Monday, 21 March 2016

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Rosamund Bartlett's Tolstoy: A Russian Life has been on my bookshelf almost since it was first published in 2010. I've recommended it to students. I've mined it for facts and key dates. But I never, dear readers, actually read it start to finish until recently... and I am now more impressed than ever with this book as a scholarly achievement. Although readable and indeed almost conversational throughout, it teaches a great deal about Tolstoy and his times. Not only does Bartlett manage to remain more or less in sympathy with her exasperating, idealistic, hypocritical, inexhaustible subject, she adds a final chapter exploring Tolstoy's posthumous legacy in Russia, of which more below. She even succeeds in staying neutral in the great scholar-polarizing soap opera of Sofia Andreevna (Sonia) versus Vladimir Chertkov, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each party involved.

For example, as Bartlett negotiated the complicated prehistory of the Tolstoy clan, I realized for the first time how much of War and Peace is recycled family history. I was vaguely aware that the novel's Bolkonskys owed much to Tolstoy's relatives the Volkonskys (the rhyme is a heavy hint, after all), but I hadn't realized clearly that Maria Nikolaevna Volkonskaya, Tolstoy's mother and the heiress of Yasnaya Polyana, was an important model for Maria Bolkonskaya - or that the marriage the latter contracts with Nikolai Rostov (saving the Rostov family's fortunes) was a reflection of the real-life match between Tolstoy's parents. Tolstoy's own father, Nikolai Ilyich, also had to pick up the pieces - just like Nikolai Rostov - after the death of Tolstoy's benevolent but spendthrift grandfather, Ilya Andreyevich Tolstoy, left the family almost bankrupt, and the logical way to fix their finances was to marry a wealthy wife. This was Maria Volkonskaya. While showing how embedded his fiction was in Tolstoy's family life and cultural milieu, Bartlett also succeeds in defamiliarizing the man himself - or at least stripping him of his sanctity as a cultural idol. For instance, she quotes Tchaikovsky's impression of him as a 'fatuous and offensive' bore, who when they met in 1876 announced without any prologue that 'Beethoven lacked talent' (372). Tchaikovsky struggled to reconcile his respect for Tolstoy the artist with his inevitable contempt for Tolstoy the man. Bartlett's own love of music shines through in a brief riff noting the similarities in worldview and artistic aims between Tolstoy and Wagner, despite the former's vocal disdain for the latter in What Is Art? - a disdain which, Bartlett points out, Tolstoy apparently founded upon a single visit to one performance of Siegfried (which he left early). Turgenev called him 'a mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman [...] highly moral and at the same time unattractive' (133). It was an insightful, if harsh, assessment.

One of Bartlett's most important achievements in this biography is to emphasize the golden thread running through Tolstoy's career: his self-perception as an educator first and foremost. This is why his post-Anna Karenina return to simple language, his retellings of the New Testament and the classical philosophers, his devotion to Chertkov's popular publishing firm Posrednik and to his own edited collections of wisdom such as Weekly Readings and Circle of Reading, was less a rejection of his career as a feted novelist than a resumption of his life's obsession. The Azbuka (Alphabet, or basic reader) he laboriously compiled for peasant children in the early 1870s, and which he vigorously supported (and compelled others to support) despite the first edition's embarrassing failure, was inspired by lessons at the first school he organized at Yasnaya Polyana in 1849 (even though this was a brief experiment that would not be resumed until 1859).

Mature Tolstoy, the moral philosopher, is in many ways admirable, but he is much less likable than the bear-hunting repentant playboy of the earlier chapters. Bartlett's sympathies are clearly and justifiably with Sofia Andreevna, as she describes the worsening fault lines in their marriage. It's difficult not to sympathize with Sonia's desperation for a break from childbearing, or with her efforts to obtain financial security for her children, or her longing for opportunities to enjoy Moscow society - all aspirations which were misunderstood, thwarted, and eventually demonized by Tolstoy. In what other family could a wife declare war on her husband simply by hiring a wet nurse? The section dealing with Sonia's gradual decline ([after her son Andrei's death in 1916] 'Sonya steadily lost interest in life; she took to sitting for hours in the old Voltaire chair that Tolstoy had particularly liked because it had been in his family since before he was born', p. 421) is one of the most touching parts of the book. After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, Tolstoy's other heirs - his daughter Alexandra, Chertkov and the various Russian Tolstoyan communities -  gradually declined from an initial position of considerable cultural influence. Alexandra was arrested three times before finally leaving the country for good; Chertkov obdurately fought Stalin for the miserly sums required to eke out the publication of the Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy's Collected Works; and individual Tolstoyans were exiled, absorbed into collective farms, sent to gulags, or shot for conscientious objection. The story of the many pitfalls in the publication of the Jubilee Edition (which finally appeared, intact but uneven in quality, in 1958) is a fascinating one, as told by Bartlett. Most importantly, she explains how the Soviet regime managed to claim Tolstoy as a classic Soviet writer avant la lettre, absorbing his fiction into their canon, despite this attitude to Tolstoyism. The secret was to ignore Tolstoy's philosophical legacy completely and focus on his fiction. His religious essays, after appearing in the Jubilee Edition, were 'banned from future publication' (443). Tolstoy the writer of fiction was welcome in Soviet literature; Tolstoy the moralist was forgotten. Before we condemn this sleight of hand on the part of the Soviet literary establishment, it's worth looking at the contemporary reception of Tolstoy. I've got A Confession of my own to make: I've read very little Tolstoy that isn't literary fiction. And yet all Tolstoy's final hopes were placed in his non-fiction, educative texts, rather than his novels, which he rejected (in a very real sense, by signing over the rights to others). If some of my readers have read Tolstoy's non-fiction, do comment below with your views on your favourite text.

Next post: Adventures in titology: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii and book titles

Disclaimers: Rosamund Bartlett is a personal friend. And some of my current research is on Tolstoy and classical literature (what he read, what he translated, and what he wrote about the Greek and Roman classics). Of which, more anon.

Image credits: Both photos of L.N. Tolstoy and his wife Sofia Andreevna Bers, commemorating wedding anniversaries, can be found on William Nickell's UCSC page.


  1. I, too, have read only bits and pieces of Tolstoy's nonfiction, despite having Confession on the shelf in Russian and in Peter Carson's translation.

    I'm looking forward to your post on titles!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful biography; I hope I get a chance to read it! I find it hard to see how anyone but a disciple could sympathize with the awful Chertkov, but that's doubtless my own prejudices showing. And I see no need to apologize for focusing on Tolstoy's literary fiction; people are not always the best judge of their own life and work.

  3. Thanks, Lizok and Languagehat, for your comments! I apologize to an anonymous commenter, whose very helpful note I accidentally deleted: Andrei Tolstoy did indeed die in 1916, not 2016 (I've been reading too much Sharov, clearly), and yes, I meant him, not Vanechka, although Vanechka's death is famous for having finally unglued the Tolstoy marriage.