For Tolstoy And Russia, Still No Happy Ending

For Tolstoy And Russia, Still No Happy Ending

Jan 04

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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

WIKIPEDIA ON LEO TOSTOY

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Leo Tolstoy, or Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910), was a Russian writer many consider to have been one of the world’s greatest novelists. His literary masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina represent, in their scope, breadth and vivid depiction of 19th-century Russian life and attitudes, the peak of realist fiction.

Tolstoy’s further talents as essayist, dramatist, and educational reformer made him the most influential member of the aristocratic Tolstoy family. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS WITHIN YOU
By Leo Tolstoy

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The Kingdom of God Is Within You is the non-fiction magnum opus of Leo Tolstoy and was first published in Germany in 1894, after being banned in his home country of Russia. It is the culmination of thirty years of Tolstoy’s Christian thinking, and lays out a new organization for society based on a literal Christian interpretation.

The title of the book is taken from Luke 17:21. In the book Tolstoy speaks of the principle of non-violent resistance when confronted by violence, as taught by Jesus. Tolstoy sought to separate Orthodox Russian Christianity, which was merged with the state, from what he believed was the true message of Jesus Christ, as contained in the Gospels, specifically the Sermon on the Mount.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Part II, Chapter 15) that this book “overwhelmed” him and “left an abiding impression.” Gandhi listed Tolstoy’s book, as well as John Ruskin’s Unto This Last and the poet Shrimad Rajchandra (Raychandbhai), as the three most important modern influences in his life. Reading this book opened up the mind of the world-famous Tolstoy to Gandhi, who was still a young protester living in South Africa at the time.

In 1908 Tolstoy wrote, and Gandhi read, A Letter to a Hindu, which outlines the notion that only by using love as a weapon through passive resistance could the native Indian people overthrow the colonial British Empire. This idea ultimately came to fruition through Gandhi’s organization of nationwide non-violent strikes and protests during the years circa 1918-1947. In 1909, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy seeking advice and permission to republish A Letter to a Hindu in his native language, Gujarati. Tolstoy responded and the two continued a correspondence until Tolstoy’s death in 1910. The letters concern practical and theological applications of non-violence, as well as Gandhi’s wishes for Tolstoy’s health; before he died, Tolstoy’s last letter was to Mahatma Gandhi.

Many consider The Kingdom of God is Within You to be a key text for Tolstoyan, Christian anarchist, and nonviolent resistance movements worldwide.

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FOR TOLSTOY AND RUSSIA, STILL NO HAPPY ENDING
By Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky
New York Times
January 3, 2011

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MOSCOW – A couple of months ago one of Russia’s elder statesmen set out on a paradoxical mission: to rehabilitate one of the most beloved figures in Russian history, Tolstoy.

This would have seemed unnecessary in 2010, a century after the author’s death. But last year Russians wrestled over Tolstoy much as they did when he was alive. Intellectuals accused the Russian Orthodox Church of blacklisting a national hero. The church accused Tolstoy of helping speed the rise of the Bolsheviks. The melodrama of his last days, when he fled his family estate to take up the life of an ascetic, was revived in all its pulpy detail, like some kind of early-stage reality television.

And in a country that rarely passes up a public celebration, the anniversary of his death, on Nov. 20, 1910, was not commemorated by noisy galas or government-financed cinematic blockbusters. Officially speaking, it was barely noted at all.

With this in mind Sergei V. Stepashin, a former prime minister here, sat down to write to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become an arbiter of politics and culture. In painstakingly diplomatic language, acknowledging “the particular sensitivity” of “this delicate theme,” Mr. Stepashin asked forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, who was excommunicated 110 years ago.

The impulse had swelled up during a lonely visit to an unmarked mound of earth where Tolstoy is buried. Mr. Stepashin described the visit — made while he was director of the Federal Security Service, successor to the K.G.B. — as an emotional experience that he has never been able to shake off.

“You look at the house where he lived and worked, where he created his works, and then you come to a place where there is nothing but this small hill,” said Mr. Stepashin, who has close ties to the church. “It was puzzling, on a human and a moral plane. And then I decided to write this letter.”

Ambivalence toward Tolstoy is new in Russia.

The Soviets planted him at the top of their literary pantheon, largely because of the radical philosophy he preached amid the early rumblings of the October Revolution. The publication of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” made Tolstoy so famous that one contemporary described him as Russia’s second czar. He used that position to rail against the church, as well as the police, the army, meat eating, private property and all forms of violence.

