The 76th entry on my Classics Club list is The Cossacks: A Caucasus Tale of 1852 by Leo Tolstoy, a novella-length story which took the Russian author ten years to write: ‘In 1831, at the age of twenty-two, Tolstoy travelled to the Caucasus and joined the army there as a cadet. The four years that followed were among the most significant in his life, and provided the material’ which he wrote about here.
Translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, and with an introduction also penned by the latter, The Cossacks is printed in its Penguin edition alongside another novella, entitled Hadji Murat, and three short Sevastopol tales. The Cossacks, Foote writes, is ‘part ethnographic study, part morality tale’. He goes on to write of the concept of Cossacks within Imperial Russia: ‘The young Cossacks exemplify the freedom of life lived according only to natural instincts’. Whilst Foote’s introduction is undoubtedly intelligent and informative, it does give away a lot of plot details, so it is perhaps worth reading it once you are familiar with the titular story.
The central character of the piece, ‘the hero’ Dmitry Olenin – ‘a young man of the Russian cultivated class who detaches himself from the conventions of society and undertakes some venture which will satisfy his own moral aspirations’ – is based upon Tolstoy himself. We learn rather a lot about him rather early on in the story; he is ‘a young man who had never graduated, never served anywhere (apart from an obscure position in some office), squandered half his fortune, and reached the age of twenty-four without having chosen any career or ever having done anything much at all’. He was orphaned at an early age, something which has had what he believes to be a positive impact upon his life: ‘For him there were no fetters, neither physical nor moral; he could do anything he pleased, he lacked nothing and was bound by nothing. He had neither family, nor fatherland, nor faith, nor want. He believed in nothing and acknowledged nothing’.
As with all Russian fiction, I was struck immediately by the well-realised scenes depicting the good and evil of city life; here, Tolstoy first focuses upon wintry Moscow: ‘Everything has grown quiet… At rare, rare intervals the squeak of wheels is heard somewhere along the winter street… From the churches float bell sounds which, as they sway above the sleeping city, remember the morning in prayer’. He then goes on to show Olenin’s place within the wider scope of the city: ‘Olenin felt that only people who were setting out on long journeys ever travelled through these streets. All around it was dark, silent and dreary, but inside he was so full of memories, love, regret and pleasantly choking tears…’.
The Cossacks is rather profound in places; a lot of ideas have been woven in, particularly with regard to the conversations which unfold between different characters and Olenin. Whilst The Cossacks does have strengths, and a lot of care has been given to its translation, however, Tolstoy’s use of the overarching third person perspective causes it to feel rather detached. Consequently, it failed to hold my attention throughout. I had expected it to be far more compelling, and was rather disappointed by it. The Cossacks felt, to me, like the least competent and least enjoyable Tolstoy which I have read to date. I can only hope that I have more luck with War and Peace and Anna Karenina..