Expat Life in Literature: Tolstoy, The Cossacks

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Life as an foreigner in a foreign land is the theme of many books and short stories.  They can be instructive and cautionary.  One of the most common is “Burmese Days” by George Orwell.My most recent read was a short novel by Leo Tolstoy, “The Cossacks”.  This is a brief synopsis but please read the book itself.

Dmitri Andreich (Olenin) a minor member of the Moscow aristocracy, finds himself mired in debt and ennui. He decides to get away and pay off his debts by accepting a cadet commission in the Russian Army in the remote Caucasus Mountain region. He is euphoric to get away from stuffy Moscow social life and live in a remote Cossack village. He is entranced by the simplicity of life in there. He rents a small cottage. He is befriended by an old Cossack, Daddy Eroshka. They spend happy days hunting, drinking and storytelling. He feels accepted.

Olenin falls for the most beautiful girl in the village, Maryanka. She is engaged to a local man, but nonetheless flirts with Olenin. He dreams of settling down with her and living a genuine Cossack life. After her fiancée is shot, Maryanka tells Olenin that he’ll never get anything from her. His acceptance into the community was illusory. Old Eroshka spent time with him because Olenin bought the drink he so adored. Others accepted gifts from him. Heartbroken he decides to return to Moscow. Eroshka tells him he did not fit in, feels sorry for him:

“It’s very hard, dear brother,

In a foreign land to live.”

As Odelin leaves the village, neither Eroshka nor Maryanka bother look at him.

Comments (5) Write a comment

  1. Your current plans are my future plans. While I have no illusions about gaining close friends while I live there I hope to overcome some of that by keeping busy. A stranger in a foreign land is just that. I hope you can see your way through it.

    Reply

    • I did not mean my mini book review of Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks” to apply to life in the Philippines, but there are grains of truth in it. Dmitri Andreich went to the Caucasus because he had screwed up his life and finances in Moscow and wanted a fresh start. Certainly some expats headed to the Philippines have a bit of that. His expectations were overblown. He was a nobleman trying to live as a local. Some of the Cossacks found it worthwhile to befriend him for insincere reasons. Dmitri Andreich felt at one with the village events, the merry-making, the dances, the holidays. He was not. He was crazy for Maryka in a way that is more likely to be found in a 19th century novel than in the 21st century Philippines.

      Reply

  2. Why did I immediately think of that as an allusion? I know your autobiography is better than that!
    Hello, Bob and Carol

    Reply

    • Yes, the Filipinos are certainly not Cossacks, but it’s a good read for any expat anywhere.

      Reply

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