Tolstoy's ‘Afterlife’: an Ambivalent Centenary

Tolstoy died on 20 November 1910, but official Russian celebrations of the centenary have been muted. Rosamund Bartlett asks why. Could it be that the Soviet ‘taming’ of Tolstoy still informs attitudes to him today and might the Orthodox Church have something to do with it too?

Rosamund Bartlett
19 November 2010

Official centenary celebrations

The former railway station of Astapovo in Lipetsk region was a hive of activity this autumn as architects, builders, electricians and decorators raced to meet an immovable deadline. For it was here that Lev Tolstoy died a hundred years ago, on 20 November 1910 (7 November according to Russia’s pre-revolutionary calendar).

Regional authorities allocated more than twenty million roubles to restore the station buildings, refurbish the memorial museum and build a ‘Tolstoy Cultural-Educational Centre’, and the completion of these projects was announced on 16 November, with just four days to spare before the arrival of an official delegation and the launching of an ‘International Tolstoy Forum’.


The centenary events which will be inaugurated on 20 November in Astapovo by the scholars, literary figures, descendants of the Tolstoy family, and dignitaries making up the delegation will last several days. After a conference at Tula State University on 21 November, there will be a visit the following day to Tolstoy’s unmarked grave in the grounds of his ancestral home at Yasnaya Polyana, where he was buried a hundred years earlier, and a commemorative evening at the Russian State Library in Moscow. Events will conclude on 25 November with the last session of an ‘International Tolstoy Congress’ at the Tolstoy Museum, at which there will be speakers from Chechnya, Romania, China and Finland presenting papers alongside Russian scholars. 

Vitaly Remizov, the Museum’s Director, has naturally been central to the proceedings. As well as renovating the permanent exhibition in the modest stationmaster’s house in Astapovo where Tolstoy spent his last hours, he has masterminded the construction next door of the cultural and educational centre, which incorporates a cinema, a new museum about childhood, and accommodation. Visitors making the pilgrimage will now be able to stay overnight for the first time in Astapovo.

In 1918, the station at Astapovo was renamed ‘Lev Tolstoy’ in honour of the fateful events of 1910, which were followed by the world’s press and led to strikes and demonstrations all over Russia. While local residents are happy to continue living in the surrounding village of Lev Tolstoy, Remizov has also been successful in campaigning for the newly restored railway station to be given back its old name. Soon it will no longer be possible to say that Lev Tolstoy died in Lev Tolstoy.  

Tolstoy’s great great grandson Vladimir Ilych, Director of the Yasnaya Polyana museum complex, has also been particularly busy this year with conferences and family reunions.

Muted celebrations?

The frenetic local activity at Astapovo, Yasnaya Polyana and the Tolstoy Museum is deceptive, however, as the distinguishing feature of Russia’s commemoration of this pivotal event in its national life has in general been silence, particularly at the official level. Suffice it to name some of the topics listed for discussion at the press conference scheduled for on 19 November at the Tolstoy Museum: ‘Why does Russia keep going further away from Tolstoy?’, ‘Tolstoy: Myths and Reality.  Who is Distorting Tolstoy’s Ideas and Why?’. The contrast with how the Russian government responded to another major anniversary this year is marked. Back in January, no less a person than President Medvedev made a visit to the southern city of Taganrog, where he gave a speech in honour of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Only the Deputy Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation will travel to Astapovo on 20 November. 

Astapovo (1)

When Lev Tolstoy turned up at Astapovo, a small, remote railway station, all of Russia was following the story. The Regional authorities allocated millions of roubles to restore the station buildings

Granted the anniversaries of famous deaths are no longer accompanied by the pomp and propaganda that was customary under Stalin, and granted Chekhov commemorations tend to lend themselves to public performances with reliable box-office appeal. Conceivably the authorities felt it appropriate to wait until late November to mark the Tolstoy centenary, but the special programmes on Russia’s state TV channel Kul’tura (the only channel to devote any attention to Tolstoy) have been modest in scope, the Tolstoy-related publications few in number, and the coverage in the press muted.

The popular weekly magazine Ogonyok, for example, features a portrait of Tolstoy on the front cover of its 15 November issue, but the fascinating archival materials about how Soviet power ‘tamed’ Tolstoy published by Leonid Maximenkov play second fiddle to an interview with the stars of the American-directed film The Last Station, recently released in Russia under the title The Last Resurrection. Tolstoy is Russia’s most celebrated novelist, and a titanic figure traditionally seen as synonymous with the country itself, so what happened? This is a question that has been posed several times this year by Western journalists (most recently in Miriam Elder’s article ‘Russia Snubs Tolstoy’ for The Global Post on 12 October), but few in Russia have been willing to confront it head-on. The fiery, outspoken writer Dmitry Bykov seems to have been the first to speak out, but others have followed his lead.

Bykov takes The Last Station as the starting point of his article ‘Tolstoy has Left’, which was published in the 15 November issue of Profil’, another weekly magazine. The film is such a travesty of life at Yasnaya Polyana, he declares, that it is shameful even to discuss it, while its director Michael Hoffman should be banned long-term from working on serious subjects just for the scene in which Tolstoy and his wife start clucking to each other like chickens. But, he concedes, ‘who has the moral right to criticise this film if the Russians themselves have generally not made any preparations to mark the 100th anniversary of Lev Tolstoy’s departure and death?’ American and Western European interpretations of Tolstoys life maybe ‘idiotic’ in his opinion, but at least Tolstoy is widely read outside Russia, and revered as a great author.

