Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the greatest novels ever written, did not emerge from a vacuum. They were preceded by at least twenty prose works of different kinds, some of them masterpieces in their own right. These stories may be viewed as a fascinating encounter with literary predecessors such as Rousseau and Pushkin, and they are never far removed from autobiography, but in them Tolstoy can be seen forging a strong, new cultural personality. Their virtues lie in local colour, brilliant characterization and dialogue, along with strong narrative interest linked to important ideas and meanings, most of which will re-emerge in the later works.
This undervalued area of a great man’s writing deserves closer attention, and will reward the reader with unforgettable individuals, issues and situations. In The Cossacks, for example, Tolstoy succeeds in combining a realistic description of the Caucasus with his hero’s personal vision of the locality. Nor is this success the only one in this remarkable period. Reading these early stories gives a penetrating insight into the workshop of a towering literary genius.