Repercussions of Violence on the Self and the Other in Tolstoy’s Cossacks: A Contemporary Cinematic Perspective from Black Panther

Cecilia King

Over the course of his writing career, Lev Tolstoy became increasingly critical of warfare, which he used as a lens through which to explore such themes as death, ambition, authenticity, and individual morality. Tolstoy’s firsthand experience of battle left him with a sense horror at man’s capacity for cruelty as well as disgust with the practice of recounting war stories for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. In his early writings depicting battle, namely Sevastopol Sketches and Cossacks, Tolstoy expresses discomfort over the physical and spiritual effects of war on men, while simultaneously condemning the cavalier tone of traditional stories about war. Thus, these texts attempt to recount military tales while simultaneously critiquing the very genre of war stories. The short work Cossacks, in particular, illustrates Tolstoy’s careful efforts to portray the devastating effects of violence while avoiding assigning it inflated significance in his narrative. This approach endows his writing with a layered effect. At several points, it becomes evident that the narrative has deliberately veered in an unexpected direction so as to avoid reinforcing tropes of tales from the battlefield. Such deliberate decisions provide a rich opportunity for analysis of Tolstoy’s relationship to violence and its depictions in literature.

Other artists engaging in literary and visual storytelling have explored similar tensions since Tolstoy’s early writings. An analysis of such modern works highlights the persistent challenge of critically portraying war while also commenting on the traditional format of stories about violence. The film Black Panther engages in many of the same strategies for addressing this tension as Tolstoy’s Cossacks. One of the top-grossing films of 2018, this adaptation of a Marvel Comic illustrates the dilemma between condemning the human cruelty of battle and portraying the glory attached to military victory. The film’s struggle to reformat the typical war narrative in a way that both elevates marginalized communities and redefines the notion of heroism is challenged, however, by the underlying goal of commercial success. Thus, both Cossacks and Black Panther attempt to challenge a popular genre of entertainment with questions of morality and justice, while also seeking to conform to the genre with an eye toward mass consumption.

Despite ostensible disparities in their settings, Cossacks and Black Panther transport their audiences to similar worlds. Both stories portray various tribes living in a state of uneasy stability with one another, physically isolated from hegemonic majorities. Having long histories of intergroup conflict, the groups engage in forms of ritualized combat with one another as they compete for territory and resources. Cossacks immerses the reader in a Cossack community in perpetual, clan-like conflict with a nearby Chechen population. Violent raids are depicted as regular practices that may be used to defend one’s territory or to impinge on that of the other group. Similarly, the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther includes several tribes that, after warring with one another for generations, have agreed to unite under the leadership of one tribe, led by the titular character. Although they have preserved a state of peace for many years, each tribe has maintained a class of warriors whose role has become largely symbolic. Both worlds render communities with an uneasy relationship to violence; it is simultaneously recognized as a traditional element of the groups’ relationships to one another and treated as a practice that must be limited due to its physical and spiritual destruction.

Cossacks and Black Panther also both examine how these closed communities relate to hegemonic outsider groups within the context of war. The violence representative of the groups’ internecine conflicts is depicted as fundamentally different from conflict with outsiders. In both works, the intra-territorial conflicts follow established rules of engagement and largely seek to maintain the status quo. By contrast, the Cossacks and Chechens, as well as the peoples of Wakanda, are depicted as suspicious of outside incursion into their territory. While Wakanda has installed a protective shield around its territory that also serves to disguise its appearance from outside gaze, the Cossacks and Chechens resort to cultural means to establish their separateness from ethnic Russians. Each time the novella’s protagonist, a Russian soldier named Olenin, attempts to embed himself in the Cossack village’s ritual practices, such as picking grapes for wine and raiding Chechen settlements, he is subtly excluded from meaningful participation. The Cossacks who have ostensibly become his friends maintain a wary distance from Olenin, as his outsider status makes his motives and values suspicious. In both cases, there is a contrast between the controlled, ritualized violence among isolated, non-hegemonic groups and the threat of more destructive war with an outside, hegemonic group interested in controlling, exploiting, and potentially destroying the communities in question. By establishing this relationship, both works engage in a critical analysis of the capacity for violence to maintain order but also to destroy communities and to morally degrade its perpetrators.

Both Cossacks and Black Panther also treat the nature of violence in a layered manner, attempting to interrogate the implications of telling embellished stories of war. Both works grapple with the apparent contradiction in criticizing long-established tropes of war stories while also portraying violent conflict for the purpose of popular consumption. The novella and the film both display sensitivity to the damaging effects of depicting violence cavalierly. In Cossacks, the character Lukashka’s excited renderings of his killing of a Chechen scout are met with warnings from other Cossacks to consider the consequences, both material and moral, of his actions. While the act itself fits within the parameters of acceptable behavior, his gleeful and hyperbolic retelling trivializes the gravity of taking a human life. Even as the reader, through Olenin’s perspective, may feel uncomfortable about Lukashka’s brutal act, it is the other Cossack men who explain the full complexity of his sin. Boasting about one’s heroism in combat not only disregards the value of human life, but also degrades the speaker.

In Black Panther, the same value is expressed through positive example. When M’Baku, the Jabari tribe’s leader, challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda, T’Challa refuses to kill his opponent, though the rules of the ritual combat permit it and such a decisive signal of victory would have brought him glory. In declining to pursue this form of heroic mythmaking, T’Challa demonstrates that strength in leadership does not hinge on violence and that personal and political ambition should not motivate acts of physical domination. In both works, the narrative not only rewards characters who refrain from violence and condemns those who blithely commit acts of cruelty, but it also denounces the tendency to construct hyperbolic stories glorifying combat.

Such an exploration of the parallel depictions of war and violence in Cossacks and Black Panther highlights the groundbreaking nature of both stories. In their illustrations of non-hegemonic groups, these works display an awareness of how past war stories have conceived of such peoples. Black Panther avoids the common pitfalls of depicting African communities as primitive and barbaric, instead endowing its characters with diverse and complex personalities. In addition, the design of characters’ costumes is based on extensive research on a multitude of African cultures. Similarly, Tolstoy’s portrayal of non-Russian groups reveals an attempt to avoid exoticizing and otherizing them. Rich descriptions of Cossack culture and communities are informed by time spent by the author in the Caucasus, while such detailed depictions of Chechens are conspicuously absent. This could possibly represent an effort to avoid relying on stereotypes, given Tolstoy’s lack of first-hand knowledge of this population. Such realistic and balanced depictions of the non-hegemonic groups centered in these stories reveals a second form of commentary on war narratives in both works. In addition to recognizing the moral impact of telling sensationalistic war stories on the storyteller, the painstakingly realistic portrayals of the stories’ populations reveal a recognition of the negative impact of war stories on the groups traditionally labeled as other in such stories. Narratives that exoticize, dehumanize, and deindividualize such groups contribute to notions that they are inherently violent and in need of civilizing by outside groups. Overall, a parallel exploration of themes of violence and stories of battle in the film Black Panther reveals Tolstoy’s astute stance that war stories not only ignore the value of human life and degrade the morality of those who discuss violence casually, but also risk justifying future violence perpetrated against vulnerable populations.

Cecilia King 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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