Synthia Ozick’s article on Tolstoy’s The Cossacks (a novel I have not read) is summarized on TNR’s front page:
How could Tolstoy write a novel about the Cossacks without mentioning their long trail of butcheries? In this bucolic fable, the somber claims of history are secondary to the sensual pleasures of nature.
To which the correct answer is, I believe, by the time of the novel’s writing, no major “butcheries” had been committed by the Cossacks of the Terek. Tolstoy did not turn away from what he knew because there was nothing for him to know.
To Ozick’s strong claim, “The Cossack depredations of the nineteenth century are infamous,” all I can reply is, “What depredations?” But that’s not the real issue. The weakest premise in her analysis is mistaking the term “Cossack” to imply substantial cultural and historical unity and continuity. In reality, the word has applied to a multitude of communities mostly in what were frontier areas in today’s Russia and Ukraine. They had little in common except that, originally, most were settlements of free men who had escaped from their governments, with some kind of direct democratic rule. Think of “Cossack” as a generic term for “frontier man.”
Ozick correctly points out that “in a single year, between 1648 and 1649, under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki, Cossacks murdered three hundred thousand Jews, a number not exceeded until the rise of the genocidal Nazi regime.” Yes indeed, only that Chmielnicki was a Polish noble and his army consisted of Zaporozhye (Zaporizhzhe) Cossacks whose relationship to Tostoy’s Cossacks is tenuous. As Tolstoy claims, “his” Cossacks’ ancestors were Russian old believers (read: persecuted religious dissidents) who settled in what is now Chechnya. British emigres who settled all over the world had something in common, too, but we don’t blame Australians for the Cherokee trail of blood.
All the same, the syllables of the word “Cossacks” even now retain their fearful death-toll, and a reader of our generation who is not historically naive, or willfully amnesiac, will not be deaf to their sound.
Conflation in action, again. If the reader is a descendant of East European Jews, he might be driven to think of Ukrainian Cossacks — who did commit the above-mentioned and some other massacres in the course of a religious war comparable in brutality to the Thirty-Year War — as the Cossacks. For the average educated Russian, though, the Cossacks are the scary, rowdy bunch who took Paris in 1812 and nearly perished in the Civil War on the Don. Those better versed in history may recall the Time of Troubles; Yermak, the conqueror of Siberia; the rebellious Cossacks of the Yaik, etc. They would also point out that Catherine the Great destroyed the Ukrainian Cossacks as a unified group, forcibly removing some of them to Central Russia and others to the Kuban, while yet others fled to the Ottoman Empire. But if the reader wants to keep it simple, let him.
Two more, pettier comments. a) Ozick mentions Babel, who had a special liking for gore, but passes over the most important fiction book involving Cossacks, Sholokhov’s (or rather someone else’s) Quiet Flows the Don. b) She claims Tolstoy left home for his last journey at the age of 72. Wrong. He was born in 1828 and died in 1910, at 82. What’s interesting is that Cynthia Ozick is 100 years younger.