Tolstoy: A Russian Life


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,

He developed enthusiasms for the most diverse things throughout his life: games, music, [ancient] Greek, schools, Japanese pigs, pedagogy, horses, hunting — too many in fact to count. And that’s not including his intellectual and literary interests: they were most extreme. He was madly passionate about everything at the height of his enthusiasm, and if he could not convince whomever he was talking to of the importance of the activity he was caught up in, he was capable of being even hostile to that person.

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

would sit in his long blue frock-coat with puffy sleeves on a low windowsill there, and some supper would be brought to him while he waited for Palageya Nikolaevna to retire. Since he was blind, she undressed in front of him without qualms, and then she and whichever grandchild was with her would climb into bed to get comfortable for that night’s story. Tolstoy vividly recalled the moment when the candle was extinguished in his grandmother’s bedroom, leaving the flickering light of the small lamp burning beneath the icons in the corner.

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,

This oscillation between the setting of unrealistic, puritanical goals for a future life of purity and self-denial and the self-mortification which followed his actual pursuit and enjoyment in the present of a hedonistic social life, is the leitmotif of Tolstoy’s first diary entry…. In fact, one could say that the battle between these two opposing sides of Tolstoy’s personality was the main theme of his entire life as an adult, and certainly fundamental to his creative processes. Simultaneous possession of these two warring impulses was not unique to Tolstoy, but may be seen as the mark of a quintessentially Russian nature.

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…. [S]o long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and sniveling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished in outer darkness.”
It is easy enough to lament, with Turgenev and Chekhov, the great writer’s inattention to literary matters in the latter part of his life. It is also easy to laugh at the myriad ways in which he failed to practice what he preached, and at his gross vanity and monstrous ego. But countless people found inspiration in Tolstoy’s proselytism. The twenty-five-year-old Mohandas Gandhi, a lawyer in South Africa, read his tract The Kingdom of God Is Within You and found there the courage of his own convictions. Ludwig Wittgenstein found in Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief a lifeline that kept him sane through the First World War. And as Bartlett demonstrates, Tolstoy played a key role in the changes Russian society underwent leading up to 1917.
Her final chapter, dealing with the way the Soviet regime handled Tolstoy and his legacy, is perhaps the most fascinating in the book. To a large degree the Bolsheviks continued the tsarist policy of glorifying Tolstoy the novelist while persecuting his followers. The tsarist regime had known better than to arrest or harass the great man himself; they had no wish to create a martyr. In 1917, Tolstoy had been dead seven years. In the early years of the Soviet Union lip service was paid to the Tolstoyan legacy, but this did not last long, and over the course of several decades many innocent Tolstoyans were imprisoned, exiled, and shot. Among those persecuted were the two chief torchbearers, Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra and his closest disciple, Vladimir Chertkov. It was not until the coming of glasnost in the 1980s that Tolstoyanism began to be put back into perspective in its founder’s native land.
Turgenev nicely described Tolstoy as “a mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman — something reminiscent of Rousseau, but more honest than Rousseau — highly moral and at the same time unattractive.” Bartlett’s treatment gives us the man in full but not, perhaps, the artist in full, and for this reason her biography will probably not supersede those of Troyat, Wilson, and Simmons. But since these authors have already provided rich critiques of Tolstoy’s fiction, Bartlett’s unconventional focus should be considered all the more valuable. A post-Soviet look at Tolstoy the Russian might be more necessary, now, than yet another critical biography.