Lev Tolstoy: world literature’s first pop star

Relief at being freed from the deadening Soviet tradition of grandiose literary anniversaries, and socialist realism’s didactic canonization of the Tolstoyan panoramic novel may have something to do with the comparatively muted Russian response to this year’s centenary of Lev Tolstoy’s death. But world literature’s first pop star still shines undimmed
Oleg Yuriev
4 June 2010
Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana estate

Lev Tolstoy was the first pop star of world literature, and his fame in the West in the late 19th – early 20th century is indescribable

As we know, the main engine of modern cultural life is the celebration of anniversaries. Without anniversaries, who would have any idea what classic authors should be republished, re-translated or re-filmed? A good half of today’s meagre cultural sections in the newspapers would be empty. Let us ask ourselves in good conscience: would we remember the fall of the Berlin wall, the first space flight or the Second World War if it weren’t for the anniversaries of these events mentioned in the newspapers, on radio, television and the internet? Anniversaries are essentially the only link our merry thoughtless civilisation has with its past. 

Had it not been 100 years since the death of Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, for instance, would the British newspaper Daily Telegraph have published two whole articles about him? Certainly not! 

They are very interesting articles, which paint a picture of how badly the Tolstoy centenary is being celebrated in Russia. And how well elsewhere.

The first article, by Lisa Grainger, was published on 7 March 2010. She compares Russia with the West, where “new translations of Anna Karenina will be published in four languages. A 100-volume collection of his works is about to be unveiled, and 22 works are to be translated into English. And The Last Station, an Oscar-nominated film about the last two years of the writer's life, has just opened”.

But she also compares Russia with Mexico and Cuba, those paragons of democracy and communism respectively.   “Mexico and Cuba have organized book fairs dedicated to him” [Tolstoy], while in Moscow “there are no Tolstoy trails, few English-speaking Tolstoy guides and no visitor information in languages other than Russian”.

The extent of the journalist’s historical knowledge is well illustrated by the phrase: “Tolstoy may have died 100 years ago, but the novelist excites more interest now than he ever has.”

Lev Tolstoy was the first pop star of world literature, and his fame in the West in the late 19th – early 20th century is indescribable, and of course not at all comparable with his present modest fame as a classic writer among other classic writers, to be taken down from dusty shelves when his anniversary comes around. 

Tolstoy’s fame during his lifetime was undoubtedly due to more than his literary output.  He was a count, a genius, the founder of a new religion, who walked barefoot behind the plough and taught peasant children to read.  From time to time he wrote instructive and reproving letters to the Tsar; his religious and moral tracts were published abroad.  He attracted keen interest from Western newspapers and news agencies. Journalists, both Russian and Western, constantly came to his home at Yasnaya Polyana to interview Tolstoy or photograph him for postcards.  They even filmed him with film cameras, which had just been invented.

His departure from Yasnaya Polyana and death at a railway station could well be called death live on air. There was no television at the time, of course, but an increasing number of newspapers around the world used the telegraph to inform their readers twice a day (in the morning and evening editions) about developing events. So Lisa Grainger evidently doesn’t know much about her chosen subject. She naively suggests that the Russian Orthodox Church is to blame for what she deems insufficient respect for Tolstoy.  Well, the church is a wealthy institution; it may be influential among certain groups of the Moscow intelligentsia, but on the whole has little direct effect of the life of society.  She then goes on to describe Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, and the Tolstoy museum in Moscow. This is, after all, the “Travel” section.

The second article in Daily Telegraph appeared two and a half weeks after the first one, and carried the very direct headline: “Russia abandons literary past, ignoring Tolstoy's centenary”.  Surprisingly enough, the author, Andrew Osborn, simply copies the main arguments and information from his colleague:

“Tolstoy is better appreciated in the West, academics claim, even though Western readers discovered classics such as War and Peace a good century after their Russian counterparts.

“Countries as disparate as Cuba and Mexico have already organized Tolstoy-related festivals this year ahead of the centenary of his death on 20 November.”

It need hardly be said that War and Peace was translated into all European languages not very long after it was published in Russian.  There were four English editions in Tolstoy’s lifetime.

The Orthodox Church has been decisively replaced by the Kremlin, as was only to be expected.  “The Kremlin has maintained a steely silence on the anniversary and the director of a new film based on Tolstoy's masterpiece Anna Karenina, starring top Russian actors, has failed to find a distributor more than a year after it was made.”  To put the cunning Kremlin to shame, the author cites the success of the film based on Jay Parini’s book about the departure and death of Tolstoy. Buckingham Palace probably had a hand in it.

Film distribution in Russia today is concentrated in the hands of a few big companies who own chains of cinema multiplexes. These cinemas mainly show Hollywood movies, which bring in most of the revenue, and Russian imitations of Hollywood movies or commercial films based on old Soviet models, which can sometimes also earn money. “Art house” films have about as much chance of being shown at these cinemas as real literature does of getting into the Russian book chains owned by two or three publishing concerns (see Olga Martynova’s Open Democracy article on this topic).

What is the link between the “steely silence of the Kremlin” and the lack of a distributor for Soloviev’s film? It’s obvious: in the Soviet era, a director would go to the “top political leadership” if faced with such problems – directly or through the Western press (with an element of blackmail: don’t offend me or I’ll get upset!). Then Brezhnev would order Anna Karenina to be shown in all cinemas! This worked quite well, which is why many cultural figures of renown - consciously or unconsciously - want the Soviet regime back.

