General Zaroff’s Cossack background adds historical realism to the nightmarish hunt on Ship-Trap Island. Cossack is the general name given to a number of peoples in the Ural Mountains region of Eastern Europe in present-day Russia and the Ukraine. Many Russian Cossacks, such as Zaroff and his assistant, Ivan, were military specialists who fought for centuries as mercenary soldiers in service to the czar until the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917. The Cossacks played a crucial role in expanding Russia’s borders and maintaining order along the frontier. Deeply feared, Cossacks were infamous for their swift and violent attacks and use of guerilla warfare tactics. Although Connell had no intention of promoting stereotypes in his story, he nevertheless wanted to capitalize on the mythic violence of Cossack warfare to heighten dramatic tension and expose the calculated madness of a single monstrous persona. Connell’s extreme portrayal of the Cossacks thus provides a credible explanation for Zaroff’s otherwise unfathomable motivations for killing.
Zaroff’s Cossack heritage not only highlights his brutality but also foreshadows his doom, as the hunter becomes the hunted. In 1917, the once heavily persecuted Communists seized power after anarchists overthrew the ruling czar and the entire feudal system in the Russian Revolution. The newly empowered Soviets turned against the feared Cossacks and tried to exterminate them in a ruthless ethnic cleansing campaign. Zaroff briefly mentions the genocidal campaign to Rainsford, which he uses to explain his departure from the Crimea and subsequent retreat to the remote Ship-Trap Island. Like his Cossack brethren, however, Zaroff too finds himself trapped when Rainsford turns the tables on him in the final climatic scene, reversing the roles of predator and prey.