Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.


The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.


Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

Literature comes to the Carolinas

John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina is the earliest book I could find on the Carolinas, where I have old family ties.  In December of 1700, Lawson set out from Charleston on an expedition to the interior.  In two months he travelled to the middle of modern day North Carolina and returned northeast to Pamlico Sound, where he started the town of Bath.  I’m not finished with the book, and at any rate I’m scarcely able to comment on its real significance.  Fortunately, Lawson’s style of narration is extremely eccentric and diverting.  It is interesting to consider that Lawson lamented that most of the English traveling to the Americas were “of the meaner sort” and held himself a gentleman and a scholar.  I’m not saying otherwise, but what companions he must have had!


Lawson encounter’d many Tygers, the dismall’st and most hideous Noise of their frightful Ditties causing great Surprizal

Lawson’s party meets with an accident on the way:

one of our Company being top-heavy, and there being nothing but a small Pole for a Bridge, over a Creek, fell into the Water up to the Chin; my self laughing at the Accident, and not taking good Heed to my Steps, came to the same Misfortune: All our Bedding was wet.  The Wind being at N. W. it froze very hard, which prepar’d such a Night’s Lodging for me, that I never desire to have the like again; the wet Bedding and freezing Air had so qualify’d our Bodies,  that in the Morning when we awak’d, we were nigh frozen to Death, until we had recruited ourselves before a large Fire of the Indians.

I will say this as I get up in the morning: “Recruit yourself!”  On his way from Charleston, Lawson travelled among the scattered plantations of refugee protestant French, and the odd Scot living on marshy islands tending livestock.  He was evidently preceded by other European traders, and he travelled with Indian guides from village to village, where he was generally well received.  Still, it was usual to encounter abandoned fields and (perhaps temporarily) deserted camps where one could make oneself at home.

We found great Store of Indian Peas, (a very good Pulse) Beans, Oyl, Thinkapin Nuts, Corn, barbacu’d Peaches, and Peach-Bread; which Peaches being made into a Quiddony, and so made up into Loves like Barley-Cakes, these cut into thin Slices, and dissolv’d in Water, makes a very grateful Acid, and extraordinary beneficial in Fevers, as hath often been try’d, and approv’d on by our English Practitioners.  The Wind being at N. W. with cold Weather, made us make a large Fire in the Indian’s Cabin; being very intent upon our Cookery, we set the Dwelling on Fire, and with much ado, put it out, tho’ with the Loss of Part of the Roof.

And I get mad when I have to wait too long in line at Dunkin Donuts on the Garden State Parkway!

Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.


I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?


Holy shit, look at this map!

Homann's Scandinavia of 1730

Homann’s Scandinavia of 1730

As soon as I saw today’s featured picture on Wikipedia, I knew I had to rave about it somewhere.  Wikipedia has no “like” buttons, probably for a good reason, but thanks to it and the beautiful institution of the Public Domain, I can copy it here.  Does the internet get any better than this?

I’ve seen my share of old maps, not only as popular backgrounds to everything, overblown to pixelation, but in the flesh, and way out of my price range, at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair.  This one is in a special class, though.  Without egregious distortions of the physical terrain, it presents an unfamiliar political division.  What is going on in Sweden?  Look at the tastefully subtle coloration.  Visit Wikimedia Commons here, and zoom in on the original.  Are all of these places real?  Didn’t I read about some of them in Egil’s Saga?  Are they all still there?  Look at the forests and mountain ranges.  At this level of detail, the stylization hardly seems to matter.  Written three hundred years ago in Latin, French, and German, it is still utterly intelligible.

Perhaps you understand why I find geography so fascinating, why I cover my walls in maps and learn them by heart?

The Empty Quarter – None Thither Goes


Not that long ago the inland borders between Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen were shown on maps as a fuzzy, obviously arbitrary curve, or not shown at all.  The reason for this is the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter.  I’ve been reading Harry St. John Bridger Philby’s 1933 account of his crossing of the great desert and having a great time with it.  St. John Philby was a British administrator who worked for many years in Arabia before realizing his lifelong dream of an expedition to the Empty Quarter.  No one was known to have crossed it until Bertram Thomas beat Philby to it by a single year.  Philby was philosophical; the privations he underwent and the diligent scientific collection he carried out show that the journey meant more to him than being first.

What does it mean to say first?  Philby was accompanied by guides who knew where to find water and could put names to most of the places they visited.  They told him, however, that though they went far into the desert in search of pastures and game, they had never heard of anyone going clear across rather than returning to the wells they set out from.  It’s clear why this was a dangerous proposition.  For the majority of their journey, Philby and his score or so of companions travelled between wells that were no more than a day or two apart.  In the desert there was often water, though brackish or worse, no more than a few yards from the surface.  Wells might be buried and difficult to locate, even if they had been covered to keep out the sand.  Drinking water for the men was less of an issue than water for their camels, and the camels also required pasture, which depended on rain and was more unreliable.  To cross the waterless heart of the desert was a journey of more than a week, and they had to be sure of finding food and water on the other side right away.

