The Magazine

Leo the Great

The novelist makes room for the celebrity.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH
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History’s greatest novelist has not received the definitive scholarly biography he deserves. Why not? I put this question to Joseph Frank of Stanford, the author of a celebrated five-volume biography of Dostoyevsky, but even Frank admits he has “no simple answer” to the question. Perhaps, he suggests, the mass of material on Leo Tolstoy has been too formidable for any lone author to attempt to summarize.

Photo of Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908

Tolstoy’s writings run to 90 volumes of small Russian print, with an additional 10 volumes due in a post-Soviet edition. No complete collection exists in English at all. And yet, volume is not the difficulty that Rosamund Bartlett identifies in Tolstoy: A Russian Life. She manages to survey an impressive array of sources, quoting liberally from Russian-language journals, books, and newspapers. Instead, she writes, “The greatest task facing the biographer of Tolstoy is the challenge of making sense of a man who was truly larger than life.”

But of course, Tolstoy was not truly larger than life—he was simply a man, even if he was also a phenomenon. And many other individuals who also lived as spectacles, from Socrates to Sarah Palin, have received their biographical due. Tolstoy remains an exception. Bartlett’s effort is the first since A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy, published 23 years ago. The late Russianologist Ernest J. Simmons completed a well-regarded set on Tolstoy in the 1940s, but all three installments are out of print. As it stands, Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy (1967) is probably the best single-volume biography, but it, too, is dated. As Bartlett shows, much important material has been released in the past few years.

Whatever the reason, perhaps we should be grateful that new attempts are at least made to document and interpret Tolstoy’s life. An Oxford-based scholar, Bartlett has a terrific grasp of Russian history and culture. Particularly impressive is her ability to situate Tolstoy within the national canon. As its subtitle indicates, Tolstoy: A Russian Life presents the novelist as a uniquely Russian author: Tolstoy’s seriousness, radicalism, and experiences were of a kind only 19th-century Russia could produce. “He began to be identified with his country soon after he published his national epic War and Peace,” Bartlett writes, noting that Tolstoy was recognized as a national symbol by both foreigners and Russians themselves. Upon his death, thousands flooded the trains trying to get to his 4,000-acre estate, where he was buried. Schools, universities, factories, offices, and theaters closed to recognize a national day of mourning. It remained unofficial only because Tolstoy had been a fierce critic of the government, which did its best to alternately ignore and censor him.

Indeed, one has to return, perhaps, to Voltaire to find a writer with Tolstoy’s combination of fame and national/moral influence. No author since has equaled his stature, perhaps because he died in 1910, before radio drowned out print as a form of entertainment and information. Bartlett also does impressive work cataloguing the humanitarian and social-political aspects of Tolstoy’s life and career that are frequently overlooked. By 1861, he had established 21 makeshift schools for peasant children, where students learned in a free-spirited environment, with little coercion, note-taking, or memorization. Tolstoy wrote the most popular textbook in pre-revolutionary Russia, filled with stories and fables that sold over a million copies by the time of his death.

Similarly, on several occasions he wrote about famines across Russia and set up relief efforts such as large soup kitchens and donation collections to assist victims. All of this was on behalf of peasants, whom most other aristocrats enslaved and ignored. One of Tolstoy’s friends called him a “spiritual czar” and Chekhov called him not just a man but a “giant, a Jupiter.”

“It was when Tolstoy spearheaded the relief effort during the widespread famine of 1892 that his position as Russia’s greatest moral authority became unassailable,” Bartlett writes. “The result was a constant stream of visitors at his front door in Moscow, many of whom simply wanted to shake his hand.”