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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Cossacks - Chapter 4
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The Cossacks - Chapter 4 Post by :howel Category :Long Stories Author :Leo Tolstoy Date :December 2010 Read :2019

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The Cossacks - Chapter 4

That whole part of the Terek line (about fifty miles) along which
lie the villages of the Grebensk Cossacks is uniform in character
both as to country and inhabitants. The Terek, which separates the
Cossacks from the mountaineers, still flows turbid and rapid
though already broad and smooth, always depositing greyish sand on
its low reedy right bank and washing away the steep, though not
high, left bank, with its roots of century-old oaks, its rotting
plane trees, and young brushwood. On the right bank lie the
villages of pro-Russian, though still somewhat restless, Tartars.
Along the left bank, back half a mile from the river and standing
five or six miles apart from one another, are Cossack villages. In
olden times most of these villages were situated on the banks of
the river; but the Terek, shifting northward from the mountains
year by year, washed away those banks, and now there remain only
the ruins of the old villages and of the gardens of pear and plum
trees and poplars, all overgrown with blackberry bushes and wild
vines. No one lives there now, and one only sees the tracks of the
deer, the wolves, the hares, and the pheasants, who have learned
to love these places. From village to village runs a road cut
through the forest as a cannon-shot might fly. Along the roads are
cordons of Cossacks and watch-towers with sentinels in them. Only
a narrow strip about seven hundred yards wide of fertile wooded
soil belongs to the Cossacks. To the north of it begin the sand-
drifts of the Nogay or Mozdok steppes, which fetch far to the
north and run, Heaven knows where, into the Trukhmen, Astrakhan,
and Kirghiz-Kaisatsk steppes. To the south, beyond the Terek, are
the Great Chechnya river, the Kochkalov range, the Black
Mountains, yet another range, and at last the snowy mountains,
which can just be seen but have never yet been scaled. In this
fertile wooded strip, rich in vegetation, has dwelt as far back as
memory runs the fine warlike and prosperous Russian tribe
belonging to the sect of Old Believers, and called the Grebensk
Cossacks.

Long long ago their Old Believer ancestors fled from Russia and
settled beyond the Terek among the Chechens on the Greben, the
first range of wooded mountains of Chechnya. Living among the
Chechens the Cossacks intermarried with them and adopted the
manners and customs of the hill tribes, though they still retained
the Russian language in all its purity, as well as their Old
Faith. A tradition, still fresh among them, declares that Tsar
Ivan the Terrible came to the Terek, sent for their Elders, and
gave them the land on this side of the river, exhorting them to
remain friendly to Russia and promising not to enforce his rule
upon them nor oblige them to change their faith. Even now the
Cossack families claim relationship with the Chechens, and the
love of freedom, of leisure, of plunder and of war, still form
their chief characteristics. Only the harmful side of Russian
influence shows itself--by interference at elections, by
confiscation of church bells, and by the troops who are quartered
in the country or march through it. A Cossack is inclined to hate
less the dzhigit hillsman who maybe has killed his brother, than
the soldier quartered on him to defend his village, but who has
defiled his hut with tobacco-smoke. He respects his enemy the
hillsman and despises the soldier, who is in his eyes an alien and
an oppressor. In reality, from a Cossack's point of view a Russian
peasant is a foreign, savage, despicable creature, of whom he sees
a sample in the hawkers who come to the country and in the
Ukrainian immigrants whom the Cossack contemptuously calls
'woolbeaters'. For him, to be smartly dressed means to be dressed
like a Circassian. The best weapons are obtained from the hillsmen
and the best horses are bought, or stolen, from them. A dashing
young Cossack likes to show off his knowledge of Tartar, and when
carousing talks Tartar even to his fellow Cossack. In spite of all
these things this small Christian clan stranded in a tiny comer of
the earth, surrounded by half-savage Mohammedan tribes and by
soldiers, considers itself highly advanced, acknowledges none but
Cossacks as human beings, and despises everybody else. The Cossack
spends most of his time in the cordon, in action, or in hunting
and fishing. He hardly ever works at home. When he stays in the
village it is an exception to the general rule and then he is
holiday-making. All Cossacks make their own wine, and drunkenness
is not so much a general tendency as a rite, the non-fulfilment of
which would be considered apostasy. The Cossack looks upon a woman
as an instrument for his welfare; only the unmarried girls are
allowed to amuse themselves. A married woman has to work for her
husband from youth to very old age: his demands on her are the
Oriental ones of submission and labour. In consequence of this
outlook women are strongly developed both physically and mentally,
and though they are--as everywhere in the East--nominally in
subjection, they possess far greater influence and importance in
family-life than Western women. Their exclusion from public life
and inurement to heavy male labour give the women all the more
power and importance in the household. A Cossack, who before
strangers considers it improper to speak affectionately or
needlessly to his wife, when alone with her is involuntarily
conscious of her superiority. His house and all his property, in
fact the entire homestead, has been acquired and is kept together
solely by her labour and care. Though firmly convinced that labour
is degrading to a Cossack and is only proper for a Nogay labourer
or a woman, he is vaguely aware of the fact that all he makes use
of and calls his own is the result of that toil, and that it is in
the power of the woman (his mother or his wife) whom he considers
his slave, to deprive him of all he possesses. Besides, the
continuous performance of man's heavy work and the
responsibilities entrusted to her have endowed the Grebensk women
with a peculiarly independent masculine character and have
remarkably developed their physical powers, common sense,
resolution, and stability. The women are in most cases stronger,
more intelligent, more developed, and handsomer than the men. A
striking feature of a Grebensk woman's beauty is the combination
of the purest Circassian type of face with the broad and powerful
build of Northern women. Cossack women wear the Circassian dress--
a Tartar smock, beshmet, and soft slippers--but they tie their
kerchiefs round their heads in the Russian fashion. Smartness,
cleanliness and elegance in dress and in the arrangement of their
huts, are with them a custom and a necessity. In their relations
with men the women, and especially the unmarried girls, enjoy
perfect freedom.