Everyone agreed that the seven or eight years before the expedition had been an especially harsh drought, on top of a much longer drying trend.  Science was well equipped by this time to appreciate very long term changes in climate and geology, but little was known about the Empty Quarter and one of the expedition’s achievements was to fill this in.  Gravel beds, freshwater shells, reed casts and flints all pointed to a much wetter Arabia.  Philby and his companions also believed that there might be many more wells than met the eye at any one time, and that together they could easily have supported more than the current nomadic users who redug and abandoned them now and again.  Led on in the hope of discovering the lost city of Wabar, Philby instead found a group of meteor craters, but it is still hard to avoid speculating on a once more populous Empty Quarter and the possibility that it was crossed by ancient routes.

I know that there are probably more eventful or more literary accounts of desert travel that I might have read.  T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta come to mind.  Compared to these, The Empty Quarter is a needlessly detailed, not to say boring, account of a grueling but straightforward journey.  Philby recorded every gravel plain and dune range, every hare and lizard and grasshopper that he caught.  He searched diligently, however, and it is beautiful to imagine, living as we do amid mountains of anthropocene garbage, what he must have felt when he found a single bronze arrowhead.  Or when, after turning back in defeat from his first attempt to cross the truly waterless waste, there was a storm, and it began to rain: 

Great black clouds of sand raced before the gale along the summits around us like squadrons of Valkyries, while from the higher dune tops streamed as it were dark pennants in the wind and the desert floor was swept as by driving snow, sheet after sheet of white sand… [the men] all day long paid visits to the surrounding dune tops, from which they shouted out to us in the hollow the news of the weather around us.

Philby himself is an intriguing, though not dazzling character.  He was in fact the father of the infamous spy Kim Philby.  After his great journey, Philby Sr. played some vague but discreditable part in securing oil leases for American companies in preference to British ones.  (In this book there’s practically no mention of oil.)  As someone remarked to me, it’s amazing they ever let his son near anything worth spying on. 

He (the senior) was also a convert to Islam, and it’s thoroughly weird to glimpse a time when that fact was nothing near the provocation that it would seem today.  He owed the entire journey to the first King Saud, and speaks approvingly of a Pax Wahhabi that had settled on the peninsula.  (This reminds me that I really need to reread Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a truly gripping book and a completely different take on some of the same territory.)  The everyday aspect of the expedition was strongly influenced by the fact that the guides, otherwise so different from himself, were his coreligionists, and it will be interesting to read other accounts where this is not the case.  Philby was one of several who adhered to a slightly more strict observance of the Ramadan fast; their disagreements seem to have been well rehearsed and at the same time marked by great tolerance. 

St. John Philby

St. John Philby

Even after the fast was over, Philby and the others were incredibly abstemious.  He claims to have drunk practically no fresh water, but only three pots of tea and a ration of milk every day, and he gave the milk up after a tiff over the shares.  They forgot to pack flour, and when water was short they could cook no rice, so they lived on dates and whatever they could catch.  Apparently the only time they felt really deprived was when they couldn’t find enough brush for a fire and had to go without coffee.

Nowadays the southern borders of Saudi Arabia are straight, precise lines.  It’s staggering to think of the geological changes and the vast realignments of resources being brought about by oil extraction in the once empty places of the world.

The Revenge of Geography

I gave up on Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, having read perhaps half of it.  There were a few little highlights (the Valley of Mexico as the Nile Valley of the Americas comes to mind) but overall I found the book confusing and I don’t think it was all my fault.  Kaplan says he is trying to inform a kind of liberal idealism with the learned tradition of geopolitics often condemned as inhumane.  I think he says he once supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but has come around.  That’s good, but he often seems to recall the assumptions of that earlier stage with very little awareness.

In general, it’s obvious there’s a debate between those who say that statecraft ought to be carried out on the basis of principle and those who would answer that nations exist in a state of nature and the only safety is in dominating others.  It’s possible Kaplan is asking us to remain agnostic in this matter.  Can we afford such agnosticism?  What would it even look like?  For one thing, it would probably be far more circumspect about ascribing the most nefarious motives to foreign states’ military adventures and in referring blithely to American interests on the other side of the globe.

I should say something about Kaplan’s section on the U.S. and Mexico.  This section was well worth a commute.  He wonders about money and attention spent in Central Asia and advocates much closer cooperation with the country right next to us.  Engagement there could be for good or ill, but surely something is badly wrong now.  However, even if Kaplan does not share them, he shows a certain understanding for bigoted fears of demographic conquest and clashing ethoi.  If I sound like I’m condemning him harshly, or failing to do so harshly enough, it’s due precisely to the confusion I refer to at the beginning and I think it shows the slipperiness of the subject as a whole.

Finally there is one terrible, inexplicable problem with this book: there are very few maps.