From Riches to Rags: Donna Orwin Explores Leo Tolstoy’s Changing Lifestyle and Philosophy

Donna Orwin

The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among other novels, short stories, plays and essays, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, also known as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), was one of Russia's most prominent and influential writers of his era.

Donna Tussing Orwin is Professor of Russian Literature and Chair at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. She is the author of books and articles about Tolstoy and others as well as the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy and, most recently, Tolstoy On War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in “War and Peace” (Cornell UP, 2012). She edited Tolstoy Studies Journal, 1997-2005 and is now the President of the North American Tolstoy Society. In 2008, Professor Orwin received the Pushkin Medal for her contributions to the study and popularization of Russian culture and literature. In 2012, she became a member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Q: As a Professor of Russian Literature, what would you say is Tolstoy’s reputation among modern critics? Where does he stand in the pantheon of Russian literature?

A: Tolstoy is admired today as one of the world’s greatest novelists and war writers.  It is very significant that today's writers consistently place him at the very top of lists of their favorite authors. Ironically, he does not seem to be as popular in Russia as he is abroad; this may be due partly to his association in the minds of Russian readers with the Soviet period. He was officially idolized then but also sanitized to make him safe for public consumption. At that time, his anti-clericalism was welcome, and his dislike of all government was explained away as anti-Tsarism. Today both of those qualities make official Russia edgy. I predict that young Russians will embrace Tolstoy when they discover just how radical he is.

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