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Updated: January 6, 2010 21:03 IST

Russia's difficult relationship with Tolstoy

Guardian
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Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

He is acknowledged as one of the most important writers of all time, and this year sees the release of a major new film to mark the centenary of his death. So why is his native Russian so half-hearted in its response to its great literary genius?

For Tolstoy fans, 2010 is set to be a wonderful year. One hundred years after the great Russian novelist fled from his country estate outside Moscow — dying three weeks later in a small provincial railway station — the world is gearing up to celebrate him. In Germany and the US there are fresh translations of Anna Karenina; in Cuba and Mexico Tolstoy bookfairs; worldwide, a new black-and-white documentary. Dug up from Russia’s archives and restored, the original cinema footage shows an elderly Tolstoy playing with his poodles and vaulting energetically on his horse.

Next month also sees the UK premiere of The Last Station, an accomplished new drama about Tolstoy’s final days. Starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy, this witty biopic recounts the eventful last two years of his life. Under siege from fin de siecle paparazzi, Count Tolstoy and his wife Sofya Andreevna squabble over his literary estate. Tolstoy wants to leave the copyright to humanity; the countess wants the revenues herself. Tired of marital conflict, Tolstoy runs away, then falls ill and dies on his train journey south.

Based on the novel by Jay Parini, the film’s central figure is Tolstoy’s young private secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy). During his later years, the novelist rejected property and fleshly pleasures, but Bulgakov’s vow of Tolstoyan celibacy proves predictably short-lived: an attractive Tolstoy commune-member, Masha, relieves him of his virginity. There are strong performances from Mirren, Plummer and McAvoy, and the screenplay is pleasingly deft. Asked by Mrs Tolstoy whether he has read War and Peace, Bulgakov stammeringly replies: “Many times.” There is a pause. He then concedes: “Well, twice.”

One country, however, has so far conspicuously failed to share in this global Tolstoy mania — Russia. Rumour has it that Vladimir Putin toured Tolstoy’s country estate incognito as a young KGB spy, but so far the Kremlin is not planning any major event to mark the centenary of Tolstoy’s death on 20 November. Not only that, but the makers of The Last Station ended up shooting the film not among the birch trees and northern skylines of Tolstoy’s Russia, but in the somewhat more genteel surroundings of rustic eastern Germany.

The movie’s American director, Michael Hoffman, had intended to film The Last Station in Yasnaya Polyana, or Clear Glade, Tolstoy’s pastoral family estate near Tula, 125 miles south of Moscow. “We wanted to do it in Russia, we really did,” Andrei Deryabin, the film’s co-producer, explains, somewhat wistfully. “But there were no decent loos. There wasn’t the infrastructure. The hotels were lousy. Nor were there any security guarantees for the actors. In the end, filming in Russia proved far too expensive.” According to Deryabin, there was also a more profound obstacle — Russia’s surprising indifference to the genius behind War and Peace, Tolstoy’s contrapuntal saga set during the years of Napoleon’s wars in Europe and his invasion of Russia.

In the west, Tolstoy is generally rated as the greatest literary novelist: last July, Newsweek placed War and Peace at the top of its meta-list of 100 great novels. (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four snuck in second, with Joyce’s Ulysses third.) Critics hail the extraordinary psychology of Tolstoy’s characters, and veterans say nobody has written better about battle. And the east, especially Japan, reveres Tolstoy’s philosophy. “Across the whole world there is a huge Tolstoy boom. He’s esteemed everywhere apart from here [in Russia],” Deryabin admits.

Russia’s scant regard is connected to its own troubled existential journey, Deryabin suggests, and its failure to discover a national idea. “We have been searching for it for long time. In fact, the answer is the one given by Tolstoy: the task before humanity is to be happy now.” Deryabin concedes that, for most Russians, the previous century was pretty awful — in other words, more Dostoevskyan than Tolstoyan. “The last century, with its emphasis on darkness and suffering, was Dostoevsky’s. Now I hope it’s Tolstoy’s turn,” he says.

