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Was Lev Tolstoy really an extremist?

Leo TolstoyIt may seem a fanciful notion to ask what Lev Tolstoy would make of today's Russia, or how he would be treated by society if he were alive today.

But there is a point to the exercise, however hypothetical.

How do we, as a society, deal with great writers and artists if they also happen to hold nonconformist views, and does it make them any less relevant in their work?

If we consider how mainstream views get great play on TV, while opposition views do not, it is easy to see how Lev Nikolayevich might end up an embittered blogger, rather than a celebrated writer and thinker.

Or, for another example, we could consider how up-and-coming art-house film directors get little official encouragement and struggle to make their movies, while well-connected directors with "orthodox" political views (such as Nikita Mikhalkov) get their films shown at the Great Kremlin Palace.

And in the field of religion, it is clear that Tolstoy's nonconformist views would put him on a collision course with today's Orthodox establishment.

But the idea that Tolstoy today would end up in jail for his views does seem, at face value, to be a little left field.There is little doubt that Tolstoy had little time for organised politics or religion, and was even more than a little frustrated by the antics of his supporters, the Tolstoyans.

(In this, he echoed Communist philosopher Karl Marx, who said in the 1870s and 80s that if the reforming socialists who claimed to follow him were "Marxist", then he was not one of them.)

And he probably would prefer to write than demonstrate on the streets.

And yet, Tolstoy could still fall foul of the authorities today, because the laws on what is termed extremism are so woolly and open to interpretation that a judge today could easily classify his work as extremist. And that is a sad state of affairs, which could lead future Tolstoys to abandon creative work.


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