THE GATHERING STORM
On November 8, 1910, people all over Russia snatched up the latest editions of newspapers reporting the death of Count Leo Tolstoy on the previous day, at 6:05 a.m. at Astapovo Station. The photographs showed perhaps the most famous writer in the world at that time: an austere, gray-bearded man of eighty-two, with high-set, very large ears and shaggy brows drawn over his piercing (some said "vulpine") eyes.
Another world-celebrated writer, though a lesser light, Maxim Gorky, was living in exile on the Italian island of Capri and wrote when he learned of Tolstoy's death: "This struck the heart, and I howled with hurt and longing." In a letter to a friend, Gorky exclaimed in a typically fanciful manner, "A great soul has departed, a soul that had embraced all of Russia, everything that was Russian-about whom save Tolstoy can that be said?" The cosmopolitan modernist poet Valery Briusov stressed the writer's universality in his memorial essay: "Tolstoy was for the entire world. His words went to Englishmen, and Frenchmen, and the Japa-nese, and the Buryats." From Paris, the political émigré Bolshevik Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), doggedly-as only he could-insisted that Tolstoy's "global significance as an artist and his worldwide fame as a thinker and preacher, both reflect in their own way the widespread significance of the Russian revolution."
As it happens, all three were probably right. We tend to think of Tolstoy as a cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the author of War and Peace (1863-77, perhaps the greatest novel in the history of the genre) and such masterpieces as Anna Karenina (1873-77) and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1886). Yet this giant dominated both the cultural and the political life of the early twentieth century also. Briusov wasn't exaggerating: Tolstoy combined the fame of Voltaire, the popularity of Rousseau, and the authority of Goethe; he was compared routinely to biblical prophets. In his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, two hundred kilometers south of Moscow, Tolstoy received devotees from all over the world, who flocked to hear his antigovernment and antibourgeois sermons. Gorky, in his memoirs of Tolstoy (a tour de force of twentieth-century Russian nonfiction), confessed that when he looked at him, he thought, not without envy: "That man is godlike!"
However, Tolstoy was made up of contradictions, containing "multitudes," to use Walt Whitman's phrase. He was simultaneously a born archaist and a natural innovator-in his life, in his writing, and in his passionate religious and political beliefs, which sometimes verged on total anarchism. Gorky noted, somewhat caustically (and in seeming contradiction to his worship of Tolstoy): "Psychologically it would be quite natural for great artists to be larger than life in their sins, as well."
Tolstoy's works, while belonging to the apex of nineteenth-century realism, boldly went beyond its framework: another contradiction. Tolstoy rejected and mocked the modernists, but they made good use of his artistic breakthroughs. It's a surprisingly short distance from Tolstoy's "interior monologue" to James Joyce's stream of consciousness. Viktor Shklovsky, the bad boy of Russian formalism, early on placed Leo Tolstoy among the avant-garde: "Tolstoy in his works, which were constructed as formally as music, used such devices as defamiliarization (calling a thing not by its usual name)" and cited his description of the institution of property through the perceptions of a horse. This "alienation technique" (Verfremdungseffekt) was later used and abused by Bertolt Brecht and other European avant-garde writers.
The publication in 1911-1912 of three shabby gray volumes came as a revelation for the Russian public: The Posthumous Fiction of L. N. Tolstoy included the short story "Father Sergius"; the play The Living Corpse, in which, according to Shklovsky, Tolstoy "captured the living speech of trailing sentences"; and the prophetic novella about the endless Russo-Chechen war, Khadji Murat, on which he had worked until 1906. A half century later, Shklovsky, no longer holding the radical views of his youth but still habitually spouting paradoxes, maintained that in Khadji Murat Tolstoy had been a forerunner of socialist realism ("documentary subject seen through a romantic prism"). "It is Tolstoy who is the father of socialist realism, not Gorky, as they teach you," Shklovsky told me, still cocky at eighty-two.
Since Tolstoy the writer was cast by critics as the patron saint of everything from realism to socialist realism, it comes as no surprise that politically he was variously labeled as well. Contemporaries tried to pin him down as a repentant aristocrat, or the voice of the patriarchal Russian peasantry, or a Christian anarchist, and even as a diehard revolutionary. It was all true to a point: Tolstoy preached an extreme simplicity of life and took a hard libertarian stance toward government, which he considered immoral and illegal, yet he also rejected all forms of violence. In his famous 1909 article "I Cannot Be Silent," he protested capital punishment in Russia and did not recognize the authority of organized religion. This inevitably led the rebel count into conflict with the autocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believed that a confrontation with Tolstoy gravely weakened both institutions.
