Tolstoy: A Russian Life

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Art Fag
Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett

January 11, 2012


There are two principal models for biography in our culture, and perhaps the first decision the biographer has to face is which of the two will best suit the subject in question. First, there is the Boswellian model: the massive tome (or tomes) containing as much material as can be garnered, following the philosophy that the more we know about the great man -- or woman -- the more fully we are able to view him or her in the round. The second model was developed by Lytton Strachey in reaction to what he called the Victorian "Standard Biographies" in "two fat volumes," full of irrelevant detail; Stracheyan biography is slim and sleek, communicated through carefully chosen points and characteristic anecdotes.

With a life as long, important, and public as Tolstoy's -- a life rightly described by Rosamund Bartlett, in Tolstoy: A Russian Life , as "gargantuan" -- the Boswellian approach would appear the natural one. And prior biographers have indeed followed this path. Tolstoy's former secretary Nikolay Gusev embarked on the definitive Russian-language life in the 1950s but died after a mere four volumes. The work was taken up by Lidiya Gromova Opulskaya, who produced a further two before dying in her turn, so that to date the last eighteen years of Tolstoy's life remain uncovered. Ernest J. Simmons's Leo Tolstoy (1946), now out of print, is probably still the most inclusive and definitive English-language life. Henri Troyat's 1967 Tolstoy totals 900 pages; A. N. Wilson's 1988 biography of the same title is shorter but still sizable at 625.

So what about all those readers who are interested in Tolstoy's life but might not want to commit the time demanded by such comprehensive accounts? Great figures require the Boswellian treatment, there's no doubt about it, but biographies that deliver lives in more digestible portions are clearly necessary, as the recent success of Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life indicates. Bartlett has skillfully compressed the eighty-two years of Leo Tolstoy's intensely active life into a smoothly written and very readable 450-page narrative.

Much, inevitably, has had to be left out in order to achieve this streamlined effect. Tolstoy -- in Anton Chekhov's words a "giant, a Jupiter" -- was possessed of superhuman energies that drew him into myriad interests and passions. According to his wife, Sofya,
Wisely, Bartlett has not expanded on her subject's passion for Japanese pigs, and few readers will regret the omission. A more noteworthy gap is the lack of any detailed discussion of Tolstoy's great works of fiction. Tolstoy's ancestors and acquaintances are examined as real-life prototypes for the famous characters in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but the fiction itself and even Tolstoy's significance in literary history are merely glossed over. Not that this is necessarily a fault in the book, for it was not Bartlett's intention to write a critical biography. She makes it clear from the very beginning that she is at least as interested (and probably more so) in Tolstoy the philosopher and social activist as in Tolstoy the artist. As she has pointed out in an interview with The Guardian, "Tolstoy not only bequeathed to the world some of the greatest novels ever written, but also a huge and much less well-known spiritual and philosophical legacy to which he attached far greater importance than all his fictional work."

Bartlett, a lifelong scholar of Russian cultural history, has another agenda, and that is to put Tolstoy into his specifically Russian context and to show him as the exemplar of several key Russian archetypes. In this she is quite successful. Western readers of Tolstoy's two major novels have always remarked on how European, how specifically Francophile, his Russian aristocrats are; Bartlett, in contrast, shows us their roots in the land, a rural civilization infinitely more foreign to us than anything in Western Europe. After all, at the time of Tolstoy's birth in 1828, his father, as the proprietor of the grand estate of Yasnaya Polyana, was the owner of 1,600 serfs -- quite literally the owner. Young men like Tolstoy and his brothers were not infrequently presented with the gift of a peasant girl for their "health." During Tolstoy's youth he was aware of an illegitimate, poverty-stricken half brother, who hung round the estate and looked far more like their father than Tolstoy or his brother did. The writer, in turn, was to father a son of his own on a peasant girl and later to employ the child of this union, Timofey, as a coachman. It is at least as strange, heartrending, and ironic a tale as anything in his fiction. Only in the contemporaneous, slaveholding American South can one find comparable stories.

And what stories they are! Tolstoy's grandmother was the possessor of one Lev Stepanych, a blind storyteller. Lev Stepanyich
Many of these gorgeous details will be familiar to readers of Tolstoy's own Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, but as Bartlett points out these are the least documented years in what was, she says half-complainingly, an over-documented life, and the images she brings to light are incomparably exotic and romantic. One of the classic Russian archetypes to which Tolstoy conformed was that of the landed aristocrat; it was an identity he acted out in youth (during which time horses, cards, and peasant women, with whom he exercised the traditional droit du seigneur, featured largely) and adhered to even late in life, when he donned peasant garb, divided his property among his heirs, and tried to assume the role of a "holy fool" -- another quintessentially Russian archetype. It was Tolstoy the arrogant aristocrat who achieved his great works on the backs of underlings and minions, and expected others (particularly his badly put-upon wife and children) to make whatever sacrifices he deemed necessary and salutary. He did nothing by halves: by turns he played the aristocrat and the peasant, the literary genius and the holy fool. As Bartlett writes,
It was as early as 1855, when Tolstoy was still in his twenties, that he discovered his vocation as a religious proselytizer. At that time he recorded in his diary "a great and stupendous idea": the "foundation of a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind -- the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but providing bliss on earth." His experiences as an officer in the Crimean War, where he stood for the first time beside common soldiers, had inspired these thoughts, though they were not to reach full fruition until a couple of decades later. Still, he began to put his new beliefs into practice. He opened a school for peasant children at Vasnaya Polyana. (Less than 6 percent of the Russian population was literate during the 1850s.) He liberated his serfs somewhat ahead of the official 1861 Emancipation of Serfdom Manifesto. He performed invaluable work in famine relief and in publicizing famines in little-known parts of the empire.