The writer’s great-great grandson, Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, agrees that Russia’s painful 20th century had a distinctly Dostoevskyan tone. “I hope the 21st century is Tolstoyan,” he says. Vladimir is the director of the state literary museum at Yasnaya Polyana. With his sweeping Tolstoyan forehead, he is instantly recognisable as a member of the distinguished Tolstoy clan.

“Dostoevsky focuses his attention on painful problems, on the dark side of the human soul. Tolstoy is the opposite. He defends fundamental values such as love, friendship and family relations. He gives positive answers to the questions mankind is asking. In this sense he gives more hope,” Vladimir says.

He has transformed Yasnaya into Russia’s leading cultural attraction. Thousands of curious literary pilgrims visit each year. Many of them arrive on special Saturday and Sunday trains from Moscow, the Tolstoy Express. The train is festively decorated with scenes from Tolstoy’s writings; I travelled in a cosy carriage devoted to his years in the Caucasus — a period that provided Tolstoy with the inspiration for several works, including his astonishing late novella Hadji Murad, but which his diaries reveal as a period of gambling and “girls”. There is, naturally enough, a War and Peace carriage.

From Kozlova Zaseka station, a cranky old bus takes you up to Tolstoy’s house. Everything is much as it was in his time: in the classical creeper-covered manor, you can peer at the black leather sofa on which the author and his 13 children were born. There is the stoopingly low chair from which he wrote; and an ornamental gold dog Tolstoy slept with under his pillow as a boy. In a limpid dining room are portraits of Tolstoy and his family by the painter Repin; round the corner is his 22,000-volume library; in the woods is his unmarked oblong grave.

Reverential tour guides escort small groups past Count Tolstoy’s duck pond and up an avenue of high trees. There is an apple orchard; geese wander among the farm buildings; you can strike off into the birch woods where Tolstoy hunted hares and foxes and shot at woodcocks. In general, he missed.

The nearby village where Tolstoy tried to educate peasant children in the 1860s still exists — now, as then, something of a dump; yet so evocative is the atmosphere that it wouldn’t be surprising if Tolstoy himself burst from the lime trees wearing his peasant smock. (In Russian, of course, he isn’t Leo but Lev, or Lev Nikolaevich — with the stress in Russian on the second syllable of Tolstoy.) According to Vladimir, the number of tourists visiting Yasnaya Polyana has increased over the past 15 years — many of them foreigners. There is, moreover, a growing interest in the life and diary of Sofya Andreevna, who worked as Tolstoy’s literary amanuensis, he says.

Vladimir says he was agreeably surprised at The Last Station, a German-Russian co-production with an almost entirely British cast (Plummer, who plays Tolstoy, is Canadian). Vladimir’s daughter Anastasia — currently a post-graduate student at Oxford — appears as an extra in Tolstoy’s death scene. Hoffman picked her because of her Russian face; it has to be said that some of the other peasant extras appear rather too Germanically well-fed.

“I liked the film,” Vladimir says. “The actors are perfect. And the music is beautiful. It’s terribly difficult to make a movie about the last years of his life; you have to be very precise and delicate. Helen Mirren doesn’t resemble Sofya at all, but her performance is brilliant.” Some Russians, however, have balked at Mirren’s unapologetically Anglophone pronunciation of Russian family names. “It’s a bit odd to hear her say ‘Valentin Fiodorovich’,” the film critic Andrei Plakhov noted in Kommersant newspaper.

