomorrow.

Lukashka is drunk.

Chapter 40 – The next morning Olenin remembers and goes to see Maryanka’s parents.  Lukashka is on his way out of town with his comrades to catch abreks who are in the area.  The cornet is with them and Olenin joins – would look bad not to.

Chapter 41 – nature and battle scene – Olenin watches and sees Lukashka shot.  THey bring him home and he’s bedridden.  Olenin approaches Maryanka and she brushes him off angrily – she “is sick of”  him.  Olenin realizes he will never have Maryanka – there is no hope.  “…his first impression of htis woman’s inaccessibility had been perfectly correct.”

Chapter 42  –  Olenin rests, packs up and leaves for the  fort where his regiment was stationed.  He knows Maryanka will never love him.  He didn’t promise himself a new life this time – he has changed some – lost his naiveté.   While Eroshka gives him advise,   Vanyusha helps clean up.  Olenin wants to know if the bullet wound hurt Eroshka who replies about not being able to bend or walk.    Eroshka finally  says it’s healed up but the bullet is still there – plays with it.   Olenin offers a doctor from head-quarters but Eroshka says hang the Russian doctors – they just cut – “…humbugs.”

Olenin did not answer. He agreed only too fully that all was humbug in the world in which he had lived and to which he was now returning.

Lukashka is apparenlty dying.

Eroshka tells his own story of near-death.  Eroshka was careful – gives Olenin more advise and wants a proper goodbye – says he loves Olenin.  Olenin is so forlorn, always alone, unsociable.

Olenin tries to leave but Eroshka kisses him and cries.

Olenin gets into the cart – Eroshka wants a gun – Olenin gives one to him. Vanyusha calls him a beggar.

Maryanka comes out – bows at them and Eroshka starts talking to her.

  1. Tolstoy does not focus the narrative of The Cossacks on one single character. Who do you think is the main character of the book, and why?
  2. Natural description forms a big part of the book. What do you think Tolstoy’s opinion of nature is? Is Tolstoy a Romantic in the way he describes nature?
  3. Like Onenin, Tolstoy came from a rich noble family. How does the character and experiences of a jeune homme like Onenin contrast with that of the Cossacks?
  4. What is Tolstoy’s attitude to war in The Cossacks, and from what you know of his other writing, how does it fit in with his later beliefs?
  5. Would Onenin ever have been happily married to Maryanka?
  6. Is Uncle Eroshka a likeable character?
  7. What is Tolstoy’s purpose in fictionalizing his experiences in the Caucasus?
  8. By the end of the story where do you Onenin would rather live: the city or the mountains? Where would you rather live?
  9. What is the nature of true happiness in the view of Onenin, Lukashka and Maryanka? What do you think the author believes?


And from:

In the end, the real “hero” of the novel consists of the mountains and steppes and the people who live there. Tolstoy, like his famous American writer of the same time, Mark Twain, both take full advantage of “local color.” Much of the story is enriched in the novel by Eroshka, an old Cossack warrior who thrills Olenin with tales of bravery and honor as the two men hunt together and drink during the evening.

In the end, this novel is another example of Tolstoy urging the Russian aristocracy to make something meaningful of itself by providing the Cossack culture as a foil to the Russian culture. The two foils to Olenin, Cossack Lukashka and the later-introduced Russian, Beletsky, provide a vision of possibilities as to what the protagonist might become. Olenin we’d like to be successful, but Tolstoy never wrote genre literature, nor was he limited by his publisher to make sure the reader went away with a rosy ending.

Change occurs from inside out, and in the end, we see the Cossack culture in its vibrancy, yet already threatened. We see the Russian aristocracy, rotten in its core, in the character Beletsky; and as readers and children of history, we know the end results of these dynamics to a degree to which even Tolstoy was blind.


“It is always the case on a long journey that till the first two or three stages have been passed imagination continues to dwell on the place left behind, but with the first morning on the road it leaps to the end of the journey and there begins building castles in the air” (Tolstoy, The Cossacks 91).

A central theme in “The Cossacks” is the role of women in the family as well as Olenin’s infatuation with women. Olenin leaves Moscow with the impression that what he once thought was love turned out to only be a falsehood (Tolstoy, “Cossacks” 86). Nevertheless, upon his first glimpse of Maryanka, he is immediately besotted. When Olenin first arrived in the Cossack village he noticed the difference in appearance of these women from the aristocratic women with whom he was once familiar. Olenin notices,