Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

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Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A full biography of the Russian aristocrat and novelist, author of 'War and Peace', who became a fervent Christian anarchist.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846681387

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Count Lev Tolstoy came from a privileged family. He was born on 28 August 1828; unfailingly superstitious for the rest of his days, he therefore adopted 28 as his lucky number. Like most young men from a similar background, he joined the Russian army. The Crimean war proved to be the making of him in that it developed his social conscience, opened his eyes to the conditions endured by those born to a less lofty position in the social order than himself, and impressed on him the fervent belief that everybody in Russia ought to have the chance to learn to read and write. As a result he became a born-again repentant nobleman in the light of having seen how the other half (or more than half) lived, he took a long hard look at the world around him, turning into a rebel against organized religion and the authority of the state in the process. All this was exacerbated by his travels throughout Europe shortly afterwards, in which he was impressed with the comparative freedom he saw in other countries and then found the return to his homeland thoroughly depressing in the few years before the emancipation of the serfs.

Relinquishing his title and property, he took to dressing like a peasant, adopted a vegetarian diet, and founded several schools for the children of the serfs on his estates. The latter was a shortlived experiment which soon fell victim to harassment by the Tsarist secret police, but in retrospect proved a forerunner of democratic, even comprehensive education principles widely adopted in the following century.

Today he is best remembered as the author of 'War and Peace', 'Anna Karenina' and 'The Cossacks', all regarded as masterpieces of realist fiction in their portrayal of Russian life. Needless to say, this very full biography examines his literary career in great detail – in addition to the major novels, he also wrote short stories, essays, drama and several works of non-fiction, especially on religion – as well as the novels for which he is best remembered. However, it demonstrates clearly that even if he had never published a word, he would also have been remembered for his high radical profile in the last decades of the empire, and his zeal in exposing the hypocrisy and immorality he saw around him.. He is best described as a Christian anarchist and pacifist who advocated non-violent resistance, as such a forerunner of figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

His wife Sonya, who was sixteen years younger than him, and other members of his family, often thought he was mad. In 1901 he was excommunicated for preaching against Orthodox dogma, and a leading newspaper editor quipped that Russia now had two Tsars. He did however have one imperial friend and champion, the Tsar's cousin Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovitch, a member of one of the more radical branches of the Romanov family.

Although she was a loyal helpmeet throughout their married life, helping to transcribe his manuscripts prior to publication, Sonya found life with him increasingly difficult. She called him a 'holy fool', who was reneging on his duties as a father to their children (thirteen, including five who died in infancy), and with his passionate interest in religion appearing no longer interested in family life. On at least one occasion she threatened to leave him, worried that he would end up giving away everything they had to the poverty-stricken peasants who came to call and take advantage of his generosity.

After increasing differences between them, culminating in his finding her rifling through the papers in his study one day, in 1910 at the age of 82 he resolved he was going to turn his back on his family and old way of life, with nothing but the clothes on his back, and take up the path of a 'wandering ascetic'. Having been in poor health for some time, he was taken ill at the train station before he had barely begun his travels, and put to bed at the stationmaster's house. Despite being treated by several doctors, he fell into a coma and died a few days later. Meanwhile, on having heard about his departure, Sonya immediately tried to drown herself in their pond.

A final chapter ties up the loose ends on his family and assesses his place in Russian literature and society, as well as his role as the Great Patriarch of the Bolshevik Revolution. Exactly one hundred years after his death, it concludes that in a church and state once again forging close bonds in today's authoritarian Russia, his teachings must seem as dangerous as they ever were. I came to this book knowing very little about Tolstoy. For me, the book brought the story of his long and eventful story as well as his personality to life very well. At the same time, it painted a wonderful complimentary picture of the Russia, a nation going through great changes, in which he lived and worked.

Our thanks to Profile Books for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, for another Russian biography, why not try Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen.

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