It has been over a year since I last read a novel by Leo Tolstoy, so when I picked up The Cossacks from our bookshelf (originally ordered by my sister), the first thing that struck me was how small and lightweight it was! After all, the other novels by Leo Tolstoy I had read, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, had been heavy weights and amongst the longest novels, I had read. Compared to those, this 213-page novel seemed like a short story!
Ironically, when I finished reading The Cossacks last night, my thoughts once again went back to how small it was. In fact, I would have liked it to be a lot longer, a lot-lot longer. Alas, some stories aren’t meant to be complete or to reach a logical conclusion. They are meant to be a breeze, to wake us from our slumber and then, disappear just as abruptly, leaving us with our thoughts and a yearning for more…
The Cossacks is the story of Dimitri Olenin Andreich, a nobleman from Russia, who travels to the Caucasus during the Caucasian War as an army cadet, in hopes of earning enough money to pay off his debts and then maybe, return to Moscow.
However, what he finds in a small Cossack Village of Novomlinsk, with a population of 879 males and 1012 females, is love.
Love for the nature and mountains, for the Cossack way of life and the object of his desire, Maryanka, daughter of his landlord.
Already disenchanted with the privileged life of a nobleman in Moscow or even the life of privileged officers in the Russian Army, Olenin, a confused soul, becomes even more confused.
On one hand, he sees the simple Cossack life and the handsome Maryanka and would love to settle down here and be her husband and become a Cossack. On the other hand, he feels he is not good enough for this simple life and in particular, Maryanka.
He wants her, something that becomes more and more apparent to him as the time passes and he finally speaks to her at a ball arranged by his fellow officer, Beletsky.
However, by then he has already placed her on a pedestal and finds himself to be inadequate and unfit for her. Even though he knows in his heart of heart, she too loves him, even though she agrees to be betrothed to Cossack Lukashka, whom Olenin respects and admire.
What follows is a story that is both engulfing and thought provoking and presents a conundrum most of us city dwellers can relate to. For we too wish for the simple, beautiful and yet, hard life of the simple folks of the mountains and yet, cannot help but feel out of place, when we are amidst them.
The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy is comparatively easy to read and follow, yet leaves you with philosophical questions, that we may never find an answer to. Until, destiny present it to us like it does in the case of Olenin.
Overall, it is an engaging novel, though at times it can appear to be a bit disconnected and lose direction and seem to appear, as if it wasn’t the work of Leo Tolstoy. Yet, in the end, it leaves you wanting more, just like life…