The Tolstoy We’ve Forgotten

188220560Anatoly Naiman in Moscow News:

On November 20, 1910 (November 7 by the old calendar), the 82-year-old Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy died at the obscure railway station of Astapovo. No death before or since has produced such a shock wave in Russia or such resonance throughout the world.

It is impossible to convey just what Tolstoy was. The closest you can come to it, if asked, would be to point a finger toward 100 or so volumes that make up his complete collected works and the memoirs people wrote about him: Read these, you might tell the inquirer, and things will be a little clearer.

But one thing is already clear, actually – that there is no answer to who Tolstoy was, and there can’t be, in principle. Dealing with Tolstoy is like dealing with a concept on the order of life, earth, or mankind: no matter how closely you examine it or try to stretch your imagination around it, the only thing you understand completely is that you can’t fit it into a formula.

Or put it this way: modernity can’t cope without the irrational value of Pi, which trails off elusively into numerical infinity. The more you read Tolstoy, and the more you read about Tolstoy, the more obvious his Pi-ness – his infinite and elusive nature – becomes.

The best at writing about Tolstoy were Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Korolenko and Alexander Kuprin, largely because they were major figures themselves; as such they were big enough to understand that the lesser are not given scales by which to measure the greater. But they could, and did, find a point from which they could observe him, both in his human simplicity and in the complexity of his spirit at a given moment.

The worst at describing him were the ideologists – including, alas, the Tolstoyans themselves. My father was a Tolstoyan (not one of the “professionals”, happily) who in 1920, as a member of the Tolstoyan community at Taininka, in the Moscow region, served the time in Butyrka prison required of those who refused to enter the military in those days. So for me Tolstoy was from childhood a sort of distant relative, a mysterious, not entirely real uncle.