Tolstoy's first novel and acknowledged as one of his best. The Cossacks is based on Tolstoy's own forays into the Caucasus, abandoning his aristocrat life of gambling and carousing in Moscow and volunteering to be attached to the regular army. Leo Tolstoy's firsthand insight to the magnificent landscape and the colorful Cossack way of life is lushly descriptive, in a text translated from his manuscript by close friends.
Olenin is an aimless young nobleman who is disenchanted with city life. Taking a post as a Cadet in the army, he finds himself assigned to the remote Cossack outpost in the Caucasus. It is here, among the Tatars, the Chechens, and the Old Believers, that he will fall in love with a beautiful Cossack girl. The only problem is that she is promised to a Cossack warrior.
In the setting of what is present-day Kazakhstan, Tolstoy examines two psychological problems. The first is the dilemma of a young man who desires both fulfilling love and a place as a respected member of society. The other is the difficulty of a primitive society to accept domination by a higher culture that has no understanding of the traditions it asks its colonists to cast aside.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was born in 1828 about two hundred miles from Moscow. His mother died when he was two, his father when he was nine. His parents were of noble birth, and Tolstoy remained acutely aware of his aristocratic roots, even when he later embraced doctrines of equality and the brotherhood of man. After serving in the army in the Caucasus and Crimea, where he wrote his first stories, he traveled and studied educational theories.
In 1862 he married Sophia Behrs and for the next fifteen years lived a tranquil, productive life, finishing War and Peace in 1869 and Anna Karenina in 1877. In 1879 he underwent a spiritual crisis. Tolstoy then sought to propagate his beliefs on faith, morality, and nonviolence, writing mostly parables, tracts, and morality plays. He died of pneumonia in 1910 at the age of eighty-two.