Book Review
Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Pages 544, 2010
Profile  Books, London, RM 106, Kuala Lampur

A book that could change your life!

Yes, Leo Tolstoy, usually called by his Russian name, Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), is perhaps the greatest Russian  ever born and lived, he came to be recognised as greater than the Tsar kings, he was known as Russia’s Homer, why even as the Second Christ in the Western world.

Such is his name and fame it is anybody’s guess how to understand the great Russian artist, the great soul, as we call of Gandhiji in India.
I had had read most of the Tolstoy’s books all through my life. I bought his biography, the longest first biography by Aylmer aMaude, A Britisher who lived long in Russia and knew Tolstory personally well and he along with his Russian wife produced a very lengthy biography that had come out in the Oxford World Classics series. It ran for over 1,000 pages and I remember that I bought this biography as soon as I went to Oxford and I read it, I distinctly remember. One Sunday I sat all alone  at the Oxford Park and when I came to the chapter where Tolstoy one night leaves his home, along with his daughter for the last time in 1912, the very scene the very description  left me with no option but to cry silently. I noticed the walkers in the Park noticed me and so I hurriedly wiped my  tears so that they dint notice  my deep  emotions.

It is a bit ironical this time, while recently in Malaysia I visited the famous bookshop, Kinokunia, perhaps the largest bookshop outside USA and England. I was  waiting for over a year to buy the latest biogrpahy of Tolstoy (Tolstoy:  A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett, a massive volume some 550 pages and a thoroughly researched detailed account. The author lives  in Oxford and it was great opportunity I thought.

I may visit her next time When I am in Oxford for there also lives another of my Russian connection, namely, the family of the Russian poet, Boris Pasternak. I became a friend of Boris sister, Lydia Pasternak, whom I knew during the Sixties of the last century. It is a rather saddening thought for me, I was in England  in 1989 and that very day I read in The Times that Lydia’s passing away! How sad !But I learn now from my contacts with Oxford that Boris Pasternak’s sister’s daughter lives there still and they run a Pasternak museum. This too I must visit, I told myself as I was  reading through this biography.

I should confess I haven’t yet fully read the biography.
The first five pages of introduction sums up admorably the basic  character of Tolstoy who was widely an independent personality and a tendency, a typical Russian tendency, says the author towards the grad scale. Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian king to conquer and consolidate the Mongols, the, “the three Mogol Khanates” and  build the largest  multi-ethnic empire in the 16th century and to Peter the Great who built the St.Pterburg capital in recent history on the Finnish marshes.

So, Tolstory ultimately became what we all know, the most famous Russian name, greater than all of the Russian kings and others.
There are so many things about Tolstory, he always disagreed all that was held sacred in Russia, he opposed the Russian Orthodox Chruch and final the church ex-communicated him in 1901 and the subject still, right now, lingers on, unresolved to the satisfaction of all, in the post-Communist Russian state where the church is once again in the ascendent.

Tolstoy  today has come to symbolise diverse movements, from vegetarianism, to anti-war movements, to peace promotion, peace in the world, non-resistance to  evil, non-resistances to violence and much of the modern anti-capiatalism movements can draw inspiration from Tolstoy, even environment, the Greens movements and many other strands of thought.

Says the author in the introduction: “There is something touching about his untiring zest for life, however wrong headed many of his ideas were “(page 9). The two if his very successful books, War and Peace (started in 1863 and completed in 1869) and Anna Karenina (started in 1863 and completed in 1877) and  his output is too much to sum up briefly.

There is also the definitive hundred volume edition of Tolstoy’s  Complete Collected Works (which as I can see still remains unfinished). There is the basic  distinction between Tolstoy, the artist and Tolstory the thinker, and shall we say there are other Tolstoys: the great humanitarian who undertook several practical affairs like helping ,one thionic group to migrate to Canada to escape discrimination in the Russia of his times, there is of course the enternal, it seems, conflict of his own version of religion and Christianit and the organised Russian orthodox church and also against the state vs his own ideas of a perfect and moral living.
So, Tolstoy is likely to be perpetually  a personality of great inspiration for diverse kinds of people, in his own life time and even now, after a century of his passing away.

Tolstoy received over 50,000 letters during his life time, 9,000 of which came from abroad, 8,500 letters are printed in his collected works, he replied to most of his correspondents, including Gandhi and many others abroad.

I am still reading the book and it would take quite some time before I can do justice to write a full-length criticism of this highly commendable touch job!

I was very much looking forward to  read this book. As I said I was waiting for the book for more than a year. It wasn’t  available in India and my Ebay site also didn’t list the book in its website for its availability and delivery. So, I was delighted that laid my hand on this volume as I sight the very name in the massive Kinokunia bookshop in the famous Suria  mall in Kuala Lumpur!

On my return flight to Bangalore the whole of the four hour flying time was fogotten as I got immersed in the book on my greatest literary hero!

This massive book would take many more days for me to read and finish.

On the flight I just read the later half od the book. What left me bewildered is the new findings that how Tolstoy’s flight from home took place. This time, the new details left me against wiping my tears! The past 50 years havent left me changed, it seems.

Or the great man’s such a tragic final days couldn’t but leave even the current new readers with no other choice but to grieve at the sad ending of such a great life.

I can tell more things here but lack of space leaves me only few remarks. Tolstoy daughter had to pay a heavy price for fighting for saving her father’s legacy. Lenin paid a higher pension for Tolstoy’s widow. That is the only pleasant news. But Lenin too couldnt overcome bureaucracy. First, Lenin, next Stalin and next Brezenw and all the party committees and writers committees, everyone added to Tolstory daughter’s troubles. She had to spend time in jails, the details would break the hearts of anyone who loves the name of Tolstory.

Such is the state of Russian bureaucracy, even today, after collapse of the Russian Communism in 1989.

Now, there is a school revived at Tolstoy farm, Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s great, great ganrdson runs the museum and the school. A sort of Tolstoyism is being promoted and pursued as a school ideology based of the saint’s ideas and writings. In 1991, after the fall of  the Soviet Union one “spiritual unity”( the Church of Lev Tolstoy was registered in Moscow. In 1996 Tolstoy’s Spiritual Heritage with 8 faculty members was opened at the L.N.Tolstoy Tula State Pedagogical Institute.Tula is the district where Tolstoy’s farm in located.

Tolstoy’s gradson,Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy who manages the meuseum at Yasnapolyana  has organised many meets between Russian Orthodox Church and Tolstoty;s estate over the 101 ex-cummincation of Tolstory and this conflict still a live issue in Russia. 1n 2001,2006,2009 these discussions continue!

Post Navigation