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"Conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."—A. N. Wilson, Financial Times
"Engaging . . . impressive."—Claire Messud, Telegraph
In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia,...
"Conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."—A. N. Wilson, Financial Times
"Engaging . . . impressive."—Claire Messud, Telegraph
In November 1910, Count Lev Tolstoy died at a remote Russian railway station. At the time of his death, he was the most famous man in Russia, with a growing international following, and more revered than the tsar. Born into an aristocratic family, Tolstoy had spent his life rebelling not only against conventional ideas about literature and art but also against traditional education, family life, organized religion, and the state.
In this exceptional biography, Rosamund Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating new material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy’s remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya, a subject long neglected; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved. Above all, she gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has, once again, been discovered by a new generation of readers.
"[Bartlett's] deep and easy familiarity with her subject and the period permits Bartlett to touch on both the thinkers and writers who engaged Tolstoy...while getting to the essence of the spiritual power that informs his work. Bartlett is particularly adept at assessing Tolstoy's impact..."
-Publishers Weekly, starred
"A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose ."
"Bartlett’s book is an exemplary literary biography."
-Library Journal, starred
"[Bartlett's]Tolstoy biography should become the first resort for everyone drawn to its titanic subject ."
"Rosamund Bartlett's new life of Tolstoy is a splendid book —immensely readable, full of fresh details, and often quite brilliant in its perceptiveness about the greatest of Russian writers, and one of the stars in the western firmament. This biography has the sweep and vividness of literature itself, and I strongly recommend it."
-Jay Parini, author of The Last Station
"It is difficult as a reader to take in the sheer scale and extent of Tolstoy’s interest and achievement. For the biographer to put all this into less than 500 pages is an achievement in itself. But Bartlett never seems hurried and she gives herself time to paint the scene for us, bringing the scent of Russian earth and grass to the nostrils."
-Financial Times (UK)
"The extraordinary character of the giant is captured better by Bartlett than by any previous biographer , and this is partly because she knows Russia so well... Superbly well written."
Cultural historian and translator Bartlett (Chekhov: Scenes from a Life, 2004, etc.) unravels the ornate and complicated tapestry of the life of the great Russian writer.
Count Tolstoy (a title he later eschewed) lived more than several lives, and Bartlett explores them all with understanding and a sympathetic but also critical eye. Born into a privileged class, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910) did not distinguish himself early on and seemed determined to investigate all the sordid alternatives available to a young man of property—alcohol, gambling (he had to sell entirevillagesto pay his considerable debts), lassitude and lust. At university, he neglected the curriculum and pursued his own interests—he was smitten with Pushkin, Dickens, Trollope, Rousseau and, significantly, Diogenes). For some of his early years, Bartlett can offer only speculations (few records exist), but when he went off to war in the early 1850s, the narrative accelerates. Tolstoy was a fine soldier, though he later renounced violence of all sorts (he became a vegan, quit hunting and took up bicycling). While in the military, he continued writing, and the flow of words surged ever more thickly for the next half-century. Bartlett does not linger overlong on any of his most celebrated works, though she does point out that he used family members inWar and Peaceand employed an actual case of suicide under a train to informAnna Karenina. The author is most attentive to the growing celebrity of Tolstoy—and the emergence of groups of devoted followers, especially when he began to embrace his own form of Christianity, dress like a peasant, advocate education for the masses and assail violence, the government and the Orthodox church. Bartlett also highlights the great difficulties faced by his wife and attends fully to his postmortem status.
A rich, complex life told in rich, complex prose.
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."
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.
