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Tolstoy: a life too large

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What else could possibly be written about Tolstoy? Before reading Rosamund Bartlett’s new biography, Susan Richards did wonder. But the fall of Soviet power has revealed material which allows us to appreciate how vividly his legacy has lived on and how relevant it remains today

Susan Richards
19 November 2010
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Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Rosamund Bartlett
Profile Books
November 2010

Tolstoy’s life is massively, almost onerously, documented. Quite apart from his own instructive and confessional writing, he wrote diaries, as did his wife. Children and disciples have reminisced and fought to protect his work and memory. Such was his fame that those who met him very often recorded their encounters with him. And of course they all wrote letters. Towards the end of his life it would make front page news when he fell ill.

Then there are the biographies. The English-speaking world has been well served, from his first translators, Louise and Aylmer Maude, to A.N.Wilson in the 1980s. So why do we need another biography of Tolstoy?

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One century has passed since Tolstoy died in Astapovo train station

By the time I had finished reading Rosamund Bartlett’s splendid book I was in no doubt that we did. She brings us new material. But before we consider the significance of that, I should say that this scholarly and readable book offers  another reason more human and more fundamental for writing another biography. A glance at Tolstoy’s Wikipedia entry suffices to make the point. He is defined as: ‘A Russian writer whom many consider to be the world’s greatest novelist. His masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent... the peak of realist fiction. Tolstoy’s further talents as essayist, dramatist and educational reformer made him the most influential member of the aristocratic Tolstoy family. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.’

Yes, yes, it’s all perfectly true. But these words fail to capture anything that matters. I am sure the author meant to do right by Tolstoy. But s/he was a Lilliputian, and as a Lilliputian myself I know how our little minds work. Whatever we might once have grasped about Tolstoy, in our first encounters with him, as time passes it is inclined to slip through our fingers. Memories are like libraries; they prefer order. Without being aware of what we were doing I suspect we can hardly help cutting him down to a manageable size. But the man and his work are monumental. They will not be contained, and Rosamund Bartlett’s biography brings all this back.

Before we even get to his writing, let us briefly consider the man, the wildly different parts he played out in his life alone. There was the childhood in which he failed to distinguish himself in any way. Then, as a young man, came the archetypal wastrel, predatory aristocrat-seducer of pretty serf girls, reckless gambler, capable of losing entire villages, complete with their serfs, over a single evening of cards. From there he evolved (while still gambling and seducing) into the eager, patriotic soldier who, when faced by the horror of war, became a pacifist. Then he turned over a new leaf, married and became Count Tolstoy, planting acres of apples on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, begetting children, loving nothing better than to sit down to write his first novel with his young wife entwined around his feet. 

Then there was the Great Teacher, who poured his creativity into a textbook for educating Russia’s peasantry which went on to outsell all others in pre-revolutionary Russia. There was the man who tried, and failed, to live the life of those true imitators of Christ, Russia’s holy fools, owning nothing, living nowhere, dependent on the kindness of strangers. But stronger than all the rest, in the end, there was the prophet, founder of his own religion, one purged of mysticism and ritual, who worked to bring the entire edifice of Tsarist autocracy down around his ears.

And that’s just an inventory of the phases of his life, not the work.

Behind any biography of Tolstoy hangs the question as to how all these various Tolstoys hang together. The common denominator is clear: his maximalism. He was a Dionysian lifeforce; a tornado, whirling through life, destroying and creating, leaving havoc and beauty in his wake.  

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Lev Tolstoy's marriage to Sofia held his destructive-creative force in balance for 14 glorious years.

We must be grateful that there was that period of about 14 years between his marriage in 1862 and his spiritual crisis in 1877 when this destructive-creative force was held in balance by the powerful experience of starting a family. Marriage and children seem, for a while, to have given him the emotional stability he needed to produce his two great novels. Held briefly in that skein of family happiness, War and Peace poured out of him. But already as he sat down to write Anna Karenina, the tornado was building up again. We are lucky that financial pressures obliged him to persevere with this glorious, conflicted work, despite his mounting discomfort with fiction, and with the subject matter of his novel.  

