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.”

How to Use a Dictionary


I recently acquired another dictionary.  The dictionary, in fact.  This post is not directly about that, but about a man who did the same thing, and then took matters much further.  I just read Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,720 Pages.  Is reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary a mere stunt, an excuse for writing another unnecessary book?  There are better books out there on lexicography and the OED.  Shea is sometimes flippant.  He claims to be making the Cliff’s Notes for the OED, to be picking out all the best words and saving us the effort.  I am one of those who hate spoilers, but I only worried about this for maybe ten seconds before pressing on. 

Shea has a chapter for each letter of the alphabet.  More or less half of each one consists of curious words.  “Omnisciturient”, for example, means “desiring to know everything”.  This aspect of the book is no different from any other collection of odd words. It’s frustrating, because it’s obviously arbitrary, whereas it seems that what should set the book apart is the utter comprehensiveness of the OED and what Shea is attempting to do.

The other half of each chapter is where Shea describes reading the dictionary and gives us a little of the history of the OED.  He has trouble with headaches and searches for the perfect place to read.  He needs to be away from the rest of his dictionary collection, because the urge to compare definitions causes too many interruptions.  There are some threads running through these sections that I found very interesting.  Hidden somewhere in this piece of zany “prescriptive non fiction” (the publisher, Perigee Books, specializes in upmarket self help and business titles) is a real life Borges story on an outlandish and possibly pathological linguistic theme.


For one thing, Shea argues that reading the dictionary is better than reading other books.  “Actual books”, I am tempted to say.  He compares the dictionary to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is touching the way he urges the reader to try reading just the letter X, or perhaps the words starting with “inter”.  Words are the substance of language; everything that we love about it, from poetry and novels to history to whatever set of statements we accept as truth, is just form.  I’m not really espousing this.  But Shea is apparently in thrall to the feeling of finding the right word, which is admittedly quite a feeling.  Having words for things helps us to appreciate them. 

I lose patience, though, with the way he rejoices over a word like “pandiculation”, which means something like stretching oneself in tiredness or waking.  It’s distinct, that is, from stretching before exercise or stretching a rain fly over a tent.  I even checked to make sure he wasn’t plucking one sense of the word from many, that he wasn’t trying to make something new out of a Latinate word simply meaning “stretch”.  He wasn’t.  He says “Everyone does it, and no one knows what to call it.”  Maybe I’m too literal minded, but at that point I want to shout, “What the hell is wrong with ‘wake up and stretch’?”  Cultivation of these highly specific words suggests that someone is reaching for a language without adjectives, subordinate clauses, or even grammar.  Is the logical end of this a world where there is one word for everything, even for War and Peace?  If you know something well enough, I suppose that’s possible, but no one does.

Then there are the interesting psychological effects that I imagine come with reading postdoctoral grade definitions for ten hours a day.  Shea talks about his speech slowing down as he gropes for words he feels he has known.  He wonders if he knows English at all and dreams in definitions.  I’ve felt the disorienting effects of reading and I’d like to hear about just how far they can be taken.  After finishing “set”, the longest definition in the OED, he feels so nauseated that he crouches over a trash basket.  Or is he just reaching for effect?  Shea’s forced jokes and lack of follow through on some of his most interesting ideas are disappointing. 


How can he envision a language made of stout monosyllables like “prend” (a mended crack), and then not go in search of an answer to the question of how many monosyllables there are?  Why not pursue the question of how many words a person can know a little farther?  For that matter, we never hear how he actually managed to live for a year while doing this project.  But I suppose I won’t get anywhere accusing someone who read those twenty volumes of lacking follow through.

I’d still like to know where Shea falls on the scale of word lovers, of scrabble and spelling bee champions and other prodigious readers and mnemonists.  At some point I will probably pick up Know It All, which is about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  I’ve got a couple of those lying around too.  Since it may be a while before I get around to blogging about it again, I should say that I am very excited about my copy of the OED.  What can I say? I want to hold its heavy blue folios over my head and bellow like a fanatical hierophant, and I don’t do that very often.

Arch-pirates choose the Loeb Classical Library

I started off reading Livy in Penguin editions, but the last volume of their set is apparently abridged, so when I recently started back up on the history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, I started borrowing the Loebs.  The Loeb Classical Library is well known for its red and green volumes of Latin and Greek text with facing translations.  It’s sometimes criticized for prosy or out of date translations, and it would be a bit of a stretch for me to claim that the original texts are really any use to me.  But here are some wonderful words and phrases I would have completely missed out on if it weren’t for the Loebs:

“superos inferosque deos”


“magistro elephantorum”

“sed rerum natura”

“Quid autem, si vox libera non sit, liberum esse?”

“cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”


“Superos inferosque deos” means “gods above and below”, “inferosque” being cognate to “infernal”, I imagine.  The -que is a suffix meaning “and”, which often adds a poetic ring, as in “arma virumque cano”.

“Archipirata” should be obvious: pirate captain.  This turns up in an interesting and nasty conflict between two Rhodian captains during the war with King Antiochus of Asia.  The Greek island of Rhodes had an excellent navy; they were allied to the Romans but one of their exiled nobles was admiral for Antiochus.  This exiled captain pretended that he wished to defect, and promised the leader of the Rhodian allies, whom he hated, that he would let the fleet under his command grow slack and give them up.  Livy reports how the allied captain became every bit as slack and unwary as the man he hoped to bring in.  In an action involving the “archipirata” as well as the Rhodian exile, the Roman fleet was badly mauled and the credulous admiral killed.

“Magistro elephantorum” is another obvious one, the master of elephants.  War elephants, in this context.  Livy pulls out the stops describing the Battle of Magnesia, where Antiochus’ power was broken.  Some fifty elephants are said to have worn head armor and carried towers holding four men each.  They didn’t save the king, however, and the treaty he made with the Romans specified that he would give up all of his elephants, which must have made him very sad.

“Sed rerum natura” echoes the title of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, meaning On the Nature of Things.  Here it means something like “but that’s the way things are”, but it obviously sounds much better.  If I remember correctly, this was uttered by the more democratic Greek allies of Rome who began to make awkward demands with regard to another Roman ally, King Eumenes.  Democrats and autocrats can never really get along, it’s the nature of things.

“What, pray, was free, if there was no free speech?”  In a similar situation, Greek cities complained that Philip of Macedon, once defeated and now a Roman ally, was infringing on the freedoms guaranteed by the Romans themselves.  It sounds great but in other places Livy is rather contemptuous of this kind of thing.  Somewhere else he describes Athenian ships so laden down with decrees praising the Romans and attacking their enemies that they could hardly move.

“Cogitatoque hiemis quam longa siet.”  “And remember how long winter lasts.”  This last is from Cato the Elder’s work on farming, giving advice on storing fodder for animals.  Elm leaves were good, apparently.  I’m reading Cato because he shows up in Livy around this time, 200 b.c., as an all around formidable guy, and his one surviving book is one of the oldest Latin prose texts in existence.  He would definitely have gotten along with the Starks.

And if you’ve read along this far, I’ll tell you that on page 329 of volume eleven, the Romans held a council “at Clitoris in Arcadia”.  This is not how the place name is rendered in other translations.

What do you think, should the Loeb Classical Library give me a sponsorship?

I Bought a Dictionary

I’m kind of ashamed of this one.  Let’s face it, print dictionaries are pretty pointless now.  This is a big one, guaranteed to become a burden at some point in my future; it weighs around five pounds and is of a size that only suggests similarly obsolete items, like a VCR or a desktop computer.  Yes, it’s a Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, unabridged.  The worst thing about this purchase is that I already own one.

My dictionary, open to the plate

In my defense, it was absurdly cheap.  I’m not one to get alarmed over the state of books and reading, but something profound does appear to be happening to the market when reference works of this quality go all but discarded.  The W2, as they call it, came out in 1934, and is still sometimes seen propped open on tables in good libraries.  The first printings of W2 contained the famous “dord” error: a slip reading “D or d” as abbreviations for density was misconstrued, given a pronunciation, and printed as a word.  The W3 came out in 1961, occasioned some controversy for including words like “ain’t”, and remains the last of its line. 

The one I just bought is on India paper, meaning it has about half the thickness of one printed on ordinary paper, and its binding has held up correspondingly well.  My first W2 is one of the thickest books you will ever see.  It’s almost a cube.  I went so far as to make a lectern shelf with a sloping top, but the book has been well used and the state of the binding made me afraid to let it stay there.  It has sentimental value as well, and is also a dord dictionary.  The new one isn’t a dord, and so I’m happy to study the long term effects of my lectern on the binding.

I’ve put it to decent use so far.  Some smart guy used the word “diuturnal” in an article I was reading.  Other words I’m keeping secret for use in games of dictionary.  The plates alone were worth the price of the book.  I waited weeks before buying it.  Most people just don’t know a great thing when they see it.