Reviewer: Brooke Allen
In January 1895, deep in the heart of the Russian winter, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy left Moscow to go and spend a few days with some old friends at their country estate. He had just experienced another fracas with his wife over the publication of a new story, he felt suffocated in the city, and he wanted to clear his head by putting on his old leather coat and fur hat and going for some long walks in the clear, frosty air, far away from people and buildings. His hosts had taken care to clear the paths on their property, but Tolstoy did not like walking on well-ordered paths. Even in his late sixties he preferred tramping in the wilds, so he invariably ventured out past the garden fence and strode off into the deep snow, in whichever direction his gaze took him. Some of the younger members of the household had the idea of following in his footsteps one evening, but they soon had to give up when they saw how great was the distance between the holes left in the soft snow by his felt boots.1
The sensation of not being able to keep up was one commonly felt by Tolstoy’s contemporaries, as he left giant footprints in every area of his life. After racking up enormous gambling debts as a young man, during which time he conceived and failed to live up to wildly ambitious ideals, he turned to writing extremely long novels and fathering a large number of children. When he went out riding with his sons, he habitually went at such a fast pace they could barely keep up with him. Then he became moral leader to the nation, and one of the world’s most famous and influential men. A tendency towards the grand scale has been a markedly Russian characteristic ever since the times of Ivan the Terrible, who created an enormous multi-ethnic empire by conquering three Mongol Khanates in the sixteenth century. Peter the Great cemented the tradition by making space the defining feature of his new capital of St Petersburg which arose in record time out of the Finnish marshes. By the time Catherine the Great died at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia had also become immensely wealthy. Its aristocrats were able to build lavish palaces and assemble extravagant art collections far grander than their Western counterparts, with lifestyles to match. But Russia’s poverty was also on a grand scale, perpetuated by an inhumane caste system in which a tiny minority of Westernised nobility ruled over a fettered serf population made to live in degrading conditions. Tolstoy was both a product of this culture and perhaps its most vivid expression.
Many people who knew Tolstoy noticed his hyper-sensitivity. He was like litmus paper in his acute receptivity to minute gradations of physical and emotional experience, and it was his unparalleled ability to observe and articulate these ever-changing details of human behaviour in his creative works that makes his prose so thrilling to read. The consciousness of his characters is at once particular and universal. Tolstoy was also hyper-sensitive in another way, for he embodied at different times of his life a myriad Russian archetypes, from the ‘repentant nobleman’ to the ‘holy fool’. Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy, but only Tolstoy could be likened in almost the same breath to both a tsar and a peasant. From the time that he was born into the aristocratic Tolstoy family in the idyllic surroundings of his ancestral home at Yasnaya Polyana to the day that he left it for the last time at the age of eighty-two, Tolstoy lived a profoundly Russian life. He began to be identified with his country soon after he published his national epic War and Peace when he was in still his thirties. Later on, he was equated with Ilya Muromets, the most famous Russian bogatyr – a semi-mythical medieval warrior who lay at home on the brick stove until he was thirty-three – then went on to perform great feats defending the realm. Ilya Muromets is Russia’s traditional symbol of physical and spiritual strength. Tolstoy was also synonymous with Russia in the eyes of many of his foreign admirers. ‘He is as much part of Russia, as significant of Russian character, as prophetic of Russian development, as the Kremlin itself,’ wrote the liberal British politician Sir Henry Norman soon after visiting Tolstoy in 1901.2 For the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, meanwhile, Tolstoy had ‘no face of his own; he possesses the face of the Russian people, because in him the whole of Russia lives and breathes’.3
Tolstoy lived a Russian life, and he lived many more lives than most other Russians, exhibiting both the ‘natural dionysism’ and ‘Christian asceticism’ which the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev defines as characteristic of the Russian people.4 First of all he lived the life of his privileged class, educated by private foreign tutors and waited on by serfs. He became a wealthy landowner at the age of nineteen, and immediately began exhibiting Russian ‘maximalist’ tendencies by squandering his inheritance on gypsy singers and gambling. Whole villages were sold off to pay his debts, followed by his house. Tolstoy also lived up to the reputation of the depraved Russian landowner by taking advantage of his serf girls, then assumed another classic identity of the Russian noble: he became an army officer. For most of his comrades-in-arms the next step was retirement to the country estate, but Tolstoy became a writer – the most promising young writer of his generation. It was at this point that he started showing signs of latent anarchism: he did not want to belong to any particular literary fraternity, and soon alienated most of his fellow writers with his eccentric views and combative nature. Turgenev disappointed him by failing to take writing as seriously as he did, and for being too enslaved to western Europe. Turgenev’s creative work was as deeply bound up with Russia as Tolstoy’s was, but he lived in Paris. Tolstoy made two visits abroad during his lifetime, but he was tied to Russia body and soul.
