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Tales of Sevastopol the Cossacks by Lev…
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Tales of Sevastopol the Cossacks

by Lev Tolstoy

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It made me very happy to find this beautiful illustrated edition of Tolstoy’s “Tales of Sevastopol” and “The Cossacks”, published in English in the Soviet Union in 1982.

“Tales of Sevastopol”, more often translated as “Sevastopol Sketches”, tells of Tolstoy’s first-hand impressions of the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War over 1854-55, before it ultimately fell to the Allies. The picture of Tolstoy on the jacket cover from 1854, at the age of 26, is a classic. Tolstoy was patriotic and admired the bravery of the Russian soldiers, and that comes through in his writing, but he was also honest about the horror of the conditions, and the senselessness of the death and dismembership he saw all around him. The result is a collection of sketches that shine with humanity, and ultimately both Tolstoy’s realism (“Who is the villain, and who the hero? All are good, and all are evil.”) and his idealism (“The hero of my tale, whom I love with all my heart and soul, whom I have tried to depict in all his beauty, and who always was, is and will be beautiful – is Truth.”)

“The Cossacks” is a short novel that Tolstoy started in 1853, but didn’t finish and publish until 1863 to help pay off his gambling debts. In it a Moscow nobleman leaves society to explore the mountainous region of the Caucasus, in Southern Russia, present-day Chechnya. He has no real plan but fantasizes over meeting a Circassian woman with “a fine figure with long tresses and deep submissive eyes”. He finds a group of Russian “Old Believers” who have split off from Russia’s Orthodox Church and live a rugged life, lives with them despite their distrust of him, and begins to admire their ways. They are constantly skirmishing with a group of native Chechens who live across the river. The local hero, a strapping young man, has his eyes on a girl who is beautiful and who also has a certain spark to her, and naturally enough, the newcomer also feels an attraction, thus setting up a love triangle. Meanwhile, the newcomer begins to question his life and what is important to him.

Elements of both stories reveal glimpses of Tolstoy’s soul searching later in his life, and the stories are timely given recent events in Crimea and Chechnya, reminding us a little of the history in these regions. Definitely worth reading.

Quotes:
One oneness, this from The Cossacks. Perhaps in this love of life and connectedness, one can see the germ of Tolstoy’s vegetarianism later in life:
“He felt cool and comfortable and had no thoughts or desires. And suddenly he was overcome by such a strange feeling of joy, and of love for everything, that, from an old habit of his childhood, he began crossing himself and giving thanks to someone. Suddenly, with unusual clarity, he thought: ‘Here am I, Dmitry Olenin, a being so distinct from every other being, now lying all alone, Heaven only knows where – where a stag used to live – a handsome old fellow, who perhaps had never seen the face of man, and in a place where no human being has ever sat, or thought these thoughts.

And it came to him clearly that he was not a Russian nobleman, a member of Moscow society, the friend and relation of so-and-so and so-and-so, but just such a mosquito, or pheasant, or deer, as those that were now living all round him. ‘Just as they, just as Uncle Yeroshka, I shall live awhile and die, and as he says truly, grass will grow and nothing more.’”

On happiness in running away from the ‘real world’, also from The Cossacks. Shades of ‘watching the wheels go ‘round and ‘round from John Lennon:
‘Oh, how repulsive and pitiable you all seem to me! You do not know what happiness is, and what life is! One must once taste life in all its natural beauty! One must see and understand what I see every day before me; those eternally unapproachable snowy peaks, and a majestic woman in that primitive beauty in which the first woman must have come from her Creator’s hands. That it becomes clear who is ruining himself, and who is living truly or falsely – you or I.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Aug 16, 2014 |
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