Even in April 1896, just before the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the all-powerful High Procurator of the Holy Synod, in charge of the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, denounced Tolstoy (in approximately the same indignant language that three-quarters of a century later was heaped on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by the Soviet Politburo): "He spreads the terrible contagion of anarchy and disbelief throughout Russia. . . . It is obvious that he is the enemy of the Church, the enemy of all government and of all civil order. There is a proposal at the Synod to excommunicate him from the Church, in order to avoid any doubts and misunderstanding in the people, who see and hear that the intelligentsia admires Tolstoy."
So, the Holy Synod excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901; a year later he wrote to Nicholas II (calling the tsar "beloved brother"), putting forth his provocative views on the regime and the church: "Autocracy is an obsolete form of rule. . . . And therefore this form of rule and the Orthodoxy connected to it can be supported, as it is today, only through violence: excessive security measures, administrative exiles, executions, religious persecutions, the banning of books and newspapers, warped education, and all sorts of evil and cruel acts."
Did Tolstoy actually expect his bold address to so influence the tsar that he would "understand the evil he does"? Nicholas II simply ignored him, and the writer decided the tsar was "a pathetic, weak, and stupid" ruler. Tolstoy wanted to teach, not to advise modestly and respectfully, as ritual demanded. Nicholas II (whose advisor then was Pobedonostsev and after 1907, Grigory Rasputin) had no intention of playing pupil. Thus a dialogue did not ensue. Accordingly, Tolstoy's model for the twentieth-century discourse between monarch and great writer, between regime and cultural hero, never took hold. It was this model that later Gorky and Solzhenitsyn-each in his own way-also tried to establish. Solzheni-tsyn would depict Nicholas II with sympathy and understanding in his novel August 1914: did he perhaps imagine himself as the last tsar's ideal interlocutor and advisor?
The shrewd Alexei Suvorin, the influential publisher of the pro-monarchist newspaper Novoye Vremya [New Times], wrote in his diary on May 29, 1901: "We have two tsars: Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy. Which is stronger? Nicholas II can't do anything with Tolstoy, he can't shake his throne, while Tolstoy is undoubtedly shaking the throne of Nicholas and his dynasty. Tolstoy is excommunicated by the Synod's decision. Tolstoy replies, the reply is disseminated widely in manuscript form and in the foreign press. Just let anyone try to hurt Tolstoy. The whole world will raise a hue and cry, and our administration will turn tail and run."
Suvorin accurately described the situation, which was unprecedented for Russian society. In Tolstoy, Russia's educated classes had a leader who wanted to dictate his solutions to the tsarist government on key social and political issues: war and peace (literally), the distribution of land, and also administrative and judicial reform. "The strength of his position," wrote Boris Eikhenbaum, the leading Tolstoy scholar, "was that even though he opposed his era, he was still a part of it."
It was that tremendous strength that led Lenin to his famous description of Tolstoy in 1908 as "the mirror of the Russian revolution." For Lenin, Tolstoy was revolutionary because of his "ruthless criticism of capitalist exploitation, his exposé of government coercion and the comedy of the courts and government administration, his baring of the yawning contradictions between the growth of wealth and the growth of poverty."
Yet for Tolstoy, earthly power and influence were not enough. Even as a twenty-seven-year-old, Tolstoy came up with a new religion (he noted it in his diary), and he spent his life shaping it, step by step building his image of demigod. In his scheme of things, Christ and Buddha were mere teachers of human wisdom, alongside whom the writer's "godlike" (in Gorky's phrase) figure could naturally take its place.
Gorky also made the caustic observation that Tolstoy "considered Christ naïve and worthy of pity." True, Tolstoy felt that he was actually in a better position to interpret the teachings of Christ than Christ himself. Surprisingly, this rather immodest assumption was eagerly shared in the early twentieth century by many enlightened people all over the world-from France, where Romain Rolland became an enthusiastic standard-bearer of Tolstoy's Christian socialism, to India, where Mahatma Gandhi successfully took up Tolstoy's concept of nonviolent resistance. In the United States, both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, one the prosecutor and the other the defense attorney in the notorious Scopes trial in 1925, were fervent adherents of Tolstoy's moral teachings.