Why might this be?

Bykov attributes Russia’s silence to lack of interest, lack of money, and Tolstoy’s lack of commercial potential in a cultural market dominated by translated blockbusters and foreign imports, but he also posits a deeper underlying reason, and that is the country’s signal lack of progress in confronting the ethical issues which were still exercising Tolstoy at the very end of his life. Tolstoy’s conscience would not allow him to remain silent about the injustice, lawless violence and poverty he saw all around him in late Tsarist Russia, and he appealed continually to his fellow countrymen to take a stand. Bykov argues that the situation is no better in early twenty-first century Russia, but that unlike the millions of pre-revolutionary Russians for whom Tolstoy was a shining beacon of truth, his contemporaries prefer not to remember the greatness and humanity of their 19th-century writers out of a feeling of discomfort in the face of their own compromise and apathy. Tolstoy’s appeal to hearts and minds, Bykov concludes, is as futile in today’s Russia as his own self-flagellating response to the country’s disgraceful failure to honour the memory of one of its greatest citizens.  

Certainly at the official level there seems no place for the views of a vegetarian pacifist anarchist who preached the brotherhood of man in a country which now exalts machismo, patriotic duty and strong government. And the influence of a resurgent Orthodox Church which once again enjoys close ties with the Russian government may also play a role.  Excommunicated in 1901, Tolstoy remains officially vilified as an apostate, despite the mollifying efforts of Vladimir Tolstoy and the indignation of many Russians. He may have criticised the Church and preached Christ’s message himself’, admitted journalist Tatyana Moskvina in an article for the magazine Argumenty nedeli on 17 November, but who else did as much for the moral and religious development of Russia?’ The Russian state did its best to silence Tolstoy during the last thirty years of his life, when he devoted himself to preaching his religious ideas and exposing the government's moral failings. It then looked shabby in its mealy-mouthed response in 1910, while all around the world Tolstoy was feted as a great writer and spiritual leader. In 2010, the Russian government again seems to be caught uncomfortably on the back foot while the centenary of Tolstoy's death has been widely commemorated abroad.

Tolstoy in the Soviet era

But there is a history of official repression with regards to Tolstoy’s legacy which goes back to the early years of Soviet power, and which must also go some way to explaining the current squeamishness on the part of educated Russians. The archival materials published by Maximenkov in Ogonyok are given the heading ‘A Hundred Years Without the Mirror’, which refers to Lenin’s famous definition of ‘Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ in 1908. This article, which Lenin wrote on the occasion of Tolstoy’s eigthieth birthday, became the blueprint for all Soviet criticism of Tolstoy, and required reading in the Soviet school curriculum, ahead of those works on the list of his officially approved fiction. As an indefatigable critic of Tsarist power, and one of the world’s greatest writers, Tolstoy was too valuable to the Bolsheviks to be left out of their artistic canon, but he indeed had to be ‘tamed’ in order to fit into the ideological straitjacket they fashioned for him. Generations of educated Russians grew up with a sanitized, Soviet Tolstoy celebrated above all for his patriotism and love of the people, and it is hardly surprising the stomach-churning associations with Communist propaganda linger. 

Stationamaster's house interior

The room in the station-master's house where Tolstoy died on 20 November 1910

The Tolstoyans

Re-educating Russians about Tolstoy’s enormous legacy in the fields of religious thought, educational philosophy, and practical philanthropy remains a task for the future. It was started during the Brezhnev era by the dissident writer Mark Popovsky, who died in emigration in 2004 at the age of eighty two. As a typical member of the Soviet intelligentsia, Popovsky understandably knew nothing about the ‘other’ Tolstoy, whose extensive religious works were only ever published once after 1917, and in a tiny-print run overseen by hardline Marxist-Leninist apparatchiks. But his discovery in the late 1970s of the survival of tenacious followers of Tolstoy who had survived through the worst Soviet years with their integrity intact transformed his life, and resulted in a remarkable book published abroad in 1983.

After the fall of the Tsarist government, which had persecuted them for their refusal to be conscripted, there were thousands of Tolstoyans who believed Communism would be hospitable to their agricultural communes, in which private property was abolished, and each member did manual labour to earn his daily bread. They were wrong, as the persecution was far worse under the Bolsheviks, whose ‘taming’ of Tolstoy involved the complete obliteration of Tolstoyanism. The Soviet Tolstoyans relocated to faraway Siberia, but even there their commune was soon collectivized, their members arrested and sent to the camps, and their school shut down. The fifty or so survivors with whom Popovsky later made contact made a deep impression on him, and he later explained why to James Billington, the U.S. Librarian of Congress. The Tolstoyans had protested against the Soviet regime in an admirably intelligent way, he felt, simply by doggedly leading their individual lives in accordance with their moral principles against all odds. 

The Tolstoyan Boris Mazurin lived to see his memoirs published in 1988 at the height of glasnost, when he was eighty seven, but the huge appetite in Russia for testimony by the victims of repression has long since evaporated. There is no longer any ideological impediment to publishing Tolstoy’s religious works in Russia, but there is little demand for them in an intensely materialist society still making up for lost time after decades of Communist-enforced ascetism.

One has to hope that the newly revived Tolstoyan schools in Russia will produce young graduates able to appreciate their founder’s vision of a simple, natural, life led in close harmony with the land, based on shared manual labour, and involving no violence or exploitation. And maybe in time Tolstoy’s works will once again be read in Russia with the fervour which greeted their appearance during his lifetime.

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