From a scholarly point of view, the main reason why Tolstoy deserves a new biography has to do with the collapse of Soviet power. This alone requires us to take fresh stock of the man. In part, this is because of the new material that has surfaced. Bartlett has been able to draw on correspondence between Tolstoy and his siblings which only became available in 1990. Here and there this is very helpful to our understanding of this complex writer.

"The man and his work are monumental. They will not be contained, and Rosamund Bartlett’s biography brings all this back [...] He was a Dionysian lifeforce; a tornado, whirling through life, destroying and creating, leaving havoc and beauty in his wake."

For example, it has always been intriguing and slightly mysterious that such an opinionated man could have written with such profound understanding and sympathy about Anna Karenina, his adulterous, eponymous heroine. For his own views about the inviolability of the marriage bonds were rigidly traditional. Now, his correspondence with his favourite sister Masha reveals how closely the very issue of divorce that is at the heart of the novel had intruded on his own family life. Masha, having married an odious man who treated her badly, finally left him for a fine fellow who loved her dearly. But before they could marry, Masha’s lover died, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter to bring up. Throughout the ordeal, the letters show, the siblings remained close.

More important still is the picture Bartlett is now able to draw of the attitude of the Soviet regime to Tolstoy. Not for nothing did Dmitry Merezhkovsky say of the revolution: ‘Tolstoy began it and Lenin finished it off’. Tolstoy was a revolutionary. His critique of Tsarist autocracy coincided in many respects with that of the socialist revolutionaries, although his non-violence set him apart from them. Lenin himself had written approving essays about him, after all.

By the time the Bolsheviks took power, Tolstoy was dead. But his ideas were powering on, challenging people, changing lives.  The Tolstoyans embraced the revolution, and in the Civil War period, Tolstoyan communes had sprung up everywhere. Bartlett’s biography made me appreciate quite how much of a threat Tolstoy felt to the Bolsheviks. In 1924 Lunacharsky, Russia’s first culture commissar, stated publicly that Marxism and Tolstoyanism were the two basic ideologies dividing Russia. And it fell to Lunacharsky to find a way of rescuing Tolstoy, castrating his legacy so that he could be absorbed into the Soviet pantheon of writers. The solution was to focus on his literary work, and bury his religious and social ideas, his teaching and didactic writing so that they could be dismissed as the foibles of a failing genius. This castrated version of Tolstoy is the one with which Soviet educators pushed down the throats of their pupils. No wonder the anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is being greeted with a certain weariness by many Russians.  

We in the West have been affected by this censored version of Tolstoy too. We did not have free access to Tolstoy’s massive archive. We were dependent on the editions of Tolstoy’s work which Soviet censorship allowed us. And our view of the writer and the man have been affected both by Soviet critics and by the Soviet approach to him.  The result shows, I think, in that Wikpedia entry which one might summarise, only slightly naughtily, thus: one of the world’s greatest novelists, he also had some pretty ridiculous ideas about Christianity.

This conclusion does no justice to the impact Tolstoy’s ideas had on Russia before the revolution, let alone on men like Ghandi, Wittgenstein and Martin Luther King. Nor to the seriousness of his social critique.

The spiritual crisis that lead Tolstoy to question Russia’s established Church and re-examine the tenets of Christianity also prompted him to ask radical questions which have lost none of their relevance today. How can we live with the wars being waged in our name, in Iraq, in Afghanistan? Why do we continue to accept so meekly an economic order based on the exploitation of our fellow man? How can you and I continue to live comfortably when other people, people who live right down the street from us, struggle to earn the basic necessities of life?

Had he lived today, Lev Tolstoy would have challenged us on these issues, and not just rhetorically, but with the example of his life. Rosamund Bartlett’s biography restores him to us in all his uncomfortable moral stature. 

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