Lenin loved Tolstoy’s “pent-up hatred.” He anointed him “the mirror of the Russian Revolution,” ignoring his pacifism and belief in God. As the 50th anniversary of his death approached, the Central Committee of the Communist Party began preparing two years in advance, so a monument would be ready for unveiling.

For the centennial, in a Russia wary of utopian thought, there was nothing of the kind. By contrast, Chekhov received lavish official tributes in 2010 for his 150th birthday, including a birthplace visit from President Dmitri A. Medvedev.

Though a star-studded Tolstoy biopic, “The Last Station,” opened in Moscow just ahead of the anniversary, it was filmed in Germany, acted by Britons and directed by an American. The Russian filmmaker Andrei S. Konchalovsky, a producer of the film, said he petitioned “every ministry” in the Russian government for support. In the end, he said, he was forced to invest his own money.

“I represent Russia,” he said, with a wry smile, while promoting the film.

None of this came as a surprise to Vladimir I. Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, who oversees the museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the author’s estate.

Mr. Tolstoy, 48, has the slender, avid look of a professional intellectual, but his last name has called on him to wade into politics. He worked on one of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s presidential campaigns and does favors for area officials when they need “the authority or prestige of Tolstoy,” as he put it.

Ten years ago he asked the church to revisit the 1901 ruling that excommunicated his great-great-grandfather. He received no answer. Though his efforts have not ended — a visitor to Yasnaya Polyana recalled a banquet table laid out in the orchard for the local bishop — Mr. Tolstoy said he was not hopeful.

Aside from a reception held by the minister of culture, the anniversary transpired with “a conscious ignoring of Tolstoy,” he said.

“Any power tries to adapt great people to its needs,” he added. “The current authorities don’t adapt him, or they are not clever enough. Maybe they are so self-confident they don’t think they need to.”

It was a relief when Mr. Stepashin joined the effort. The men met about 15 years ago, when Mr. Stepashin, then director of the Federal Security Service, presented Mr. Tolstoy with sheaves of family letters pulled out of Soviet intelligence files. Mr. Stepashin, who recalls staying up two nights as a 10-year-old so that he could finish Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection,” shared the sense that the writer was getting short shrift.

“I understood that there would not likely be a decision to return him to the church,” said Mr. Stepashin, now president of the Russian Book Union. “But as for the attitude to him as a person, as a person who did a lot for Russian culture and for the Russian language, I just counted on that, on a change of attitude toward him.”

The church’s letter of response, published in a state-run newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, suggested not. It acknowledged Tolstoy’s “unforgettable, beautiful works,” and said Russian Orthodox readers were allowed to say solitary prayers for him on the anniversary of his death.

But its tone was mournful, calling Tolstoy the most “tragic personality” in the history of Russian literature. It said that Tolstoy “purposely used his great talent to destroy Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order” and that it was “no accident that the leader of the Bolsheviks extremely valued the aim of Leo Tolstoy’s activity.” So there could be no candles burned for Tolstoy inside Orthodox churches and no commemorations read, according to the letter, signed by the cultural council secretary to Patriarch Kirill I, the church’s leader.

Mr. Stepashin said he expected this response and was glad the letter included some praise.

But intellectuals did not hide their astonishment.

“It’s as if in the 20th century the church did not survive persecution that made Tolstoy’s criticisms look like childish prattle,” wrote the literary critic Pavel V. Basinsky, whose new book examines Tolstoy’s final days. “It’s as if we have found ourselves in the situation that we were in at the beginning of the last century.”

And, as in the last century, much of the discussion surrounding the Tolstoy centennial was akin to gossip. Mr. Basinsky’s book is part of a wave of new works that, like the film “The Last Station,” plunge into Tolstoy’s flight from the family estate — the moment when he seemed finally to choose his radical ideas over the aristocratic comforts of home. He died a few days later at a train station, surrounded by throngs of reporters.

At the time of Tolstoy’s death, Russian pundits cast his decision as a spiritual triumph, but the new works retell it as a family tragedy, said William Nickell, author of “The Death of Tolstoy.” From this perspective, Tolstoy’s wife is a sympathetic figure, his followers are manipulative parasites and his ideas are hopelessly utopian.

“It is as if he is lumped now with communism,” Mr. Nickell said. “Good idea in principle, but a disaster in practice.”

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RELATED LINKS:

Pulse on Jesus
Wikipedia on Leo Tolstoy
Wikipedia on “The Kingdom Of God Is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy

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