For Tolstoy and Russia, Still No Happy Ending
by Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky
The church accused Leo Tolstoy of helping speed the rise of the Bolsheviks
||| Back to the Royal Russia News Archive |||
||| The Romanovs ||| The Reign of Nicholas II ||| Royal Russia Videos ||| Romanov & Imperial Russia Links |||
||| Our Bookshop: Books on the Romanovs & Imperial Russia ||| Gilbert's Books - Publisher of Books on the Romanovs |||
||| What's New @ Royal Russia - Updated Monthly |||
||| Return to Royal Russia - Directory ||| Return to Royal Russia - Main Page |||
MOSCOW — A couple of months ago one of Russia’s elder statesmen set out on a paradoxical mission: to rehabilitate one of the most beloved figures in Russian history, Tolstoy.
This would have seemed unnecessary in 2010, a century after the author’s death. But last year Russians wrestled over Tolstoy much as they did when he was alive. Intellectuals accused the Russian Orthodox Church of blacklisting a national hero. The church accused Tolstoy of helping speed the rise of the Bolsheviks. The melodrama of his last days, when he fled his family estate to take up the life of an ascetic, was revived in all its pulpy detail, like some kind of early-stage reality television.
And in a country that rarely passes up a public celebration, the anniversary of his death, on Nov. 20, 1910, was not commemorated by noisy galas or government-financed cinematic blockbusters. Officially speaking, it was barely noted at all.
With this in mind Sergei V. Stepashin, a former prime minister here, sat down to write to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become an arbiter of politics and culture. In painstakingly diplomatic language, acknowledging “the particular sensitivity” of “this delicate theme,” Mr. Stepashin asked forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, who was excommunicated 110 years ago.
The impulse had swelled up during a lonely visit to an unmarked mound of earth where Tolstoy is buried. Mr. Stepashin described the visit — made while he was director of the Federal Security Service, successor to the K.G.B. — as an emotional experience that he has never been able to shake off.
“You look at the house where he lived and worked, where he created his works, and then you come to a place where there is nothing but this small hill,” said Mr. Stepashin, who has close ties to the church. “It was puzzling, on a human and a moral plane. And then I decided to write this letter.”
Ambivalence toward Tolstoy is new in Russia.
The Soviets planted him at the top of their literary pantheon, largely because of the radical philosophy he preached amid the early rumblings of the October Revolution. The publication of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” made Tolstoy so famous that one contemporary described him as Russia’s second czar. He used that position to rail against the church, as well as the police, the army, meat eating, private property and all forms of violence.
Lenin loved Tolstoy’s “pent-up hatred.” He anointed him “the mirror of the Russian Revolution,” ignoring his pacifism and belief in God. As the 50th anniversary of his death approached, the Central Committee of the Communist Party began preparing two years in advance, so a monument would be ready for unveiling.
For the centennial, in a Russia wary of utopian thought, there was nothing of the kind. By contrast, Chekhov received lavish official tributes in 2010 for his 150th birthday, including a birthplace visit from President Dmitri A. Medvedev.
Though a star-studded Tolstoy biopic, “The Last Station,” opened in Moscow just ahead of the anniversary, it was filmed in Germany and directed by an American. The Russian filmmaker Andrei S. Konchalovsky, a producer of the film, said he petitioned “every ministry” in the Russian government for support. In the end, he said, he was forced to invest his own money.
“I represent Russia,” he said, with a wry smile, while promoting the film.
None of this came as a surprise to Vladimir I. Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, who oversees the museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the author’s estate. Mr. Tolstoy, 48, has the slender, avid look of a professional intellectual, but his last name has called on him to wade into politics. He worked on one of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s presidential campaigns and does favors for area officials when they need “the authority or prestige of Tolstoy,” as he put it.
Ten years ago he asked the church to revisit the 1901 ruling that excommunicated his great-great-grandfather. He received no answer. Though his efforts have not ended — a visitor to Yasnaya Polyana recalled a banquet table laid out in the orchard for the local bishop — Mr. Tolstoy said he was not hopeful.
Aside from a reception held by the minister of culture, the anniversary transpired with “a conscious ignoring of Tolstoy,” he said.
“Any power tries to adapt great people to its needs,” he added. “The current authorities don’t adapt him, or they are not clever enough. Maybe they are so self-confident they don’t think they need to.”
It was a relief when Mr. Stepashin joined the effort. The men met about 15 years ago, when Mr. Stepashin, then director of the Federal Security Service, presented Mr. Tolstoy with sheaves of family letters pulled out of Soviet intelligence files. Mr. Stepashin, who recalls staying up two nights as a 10-year-old so that he could finish Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection,” shared the sense that the writer was getting short shrift.
“I understood that there would not likely be a decision to return him to the church,” said Mr. Stepashin, now president of the Russian Book Union. “But as for the attitude to him as a person, as a person who did a lot for Russian culture and for the Russian language, I just counted on that, on a change of attitude toward him.”
The church’s letter of response, published in a state-run newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, suggested not. It acknowledged Tolstoy’s “unforgettable, beautiful works,” and said Russian Orthodox readers were allowed to say solitary prayers for him on the anniversary of his death.
But its tone was mournful, calling Tolstoy the most “tragic personality” in the history of Russian literature. It said that Tolstoy “purposely used his great talent to destroy Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order” and that it was “no accident that the leader of the Bolsheviks extremely valued the aim of Leo Tolstoy’s activity.” So there could be no candles burned for Tolstoy inside Orthodox churches and no commemorations read, according to the letter, signed by the cultural council secretary to Patriarch Kirill I, the church’s leader.
Mr. Stepashin said he expected this response and was glad the letter included some praise.
But intellectuals did not hide their astonishment.
“It’s as if in the 20th century the church did not survive persecution that made Tolstoy’s criticisms look like childish prattle,” wrote the literary critic Pavel V. Basinsky, whose new book examines Tolstoy’s final days. “It’s as if we have found ourselves in the situation that we were in at the beginning of the last century.”
And, as in the last century, much of the discussion surrounding the Tolstoy centennial was akin to gossip. Mr. Basinsky’s book is part of a wave of new works that, like the film “The Last Station,” plunge into Tolstoy’s flight from the family estate — the moment when he seemed finally to choose his radical ideas over the aristocratic comforts of home. He died a few days later at a train station, surrounded by throngs of reporters.
At the time of Tolstoy’s death, Russian pundits cast his decision as a spiritual triumph, but the new works retell it as a family tragedy, said William Nickell, author of “The Death of Tolstoy.” From this perspective, Tolstoy’s wife is a sympathetic figure, his followers are manipulative parasites and his ideas are hopelessly utopian.
“It is as if he is lumped now with communism,” Mr. Nickell said. “Good idea in principle, but a disaster in practice.”
Source: The New York Times