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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Cossacks and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)
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on October 11, 2017
Overlooked classic fromTolstoy describes life as a Russian cadet on the steppes. Prescient insight into the ancient divides and challenges framing the caucasus. Can be extrapolated across the entire southwest Asia region. Very fast read.
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on October 23, 2017
My favorite work of Tolstoy and by far the best translation.
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on October 27, 2017
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on February 1, 2016
Must read.
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on September 20, 2011
Book arrived on time and in perfect order. Good seller. The story is typical romantic Russian tale which, with all due respect to Count Leo, I have always found difficult to absorb and even understand, especially in this brave new world of the 21st century. Thanks
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on March 27, 2014
It is a good read, and as with penguin classics the notes help those who are unfamiliar with the history. Recommended. Price is good too.
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A friend asked why there is so little literature about the Crimean War (1854–56). I am not yet in a position to answer that, but I though I'd start with an eyewitness account, Tolstoy's Sevastopol Sketches (1856), available free on Gutenberg in a translation by Isabel Hapgood. But her first sentences gave me pause:

The flush of morning has but just begun to tinge the sky above
Sapun Mountain; the dark blue surface of the sea has already
cast aside the shades of night and awaits the first ray to begin
a play of merry gleams; cold and mist are wafted from the bay.

So I turned to the more modern translation by David McDuff in this Penguin collection:

The light of daybreak is just beginning to tint the sky about
the Sapun-gora. The dark surface of the sea has already thrown
off the night's gloom and is waiting for the first ray of
sunlight to begin its cheerful sparkling. From the bay comes
a steady drift of cold and mist.

In fact, reading on, I saw that both translations were more or less equally flowery, but in different ways. It is clear that, already the ironist, Tolstoy exploited the radiance of nature as contrast to the scenes of death and battle. So I stuck with the Penguin, which also has the advantage of notes, maps, a glossary, and an excellent introduction by Paul Foote. I am sticking for now with the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES; if I go back to read the COSSACK STORIES and HADJI MURAT, also included here, I shall write a separate review.


After a wild youth, Tolstoy joined the Russian army in the Caucasus in 1851 as a cadet volunteer; he was 22. By 1854, when the Crimean War broke out, he was now a regular officer. At his own request, he was posted to Sevastopol, then near the start of its eleven-month siege by French and British forces. Much of the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES, which launched his literary fame, is thinly-disguised reportage of what he himself experienced. It is this that would give him the authenticity to write War and Peace a decade later, although this earlier book is a much grimmer, more compact work: war, with no peace whatsoever.

The stories form an interesting progression: in length, In date, in narrative technique, and above all in attitude. Each of the three stories is twice as long as its predecessor, at roughly 25, 50, and 100 pages respectively. In date, they cover the final nine months of the siege; they are labeled December 1854, May 1855, and August 1855; as these dates are old style, the final story ends with the surrender of Sevastopol, which took place on September 9, 1855, in the Western calendar.

Narratively, they begin with the eye of a reporter and end with the sensibility of a novelist. The December story is written entirely in the second person, as though the writer were showing you around. The effect is much like a newsreel, where the narrator tours the scene with a portable camera as he moves unflinching from the harbor to the fetid horrors of the hospital, into this barracks or that guardroom, and finally to the most notorious of the gun emplacements, the 4th bastion, amid an almost constant barrage of cannonballs and mortar shells. In the May section, Tolstoy introduces named characters, from a young prince and other aristocrats treating the war as a kind of social adventure, to hardworking regular officers and men with no such claims to privilege. But in his second-to-last paragraph he dismisses the lot of them, saying that nobody is capable of being either the villains or the heroes of his story.

The third and longest tale may not have heroes either, but it does have fully-realized characters. It begins with two brothers meeting up by accident on the road to Sevastopol. The elder has been wounded earlier in the siege, and sent away to convalesce before returning to his regiment. The younger is a volunteer, like Tolstoy originally was himself, and will be seeing battle for the first time. Their fond reunion tapers off into one of those human comments that could only be Tolstoy (if not Thackeray or Trollope):

When they had talked all they wanted to, and had finally begun to
feel the way close relatives often do -- namely, that although each
is very fond of the other, they neither of them have terribly much
in common -- the brothers fell silent for quite a long time.

Subsequent chapters will shift between the two of them, gaining much from the contrast between the innocent and experienced views, and full of fascinating vignettes of their fellow soldiers -- in the end showing that no man is immune to fear, but that there is a spark of heroism in all of us. The climax, seen interestingly through a telescope from a distant lookout, shows the capture of the vital Malakoff Hill by the French, which led to the Russian evacuation of the city the next day.

As for the progression from patriotic fervor to numb despair in Tolstoy's attitude to war, I can do no better than to quote brief excerpts from all three stories:

You will suddenly have a clear and vivid awareness that those men
you have just seen are the very same heroes who in those difficult
days did not allow their spirits to sink but rather felt them rise
as they joyfully prepared to die, not for the town but for their
native land. Long will Russia bear the imposing traces of this
epic of Sevastopol, the hero of which was the Russian people.
[December, 1854]

But the dispute which the diplomats have failed to settle is proving
to be even less amenable to settlement by means of gunpowder and
human blood. […] One of two things appears to be true: either war is
madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate
that they are far from being the rational creatures we for some reason
commonly suppose them to be. [May, 1855]

Each man, on arriving at the other side of the bridge, took off his
cap and crossed himself. But this feeling contained another -- draining,
agonizing, and infinitely more profound: a sense of something that
was a blend of remorse, shame, and violent hatred. Nearly every man,
as he looked across from the North Side at abandoned Sevastopol,
sighed with a bitterness that could find no words, and shook his
fist at the enemy forces. [August, 1855]
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on November 12, 2017
When he set off for the Caucasus in the early 1850s, the young Leo Tolstoy was in many ways much the same as most other young noblemen: caught up in gambling and chasing women, concerned with appearances and enjoying the moment. But even then Tolstoy was already thinking about other, more serious, more permanent things. The novella "Cossacks" was one of the earlier books he began, in the early 1850s, although it was not completed until 1862 and not published in its final form until January 1863.

