A Russian Life: Rosamund Bartlett On Leo Tolstoy’s Transition From Writing to Social Activism

Rosamund Bartlett
Rosamund Bartlett

One of the most acclaimed Russian writers of the 19th century, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was the author of novels—including War and Peace and Anna Karenina—as well as short stories and essays. He was also a renowned reformer and humanitarian.

Rosamund Bartlett is a scholar, writer, lecturer, and translator whose field of expertise is Russian cultural history, with a particular focus on the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among her many books, she is the author of Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile) and translator of Anna Karenina (Oxford World's Classics, publication October 2014).


Q: Tolstoy: A Russian Life is the first biography of Tolstoy written in 20 years. Why have biographers shied away from writing about Tolstoy? Was it difficult for you to access details about his life? What approach did you take towards writing the biography to make it unique?

A: In some respects a gap of around 20 years is not all that long (A. N. Wilson’s biography was published in 1988). On the other hand, I have just read that there have been two dozen biographies of Charlie Chaplin written in the last two decades, which puts things in perspective. Tolstoy is also such a formidable subject, who wrote so much and about whom so much has been written, that one perhaps can understand why he has deterred other potential biographers. Maybe a writer has to be slightly mad to want to take him on, and there is also the need to have a good knowledge of Russian. Another reason may be that in recent years Tolstoy seemed less attractive as a subject, at least to scholars because the collapse of Soviet power opened up exciting new areas of research which for ideological reasons had been out of bounds previously. However, given Tolstoy’s tortuous relationship with Tsarist power, and Soviet power’s tortuous relationship with his legacy, I felt it was imperative to cast a fresh look at his tumultuous life, particularly in light of the centenary of his death in 2010. A lot changed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, obliging us to re-assess everything, including the lives and works of classic Russian writers.

It is not that hard to access information about Tolstoy’s life because it was already immaculately documented while he was still alive. Everything of importance written by him was published in the 90 volumes of his Collected Works, although the new 100-volume edition underway will show how even that mammoth enterprise was far from definitive. Furthermore, while biographies of Tolstoy may be a bit thin on the ground, there are many scholars still actively researching particular aspects of his life and work, both in Russia and outside it. Regular conferences, for example, are held at his ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, which since the mid-20th century been a center of scholarship as well as a museum. A constant stream of interesting new publications has been amplifying what we already know, particularly about the last 30 years of his life when he started preaching a new kind of Christianity. For obvious reasons, this was far less documented during the Soviet period.  In general, a major problem with Tolstoy is perhaps too much information while another is dealing with the by now clichéd story of Tolstoy’s life trotted out in myriad publications. Tolstoy himself actively participated in the mythologizing of his life, and there is a sense that the sheer amount of information he disseminated about himself in letters and interviews was a sort of smoke screen. While I felt I had a got a lot closer to Anton Chekhov while writing his biography, I did not feel that with Tolstoy, who always seemed to dominate the conversation, whatever the subject.

Given the enormous amount of material, I sought to avoid going too much over the well-trodden ground by interpreting his life in the light of a central idea while nevertheless following the conventional chronology. It seemed to me that Tolstoy lived more than one life during the course of his 82 years, that he lived a life that could only have been Russian, and with an intensity and lack of compromise that also seemed to me uniquely Russian. Therefore, my biography contains a series of mini-biographies aimed at illuminating each of the different Russian archetypes, which the writer seems to have embodied (or actively sought to embody) at different stages of his life, from the “repentant nobleman” to the “holy fool.” I also tell the story of Tolstoy’s life from his point of view; I dwell on his educational work and on his long life as a moral crusader, both of which have usually been skipped over as either not being of interest, or of little significance compared to his career as a novelist. I wanted to show Tolstoy’s remarkable path from novelist to a national hero and international celebrity, and, above all, place it in the context of Russian political and social history. Detouring too much into the details of his fiction would have been a distraction from following the sweep of his remarkable life, so I have not done that, unlike previous literary biographers. I also thought it was important to show how Tolstoy the writer and Tolstoy the thinker were one, and that both sides of his personality are worthy of attention, particularly when set against the Russian social and political background.

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