A Genius on the Wrong Side of History: Tolstoy’s Conflicts and Contradictions

By Maria RubinsApril 14, 2022

A Genius on the Wrong Side of History: Tolstoy’s Conflicts and Contradictions

Leo Tolstoy by Andrei Zorin
Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov by Vadim Shneyder

IT IS DAUNTING to write a biography of Tolstoy. Hundreds or even thousands of books have already put each detail of his life and work under a microscope, and the archives contain no more hidden treasures. Yet, new interpretations of Tolstoy’s life continue to pour in, with more expected in the run-up to the writer’s 200th birthday in 2028. One of the most immediately obvious advantages of Andrei Zorin’s Leo Tolstoy is its brevity. And I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment. While other biographies tend to compete with the author’s greatest novels in length, this medium-format book of roughly 200 pages will be welcomed by those who want to learn more about the legendary Russian writer without a major time commitment.

Zorin’s book achieves the ultimate expectation set by the biography genre — he creates a consistent representation of Tolstoy’s integral personality. To begin with, he does not revisit the familiar dichotomy of Tolstoy the artist versus Tolstoy the thinker. According to this narrative, the writer turned to excessive moralizing after completing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, gradually suffocating his artistic genius. In the colorful words of Tatyana Tolstaya, the writer’s distant descendent and a popular author in her own right, once he turned to preaching the “quill fell out of his hand.” Tolstoy himself was very much aware of this inner conflict and in later life “resolved” it by condemning much of European art and literature, his own fiction included. Whereas many scholars have been all too eager to assimilate this binary paradigm, Zorin writes his biography against that trend. He presents Tolstoy as a sum total of all of his various activities — fiction, nonfiction, correspondence, oral teachings, religious writings, direct action, and even family squabbles — seamlessly integrated into the text of his life. While Tolstoy’s path seems full of unexpected shifts from one extreme to the other (from a dissolute lifestyle to near-chastity, from hunting to vegetarianism, from fiction to preaching, from luxury to asceticism), Zorin’s book shows that every juncture was just another manifestation of the inner logic of his existence. In this light, the spiritual crisis of 1878, when Tolstoy appeared to have rejected nearly all of his former values, was nothing sudden: this “conversion” became a culmination of a lifelong quest for the meaning of life and death, deep self-reflection and religious skepticism.

Preoccupation with sexuality and death are conventional topics of Tolstoy biographies, and the present one fits broadly within this narrative while introducing some nuances. Zorin shows the writer as a sexual predator who hated himself for his own carnality and was at pains to eradicate it. He introduces the theme of Tolstoy’s infatuation with men through lines from the writer’s diary and recalls that, at the very end of his life, his spurned wife Sofia, infamously accused her old husband of having a homoerotic relationship with Chertkov, his closest disciple. As for the theme of death, Zorin shifts the accent from the horror of death to Tolstoy’s awe and fascination with it. While he came in close contact with the death of his relatives and children, which drained him emotionally, Tolstoy saw his own eventual passing as a transcending moment of ultimate revelation and stated his wish to remain conscious while dying, despite possible physical discomfort. This wish was not to be granted. Indeed, the uniqueness and solemnity of the moment was undermined by a scandalous lack of decorum. On October 31, 1910, the writer ran away from home with a small group of companions, but got sick during a train ride and could not continue his barely planned journey. The party disembarked at the small station of Astapovo, where he soon passed away in the stationmaster’s house. The last hours of his earthly existence resembled a tragic farce. The news of his flight and subsequent illness immediately spread not only all over Russia but also reached the most remote corners of the world, from Japan to the Americas. Scores of journalists, photographers, admirers, and random gawkers flocked to Astapovo. Information about Tolstoy’s condition was reported in newspapers all over the world, almost in real time. A victim of his own fame, he was denied privacy when he needed it most.

Worse still, Tolstoy was under the complete control of his inner circle. They deprived him of possibly the most important comfort when faced with the final departure — whispered words of love and forgiveness with his estranged wife. Sofia, who rushed to his bedside, was not admitted into his room until he fell into a coma. A chance for a final reconciliation was missed. She was photographed by shameless paparazzi peeping through the window into a room where her husband of 48 years was dying.

Tolstoy’s canonical status prevented scholars (particularly Soviet and émigré) from being too explicit about his private life. But, in some Western biographies the drama of his marriage has been described in minute detail. Showing the man who preached universal love as a tyrant in his household, biographers dwelt upon his misogynistic attitude to women, his insistence on natural birth and breastfeeding and on his refusal to authorize anaesthesia for his suffering wife who bore him 13 children. Some became Sofia’s advocates, whereas others pointed to the fact that later in life she no longer preserved the angelic likeness she appeared to have at her wedding at the age of 18. Indeed, Sofia became more intolerant and controlling with time. The image of the great writer’s “ideal wife” was to a large extent her own creation, generously sponsored by the Soviet Tolstoy industry. In reality, both partners of this dysfunctional couple were weak and pathetic, both were cruel and suicidal at times, and both deserve pity. It is hard to take sides, and Zorin does not seem to do so. This image of Tolstoy as a failing husband and paterfamilias is perhaps the strongest impression of this book. The Russian giant emerges as all too human.

