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).
Simply Charly: Tolstoy: A Russian Life is the first biography of Leo 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?
Rosamund Bartlett: 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. Leo 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 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.
SC: You refer to Tolstoy as “Russia’s greatest moral authority,” citing his humanitarian work and efforts to improve Russian literacy. How did Tolstoy’s guilt over his aristocratic upbringing impact his development into the “Elder of Yasnaya Polyana?” What example does he set for modern writers hoping to make a social and cultural impact?
RB: The nobility were complicit in preserving the iniquitous institution of serfdom, and Tolstoy was not alone in feeling guilt as a nobleman growing up in mid-19th century Russia, although he did more than most to atone for it. In the decades following the great war against Napoleon in 1812, to which Russian peasant soldiers had heroically contributed, many of the more educated members of the noble class had grown increasingly uncomfortable about supporting the Tsarist regime, but they had little opportunity to take a stand under the oppressive Nicholas I. Tolstoy’s older contemporary Ivan Turgenev, for example, claimed that the serf-owning nobility aroused in him feelings of such embarrassment, indignation, and disgust, that he had been compelled to live abroad. Tolstoy, however, would have never countenanced living outside Russia, and he profited from the more liberal conditions under Alexander II to open a school for peasant children on his estate. Resolutely on the side of the peasants, he also relished going head-to-head with neighboring noble landowners who opposed the abolition of serfdom when he was appointed to help implement it in 1861. Tolstoy saw himself primarily as a writer at this point and had War and Peace and Anna Karenina ahead of him, but that would change.
Twenty years later, When Tolstoy did devote himself full-time to religious questions and to serving the needs of the peasantry, he had just emerged from an intense spiritual crisis. It led to him preaching and also trying to practice, an idiosyncratic brand of Christianity based on the ethical message of the New Testament. He turned his back on his career as a professional writer in favor of preaching his new philosophy of non-violence and rejecting everything from the handling of money to the eating of meat. Although Tolstoy reviled the idea of organized religion and explicitly maintained that “The Kingdom of God is Within You” (as one of his most important tracts is called), his teachings soon attracted increasing numbers of followers, from both the peasantry and the intelligentsia. Neither the leaders of the Orthodox Church, under the thumb of the Russian government, nor the Tsar were Tolstoy’s equal in terms of the moral authority he commanded in Russia in his later years. Like the famous Optina Pustyna monastery, which thousands visited each year in order to consult the ascetic monks known as “Elders,” Tolstoy’s home became a pilgrimage destination for all those who wished to consult the “Elder of Yasnaya Polyana.” He had involuntarily become the spiritual counselor to all disaffected Russians, to whom Tolstoy’s “practical” Christianity held great appeal.
It should be pointed out that Tolstoy was always driven more by his sense of anger about the Tsarist government’s abuse of power than any sense of guilt about his origins. He was actually proud of his aristocratic lineage (War and Peace is a hymn to the Russian nobility), and remained so even after he had relinquished his title as “Count” and started dressing like a peasant.
Tolstoy set an impossibly high benchmark for modern writers hoping to make a social and cultural impact. For a start, he had achieved renown well before he embarked on his mission to end violence, and his wealthy aristocratic background had provided him with ample leisure time to write the voluminous novels that made him famous—so when he did start proselytizing, he immediately got attention, but it took courage to stand up against a brutal and corrupt regime. And while he was full of contradictions and certainly not devoid of flaws, he did not stop speaking out against injustice for the last 30 years of his life. He had extraordinary stamina, charisma, and, of course, intelligence, all of which helped spread his message far and wide. Above all, his supreme creative talent ensured that his message was expressed in both a compelling and readable way.
SC: Part of what made Tolstoy’s life so revolutionary was how he broke away from the Russian literary establishment: you note in chapter 6 of your biography that his moral impulses “ran counter to the pursuit of an artistic career.” Could you elaborate on this? What was the Russian literary scene like in the 1850s and1860s, and how did Tolstoy distinguish himself from his contemporaries?
RB: One might say that Russian literature was driven by an imperative moral right from the time when Christianization created, in 988, the need for an alphabet and a literary language, so that the Gospels could be translated into the vernacular. A moral imperative was definitely present from the late 18th century when Catherine the Great imposed censorship on Russia’s emerging secular writers. Nevertheless, moral impulses inevitably remained secondary to artistic ones for most 19th-century writers, with the possible exception of Nikolay Gogol, whose mission to redeem humanity by means of his literary gifts was a spectacular failure. Tolstoy was different in that he was prepared to give up his career as a professional writer in order to live with his conscience. And his difference from other writers revealed itself from the moment he first met his contemporaries in St. Petersburg in 1855, having arrived straight from the Crimean War. Before that, he had been in the Caucasus, where he had launched his literary career. He soon came to blows with his fellow writers, who found him prickly. The progressive literary establishment was politically engaged and committed to reform. That was fine, but many Russian writers of the time came from undistinguished backgrounds, and Count Tolstoy, who had an automatic entrée into society, was still a bit of a snob. Turgenev was distinguished, but for Tolstoy, he was too much of an “artist,” and just not serious enough about being a writer.
