Introduction to The Cossacks by Leo Tolsoy
Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy is a novel about the experiences of Onenin, a young Russian aristocrat, who decides to join the army and finds himself in a Cossack village during the Caucasus War (1817-1864). Cossacks it was written ten years after Tolstoy’s own experiences during the Caucasus War, when he followed his officer brother on the field. The novel explores a number of themes that were to become increasingly important to Tolstoy as he developed as a writer: the purpose of life and the nature of happiness and the truth of primitive rural life in contrast to sophisticated culture. of Russian urban society. Tolstoy went on to write two of the most famous novels in history: War and peace and Anna karenina, but it was in Cossacks that he began to find his voice as a writer.
Cossacks it was Tolstoy’s first masterpiece. Published in 1863, it is the supreme example of Tolstoy’s ability to make the familiar strange: at first glance it appears to be a retelling of the Russian romantic cliché of a young man riding off to the Caucasus, but instead of following the Tolstoy cliché. examines a series of themes that he would develop in his later works: such as the interaction of different social classes, pacifism and the nature of happiness and the purpose of man in life.
Once you have read one of the many English translations of Cossacks why not consider the following questions. These can also be used as the basis for a book group discussion about the book.
Reading guide questions
- Tolstoy does not focus on the narrative of Cossacks in a single character. Who do you think is the main character in the book and why?
- The natural description forms a large part of the book. What do you think is Tolstoy’s opinion of nature? Is Tolstoy a romantic in the way he describes nature?
- Like Onenin, Tolstoy came from a rich noble family. How does the character and experiences of a young man like Onenin in contrast to that of the Cossacks?
- What is Tolstoy’s attitude towards the war in Cossacks, and from what you know of his other writings, how does it fit in with your later beliefs?
- Would Onenin ever have been happily married to Maryanka?
- Is Uncle Eroshka a nice character?
- What is Tolstoy’s purpose in fictionalizing his experiences in the Caucasus?
- At the end of the story, where would Onenin rather live: the city or the mountains? Where would you rather live?
- What is the nature of true happiness in the opinion of Onenin, Lukashka, and Maryanka? What do you think the author believes?