"Cossacks" has many of the hallmarks of early Tolstoy: the writing is, while not as spare as his later work, elegant and clear, with considerable use of dialogue to convey both plot and character. The setting is delineated with local details on every level: clothes, horses, food, housing, landscape, and language are all used to convey the life of the Caucasian Cossack life. The impression is one of total immersion into a vibrant, foreign culture, one that attracts and repels the reader just as it does Olenin ("Deer"), the Russian officer who is the main character.

Olenin is drawn to the Cossack lifestyle for its simplicity and its closeness to nature. He believes that they are happier than he is because they think less about life and their place in it, a common belief amongst his aristocratic characters. In retrospect it's easy to criticize that belief--surely all people think about life and their place in it, and probably even very "simple" people live fully fledged inner lives--but "Cossacks" does bring up the eternal issue of how much of the experience of all living beings (Tolstoy, as do I, includes non-human animals in his considerations) is shared, and how much is dependent on specific, individual experience. Olenin, the educated aristocrat, can comprehend his life through his knowledge of European and Classical literature, while Lukashka, his simple Cossack counterpart, tells tales and sings folk songs, and the "abreks"--Caucasian warriors--rarely speak at all and are seen only from the outside, although they, too, it is suggested, are living full inner lives, complete with recognizable emotions such as sorrow and fear. The Cossacks speak Tatar almost as much as they do Russian--when Lukashka is wounded he curses in a mixture of Tatar and Russian, for example, and most of the Cossacks drop Tatar and Arabic words into their speech at important moments--dress like Abreks, and "dzhigit"--act the dashing hero, from the Caucasian word for it--on their horses when they want to show off; in many ways they are more Caucasian than they are Russian, and they admire their Chechen counterparts more than they do their Russian masters. This attraction-repulsion, and simultaneous sensation of total merging with the Other and total inability to ever understand and become one with the Other, is characteristic of Tolstoy's work and shows a lifelong concern of his in all his writings.

For all its philosophy, though, "Cossacks" is at its heart a ripping yarn, with hunts, battles, and a tense love triangle between the refined, reflective Olenin, the spontaneous child of nature Lukashka, and the strong-willed, independent Maryana, who like all the Cossack women is treated both by the characters and the author as something between a unique and powerful individual and a piece of goods to be bought and sold. Longtime fans of Tolstoy owe it to themselves to read this story, while readers who want to try some Tolstoy but are intimidated by the big novels will find this a much more approachable introduction to the great master's work.
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on November 22, 2016
This book is not about being transformed, but about the possibility of being transformed in the process of getting oriented to the unfamiliar. It is a moment, not a conclusion chocked full of enduring meaning. But the moment counts, like it does with Hamlet speaking his words on the stage. Tolstoy may have hated Shakespeare, but there are a lot of similarities between the two of them, not least of which is their ability to tell a gripping story while boldly putting the paradoxes and mysteries held in the coreof consciousness right before our eyes. Have I been reading too much Tolstoy? Yes.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon October 16, 2009
Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is one of the world's greatest novelist producing such classics as "War and Peace"; "Anna Karenina" and "Resurrection." He was also a master of the novella and short story. Penguin has collected three of these shorter works in a handsomely published new paperback.
The stories are:
The Cossacks: In this semi-autobiographical story a young Moscow nobleman joins the army. He is posted to the distant Caucasus where he becomes friends with people living in a Cossack village. He is infatuated with a Cossack beauty and is involved in a romantic triangle. Olenin meets and befriends an old Cossack who imparts wisdom and the customs of his people to Olenin. The story is filled with information on the customs and lifestyles of the Cossacks. It also includes beautiful descriptions of nature and ponderings on life by Olenin. The Cossacks of Tsarist Russia were a strong,proud and fierce people who loved to drink, love and fight across the vast stretches of the steppes. When Olenin leaves the Cossacks he has grown in maturity.
Sevastopol Sketches is a story concerning the siege of that Crimean City by the French, English and Turks during the Crimean War of the 1850s. Tolstoy was himself present during the siege. The Russians were defeated. We experience in these pages the experience of bombardment, instant death from shells and see the horrific condition of the wounded. The lives and deaths of two brothers are described. This story provides excitement and shows Tolstoy's ability to draw characters and scenes with superb skill. There are three sketches which show us what it is like to be in a beseiged city during war. Tolstoy became a pacificist. This short work shows us the horror of warfare.
Hadji Murat is a tragic tale of a proud Chechen warrior who switches sides to fight with the Russians. In a classic chapter Tolstoy paints the Court of Nicholas I the cruel Czar of all the Russias. Hadji Murat is a man torn by political loyalties. He was a historical character.
Tolstoy wrote in a clear style easy to comphrehend. You will never forget these short works of fiction. Enjoy the words put on paper by a great author!
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