By turns Tolstoy played the aristocrat and the peasant, the literary genius and the holy fool…
Barefoot Tolstoy, Ilya Repin, 1901
From Barnes and Noble Review:
Tolstoy spent years on a four-volume, 700-page ABC and reading primer, a work he regarded more highly than War and Peace. (Upon its publication in 1872 it received neither good reviews nor official approval, but with its republication thirteen years later it became a bestseller, thenceforth having a powerful influence on Russian primary education until the 1917 Revolution.) Eventually, in the 1880s, he fully assumed the mantle of prophet with a tetralogy he thought his most important life work: Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, Union and Translation of the Four Gospels, Confession, and What I Believe. He was the leading guru of vegetarianism, nonviolence, and anti-materialism. His moral authority seemed boundless: some called him Russia’s true tsar. Some went further: speaking of Tolstoy’s relationship with God, Maxim Gorky likened them to “two bears in one den.” When Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901, it was the Church’s prestige that declined, not his own.
Saint or crank? His fellow artists resented time taken away from what they considered his true vocation. From his deathbed, Ivan Turgenev harangued the errant novelist: “My friend, return to literary activity! This gift has come to you from where everything else comes from. Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! I am a finished man…. I can’t walk, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, but so what! It’s even boring to repeat all this! My friend, great writer of the Russian land — heed my request!” Chekhov sometimes felt considerable distaste for Tolstoy in his chosen role of priest. “To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals and as rude and insensitive as generals, because they are confident of their impunity.” In the role of artist, though, he believed the older author to be unsurpassed: “What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature…. [S]o long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and sniveling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished in outer darkness.”
It is easy enough to lament, with Turgenev and Chekhov, the great writer’s inattention to literary matters in the latter part of his life. It is also easy to laugh at the myriad ways in which he failed to practice what he preached, and at his gross vanity and monstrous ego. But countless people found inspiration in Tolstoy’s proselytism. The twenty-five-year-old Mohandas Gandhi, a lawyer in South Africa, read his tract The Kingdom of God Is Within You and found there the courage of his own convictions. Ludwig Wittgenstein found in Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief a lifeline that kept him sane through the First World War. And as Bartlett demonstrates, Tolstoy played a key role in the changes Russian society underwent leading up to 1917.