Depictions of War in Sevastopol Sketches and Cossacks: A Comparison with the Mistborn Trilogy

A Jakob Johnson

For this reflection, I would like to compare the view on fighting and, more specifically, killing, in contemporary pop culture using the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson as my base to the views taken by Tolstoy in Cossacks and Sevastopol Sketches.

The Mistborn trilogy is an epic fantasy trilogy that largely deals with characters trying to overcome evil and protecting what they value. In the first book, The Final Empire, the characters try to overthrow a tyrant who has ruled for 1,000 years. In the second book, The Well of Ascension, they try to protect their city from foreign invaders, and in the third book, The Hero of Ages, they try to protect the world from a sentient god of destruction. Of course, this is an oversimplification of the plot, but it may be helpful to those unfamiliar with the trilogy. The trilogy was published by Tor Books between 2006 and 2008.

I think that many contemporary accounts or renditions of warfare and fighting tend to glorify it by having the main characters often be successful warriors that are forced to solve many of their problems through fighting. In other words, warfare is one of the main driving forces behind the plot and character development, and therefore it is something that is more deliberate. However, in Tolstoy’s works Cossacks and Sevastopol Sketches, war seems to be present, but not the focus, or perhaps better put, war is how the characters gain or spend their time, but the fighting and the war itself is almost meaningless.

This meaninglessness is shown in “Sevastopol in May” where Pesth kills a Frenchman at the end of Chapter 6. In the narrative he is bragging about how he has killed a Frenchman when we are told that he “had invented facts and bragged.” What really happened is that during the engagement “Pesth was so terrified that he absolutely could not recollect whether they advanced far, or whither, or who did what.” This shows that he had no idea where he was or what he was supposed to be doing, and there was no purpose in his actions or thoughts, but just the chaos of men killing men. Randomly a Frenchman ran into him in the dark and someone shouted at Pesth to “run him through.” The narrator explains, “then he seized a gun, and ran the bayonet into something soft. ‘Ah, Dieu!’ exclaimed someone in a terribly piercing voice, and then only did Pesth discover that he had transfixed a Frenchman. The cold sweat started out all over his body. He shook as though in a fever, and flung away the gun. But this lasted only a moment; it immediately occurred to him that he was a hero.” The kill was completely by accident and yet Pesth thinks himself a hero and starts to think he will get awards and a golden sword. He doesn’t consider the life he has taken or why they were fighting. In fact, Tolstoy never really explains why they were defending the city or why the French were attacking it. It seems that there really isn’t an overarching goal, at least not one that is in the minds of the characters, shown to the reader.

This contrasts with the Mistborn trilogy, in which the value of the individual lives of the soldiers is probably on par with that represented in Sevastopol Sketches, but it does seem that the characters are more concerned with why they are fighting. For example, for most of the second Mistborn book, the capital city where the characters live, is under siege by two armies (with a third army arriving later). The main characters are all involved with running the city and therefore the defenses. Throughout the book they are trying to find ways to get the armies to leave or have them attack each other. There isn’t much fighting between the armies and the city until the end, when the fighting begins and through violence one of the characters is able to save everyone who is still alive. Throughout the whole book and especially when the fighting begins, war is portrayed as a serious thing. Characters die and their deaths are a little more emotional or impactful than the ones in Sevastopol Sketches and definitely more so than the ones in Cossacks.  The war is the whole driving force of the plot, rather than being a means of seeking gains or a promotion, like in Sevastopol Sketches. The characters are concerned with their lives and the lives of the people they rule over. In essence, they value protecting human life against those who would destroy it. I think this differs from Tolstoy’s depictions, because Tolstoy seems to be saying that the fighting serves no higher end of defense, for he seems to view both parties at fault.

This disdain for fighting is especially clear in Chapter 16 of “Sevastopol in May,” where Tolstoy criticizes Christians for fighting:

thousands of people congregate, gaze, talk, and smile at each other. And why do not Christian people, who profess the one great law of love and self-sacrifice, when they behold what they have wrought, fall in repentance upon their knees before Him who, when he gave them life, implanted in the soul of each of them, together with a fear of death, a love of the good and the beautiful, and, with tears of joy and happiness, embrace each other like brothers? No! But it is a comfort to think that it was not we who began this war, that we are only defending our own country, our fatherland.

I believe him to be saying here that no matter the reason for fighting—even if it is in the name of defense—it is wrong and should cause people to feel shame. However, the people in the Sevastopol Sketches do not feel that shame, which is what Tolstoy sees so wrong in the fighting. Daddy Eroshka in Cossacks says something along the same vein when Olenin asks “and have you ever killed people?” Eroska’s response is to rebuke Olenin for his lack of care toward human life, “you devil! … What are you asking? One must not talk so. It is a serious thing to destroy a human being . . . Ah, a very serious thing!” Here we see that people need to regard the loss of human life as a serious thing. I think at this point, Tolstoy is not saying that people should never kill other people, but that it shouldn’t be light thing or a thing to be proud of and brag about, as Olenin seems to have been prompting.

I think in a way, the Mistborn trilogy agrees with Tolstoy that killing is a serious thing, yet it also doesn’t seem to be as opposed to the idea of killing as Tolstoy is in these two works, because it is done in defense against evil powers. One of the main characters, Vin, is constantly fighting and only a few times is significantly affected by the deaths she causes., for example, when she is tricked into attempting to assassinate one of the rival kings. She realizes that she has been misinformed about the king and feels bad for attacking him even though he is ruthless and is currently sieging the capital.  I think that Mistborn doesn’t necessarily glorify killing or violence to the same level that other contemporary sources do, but I do think that it portrays fighting as a cool thing. Fighting is normalized and even glorified in that even characters who aren’t warriors feel they need to learn in order to contribute to the collective cause.  They value fighting skills, usually as a way to not be a burden or to be able to take care of themselves, but this just normalizes violence even more. Throughout the trilogy I can’t think of a single main character who does not fight at one point or another. Yes, in the novels the world they live in is dangerous and there are monsters and evil people trying to kill them, but that is just another way violence is normalized or glorified in contemporary media.  The author did not need to create such a violent world but chose to do so because of the contemporary coolness factor of war. The need to have violence and fighting is strong and affects the works that are created and produced. This idea of normalized or glorified violence definitely was not shared by Tolstoy as can be seen by reading Sevastopol Sketches and Cossacks.

A Jakob Johnson is a graduate student in the University of Kansas’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Violence and War in Sevastopol Sketches and Cossacks: Reverberations in Contemporary Pop Culture

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