Reading Guide for The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy

Introduction to The Cossacks by Leo Tolsoy

The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy is a novella about the experiences of Onenin, a young Russian aristocrat, who decides to join the army and finds himself in a Cossack village during the Caucasian War (1817-1864). The Cossacks was written ten years after Tolstoy's own experiences during the Caucasian War when he followed his officer brother on campaign. The novella explores a number of themes that were to become ever more important to Tolstoy as he developed as a writer: the purpose of life and nature of happiness and the truth of primitive rural life contrasted with the sophisticated culture of Russian urbane society. Tolstoy went on to write two of the most famous novels in history: War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but it was in The Cossacks that he started to find his voice as a writer.

The Cossacks was Tolstoy's first masterpiece. Published in 1863, it is the supreme example of Tolstoy's ability to make the familiar strange: at first glance it appears to be a retelling of the Russian romantic cliché of a young man riding off to the Caucasus, but rather than following the cliché Tolstoy instead examines a number of themes that he would develop in his later works: such as the interaction of different social classes, pacifism, and the nature of happiness and man's purpose in life.

Once you have read one of the many English translations of The Cossacks why not consider the following questions. These can also be used as the basis of a Book Group discussion on the book.

Reading Guide Questions
  1. Tolstoy does not focus the narrative of The Cossacks on one single character. Who do you think is the main character of the book, and why?
  2. Natural description forms a big part of the book. What do you think Tolstoy's opinion of nature is? Is Tolstoy a Romantic in the way he describes nature?
  3. Like Onenin, Tolstoy came from a rich noble family. How does the character and experiences of a jeune homme like Onenin contrast with that of the Cossacks?
  4. What is Tolstoy's attitude to war in The Cossacks, and from what you know of his other writing, how does it fit in with his later beliefs?
  5. Would Onenin ever have been happily married to Maryanka?
  6. Is Uncle Eroshka a likeable character?
  7. What is Tolstoy's purpose in fictionalizing his experiences in the Caucasus?
  8. By the end of the story where do you Onenin would rather live: the city or the mountains? Where would you rather live?
  9. What is the nature of true happiness in the view of Onenin, Lukashka and Maryanka? What do you think the author believes?
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