Tolstoy: A Russian Life
By Rosamund Bartlett
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 15, 2011
Rosamund Bartlett, an authority on Russian culture, describes Lev Tolstoy, as she calls him, the greatest Russian writer, probably a genius, but a failure as a man. When he was young, he drank too much, gambled, and was over amorous with women. "His attitude towards the female gender (was) not admirable." He "abused the nobleman's 'privilege' (by having) doit de seigneur with peasant girls on a regular basis when he was a young man." He was opposed to women's emancipation, but supported the emancipation of male serfs. He felt that the woman's "role was to reproduce the species;" therefore "contraception was immoral." He said that prostitutes "had an important role to play in preserving the institution of the family." He married his wife at age 34 when she just turned 18. He wanted a wife "he could educate and mold according to his own tastes." He mistreated her terribly during the second half of their long marriage. During the early, better years, he would insist that she "curl up by his feet on the bearskin rug next to his desk (as he wrote his novels) – a trophy from one of his hunting expeditions." His treatment of the heroine in Anna Karenina reflects his disrespect for half of the human species.
He developed his own ideas about the Christian church, eschewed most of its basic doctrines, wrote a blistering satire of a mass, and was excommunicated for it. He wrote that he wanted: "a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind – the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but providing bliss on earth." He also wrote: "The Church, from the present day all the way back to the third century, is one long series of lies, cruelty and deception." As part of his program, he rewrote the New Testament into a short single volume, which contains only those parts he felt were true, excluding miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and resurrection.
Bartlett quotes the eloquent and witty Alexander Boot: "He wanted to correct God's mistakes in having allowed the world to become imperfect and sinful. He…set out to usurp God's job. But the job was already taken, and the deity stubbornly hung onto it. Therefore Tolstoy declared war on God and fought it with every means at his disposal. Alas…Tolstoy came off a poor second. By way of revenge, he came to deny God…. No one was allowed to defeat Tolstoy and get away with it."
But he had good points, he respected all (but female) life, believed in animal rights, and unlike his wife, was a vegetarian. Although by upbringing and manners a real aristocrat, he fought his government by being anti-capitalistic and by working feverishly to free the serfs, who mistrusted his efforts; and he even dressed as they did, including wearing a worker's blouse and abstained from wearing socks. But he despised the Russian middle class. He describes Levin in his Anna Karenina as, "you always do what no one else does." Bartlett writes, "This is precisely how Tolstoy was perceived by his contemporaries." He even jumped out of a window as a youngster "to do something unusual."
Although obviously intelligent, Tolstoy was very superstitious. He thought that the old leather couch on which he was born was a lucky object. He made sure that eleven of his children were born on it, as well as two of his grandchildren. He was born in 1828 on the 28th day of the eighth month, and 28 became his lucky number. He even ordered his wife to hold on and not deliver their first child until 28 June. He would open books of poetry on the twenty-eighth page and wind his watch twenty-eight times. He put the number into his fiction. He left his home for the last time on 28 October and died at age eighty two. He would toss coins to decide if what he intended to do was good or bad. He set goals for his life based on the magical number seven; he divided his life into seven year cycles; he considered his 49th birthday significant because it was seven times seven and occurred in 1877. It was then that he jettisoned a large part of Christianity. These were just some of his superstitious activities.