‘The Cossacks:’ beauty, perception and reality

One hundred years ago this month, Russian author Leo Tolstoy died in a western Russia at age 82. In recognition of his immense contribution to the world of literature, this blog is reprinting excerpts from his works over the next few weeks.

While best known for such voluminous works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s shorter pieces are no less brilliant, such as his 1862 novella The Cossacks.

In The Cossacks, a young Russian aristocrat, dissatisfied with high society, buys a commission in the army and commences on an adventure in the east, serving at a remote Cossack outpost in the Caucasus.

Instead of the respect and privilege his money and breeding bring him in the city, he’s nothing more than an outsider at the army post. His attempts to gain respect ultimately fail, as do his efforts at living a more enlightened existence.

Suddenly a shot was heard in the distance.

The cornet became excited, and began giving orders to the Cossacks as to how they should divide and from which side they should approach. But the Cossacks did not appear to pay any attention to these orders, listening only to what Lukashka said and looking to him alone. Lukashka’s face and figure were expressive of calm solemnity. He put his horse to a trot with which the others were unable to keep pace, and screwing up his eyes kept looking ahead.

“There’s a man on horseback,” he said, reining in his horse and keeping in line with the others.

Olenin looked intently, but could not see anything. The Cossacks soon distinguished two riders and quietly rode straight towards them.

“Are those the Abreks?” asked Olenin.

The Cossacks did not answer his question, which appeared quite meaningless to them. The Abreks would have been fools to venture across the river on horseback.

“That’s friend Rodka waving to us, I do believe,” said Lukashka, pointing to the two mounted men who were now clearly visible. “Look, he’s coming to us.”

A few minutes later it became plain that the two horsemen were the Cossack scouts. The corporal rode up to Lukashka.

“Are they far?” was all Lukashka said.

Just then they heard a sharp shot some thirty paces off. The corporal smiled slightly.

“Our Gurka is having shots at them,” he said, nodding in the direction of the shot.

Having gone a few paces farther they saw Gurka sitting behind a sand-hillock and loading his gun. To while away the time he was exchanging shots with the Abreks, who were behind another sand-heap. A bullet came whistling from their side.

The cornet was pale and grew confused. Lukashka dismounted from his horse, threw the reins to one of the other Cossacks, and went up to Gurka. Olenin also dismounted and, bending down, followed Lukashka. They had hardly reached Gurka when two bullets whistled above them.

Lukashka looked around laughing at Olenin and stooped a little.

“Look out or they will kill you, Dmitri Andreich,” he said. “You’d better go away – you have no business here.” But Olenin wanted absolutely to see the Abreks.

From behind the mound he saw caps and muskets some two hundred paces off. Suddenly a little cloud of smoke appeared from thence, and again a bullet whistled past. The Abreks were hiding in a marsh at the foot of the hill. Olenin was much impressed by the place in which they sat. In reality it was very much like the rest of the steppe, but because the Abreks sat there it seemed to detach itself from all the rest and to have become distinguished. Indeed it appeared to Olenin that it was the very spot for Abreks to occupy. Lukashka went back to his horse and Olenin followed him.

“We must get a hay-cart,” said Lukashka, “or they will be killing some of us. There behind that mound is a Nogay cart with a load of hay.”

The cornet listened to him and the corporal agreed. The cart of hay was fetched, and the Cossacks, hiding behind it, pushed it forward. Olenin rode up a hillock from whence he could see everything. The hay-cart moved on and the Cossacks crowded together behind it. The Cossacks advanced, but the Chechens, of whom there were nine, sat with their knees in a row and did not fire.

All was quiet. Suddenly from the Chechens arose the sound of a mournful song, something like Daddy Eroshka’s “Ay day, dalalay.” The Chechens knew that they could not escape, and to prevent themselves from being tempted to take to flight they had strapped themselves together, knee to knee, had got their guns ready, and were singing their death-song.

The Cossacks with their hay-cart drew closer and closer, and Olenin expected the firing to begin at any moment, but the silence was only broken by the Abreks’ mournful song. Suddenly the song ceased; there was a sharp report, a bullet struck the front of the cart, and Chechen curses and yells broke the silence and shot followed on shot and one bullet after another struck the cart. The Cossacks did not fire and were now only five paces distant.

Another moment passed and the Cossacks with a whoop rushed out on both sides from behind the cart – Lukashka in front of them. Olenin heard only a few shots, then shouting and moans. He thought he saw smoke and blood, and abandoning his horse and quite beside himself he ran towards the Cossacks. Horror seemed to blind him. He could not make out anything, but understood that all was over. Lukashka, pale as death, was holding a wounded Chechen by the arms and shouting, “Don’t kill him. I’ll take him alive!” The Chechen was the red-haired man who had fetched his brother’s body away after Lukashka had killed him. Lukashka was twisting his arms. Suddenly the Chechen wrenched himself free and fired his pistol. Lukashka fell, and blood began to flow from his stomach. He jumped up, but fell again, swearing in Russian and in Tartar. More and more blood appeared on his clothes and under him. Some Cossacks approached him and began loosening his girdle. One of them, Nazarka, before beginning to help, fumbled for some time, unable to put his sword in its sheath: it would not go the right way. The blade of the sword was blood-stained.

The Chechens with their red hair and clipped moustaches lay dead and hacked about. Only the one we know of, who had fired at Lukashka, though wounded in many places was still alive. Like a wounded hawk all covered with blood (blood was flowing from a wound under his right eye), pale and gloomy, he looked about him with wide – open excited eyes and clenched teeth as he crouched, dagger in hand, still prepared to defend himself. The cornet went up to him as if intending to pass by, and with a quick movement shot him in the ear. The Chechen started up, but it was too late, and he fell.

The Cossacks, quite out of breath, dragged the bodies aside and took the weapons from them. Each of the red-haired Chechens had been a man, and each one had his own individual expression.

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