Tuesday, January 31, 2012

by Rosamund Bartlett

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy lived many Russian lives for eighty-two years. He was not only considered to be one of the world's greatest writers, but he also influenced the people of Russia with his unconventional ideas about literature, art, education, religion, society, and government.
Tolstoy was born into the privileged class, had foreign tutors and was waited on by serfs. At nineteen, he became a wealthy landowner and then squandered his inheritance. Whole villages had to be sold to pay off his debts. Then Tolstoy went into the army and that is where his writing began to surface. At first, he was embraced by fellow colleagues but when Tolstoy refused to join any kind of literary organization, they avoided him. Soon enough, he aligned himself with the intelligentsia and then began to feel guilty with his previous superiority over the peasants. One way he felt that he could help them was through education. Tolstoy started many schools to teach the children how to read and write. He would become the spokesperson for the impoverished peasants and
dress as one himself.
His next venture was to become an apostle of Christian teaching (he read all of the original sources and then basically rewrote them with his own beliefs). He would castigate the Russian Orthodox Church (they would excommunicate him) and then the monarchy
. They were powerless in their efforts to stop him.
Tolstoy had quite a following and he was revered by thousands. But, even though he tried to lead a life of piety, he was a contradiction. His family was less than enthralled with all of his doings. Tolstoy had thirteen children with his wife, Sofya (also called Sonya). His daughters were devoted to him but the sons did the opposite of what he preached. Sonya bore the brunt of everything and Tolstoy treated her pretty badly. (He didn't think highly of women.) When he wrote War and Peace, their marriage was the happiest. Anna Karenina took him thirty years to write and the marriage deteriorated. His ego always got in the way yet to those outside of the family, he could do no wrong.
What a masterful biography! Rosamund Bartlett has written quite an in-depth portrait of a huge subject. The amount of information that is packed into this heavy book (454 pages) is astounding. She is very familiar with the material and knows how to create text that is immensely readable. Bartlett is an authority on Russian cultural history (she also wrote a biography on Chekhov) and is working on a translation of Anna Karenina.
If you love Russian history and know nothing about Tolstoy, this is the definitive book to read.
Highly recommended.