The decade between the late 1850s and the late 1860s was a time of great cultural and social ferment, which was brought about by Alexander II’s “Great Reforms” and accompanied by a relaxation in censorship. The era of the great Russian realist novel was propelled by writers who reveled in being able to explore contemporary themes, such as Turgenev, whose masterpiece Fathers and Sons (1862) was answered, a year later, by Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s incendiary but turgid What is to be Done? In Notes from Underground (1864), Fyodor Dostoevsky, in turn, launched an assault on the Western political and philosophical ideas he believed were contaminating Russian youth, the theme he continued in Crime and Punishment (1866).
Tolstoy did not want to engage with contemporary politics in his fiction, nor did he want to be part of any literary faction. In 1856 he had resigned his army commission and returned to his country home at Yasnaya Polyana. He shared his fellow writers’ preoccupation with Russia and their strong moral impulse, but was highly unusual in choosing to deal with an earlier historical period in his fiction during such a turbulent time. The writing of War and Peace was in itself a rebellion, and it was sandwiched between two intensive periods when Tolstoy was involved with peasant education, first as a teacher and founder of schools, and secondly as the author of a comprehensive ABC book and reading primer. While he was carried along by the extraordinary torrent of creative inspiration—which produced War and Peace in the 1860s—Tolstoy’s conscience was appeased, but his moral impulses became more difficult to ignore in the 1870s when he finally did write a novel about contemporary Russian life. Through Levin in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy charts his own painful struggle with his conscience.
SC: Anna Karenina was published serially, appearing in The Russian Messenger in installments between 1875 and 1877. How did the serial format impact Karenina’s reception among the Messenger’s readership? Had Tolstoy been forced to release the novel in a single installment, do you believe he would have been able to finish it?
RB: Even though Tolstoy was far too high-minded to pander to the expectations of his publishers and, indeed, his readers,—unlike writers such as Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, who had no such qualms—by publishing installments which ended in cliffhangers, the editor of Russian Messenger could be confident of a high readership for any issue of his journal containing anything new by Tolstoy, Russia’s undisputed leading writer. What really whetted public demand for Anna Karenina, however, were the unplanned long gaps between some of the installments. Parts 1 and 2, and the first 12 chapters of Part 3, were published in the first four issues in 1875, after which there was an unexplained eight-month hiatus. Tolstoy was already succumbing to the doubts about his calling, which would later overwhelm him, and he found it hard to continue with his novel. His readers, however, wanted to know what happened next to Anna and Vronsky, and further gaps between installments, together with the rumors about Tolstoy being embroiled in a fracas with his editor, only intensified interest in the novel. Then when the journal’s patriotic editor refused to publish the stridently anti-militarist final part of Anna Karenina (which Tolstoy submitted just as Russia declared war on Turkey), a scandal ensued, which naturally only increased the novel’s popularity with the public. St. Petersburg’s leading bookshop sold an unprecedented 500 copies on the day Anna Karenina first became available as a complete novel in early 1878. (When published as a complete work, the novel was structured slightly differently than during serialization).
It is quite probable Tolstoy would never have finished Anna Karenina if he had been compelled to publish it as a separate novel from the beginning, but he had needed money back in 1875. So he had signed a lucrative contract and was under obligation. He certainly complained bitterly about how difficult it was for him to complete Anna Karenina and was in a quite different place, both creatively and intellectually, when he finally did. There is a kind of meta-narrative to Anna Karenina, which is the story of the author’s impending spiritual crisis that would ultimately lead him to view the writing of novels for the spoilt educated elite as a profoundly immoral activity.
SC: Tolstoy criticized and clashed with the Russian Orthodox Church, yet the author of A Confession and Other Religious Writings and What I Believe was a deeply spiritual man who considered himself a devout Christian. What caused the schism between Tolstoy and the Church? Were his beliefs truly at odds with “traditional” Christianity?
