Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tolstoy's paradoxical tomb

A short walk from the house at Yasnaya Polyana you come across the green mound that is Tolstoy's unmarked grave. It was, when I first saw it, preternaturally green, standing out from its surroundings (as if a Tolstoyan came by night sprinkling fertilizer). It is an apt physical parable for the paradox at the heart of Tolstoy's life - a man who wanted to be self-effacing, to surrender his worldly possessions to the peasants and go anonymously a wandering like a pilgrim or strannik yet who was every inch an aristocrat, equipped with an overlarge ego who found himself a global celebrity, a status not wholly unwelcome!

Rosamund Bartlett's 'Tolstoy: A Russian Life" is an accomplished account of this multi-faceted man.

Tolstoy was a passionate rationalist and rationaliser.

No sooner had he completed six years of work on War and Peace than he began work on a primer of Russian grammar designed to make acquiring literacy more possible for the newly emancipated peasants, simplifying and rationalising the teaching of a language as he went.

He adopted a similar approach to Christianity. Out went the miracles, the Trinity and the Church leaving Jesus a radical pacifist, close to the earth, living a simple life and hostile to organised religion, radically close to Tolstoy's own self-image!

The passion had its shadow side. He could drop a cause or strand of work as quickly as he had adopted it. A raid by the secret police on his estate (whilst he was away) so outraged his dignity as a nobleman that he abandoned for a number of years his experiment in schooling for the peasantry (which was the secret police's target)!

Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. That his identification with the peasants' simple life was accomplished in tailored smocks (carefully fashioned in Moscow) is but one (and a simple) example. He is a walking tribute to cognitive dissonance, his powers of rational thought notwithstanding.

He was too an endlessly difficult man. There is an episode she relates when Tolstoy went to visit the ailing Chekov in hospital no doubt with the best of intentions but ended up haranguing him so forcefully that it brought on another haemorrhage! I had a vivid image of being stuck in a lift with Tolstoy where he would challenge your use of this mechanical contrivance and upbraid you for it all the time forgetting that he was in the lift himself! Likewise, he abhorred both the railways and the telephone whilst utilising both!

If he knew and admired Chekov, his attitude to his contemporary and competitor as the 'great Russian novelist', namely Dostoyevsky, was more ambiguous, keeping, on the whole, his own counsel. One of the minor threads in the book is how these two literary giants failed to meet (though they were, unknowingly, once in the same room) at a lecture of the philosopher Vladimir Solov'ev (that predictably Tolstoy walked out of thinking it pretentious mystifying rubbish).

However difficult, Tolstoy was an undoubtedly highly principled and courageous man, as well as a great artist, who continuously challenged an oppressive state both in word and deed. For example in the 1890s, while the government fiddled in the face of widespread famine, Tolstoy was setting up soup kitchens and feeding people, raising money, attacking the government into action and persuading his friends, including Chekov, to muck in and help!

And a deeply influential one, you only have to ponder his influence on Gandhi to see this. 

However, not a prophet honoured in his own country, the centenary of his death was a muted affair in Russia (in 2010). An anarchist, a supporter of minorities, a non-believer in violence and in the Orthodox church, who had excommunicated him, is not one likely to endear himself to Mr Putin even if he is Russia's most famous writer (internationally)! It did not endear him to the Communists either who were happy to have him as a proto-revolutionary and a great writer but 'religious' 'anti-authoritarian' 'agrarian'...no thanks...and relentlessly persecuted the Tolstoyan communes that sought to bring his ideas to life (and Bartlett's last chapter commendably traces the tragic story of these communities).

You come away humbled by the achievements, spurred to return to his work and grateful that, unlike his benighted Sonya, one never had to live with him!


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