Liberation of Tolstoy: A Tale of Two Writers

Liberation of Tolstoy: A Tale of Two Writers

by Ivan Bunin
Written in the 1930s, more than two decades after Leo Tolstoy's death in 1910, this unusual work—equal parts biography, memoir, and literary study—examines the dialogue of two great writers on the proklyatye voprosy, or "damned questions," of life.

Though Tolstoy was Ivan Bunin's senior by more than forty years (Tolstoy was born in 1828, Bunin in


Written in the 1930s, more than two decades after Leo Tolstoy's death in 1910, this unusual work—equal parts biography, memoir, and literary study—examines the dialogue of two great writers on the proklyatye voprosy, or "damned questions," of life.

Though Tolstoy was Ivan Bunin's senior by more than forty years (Tolstoy was born in 1828, Bunin in 1870, they led remarkably similar lives. Both were gentry-noblemen who achieved international acclaim as writers; both struggled to balance worldly pleasures with spiritual enlightenment. The dialogue between the two men is an intriguing tapestry weaving passages from Tolstoy's personal, political, and literary writings with those from the memoirs of his wife, family, and friends; references to Western and Eastern philosophers, religious thinkers, and critics; and Bunin's own recollections and analysis of Tolstoy.

Bunin conveys the drama of Tolstoy's last days; the politics and events surrounding his funeral; his difficulties with the Russian Orthodox Church and his embrace of Buddhism; his relationship with his eccentric family; and his early love and later hatred for his wife, Sofya. At the same time, this work reflects the drama of Bunin's own difficult circumstances in life and his search for spiritual deliverance. The Liberation of Tolstoy is a multifaceted view of the waning years of two giants of Russian literature and a glimpse of the philosophical and aesthetic legacies of two great minds.

About the Authors:
Van Bunin(1870-1953) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. He is the author of The Life ofArseniev: Youth (Northwestern, (994), and Cursed Days (Ivan R. Dee, 1998), among other books.

Thomas Gaiton Marullo is the author of If You See the Buddha: Studies in the Fiction of Ivan Bunin, published by Northwestern in 1998; the translator of Bunin's Cursed Days (Ivan R. Dee, 1998); and the editor of Ivan Bunin: Russian Requiem, 1885-1920 (Ivan R. Dee, 1993). Ivan Bunin: From the Other Shore, 1920-1933(1van R.Dee, 1995), and Ivan Bunin: Twilight of Emigre Russia (Ivan R. Dee, forthcoming).

About the Author:Vladmir T. Khmelkov is a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This brooding, brilliant yet rather eccentric work by the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Bunin (1870-1953) resists categorization. In a way, it is a literary biography of Tolstoy: Bunin is clearly obsessed with Tolstoy's death (in 1910) and the "heart wrenching suffering, doubt, and angst that Tolstoy, as the quintessential seeker, often encountered in his spiritual search." This work is also autobiographical, as Bunin feels an intense identification with Tolstoy: both were of the same social status (gentry), were renowned Russian writers, and shared certain aspects of temperament, such as the unceasing questioning of life's purpose. However, Bunin also felt like "a student, son, and disciple at the feet of a teacher, father, and guide." This volume can also be seen as literary criticism, as Bunin reacts at times vehemently to Tolstoy's critics in an effort to present the "true" Tolstoy. Perhaps this work is best read, in the words of the presenters of this text, as a "Bakhtinian-type `dialogue' in which Bunin engaged Tolstoy on the... `damned questions' of life." Particularly important is that this is the first English translation of a text that is now more than 70 years old, and a document that, while essential to scholarship on Bunin, has frequently been overlooked. Marullo and Khmelkov have not only supplied us with a graceful translation, they have provided annotations, more voluminous than Bunin's original text, that display a breathtaking depth of knowledge about Bunin, Tolstoy and Russian literature and culture in general. This is an invaluable contribution. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Marullo (Russian, Univ. of Notre Dame), the author of several studies on the Nobel Prize-winning Russian migr writer Ivan Bunin, and Khmelkov have translated and annotated Bunin's Osvobozhdenie Tolstogo, originally written in 1937. The book is a collection of interpretations and thoughts that Bunin recorded while reading Tolstoy's fiction, memoirs, and political writings. In his Reminiscences of Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky offered more acute psychological insights, and his love for Tolstoy is palpable. Conversely, Bunin sees Tolstoy mostly as a fellow searcher for the meaning of life and is not always objective about Tolstoy's ideas. Recommended for major Russian collections, if only for Marullo's numerous excellent notes. Bert Beynen, Des Moines Area Community Coll. Lib., IA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The second writer was Bunin (1870-1953) himself, who engaged the writing of his departed Russian fellow-writer on what he called the damned questions of life. He linked the two of them with a common interest in spiritual enlightenment, particularly Buddhism; and struggles between egomania and a sacred anxiety that sought liberation from earthly bonds. was first published in 1937. The translation is by Thomas Gaiton Marullo, a specialist in Bunin, and Vladimir T. Khmelkov. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Studies in Russian Literature and Theory
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                "HE WHO HAS ATTAINED perfection, my dear brothers, does not live in contentment. He who has attained perfection, O brothers, is the saintly and Most Very Exalted Buddha. Open your ears, for liberation from death has been found."

