|Portrait of a Cossack by Alexander Litovchenko|
Tolstoy's stories of the Cossacks are the Russian version of America's Western novel genre with cowboys and Indians. The Cossacks, being written by Leo Tolstoy, becomes much more, of course.
Tolstoy's short novel is about a young Russian aristocrat, Dmitri Olenin, who leaves Moscow, disillusioned with Moscow society and with love. He joins the army as a cadet, yet still maintains a special status because of his money and place in society. In the Caucasus, he finds his Romantic ideal of the perfect man and society in the Cossacks, and one in particular, Lukashka. Olenin pursues the good, honor, love, and meaning in life against the backdrop of the beautiful and adventurous setting of the Caucasus in the mid 1800's.
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.
Enjoy the novel about an era now gone in the sweep of history. Enjoy the pure air of the Caucasus. Most of all, enjoy the masterful hand of Tolstoy telling a tale.
Resolve to be a better person. Then do something more about that resolution than sitting around drinking vodka. At least, that's what I took away from the story.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved