Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hooked on Books - Tolstoy

Tolstoy - A Russian Life

By Rosamund Bartlett

Book Review

By Richard E. Noble

What this book has taught me is how little I really knew about Leo Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

Like everyone, I was aware that Leo Tolstoy was a great Russian novelist, the creator of the monumental “War and Peace.”

“War and Peace” is that giant classic that we have all promised to read one day but just haven’t got to yet.

I did read “Anna Karenina” ages ago when I was a freshman in junior college. It was a struggle.

Leo was born of the Russian nobility at Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula Province in Russia. Yasnaya Polyana is not a town but the name of the family estate.

I suppose that it would not be unfair to compare Yasnaya Polyana to a Southern Plantation. It was a couple of thousand acres and loaded with slaves.

Leo begins his writing career by keeping a diary. How he got interested in writing, the author doesn’t say.

He publishes a book about his childhood entitled “Childhood” In 1852. Then writes his first war memoir “Sebastopol in December.” It was a big success.

As a young, rich man his life parodies the life of many young, rich men worldwide. He drinks, gambles and indulges himself sexually.

He is a bad gambler and drinker and keeps going into debt and selling off portions of his estate to pay his debts and finance more gambling.

He can’t get enough sex. He visits brothels regularly; he has numerous affairs and is even guilty of seducing some of his slave girls.

He is clearly a wild and crazy guy. He’s a party animal and a gambling fool.

In the midst of all this he serves in the Russian Army, participates actively in battles and continues to write.

He publishes a series about his war experiences. Kind of a “letters from the front” type thing which is extremely popular. His reputation as a writer grows and grows.

In the meantime Leo is going through all types of intellectual transformations. The Tzar, Alexander II, decided to free the serfs in 1861. From then on he was a constant target for assassinations. He was assassinated in 1881 by a left wing radical group called the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya) who wanted liberal democratic reform. Unfortunately they killed the man who was about to initiate just such reforms.
Alexander II was followed by his son Alexander III who immediately abandoned his father’s plans and intentions.

Leo has an epiphany.

He is totally in favor of the freeing of the serfs and has all sorts of plans for their improvement and education.

I found it very interesting that shortly after the Tzar freed the slaves, Leo went rushing back to the plantation with a contract for all his slaves to sign. The author doesn’t elaborate on that contract other than to tell the reader that Leo felt it was positive to his serfs’ future well being and a good thing.

Nevertheless not one of his slaves was willing to take him up on his contract. Leo was devastated. He felt himself to be a benevolent slave owner. He thought all his slaves loved and trusted him.

I would be interested in seeing a copy of that contract.

What comes to my mind is the reconstruction period in this country after the Civil War. The plantation owners here in the U.S. also offered their freed slaves contracts. These contracts basically re-enslaved the poor beggars. Eventually an amendment had to be added to the Constitution, number XIV, outlawing these laws and contracts.

Our southern Plantation owners were more or less unscrupulous and criminal minded. Mr. Tolstoy was obviously not of that type, as his later life went on to prove. Yet I would still be interested in seeing what this idealist, young, Russian nobleman thought to be a good deal for his serfs.

He managed to get his drinking and gambling under control and then bumped into Sofya (Sonya) Bers. She is much younger than him. And it is a good thing. By age 34 he should have had some of that sexual passion subdued. Nevertheless, he got little Sonya pregnant 16 times during their long marriage. He nearly killed her two or three times. Nine of the children lived and six of them died, several at childbirth.

Sonya almost died giving birth to her fifth child and then decided to have a little talk with Leo about all of this.

Leo may have been liberal minded on many issues but woman’s rights was not one of those issues. Though he evolved into a Russian spiritual leader, he was no Mahatma Gandhi when it came to women’s rights and male sexual restraint. Women were designed to indulge the sexual appetites of men and bear children. Their duty was to manage the household and care for their children.

This book could have been titled “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Sonya Bers.” The author makes Sonya’s case well. Sonya is a sensible, sensitive, loving, loyal wife and helpmate. She bears the children, tends the garden, and manages the serfs and the ranch. She keeps the books, transcribes Leo scribbling all while in the throes of endless pregnancies. She is a practical, organized woman who is aware that she has married an eccentric, totally insane genius.

Tolstoy wants to teach all the peasants in Russia to read. He gets seriously interested in the art of education. He opens his own school. He writes a series of textbooks for children. Sonya is sick over it. These books are not making a ruble.

She wants more novels and stories. The stuff that sells.

Tolstoy starts reading the Bible and researching the life of Jesus Christ. He becomes outraged at the Russian Orthodox Church. And he goes right to the head honchos and tells them all about it. They sprinkle holy water on the madman and tell him to go home and repent.

Tolstoy becomes a peasant in mind and spirit. Like Gandhi in India, he takes on the garb of the peasant. He walks everywhere. He is disgusted with wealth and the wealthy. He tries to give away everything he owns, even the rights to his written works. He lives the lifestyle of a peasant … but remains at his plantation.
Sonya is beside herself. She resists his lunacy and somehow manages a compromise. Leo can dress, act, and hang out with the peasants but she handles the finances. This is not entirely the case, but somehow Sonya manages to keep some of the finances together and maintain inheritances for all her children.

Leo has come to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was not God and that there is no promised hereafter. Jesus was a good man and a social reformer but not divine. He rewrites all the gospels of the Bible and begins preaching his word to all the peasants.

He is in big trouble now. The Tzar and the Russian Church are both on top of him. They have him followed everywhere. They ransack his property every time he goes for a walk or a visit to a new peasant village.

But the authorities are afraid to do anything to him. They arrest his friends, associates and harass his followers instead.

Tolstoy literally starts a new faith or religion. His followers are called Tolstoyans. They are back-to-the-lander peaceniks and conscientious objectors. They form communes.

As far as the State and the Church is concerned this guy, like Jesus centuries before him, has turned into a big social problem.

Under the Tzars, Tolstoy managers to keep his head attached and he fumbles along. He writes nasty letters to the Tzar and to the heads of the Orthodox Church. One wonders who this man thinks he is.

Then comes the Bolsheviks.

Lucky for Leo, he’s dead. He died in 1910. But his wife, his family, his works and his followers are still there big time.

One might be inclined to think that a man who loved the peasants and the workingman would be just what the Bolsheviks ordered.

Not so.

Though Leo was a thorn in the side of the Church while he was alive, he was still a Jesus freak. The Bolsheviks under the leadership of both Lenin and Stalin wanted nothing to do with Jesus freaks.

Jesus, whether one believed he was God or not, was an advocate of peace and love.
Being an advocate of love was not all that stultifying to Bolshevik indoctrination, but that peace business did present an obstacle.

Even advocating peace wasn’t all that bad. It was that hell-no-we-won’t-go business that they found troubling.

The new revolutionary government considered Tolstoy a traitor to his homeland and some of his works seditious and undermining of the public good.
They could only tolerate Tolstoy with provisions. All his writings would have to be reviewed and reclassified.

But the Russian people loved their man Tolstoy. They wanted him remembered and revered.

The last section of the book deals with the family, friends and admirers and their attempts to overcome the State’s objections and build a fitting monument and literary archive to Russia’s greatest novelist and spiritual hero.

As I said in the beginning of this review, I knew nothing about most of this man’s work and life. His role as a spiritual leader and founder of a religion was not on my radar screen. And it seems I am not alone. The Russian Bolshevik government stamped out his religion and his followers and censored all of his writing on the subject.

They Bolshevized all his works and reconstructed his philosophy and his image. I get the impression that the Russian people are today somewhat in the dark about all of this just as I have been.

Today his legacy is being reconstructed by an international group with an emphasis on what the man actually said and who he thought himself to be.

My interest in Tolstoy has been reinvigorated. I’ve got a lot of reading to do.

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