Novomlinsk village was considered the very heart of Grebensk
Cossackdom. In it more than elsewhere the customs of the old
Grebensk population have been preserved, and its women have from
time immemorial been renowned all over the Caucasus for their
beauty. A Cossack's livelihood is derived from vineyards, fruit-
gardens, water melon and pumpkin plantations, from fishing,
hunting, maize and millet growing, and from war plunder.
Novomlinsk village lies about two and a half miles away from the
Terek, from which it is separated by a dense forest. On one side
of the road which runs through the village is the river; on the
other, green vineyards and orchards, beyond which are seen the
driftsands of the Nogay Steppe. The village is surrounded by
earth-banks and prickly bramble hedges, and is entered by tall
gates hung between posts and covered with little reed-thatched
roofs. Beside them on a wooden gun-carriage stands an unwieldy
cannon captured by the Cossacks at some time or other, and which
has not been fired for a hundred years. A uniformed Cossack
sentinel with dagger and gun sometimes stands, and sometimes does
not stand, on guard beside the gates, and sometimes presents arms
to a passing officer and sometimes does not. Below the roof of the
gateway is written in black letters on a white board: 'Houses 266:
male inhabitants 897: female 1012.' The Cossacks' houses are all
raised on pillars two and a half feet from the ground. They are
carefully thatched with reeds and have large carved gables. If not
new they are at least all straight and clean, with high porches of
different shapes; and they are not built close together but have
ample space around them, and are all picturesquely placed along
broad streets and lanes. In front of the large bright windows of
many of the houses, beyond the kitchen gardens, dark green poplars
and acacias with their delicate pale verdure and scented white
blossoms overtop the houses, and beside them grow flaunting yellow
sunflowers, creepers, and grape vines. In the broad open square
are three shops where drapery, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, locust
beans and gingerbreads are sold; and surrounded by a tall fence,
loftier and larger than the other houses, stands the Regimental
Commander's dwelling with its casement windows, behind a row of
tall poplars. Few people are to be seen in the streets of the
village on weekdays, especially in summer. The young men are on
duty in the cordons or on military expeditions; the old ones are
fishing or helping the women in the orchards and gardens. Only the
very old, the sick, and the children, remain at home.

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