As he matured under the influence of the writers and philosophers who shaped his ideas, Tolstoy inevitably became a member of the intelligentsia, the peculiarly Russian class of people united by their education and usually critical stance towards their government. The deep guilt he now felt before the Russian peasantry, furthermore, made him a repentant nobleman, ashamed at his complicity in the immoral institution of serfdom. Like the Populists, Tolstoy began to see the peasants as Russia’s best class, and her future, and around the time that serfdom was finally abolished he threw himself into teaching village children how to read and write. But he was mercurial, and a year later abandoned his growing network of unconventional schools to get married and start a family. The emotional stability provided by his devoted wife Sofya (‘Sonya’) Bers enabled him next to become Russia’s Homer: War and Peace was written at the happiest time in his life.
Tolstoy’s overactive conscience would not allow him to continue along the path of great novelist, and in the first half of the 1870s he went back to education. This time he devised his own system for teaching Russian children from all backgrounds how to read and write, by putting together an ABC and several reading primers. He taught himself Greek, then produced his own simplified translations of Aesop’s fables, as well as stories of his own, a compilation of tales about Russian bogatyrs and extracts from sacred readings. The Yasnaya Polyana school was reopened, with some of the elder Tolstoy children as teachers. Tolstoy was more of a father during these years than at any other time, and he took his family off to his newly acquired estate on the Samaran steppe for an unorthodox summer holiday amongst Bashkirs and horses. He revelled in the raw, primitive lifestyle, even if his wife did not.
In the second half of the 1870s everything began to unravel. In 1873, the year in which he began Anna Karenina, Tolstoy first spoke out on behalf of the impoverished peasantry by appealing nationwide for help in the face of impending famine. Anna Karenina, set in contemporary Russia, reflects Tolstoy’s own search for meaning in the face of depression and thoughts of death. Initially, he found meaning in religious faith and became one of the millions of pilgrims criss-crossing the Russian land on their way to visit its hallowed monasteries. Like many fellow intellectuals, Tolstoy was drawn to the Elders of the Optina Pustyn Monastery – monks who had distanced themselves from the official ecclesiastical hierarchy by resurrecting the ascetic traditions of the early Church Fathers, and who were revered for their spiritual wisdom. He found it was the peasants who had more wisdom to impart, however, and the next time he went to Optina Pustyn, he walked there, dressed in peasant clothes and bast shoes like a Strannik (‘wanderer’). The Stranniks were a sect who spent their lives walking in pilgrimage from one monastery to another, living on alms. The nomadic spirit runs deep in Russia, and Tolstoy increasingly hankered as time went on to join their ranks. He had long ago started dressing like a peasant, but he soon wanted to dispense with money and private property altogether.
From extreme piety Tolstoy went to extreme nihilism. At the end of the 1870s he began to see the light, and he set down his spiritual journey in a work which came to be known as his Confession. He also undertook a critical investigation of Russian Orthodox theology, and produced a ‘new, improved’ translation of the Gospels. Over the course of the 1880s he became an apostle for the Christian teaching which emerged from his root-and-branch review of the original sources, and at the same time his newfound faith compelled him to speak out against the immorality he now saw in all state institutions, from the monarchy downwards. Home life now became very strained, particularly after Tolstoy renounced the copyright on all his new writings and gave away all his property to his family. He discovered kindred spirits amongst the unofficial sectarian faiths which proliferated across Russia, whose followers were mostly peasants, and gradually became the leader of a new sectarian faith, although his followers were mostly conscience-stricken gentry like himself. These ‘Tolstoyans’ sometimes vied with each other to lead the most morally pure life, giving up money and property, living by the sweat of their brow and treating everyone as their ‘brother’. Thus one zealous Tolstoyan even gave up his kaftan, hat and bast shoes one summer, glad to be no longer a slave to his personal possessions.5
By the 1890s Tolstoy had become the most famous man in Russia, celebrated for a number of compellingly written and explosive tracts setting out his views on Christianity, the Orthodox Church and the Russian government, which were read all the more avidly for having been banned: they circulated very successfully in samizdat. It was when Tolstoy spearheaded the relief effort during the widespread famine of 1892 that his position as Russia’s greatest moral authority became unassailable. The result was a constant stream of visitors at his front door in Moscow, many of whom simply wanted to shake his hand. One of them was the twenty-three-year-old Sergey Diaghilev, who with characteristic chutzpah turned up one day with his cousin, and immediately noticed the incongruity of Tolstoy’s peasant dress and ‘gentlemanly way of behaving and speaking’. Tolstoy had come for a rest from the famine-relief work he had been doing in Ryazan province, and talked to the sophisticated young aesthetes from St Petersburg about soup kitchens. Diaghilev shared his impressions with his stepmother:
When we got out into the street, our first words were exclamations: ‘But he’s a saint, he’s really a saint!’ We were so moved we almost wept. There was something inexpressibly sincere, touching and holy in the whole person of the great man. It’s funny that we could smell his beard for a long time, which we had touched as we embraced him …6
Tolstoy received thousands of visitors in the last decades of his life, and he had a reputation for rarely turning anyone away. Before long, he became known as the ‘Elder of Yasnaya Polyana’.