We will return briefly to this nostalgia for the Soviet system of relations between state and culture, but for now we will try to make sense of what’s happening with the Tolstoy centenary. To do this we need to have an idea of the historical context in which the shadow theatre surrounding the anniversary is taking place.

During his lifetime, Tolstoy was recognized as the greatest writer ever produced by Russian culture. By the end of his life, as has already been said, he was a real “star”, with a public status comparable to today’s Hollywood actors, rock stars and football players.  In his own time the only comparable figures were opera singers such as Chaliapin and Caruso.

War and Peace cover

In Soviet times War and Peace was recognized as the greatest novel ever written, and the panoramic novel a la Tolstoy was considered the highest form of literary creation.

Soviet culture, which was very dependent on the mass culture of the 19th century, inherited this attitude to Tolstoy, although it was not easy to adapt Tolstoy’s books to its own ideology. War and Peace was recognized as the greatest novel ever written, and the panoramic novel a la Tolstoy was considered the highest form of literary creation. Among the writers of young Soviet Russia a real race began to see who would be the first to write the Soviet War and Peace about the Revolution and the Civil War. There were many competitors, but the winner was Mikhail Sholokhov (or the person who wrote Quiet Flows the Don for him, or the person who edited the documents that came into the keeping of the future Nobel Prize winner). After WWII the race began again and Lev Tolstoy remained the stuffed rabbit chased by the greyhounds of literature for a further 40 years.  Soviet literary criticism expected and demanded that Soviet novelists write a new War and Peace about WWII. Soviet literature and, given the Russian focus on literature, the entire cultural ideology was saturated, not to say poisoned, with Lev Tolstoy.  Tolstoy was its nightmare: an unattainable ideal and eternal reminder of its own inferiority.

However, for us Lev Tolstoy’s position in Soviet literature has other significant consequences:

  • the 90-volume Complete Works (1928 — 1958, 1964) was the pride of Soviet Tolstoy studies, but the collected works in many volumes “for the wider public” were coming out all the time in print runs of hundreds of thousands. I don’t think it would be wrong to say that any Russian home with books in it would have books by Tolstoy. In 2000, incidentally, publication of the academic edition of the Complete Works in 100 volumes was announced:  it’s not clear how many decades it will take to be published, but seven volumes have already appeared.
  • Museums, statues, streets and squares named after Tolstoy are all still there. There’s not much else you can say about that.
  • Tolstoy was (and is) part of the compulsory school literature curriculum. Soviet children began with his story After the Ball and studied War and Peace almost every day for six months. Excerpts from this magical novel even had to be learnt by heart: The old oak, quite transfigured, spread out a canopy of rich dark, green and seemed to droop and sway in the rays of the evening sun

Grandiose anniversaries were one of the traumatic cultural experiences of the Soviet period.  The first of these was Pushkin’s anniversary in 1937, an occasion of such pomp that it will forever be commemorated by the “Pushkin jokes”, both the popular and those written by Daniil Kharms.  This anniversary coincided with a wave of Stalinist repressions, traditionally known as the Great Terror, which obviously increased the trauma of the situation.

Things continued in a similar fashion, though not necessarily accompanied by repressions, thank God.  At the end of the Soviet era, the tradition had simply become laughable and embarrassing.  I remember with horror the Alexander Blok centenary in 1980, when elderly Soviet functionaries gave speeches about Blok’s love for the Revolution. “I endured the shame of the Blok anniversary”, wrote the unofficial Leningrad poet Viktor Krivulin at the time, and his choice of the word ‘shame’ was very apt. A revival of grandiose anniversary programmes and national ceremonies would be perceived today as a return to a Soviet-style centralized management of culture. This is why people who miss the Soviet period want “big anniversaries” back. But why does the Daily Telegraph need them?

Anniversary celebrations in today’s Russia are usually delegated down to the lower levels of administration, mainly city and regional.  There they are managed in accordance with available financial and intellectual resources. The total number of sensible and senseless events dedicated to the centenary of Tolstoy’s death will undoubtedly be greater in Russia than in Mexico, Cuba, or even the UK, but is this so important?

Naturally, there are many people who are unhappy with this state of affairs. The post-Soviet intelligentsia that grew up under Soviet (or anti-Soviet) state dominance sees this “dumbing down” as damaging to both their prestige and the prestige of culture, so they endlessly complain “to the Kremlin”. There is a grain of common sense here: the Soviet regime built so many statues and opened so many museums that it is very difficult for local authorities to maintain them all now. But one should also not underestimate the pressure that these complaints put on central government, which is constantly being badgered to intervene in culture, and take up once more the leading position it had in Soviet times.

In the 2000s the considerable increase in the wealth of the state enabled it to intervene on several occasions.  A delegation of Russian writers was sent to the 2003 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Russia was the focal ‘theme’.  But before that there had been constant moaning along the lines of “Why are we the poor relations all the time?  The government doesn’t care if Russia disgraces itself”.   The government gave in:  about 100 writers of all genres, matryoshka dolls and balalaikas were sent to Frankfurt.  Putin put in an appearance and there was a video link with space.  It was all just as it always is when the state – not just the Russian state – compels people to get involved in culture.  Ridiculously pompous and completely pointless.   The current financial crisis means that schemes like this are probably no longer possible.  Thank heavens for that!

Lev Tolstoy certainly won’t be forgotten in Russia anyway.


Oleg Alexandrovich Yuriev is a poet, prose writer, dramatist, essayist. He was born in Leningrad, but has lived in Germany (Frankfurt on Main) since 1991.

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