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June 30, 2004 by AK

More on The Cossacks

I have read it. I am a fast reader, and this short novel turned out, unexpectedly of course, captivating. Actually, there are two classes of Cossacks in the novel. One is the settlers, the focus of the author’s inquiry and mine; the other, “soldiers”–regular troops composed mostly of Cossacks, but also of others, including Olenin himself.

Turns out–contrary to Ozick, of course–it was from his young years that Tolstoy sought to oprostit’sya–not simplify but simplefolksify himself. Wonderful continuity. Olenin wishes he were one of the Cossacks much like a mature Tolstoy would wish to be a common Russian peasant.

The Cossack settlers are amazingly unreligious. A strain of Old Believers, they had no priests; instead, ustavschiki–a sort of elders–performed the rites. (On the contrary, Chmielnicky’s troops were all for Orthodoxy against Catholicism.)

They pick up habits from Chechens without a problem. They speak “Tatar” (not sure what it means). They regard Chechens as their natural enemies but respect them–perhaps more than they do the soldiers. They can get as cruel and brutal as the natives. And it’s hard to say whether they’re Russian at all in anything but the language–unless one accepts language as the cornerstone of Russianness. I doubt they would have identify themselves as Russians, either.


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