RB: Tolstoy wanted a practical Christianity, whose precepts he could follow in his day-to-day life. In his view, the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church did not stand up to rational scrutiny, and were also fundamentally un-Christian. The Church in imperial Russia was under the jurisdiction of the state, and supported it when the nation went to war, so it could not be looked to as a moral authority in Tolstoy’s view. Jettisoning what he regarded as all the mumbo-jumbo of Christianity (basically, everything metaphysical—miracles, the resurrection, the Holy Trinity, and so on), and concentrating on what Jesus actually says in the Gospels, in particular in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy extracted a simple ethical formula—in which the central plank was non-resistance to violence—that could be applied to everyday life. By living a Christian life of loving one’s neighbor and dispensing with one’s worldly goods, he wanted literally to practice what Jesus preached, but his refusal to acknowledge any higher authority inevitably created conflict with the very conservative institution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tolstoy was a kind of one-man Russian Reformation, but even more extreme than Martin Luther, although his rejection of icons, incense, and elaborate ritual in favor of “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” as he called his most important tract, has certain things in common with Protestantism.
SC: One of the more prominent aspects of Tolstoy’s later life was his disastrous marriage to Sonya Behrs. How did Sonya, who helped Tolstoy compile some of his earlier works, influence his writing? Do you believe that her role in Tolstoy’s life has been fairly depicted by historians?
RB: While ultimately Tolstoy’s 48-year marriage to Sofya (Sonya) Behrs disintegrated largely due to the stress caused by her understandable resentment at being usurped by her husband’s chief disciple Vladimir Chertkov, they enjoyed at least 10 years of domestic harmony. The discord began in the 1870s, rather earlier than most people surmise, but it was the sustained happiness and stability of Tolstoy’s marriage to Sonya that enabled him to write the great masterpiece that is War and Peace. So Sonya made a huge contribution. She famously made fair copies of his manuscripts too, sitting up into the night after managing a busy household during the day. Sonya certainly did not have it easy. Married in her late teens to a mercurial, brilliant, and eccentric man twice her age, whom she regarded as a father figure, she meekly complied with his wishes by raising a large number of offspring and supporting him in all his endeavors. While he was Count Tolstoy and Russia’s most famous writer, Sonya was happy to be his consort. But she began to object to her cloistered life in the countryside when, 20 years into their marriage, he rejected the life of their class by abandoning his title and any claim to personal property in favor of practicing his uncompromising, ethics-based Christianity. The problems began when his ascetic ideas attracted an imperious and single-minded disciple who objected to Sonya’s stubborn attempts to preserve the family’s bourgeois lifestyle. This was Vladimir Chertkov, who indeed rode roughshod over her feelings and blackened her reputation after Tolstoy’s death. Misogyny has a lot to do with how her name continued to be unfairly vilified, even in the Soviet period. However, much more sympathetic accounts of her marriage to Tolstoy began to appear in the West from 1960 onwards, and new editions of her diaries and, more recently, her voluminous autobiography (she naturally wanted to set the record straight and defend herself) have done much to paint her in a different light. The first Russian biography of Sonya Tolstoy—written by a woman—was also published in 2010.
SC: In your studies of Tolstoy, what are some common misconceptions you’ve encountered about his life and works? Why do you suppose these sprang up?
RB: First of all, a lot of Tolstoy’s contemporaries expected the “giant of Russian literature,” this titanic figure of super-human energy, to be tall; they were quite surprised to find he was relatively short. A lot of skeptical people also suspected he was a fraud and were surprised at how moving the encounter was when they went to visit him, for Tolstoy was a man of deep personal charisma. Other people accused him of hypocrisy for continuing to live at his ancestral estate while preaching ascetic values, yet he was the first to acknowledge his flaws. In the West, after his death, people increasingly wanted to divide his life into two halves—one half when he was a writer, and the other when he was a crank. However, there is no real division, as there is a natural progression and evolution in Tolstoy’s thinking as both “artist” and “preacher” from when he was a young man. It is better to see Tolstoy’s life as an organic whole. With regard to Tolstoy’s novels, there was a frequent misconception early on in the West about their structure. Far from being the “loose baggy monsters” they were once described as, Tolstoy’s novels have a complex and elegant architecture, which one can only marvel at. Why did a misconception like this spring up? Principally because Tolstoy, like all Russian authors, refused to adhere to Western European convention where genre was concerned. He was doing something new, and in art, new forms of creativity are often poorly understood.
SC: Even after completing your biographies of both Tolstoy and Chekhov, you continue to translate their works, just as you did beforehand. Having dissected and examined the lives of both writers, do you find it easier to translate and understand their works? How has your role as a translator changed since writing the biographies, if at all?
RB: I definitely found it easier to translate Tolstoy and Chekhov after writing their biographies, as I became much more alert to nuances which might otherwise have passed me by, but I would also say that I found it easier to write their biographies having already engaged intimately with their works as a translator. I translated half of Anna Karenina before I sat down to write Tolstoy’s biography and then found my attitude towards his language and his style was quite different when I came to complete the rest of my first draft, precisely because I understood Tolstoy’s character and motivations better. I had greater sympathy with his unwieldy and sometimes very long sentences, realizing they too were part of his unending rebellion against convention.
SC: Reviewing Tolstoy’s long legacy both as a writer and humanitarian, which of his achievements stands out to you as the most notable or important? Which of his novels or stories would you count as your favorite?
RB: Although Tolstoy was, if anything, better known at the end of his life as a religious thinker and social activist, it is his literary output that has stood the test of time. Today we think of War and Peace and Anna Karenina before we think of the hundreds of tracts denouncing religious persecution and military conscription, or promoting a back-to-basics life of manual labor lived off the land. Tolstoy’s ideas about non-violence were extremely influential on Mahatma Gandhi and countless others who became pacifists in the 20th century, but his anarchic form of Christianity was of its day and ultimately utopian. As an artist, he was without peer. His novels are timeless and universal. Having translated Anna Karenina, I am in awe of its carefully concealed artistry, but its vision is bleak. War and Peace, by contrast, is a novel, perhaps the only novel, which one can read every year and which every year will yield something new, the very process of reading it taking us directly to the wellsprings of life.
SC: How are Tolstoy’s philosophies, beliefs, and writings applicable to the modern world? In short, what makes him worth studying today?
RB: Tolstoy remains one of the greatest artists mankind has ever produced, the author of novels whose enduring appeal transcends nations as well as generations. From the time he made his literary debut in 1852 when he presented fiction from an innovative child’s point of view, he had an unerring gift for bringing characters vividly to life, even equine ones (Turgenev was convinced Tolstoy must have at some point been a horse). His genius was to hone in on the shifting states of human consciousness with just the right amount of precise detail, so that it feels as if life itself is unfolding before us on the pages of his novels. At the same time, his epic sweep takes us effortlessly from the private arena of country houses and society salons to the public one of battlefields and his nation’s history. Russian to his core, Tolstoy never went for half-measures in anything he did. Simply writing a Russian counterpart to the European novel of adultery was not enough. For example, in Anna Karenina he outclassed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary with ease, expanding its scope to encompass contemporary social and political problems, and creating with disarming simplicity a range of characters who seem to have the freedom to live their own lives, independent of their creator.
But there was a moral imperative present even in his early fiction, which ultimately caused him to reject the idea of writing for people from his own spoiled class. During the latter part of his life, Tolstoy became the conscience of the nation. For the last 30 years of his long life, beginning with his family’s move to Moscow in 1881, it was the poor and homeless, rather than fictional characters, who were at the forefront of his mind. He had for decades already worked to improve the lives of the impoverished peasants on his ancestral estate at Yasnaya Polyana, first by freeing them before they were officially emancipated in 1861, and then by setting up schools in which he himself taught. He also put his heart into compiling an ABC and reading primer for the millions of illiterate Russian children, aware of the crucial importance of education. Tolstoy never ceased to be shocked by the Russian government’s lack of concern for the welfare of its subjects, and spoke out nationally for the first time in 1873 when he saw famine looming in Samara province. He wore peasant clothes, and, like his alter ego Levin in Anna Karenina, took his scythe to work in the fields each summer. But as a man who had lived most of his life in the countryside, nothing could have prepared him for the squalor of Moscow’s doss houses and slums. He was deeply ashamed to return from meetings with the city’s urban poor to his comfortable home, where his wife liked dinner to be served by white-gloved staff. Recognizing that throwing money at the problem was not the answer (since money was itself an evil), and rejecting also institutional initiatives (since he believed governments were by their nature corrupt), he exhorted his fellow Russians to change themselves, practice what they preached as Christians, and start treating the poor with brotherly love.
In the last three decades of his life, Tolstoy did little else but speak out against injustice and poverty, and the issues he raised back then are still highly relevant to today’s society. In so many areas, Tolstoy was ahead of his time. Eating meat involved causing violence to animals, so he described his visit to an abattoir and advocated vegetarianism. He appealed for the abolition of private property as the first step to ending poverty and called for each person to earn his or her bread by working on the land. He actively supported kindred spirits amongst persecuted religious minorities, exerted a powerful influence abroad on the pacifist movement, and in 1891 boldly took on the role of national leadership during the dreadful famine that affected millions of peasants in central Russia, thereby putting an indifferent government to shame. Because of his fame, his authority was unassailable—no one could stop him, not even the Tsar. In fact, Tolstoy was a far more revered figure than the Tsar, particularly after he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901.
Time has shown that so many of Tolstoy’s ideas—pacifism, vegetarianism, and living a simple life off the land—were ahead of their time, and not nearly as eccentric as have previously been portrayed. With the emergence of international movements like Occupy, which are also committed to a non-violent fight against social and economic injustice, it would seem that these days Tolstoy’s ideas have come of age and are as relevant now as at any time.