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Leo Tolstoy, "Prisoner in the Caucasus"

Information and Questions for Reading

Since Leo Tolstoy is extremely well known, I'll count on your ability to find information about him elsewhere (including in the Chronology and Introduction to The Cossacks and Other Stories, which we'll be reading for next Tuesday). Important data for looking at Tolstoy in reference to Islam and Muslims: he was commissioned into the army (as an officer, of course, since he was a Count!) and served in the Crimean War, first on the Danube front and then in Sebastopol. His first literary successes were "sketches" he wrote about the fighting in and around Sebastopol (in Russian, Севастополь, clearly a Greek place name) in 1855, when Tolstoy was 27 years old. This story clearly draws on his memories of that time (and his experience of army service), but it wasn't written until 1870-1872, in the years before his great change of heart but still showing his interest in a truly realistic presentation of the Pushkin plot.

I apologize that I didn't notice until now that the translation I took from the internet has our main character's name misspelled: it's Zhilin, with the stress on the first syllable. They must have had "Zhílin" but it resulted in that weird scharfes S character. The name Zhilin suggests several things: it's an ordinary-feeling name (he's not a special guy), it's related to the words for Life (жить, жил, жизнь) and, more closely, to the word жила meaning vein or tendon. This clues us in to the fact that he's a survivor.

There are also a few glitches in the translation: where the Nogáy comes in and says "Ayda, the master, ayda!" it should be "Ayda, mister, ayda!" ("Ayda," Айда, is still used sometimes with the same meaning in Russian - I saw it in a poem by Mayakovsky, though of course Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in Georgia and lived there until he was old enough to have picked up the Georgian language, as well as a bit of everything else floating around there.) Just below that, the translation has "a Tartar church," which was "церковь ихняя" which should be "one of their churches" or something: it's parallel to a church, but not a church, since that suggests a Christian thing: Zhilin doesn't know the word for mosque (мечеть), but the tower shows him what he's seeing. But mostly it's all right.


1. The title is identical to that of Pushkin's long poem, so Tolstoy clearly means us to read this against the Pushkin. What's the effect of that kind of double layering? Why would Tolstoy want you to "correct" what you had read in Pushkin (whom he admired a lot)?

2. What elements here are more realistic (and Realistic) than what we read in Pushkin, or in other authors so far? How much of an In to the local way of life are we given?

3. What do we see or infer about Zhilin's relationship to his past, his life before he joined the army, his relationship with his mother?

4. How does Dina compare to the Circassian girl in Pushkin? How do she and Zhilin get acquainted?

5. What does Zhilin have to offer people in this new situation?