Tolstoy received over 50,000 letters during his lifetime, 9,000 of which came from abroad. With the help of the eminence grise of the Tolstoyan movement, Vladimir Chertkov, who found him secretaries, he did his best to answer as many as he could (there are 8,500 letters printed in his Collected Works, and there must have been many more).7 Chertkov was the scion of a distinguished noble family who became Tolstoy’s trusted friend, and the chief publisher of his late writings. Tolstoy’s family often felt neglected. It was his wife Sonya who bore the brunt of domestic duties, almost as a single parent of their eight children, some of whom were very unruly. She also had the demanding job of publishing her husband’s old writings, which guaranteed the family some income, even if her profitable enterprise caused him pain. It was not easy being a member of Tolstoy’s family. Sonya wrote to her husband in 1892: ‘Tanya told someone in Moscow, “I’m so tired of being the daughter of a famous father”. And I’m tired of being the wife of a famous husband, I can tell you!’8
Tolstoy’s fame increased further when he published his last novel Resurrection in order to aid the members of the Dukhobor sect to emigrate to Canada, where they could practise their beliefs freely and without persecution. Finally exasperated by Tolstoy’s blistering satire of a mass in one of its chapters, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him, and so Tolstoy joined the illustrious ranks of Russian apostates – rebels like Stenka Razin and Emelyan Pugachev. Because of his fame, Tolstoy was able to do what few others in Russia could: speak out. The government was powerless to stop him, as it knew there would be international outrage if he was either arrested or exiled. Tolstoy took advantage of the situation by behaving like a ‘holy fool’ so that he could speak frankly to the Tsar about his failure as a national leader. There was a widespread feeling in Russia in the last decade of Tolstoy’s life that he was the ‘real’ Tsar.
Tolstoy Family Tree xii
Bers Family Tree xiv
Note on Conventions xv
1 Ancestors: The Tolstoys and the Volkonskys 11
2 Aristocratic Childhood 31
3 Orphanhood 55
4 Youth 68
5 Landowner, Gambler, Officer, Writer 83
6 Literary Duellist and Repentant Nobleman 118
7 Husband, Beekeeper and Epic Poet 149
8 Student, Teacher, Father 180
9 Novelist 214
10 Pilgrim, Nihilist, Muzhik 251
11 Sectarian, Anarchist, Holy Fool 294
12 Elder, Apostate and Tsar 345
Epilogue: Patriarch of the Bolsheviks 416
Further Reading in English 498
Select Bibliography 499
Illustration Credits 508
Posted May 10, 2012
Posted February 14, 2012
Actually I haven't read the book. I purchased for my son-in-law as a graduation gift. He studies Russian history and really likes Tolstoy as a writer. I felt this book would be interesting for him since he's enjoys learning about life in Russia. He won't get the gift until May, however, so I can't say for sure that he will like it, but I expect he will.
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Posted January 18, 2012
Well-researched biography of one of the most important writers and philosophers in world history, who is also one of the most heavily censored. Rely only on Oxford University Press English translations of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, nearly all of which were done by his personally authorized English translator and friend, Aylmer Maude (and wife Louise), based on uncensored original Russian texts (SOCHINENIYA GRAFA L. N. TOLSTOGO, Moscow: I. N. Kushneryov, 1911 and POLNOE SOBRANIE SOCHINENII LVA NIKOLAEVICHA TOLSTOGO, edited with notes by P. I. Biryukov, Moscow: Sytin, 1912-1913). Oxford University Press still owns the rights to these translations.
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