Describing the unwanted limelight on Tolstoy’s death, Zorin points out another apparent paradox of the writer’s life: “Trying to evade the advance of modernity, he had contributed to its triumph by creating one of the first global media events.” Tolstoy’s uncompromising opposition to modernity is, arguably, one of the most intriguing elements of his legacy. It becomes the main focus of the chapter on Anna Karenina in Vadim Shneyder’s recent book, Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. Shneyder presents his argument in the context of the novel’s structure, built on the contrast between Anna’s and Vronsky’s plot line that depicts the characters’ decline and ultimate tragedy, and Levin’s and Kitty’s story of gradual ascent to happiness, culminating in Levin’s epiphany. Shneyder reads this double plot as a reflection of two alternative paths for Russia’s socioeconomic development as imagined by Tolstoy: Anna’s plot envisions the industrial future while Levin’s pictures a reconstruction of the pre-capitalist agricultural economy. Since Levin is the author’s mouthpiece, Tolstoy makes very clear what kind of future he preferred for the country.

The most interesting part of Shneyder’s argument is his alignment of the two plots with two different genres and consequently different time models, rhythms, and forms of labor. Anna, defined as “the novel’s ultimate consumer” of such modern amenities as trains, telegrams, and all the luxury she enjoys on Vronsky’s mechanized estate, is linked to the Gothic genre. Her periodic nightmares of a barely human peasant “laboring in iron” while muttering French words is, in Shneyder’s view, “a figuration of industrial Gothic”: “The muzhichok speaks French because he […] is a fragment of that artificial Western civilization whose incursion into Russia has torn peasant laborers from their communities and turned them into unnatural railway and factory workers.” The train — the icon of modernity — disfigures the Russian countryside and produces a new perception of time, accelerated and linear. The rhythm of the train relentlessly propels Anna to her doom.

In contrast, Levin’s plot is closer to the genre of idyll, predicated on cyclical, relativistic time. His traditional estate, located at a safe distance from railroads, exemplifies a self-sufficient agricultural community engaged in collective labor on the land in perfect sync with the seasons and the natural rhythm of the human body. In the mowing scene when Levin joins his peasants in the field, Tolstoy creates an idealized portrayal of the traditional, pre-reform relationship of master and serfs conceived as a household unit. By the time he was writing Anna Karenina, serfdom had already been abolished, but emancipation was conducted in a lopsided way. Newly liberated peasants for the most part did not receive any land and were forced to seek employment as low-skilled industrial workers, leading to their displacement, impoverishment, and moral degradation. Through Levin, Tolstoy presents “the views of protectionist economists of the time, who argued that the geographical and cultural conditions of Russia favor an agricultural economy rather than European-style industrialization.”

While explaining Anna’s tragic destiny by presenting her as “the primary beneficiary of Westernized industrial labor” and thus indirectly holding her responsible for driving “this infernal economy” seems somewhat far-fetched, Shneyder’s examination of the Levin plot provides a fascinating insight into Tolstoy’s position on the hotly debated questions of the time. The idyll he creates in Anna Karenina suspends class tensions, temporarily halting the anticipated “harmful, confusing, and terrifying world of industrial modernity.”

Does the fact that Tolstoy’s attempts to arrest the future were futile mean that here, too, he failed? Shortly after his death, the horrors of capitalism were supplanted by the horrors of communism. The Stalinist version of industrialization, forced collectivisation, and depreciation of the value of human life left his dream of an agricultural idyll far behind. Lenin co-opted Tolstoy in his article “Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution,” even if he begins his propagandistic piece with a statement that Tolstoy “did not understand the revolution and backed away from it.” Posthumously Tolstoy was put in an airtight pantheon of Russian classics and fared well throughout the entire Soviet period. It is hard to resist speculating about how long Tolstoy would have survived under the Bolsheviks, had he lived that long. With his stubborn and vocal resistance to any government reform he considered wrong for the country, a flurry of critical letters to high-ranking government officials and even two czars (with disarming familiarity he began a letter to Nicolas II with “Dear Brother…”), and a million-strong fan club, the count would have likely earned the title of “enemy of the people” quite soon. Neither is Tolstoy entirely on safe ground in our day and age. As both an intransigent adversary of women’s emancipation and a rich landowner who, in Zorin’s words, gave “an unashamedly nostalgic description of the serf economy,” Tolstoy is a figure at risk of being “cancelled” — if the proponents of the new ideology care to read his novels.

So, what can 21st-century readers take away from the life story of this writer and thinker who quite consciously positioned himself “on the wrong side of history”? Tolstoy provided one of the greatest examples of non-conformism, courage to go against the grain, and the ability to see through any self-serving political rhetoric. His fight was against the technologies and industries that transformed men’s immediate environment. Today, we are faced with ever-modernizing gadgets that try to shape our tastes, our needs, and our views, social sites that offer surrogate “friends,” and cutting-edge technology that threatens to invade our body, brain, and memory. And the want of privacy in our transparent world is far greater than in 1910, when cameras zoomed in on Tolstoy’s deathbed. Should we passively embrace what we cannot prevent? It is clear what Tolstoy would have said.


Maria Rubins is a translator and professor of Russian and comparative literature at University College London. Her books include Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures and Russian Montparnasse.

LARB Contributor

Maria Rubins is a translator and professor of Russian and comparative literature at University College London. Her books include Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures and Russian Montparnasse.


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