By Matthew Ilseman
One summer when I was a teenager I decided to read War and Peace. I spent much of that summer in my room going through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus. I remember my pride at having finished it and my disappointment at discovering it was an abridged version.
Leo Tolstoy is known of course as one of the greatest writers of human history. This can make his reputation daunting to some people. That and the size of his novels. He however wrote other things than the behemoths War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He wrote novellas and short stories as well.
Tolstoy was born in an aristocratic family. He lived a dissolute lifestyle for a time in Moscow. Hoping to escape his creditors at the time he enlisted in the army and served in the Caucasus. (Dostoevsky, the other Great Russian writer, also had trouble with his creditors. He wrote Crime and Punishment to pay his debts.) His experiences there formed the background to his novella The Cossacks and short story The Raid. (I found an old paper back made up of both stories at a library sell. They seemed to be collected together a lot).
Tolstoy at the end of his life would develop essentially his own religion of absolute pacifism and absolute celibacy. (He would in fact consider sex even inside of marriage for the purpose of reproduction immoral).
The Cossacks’ main character is Olenin a Russian aristocrat who enlists in the military after a failed love affair. He goes to live in a Cossack village where he falls into a love triangle with a young Cossack named Luke over the beautiful Marianka. Olenin grows to admire the simple life of the Cossack’s over the artificial life of Moscow society. He also comes to an epiphany summed up in a single phrase:
“Happiness is living for others.”
The novella follows Olenin’s attempts to live up to his epiphany, his growing attraction Marianka, and finally the tragic ending. One major character is Eroshka an elderly Cossack. A former horse thief and warrior turned hunter, he is based on a Cossack Tolstoy actually knew.
The story is a window into Cossack life in the 1800s.
The Raid is also based on Tolstoy’s personal experiences. It is narrated by an unnamed civilian who philosophizes about courage and what makes man kill his fellow man. The civilian gets his friend Colonel Khlopov, an officer assigned to the Caucasus, to follow along on a raid. The story explores what is the nature of courage. Many characters that seen out of melodrama are introduced but it is the prosaic Khlopov that in the end is shown to be the most courageous.
As I read The Raid, I saw that it could be completely transferred from the Caucasus to say the American frontier. Instead, of say a Tartar uprising it would be an Indian one. The Russian army uses Cossack’s and Tartars as scouts the way the American army used frontiersmen and Indians.
They are probably not as important world literature as War and Peace but they are excellent stories. Both stories allow an authentic glimpse in to a Frontier much like ours and yet very different than the American one. They are also a great starting point for someone interested in Tolstoy but not wanting to crack open one of his giant novels.
Too often, usually because of bad experiences in school, the great writers are overlooked. While I have read supposedly classic works that I did not like, I have found that most the classics are well worth reading. It is a shame more people do not read them.
Tolstoy was in the end many things, but he will forever be known as one of the Great Writers.