    Here is what Tolstoy says about "liberation":

    "It is not enough that time and space and reason are forms of thought, and that the essence of life lies outside these forms. More and more all of our existence first submits itself to time and space and causality, and then finds release from them."

    No one has ever noticed these words of Tolstoy's, but they hold the key to understanding what was essential to him. Despite all the great power of Tolstoy's "submission" [to time, space, and reason], it was at Astapovo that he achieved the culminating "liberation" of his life.

* * *

I recall the great delight with which Tolstoy once cited the words of Pythagoras of Samos: "You, man, have nothing but your soul!" and the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius: "Our highest purpose is to prepare ourselves for death.... One constantly prepares oneself for death. One learns how to die in a little better way."

    "I am [Marcus] Antonius [Aurelius], but I am also a man. For Antonius the Emperor, the city and country are Rome; but for Antonius the man, the city and country are the world."

    During the years of Tolstoy's greatest wisdom, however, he had neither the city norcountry nor even the world; there remained only one thing: God. The principal dynamic for Tolstoy was "liberation," that is, withdrawal, return to God, and dissolution but positive dissolution of self—in God.

* * *

[In War and Peace] Prince Andrei, listening to Natasha as she sang,

    "[sensed] a terrible dichotomy between something that was endlessly great, indefinite, and within him and something that was narrow, corporeal, but also part of him and even her—and this dichotomy both tormented and gladdened him as she sang."

    This "dichotomy" tormented Tolstoy from his birth to his last breath.

* * *

How did Prince Andrei experience death?

    "After he had been wounded, in those hours of painful solitude and delirium, the more he kept thinking about the new principle of eternal love which had been revealed to him, the more unconsciously he kept renouncing earthly life. To love everyone and everything, always to sacrifice oneself for love, meant never to love anyone, never to have lived an earthly life."

* * *

"Open your ears, O brothers: liberation from death has been found. I will teach you, I will preach to you the Law. If you will live according to its teachings, you will attain the highest fulfillment of sacred striving for which well-born youth leave their countries for other lands. Still in this life, you will know truth, you will see it with your very own eyes."

    Christ also called men "to leave their country for other lands": "A man's enemies are those who live under his roof.... He who will not leave both his mother and father for my sake cannot be my follower."

    There were many of them, these "noble youths who abandoned their country for other lands." For example, there were Prince Gautama, Alexis, the Man of God, Julian the Hospitaller, and Francis of Assisi. To these must be added the starets Leo from Yasnaya Polyana.

North of Patagonia

By Johnny Payne


Copyright © 2001 Johnny Payne. All rights reserved.

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Ruth Rischin
Were I to compare it to any other work of world literature, I would rank it with Boswell's Life of Johnson.
—(Ruth Rischin, Encyclopedia of LIterary Translation)

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Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures

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