Like Deryabin, Vladimir Tolstoy admits that his ancestor’s reputation is higher in the west than in Russia. This, he says, is due to the political upheaval in Russia since the break—up of the Soviet Union, and the contemporary emphasis on visual, rather than intellectual, culture. Russia’s book—reading, scientific middle class has also shrunk compared to communist times.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, shows little interest in Russia’s most celebrated novelist. Putin has never mentioned Tolstoy in his speeches. And the writer’s criticisms of Orthodox religion and authority make him a dangerous figure for those in power — both in Tsarist Russia and also today, Vladimir believes. “Nobody is trying to throw out the idea that he is the author of great novels. But they [official Russia] don’t know what to do with his views,” he says.

Tolstoy’s lingering feud with Russia’s Orthodox church is part of the problem. The church excommunicated him in 1901, unhappy with his novel Resurrection and Tolstoy’s espousal of Christian anarchist and pacifist views. In 2001, the church reaffirmed Tolstoy’s excommunication, and conservative Russian Orthodox thinkers have even placed Tolstoy’s works on a blacklist.

Others whisper that Tolstoy’s beliefs make him un-Russian. They also moan about his unwieldy syntax. And it is hard to imagine that Tolstoy would have kind things to say in return about Putin’s bureaucratic-authoritarian state, in which black-robed priests wearing clunky gold crosses appear on pro-Kremlin talkshows.

“I feel that Leo Tolstoy needs to be defended. We need to support him morally, intellectually and emotionally,” says Ludmilla Saraskina, Russia’s foremost expert on Dostoevsky, and an acclaimed scholar of 19{+t}{+h} century Russian literature. She adds that the writer is under attack in modern day Russia from the same reactionary forces he himself criticised — the state, the army and the church. “He’s not in fashion,” she says.

Saraskina is one of several dozen academics who will defiantly take part this summer in a Tolstoy centenary conference at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s 100-plus direct descendants are also turning up for a big family party.

Some believe the reason Tolstoy has fallen out of fashion in Russia is the fact that every Russian child has to read him at school (one Russian journalist attending a press conference on Tolstoy confessed to me that she had been “overstuffed” with his work while a teenager). In Soviet times, Lenin’s view of Tolstoy prevailed: that his indictment of Tsarism made him a prophet of revolution. These days, all Russian 15-year-olds study War and Peace as part of their national curriculum. In theory, the girls are supposed to like the love scenes, with the boys captivated by the battle stuff.

In fact, girls at Moscow’s state secondary school 1,275 take an intriguingly unforgiving attitude to Natasha Rostova, Tolstoy’s heroine.

In particular, they dislike Natasha’s decision to dump her fiance, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in favour of the snake-like Anatole Kuragin. (To be fair, Prince Andrei has gone away for a year, and she is unaware that Kuragin is already married.) “I don’t like the way she cheated on Prince Andrei. I can’t forgive her for that,” Vera Sinotina, aged 17, explains.

The girls say they like the details of aristocratic life in War and Peace, a world away from the vulgar behaviour of Russia’s present elite, but it’s clear that they admire other Russian authors — especially Dostoevsky and Mikhail Bulgakov — a bit more. “It’s criminal that Russian kids have to read Tolstoy aged 14 and 15. They should read him much later,” says Sergei Yevtushenko, who composed the much acclaimed soundtrack for The Last Station while in London.

Oddly, the only country where The Last Station has yet to secure a cinema distribution deal is Russia. Deryabin is also working on a second film, Leo Tolstoy: Genius Alive, which will be shown on 20 November, 2010, the day that Tolstoy died of pneumonia at Astapovo station aged 82 — an event that triggered mourning across Russia and the world.

The 72-minute feature documentary is made up of rare black-and-white cinema footage of Tolstoy, shot at Yasnaya in 1908. It brings the sage of Yasnaya vividly back to life: Tolstoy can be seen getting on a train, scuttling off into the woods, and handing out alms to the poor — a long, wispy-bearded figure who looks very much like a living saint.

Meanwhile, in a scene from The Last Station, Countess Tolstoy turns to her guests, seated around a table in the garden, and exclaims: “You all think he’s Christ, don’t you? Well, he’s not.”

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