Tolstoy's fame was spread and fanned by the world media, hungry for sensation. Tolstoy, who only pretended to be a hermit in his Yasnaya Polyana and in fact liked giving interviews, manipulated the press masterfully. Consequently, never had a Russian writer enjoyed such fame abroad in his lifetime (the celebrity of Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, who had actually lived in Western Europe, was much more modest). It is telling that Herzen printed his antigovernment booklets in Europe at his own expense, while Tolstoy was endlessly reprinted throughout the world primarily because his books were international best sellers, particularly his new works on religious themes.
Even though Herzen was among the first to produce "tamizdat" (works addressed to Russian readers published first in the West) and "samizdat" (the same works distributed inside Russia illegally, in manuscript copies), Tolstoy undoubtedly took this phenomenon to a new level. His articles, appeals, and open letters, banned by the Russian censors but printed in the West, circulated everywhere almost simultaneously, and the Western attention greatly helped his reputation at home. (Solzhenitsyn's later situation was similar.) Thus Tolstoy in effect escaped official control.
Unable to subdue him during his lifetime, the Russian government and the Orthodox hierarchy tried to hijack the writer after his death, which became a sorry spectacle when Tolstoy ran away. He had long proclaimed his desire to live according to his teaching, not as a count but as a simple peasant, and abruptly escaped from his estate and his family.
But pneumonia kept him at the small railroad station of Astapovo, which was instantly besieged by journalists and film crews, attending family and close friends (with bitter strife within this group), representatives of the tsar and church, and observers of different political leanings. The family tried to maintain the remnants of decorum in a clearly scandalous situation. The press tried to get as much out of the colossal sensation as they could get away with. And the government tried to prevent any disorder, which it feared greatly, and which the liberals would have loved to exploit.
The media naturally won out: this was one of the first examples of their newfound power in Russia. The world saw the documentary footage showing how Tolstoy's wife was not permitted to see the dying count. Endless newspaper reports with photographs from Astapovo not only made the private death of a genius uncomfortably public but also revealed the embarrassingly ugly squabble over his will and testament.
Unused to dealing with modern media, the government and the Holy Synod made one clumsy mistake after another. A monk was sent to Tolstoy to persuade him to reconcile himself with the official church. Tolstoy had only to say two words: "I repent." The attempt failed. Astapovo was filled with police agents who sent long coded telegrams to their higher-ups about the latest contretemps and the comings and goings of the journalists and other suspicious characters.
The police tried to contain Tolstoy's funeral in Yasnaya Polyana by sharply limiting access to the public from St. Petersburg and Moscow and to control the memorial gatherings all over the country, which in many cases took on markedly oppositionist political overtones. Demonstrators on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg carried posters demanding, in the spirit of Tolstoy's teaching, the repeal of the death penalty. Suvorin's Novoye Vremya reported that these "disorders" were provoked by people from the Caucasus and by the Jewish press: "Up to their eyes in dirty politicking, which Tolstoy had abhorred, they turned the memory of the wise man into an excuse for banal banner waving." Thus in 1910 the idea of the undue influence of the Jewish media on Russia's domestic policies was already promoted, to be resurrected in the late twentieth century. Typically, the alarm was voiced by the camp of the conservative press, which was trying to hang on to its overwhelming political and economic influence.
Mikhail Menshikov, an influential columnist of Novoye Vremya, claimed that the death penalty was one of the foundations of true Christian civilization, and the Jews were merely using Tolstoy's protests against it in order "to disarm the government." In turn, the liberal journalists (many of whom were Jewish) pointed at the government and the church as the real conspirators in this story. The noisy polemics turned Tolstoy's funeral into one of the biggest media circuses of the first decade of the twentieth century.
Was this what the ironic Anton Chekhov had in mind long before Tolstoy's death in a conversation with Ivan Bunin (who was to be the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature)? "Once Tolstoy dies, everything will go to hell!" Tolstoy, however, outlived the reclusive Chekhov by over six years, and Chekhov's death and funeral in June 1904 were a vivid contrast to the spectacle of Tolstoy's farewell. In Bunin's opinion, Tolstoy's grave drew "people alien to him, admiring only his criticism of the church and government and who experienced even happiness at his funeral: that showy ecstasy that always overwhelms the 'progressive' crowd at all the 'civic' funerals."
Excerpted from The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. Copyright © 2009 by Solomon Volkov. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.