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The Tolstoy we've forgotten

Leo TolstoyAnatoly Naiman is a poet, novelist, critic and translator whose works have twice been shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize.

On November 20, 1910 (November 7 by the old calendar), the 82-year-old Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy died at the obscure railway station of Astapovo. No death before or since has produced such a shock wave in Russia or such resonance throughout the world.

It is impossible to convey just what Tolstoy was. The closest you can come to it, if asked, would be to point a finger toward 100 or so volumes that make up his complete collected works and the memoirs people wrote about him: Read these, you might tell the inquirer, and things will be a little clearer.

But one thing is already clear, actually ­ that there is no answer to who Tolstoy was, and there can't be, in principle. Dealing with Tolstoy is like dealing with a concept on the order of life, earth, or mankind: no matter how closely you examine it or try to stretch your imagination around it, the only thing you understand completely is that you can't fit it into a formula.

Or put it this way: modernity can't cope without the irrational value of Pi, which trails off elusively into numerical infinity. The more you read Tolstoy, and the more you read about Tolstoy, the more obvious his Pi-ness ­ his infinite and elusive nature ­ becomes.

Simplicity in complexity

The best at writing about Tolstoy were Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Korolenko and Alexander Kuprin, largely because they were major figures themselves; as such they were big enough to understand that the lesser are not given scales by which to measure the greater. But they could, and did, find a point from which they could observe him, both in his human simplicity and in the complexity of his spirit at a given moment.

The worst at describing him were the ideologists ­ including, alas, the Tolstoyans themselves. My father was a Tolstoyan (not one of the "professionals", happily) who in 1920, as a member of the Tolstoyan community at Taininka, in the Moscow region, served the time in Butyrka prison required of those who refused to enter the military in those days. So for me Tolstoy was from childhood a sort
of distant relative, a mysterious, not entirely real uncle.

Those who have written about Tolstoy from perceptions of him gained by reading his works are selecting only a part of the whole, in effect, concentrating on only one of his sides ­ the part and side that lends itself to the easiest surveying. Reading Lenin's article "Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution" as ninth graders, we intuitively sensed that Lenin's imaginings were one thing, and Tolstoy something else altogether.

Analyses of this kind didn't do anything to or for Tolstoy, who put no stock in them; he knew the disproportion between the whole and its particulars, as belaboured by such efforts. For example, of Lev Shestov's book The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, Tolstoy said, "Well, what a brave barber, he comes right out and says I've deceived myself ­ and that means I've deceived others, too."

Asked why a "barber", Tolstoy explained: "I was reminded of a barber from Moscow at the wedding of a peasant uncle off in the countryside. He showed the best possible manners, danced the quadrille ­ and for all that despised everybody there." (In my youth and that of my comrades, that book, by the way, held an important place.)

Who is 'our everything'?

It seems that today, 100 years after Tolstoy's death, the only sensible thing to do would be to note aloud and for the record the extent to which this country ­ that is, its whole population, all of us ­ have rejected the Russia that Tolstoy wished for and whose embodiment he was. Having lost track of things while reciting the "Pushkin is our everything" formula, we no longer recognise, in our mental laziness, that Lev Nikolayevich, not Alexander Sergeyevich, has a greater claim to the "everything" title.

This is no encroachment on Pushkin's position, not at all. It's just that Pushkin is, to cite the well-known metaphor, the sun of our culture, our art, our literature ­ while Tolstoy is its light and air, the ground below and the glow above of our daily lives. Both are models of the Russian soul and psyche ­ but Pushkin is Apollo, while Tolstoy is our Jupiter.

Or to contrast them in more earthly terms: Tolstoy lived in a world of trains, automobiles and revolutionary crowds, and he knew what mass communication was ­ which makes him our contemporary. Pushkin's was a world of troikas, flintlock pistols, rebelling masses and routs at the Winter Palace. And Tolstoy, one has to add, was at once the embodiment and exception to the "our everything" role. He was both an aristocrat and a muzhik, an aesthete and a rustic, an officer and a pacifist ­ a hedgehog and a fox, to use the classical metaphor made famous by Isaiah Berlin. Pushkin has no such dual nature.

Gorky notes in his memoirs that Tolstoy's relationship with God resembled "two bears in the same lair". This can be taken in several senses, but most appropriate is that suggesting Tolstoy's complete awareness that he had the ability to create a world from the same materials ­ above all from the same people ­ as the Almighty. And so, knowing human nature thoroughly, in all its cruelty, stupidity, baseness and egoism, he pinned his hopes on the other side of humankind ­ its pity, sympathy, selflessness and capacity to forgive ­ and gave his entire life over to an attempt to create a just society on earth.

Accessible and moving

He did this not only through the powerful teachings that came to be called Tolstoyanism, but also through the practical enlightenment of those whom fate put before him ­ peasant children, illiterate country folk, the rich and powerful, petty officials, criminals ­ and all of them specific individuals, people he knew on sight or by name. A great many unknown to him joined their ranks as well, since his books had a readership of the untold thousands. He addressed all of them in a language at once accessible and deeply moving, with no thought of whether such talk was acceptable ­ to anyone, including the police, the clergy or the tsar himself.

In the social context Tolstoy set himself the goal of convincing the haves of the world that sharing its wealth with the have-nots was right, and that trying to turn one's mind in that direction was a Good Thing. The Archimedean lever for this greater social good was the transfer of land to the peasants ­ the only people who wanted and knew how to work it. But Tolstoy was far from naïve, and he was no idealist. He was the first to understand that changing the world begins with changing human morality.

And he knew ­ again, like no one before him ­ that in Russia, with its predominantly rural-communal way of life, there was a real basis for this kind of change. He didn't have to "go to the people", like the earnest intelligentsia ­ he was already there, he was of the people. He knew no worse than Pushkin that a Russian revolt was senseless and cruel, but he allowed that the threat of it could itself make the ruling class come to its senses, and with that done move the nation toward the necessary changes. If this didn't work ­ well then, it meant that Russia would undergo, Tolstoy believed, a terrible searing in the fire of revolution.

Tolstoy gave Russia ­ and the whole world ­ hope. If he didn't change the human mind, he did move it. The century that has passed since his death has not left a single stone standing of his concepts and labours. But the books remain: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Hadji Murat, "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and the rest ­ an enormous legacy. But only an artistic one.

Yet his personality remains as well. So we can know what a man can be.

Translated from the Russian by Mark H. Teeter


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