His genius as a writer was also pressed into service. Tolstoy spent years on a four-volume, 700-page ABC and reading primer, a work he regarded more highly than War and Peace. (Upon its publication in 1872 it received neither good reviews nor official approval, but with its republication thirteen years later it became a bestseller, thenceforth having a powerful influence on Russian primary education until the 1917 Revolution.) Eventually, in the 1880s, he fully assumed the mantle of prophet with a tetralogy he thought his most important life work: Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, Union and Translation of the Four Gospels, Confession, and What I Believe . He was the leading guru of vegetarianism, nonviolence, and anti-materialism. His moral authority seemed boundless: some called him Russia's true tsar. Some went further: speaking of Tolstoy's relationship with God, Maxim Gorky likened them to "two bears in one den." When Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901, it was the Church's prestige that declined, not his own.

Saint or crank? His fellow artists resented time taken away from what they considered his true vocation. From his deathbed, Ivan Turgenev harangued the errant novelist: "My friend, return to literary activity! This gift has come to you from where everything else comes from. Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! I am a finished man…. I can't walk, I can't eat, I can't sleep, but so what! It's even boring to repeat all this! My friend, great writer of the Russian land -- heed my request!" Chekhov sometimes felt considerable distaste for Tolstoy in his chosen role of priest. "To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals and as rude and insensitive as generals, because they are confident of their impunity." In the role of artist, though, he believed the older author to be unsurpassed: "What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature….
Art Fag
nuclear launch detected
Is he? I am reading war and peace right now and I can't get past page 30 which is odd because that problem never occurred to me with Dostoyevsky or Turgenev. I think Tolstoy might be overrated.
Stars Down To Earth

I agree with the above. Dostoyevsky's books are far more readable and feel more "authentically Russian" than the overly verbose Tolstoy.

It's quite amazing, how medieval the Russian society was for such a long time. Owning serfs and "breaking in" peasant girls would be pretty unimaginable for Western European posh classes in the 1800s. Reading things like this makes me understand why so many Russian peasants chose to support Jewish Bolsheviks rather than their own aristocrats. It's almost like the aristocracy and the lower classes were part of two different civilisations.
Niccolo and Donkey
.....and they most certainly were. Take a look at election results in 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. You'll see various shades of Marxists from light-Socialists all the way to the Bolsheviks sharing the support of the masses. The conservative/regime parties got fuck all from them.
Stars Down To Earth
I'm no expert on Russian history, but I wonder why the class struggle in Russia developed into a full-blown "clash of civilisations"? Nothing comparable happened in any other European class wars. I know that the Russian toffs were very Westernised (even since the time of Peter the Great, who forcefully Westernised the country in a top-down way), but how did they become so remote and alien to their subjects? Did the posh and plebs have any major cultural and ethnic differences that grew into huge gulfs? It's all very puzzling.

(This leads to another question - how much of the Russian high culture that the Bolsheviks destroyed was even genuinely Russian at all?)

Aye, the Bolsheviks were just one of many commie-parties (and not even the biggest, just the most organised) in the 1917 elections. There were all sorts of Liberal, Social Democratic, and even Anarchist parties represented. IIRC, the Bolsheviks had an edge over the others because they were the only party who were serious about ending the war.
Niccolo and Donkey
On these forums you will often encounter those that praise the aristocracies of the 18th and 19th century. I always harp on the fact that the aristocratic class failed to appreciate the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the rise in medicine, the huge boom in population, and the effects of revolutionary communication in respect to winning over the masses. The Marxists and Anarchists had them beat and the old ruling classes simply ceded the people to them....which is why Fascism was a necessary reaction since it understood the times and understood that the old way had been swept aside by historical forces.
Stars Down To Earth
Aristocracy, in the traditional sense (a hereditary warrior nobility), is basically a product of the pre-modern world and its conditions. In a world of post-Enlightenment ideas and modern technology, it was quickly made obsolete.

As for the relationship between fascism and aristocracy, Adolf had this to say:

(from "Hitler's Table Talk")
Niccolo and Donkey
President Camacho
It's pretty simple bro, you just need to read your Spengler:

Tolstoi was the world's first ironic hipster. A total fag
President Camacho
The problem with Russia's 1917 election results was that elections were held in the first place-- Peter the Great planted the seed two centuries earlier by force-feeding Enlightenment poison into the bloodstream of Mother Russia.