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Tolstoy and Russia

By March 6, 2024Commentary

Leo Tolstoy is a widely-recognized, world renowned author, particularly known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but a far more complex figure in Russian history than a mere author, as this excellent biography reveals.  I realize that I haven’t given the authors of various biographies I have written about.  This one was done by Rosamund Bartlett.  I apologize for the omission on others.  Many of these have been sitting on my bookshelf for an extended time, this one was written in 2011 and purchased shortly thereafter.  But I am steaming along now at a good clip on all these backlogged bios.

Tolstoy was undoubtedly an excellent writer who captured the spirit of his times in Russia.  Unlike many notable people from this time, he lived a long life, during the extended transition from Tsarist Russia through some granting of rights and freeing of the serfs to just before the actual revolution.  He was a member of the aristocracy in Russia and therefore owned signficant land and a large number of serfs.  Russia literally had a slave economy, these serfs who were impoverished and literally lived at the mercy of their owners.  Tolstoy from early in his life was horrified by the difference in life conditions and the treatment of the peasants.  Because of his stature as a writer, it was difficult for the government to directly attack him and he became the beloved figurehead for aspirations of a more just Russia.

In his close personal relationships, like many famous people, he was a jackass.  He treated his wife and children poorly in most cases.  He made enemies more easily than friends.  He became a weird kind of religious zealot, the kind only someone who comes from wealth could be, with his own interpretation of Christianity and what that required in life style.  He thought everyone should basically be poor and work the land.  To his credit, he did much to share his wealth with the serfs, to free them and to advance their rights.  Toward the end of his life, the emerging Communist movement took advantage of his positions on changing the government, but he never would have supported either the violent or the authoritarian nature of the Communists.

I have read a couple of books on the history of Russia.  The Tolstoy biography confirms what I had garnered from those readings.  For centuries the Russian people have been saddled with, and been unable to rid themselves of, one authoritarian, kleptocratic government after another.  After a while you start to think that they must like being miserable.  These governments, whether the Tsars, the Communist dictatorships or the current Putin kleptocracy, view the mass of people as worthless, unimportant, nothing but cannon fodder and slaves to satisfy their whims.  Putin is the perfect successor to these trends, as he sacrifices hundreds of thousands of young Russians for his delusional notion of recreating the Russian empire, and drives the best and hardest-working people out of the country.

Aside from the usual fascination with understanding the drivers of people with great accomplishments, the Tolstoy biography is worth the read to help understand the Russian mindset.  Sometime ago I also read a biography of Dostoevsky, another noted Russian author and a contemporary of Tolstoy.  His life also reflected larger strains of Russian culture and ongoing clashes with the Russian government and church, although Dostoevsky reconciled with the Russian Orthodox Church.  But the anecdote I remember best from his life was after being imprisoned for some time, he was literally taken out with other detainees, stood up against a wall and subjected to a mock execution.  Oh, Russia, what a wonderful country, right Tucker?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Rob says:

    Tell that to Zerohedge.

  • Rob says:

    I hit xmit before saying I really enjoy your book reviews! My Zerohedge comment was because I find them despicable even though they’re sometimes accurate.

  • Doug Sherlock says:

    I am just finishing up War and Peace, Tolstoy’s truly great book. I had never read it before but Peggy Noonan’s comments on it last fall led me to the Briggs translation. Sometimes artists don’t measure up to their art. As Alice (in Wonderland) said “But that’s just the trouble with me. I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

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