Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky in the NYT:
A couple of months ago one of Russia’s elder statesmen set out on a paradoxical mission: to rehabilitate one of the most beloved figures in Russian history, Tolstoy.
This would have seemed unnecessary in 2010, a century after the author’s death. But last year Russians wrestled over Tolstoy much as they did when he was alive. Intellectuals accused the Russian Orthodox Church of blacklisting a national hero. The church accused Tolstoy of helping speed the rise of the Bolsheviks. The melodrama of his last days, when he fled his family estate to take up the life of an ascetic, was revived in all its pulpy detail, like some kind of early-stage reality television.
And in a country that rarely passes up a public celebration, the anniversary of his death, on Nov. 20, 1910, was not commemorated by noisy galas or government-financed cinematic blockbusters. Officially speaking, it was barely noted at all.
With this in mind Sergei V. Stepashin, a former prime minister here, sat down to write to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become an arbiter of politics and culture. In painstakingly diplomatic language, acknowledging “the particular sensitivity” of “this delicate theme,” Mr. Stepashin asked forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, who was excommunicated 110 years ago.
The impulse had swelled up during a lonely visit to an unmarked mound of earth where Tolstoy is buried. Mr. Stepashin described the visit — made while he was director of the Federal Security Service, successor to the K.G.B. — as an emotional experience that he has never been able to shake off.
“You look at the house where he lived and worked, where he created his works, and then you come to a place where there is nothing but this small hill,” said Mr. Stepashin, who has close ties to the church. “It was puzzling, on a human and a moral plane. And then I decided to write this letter.”
Ambivalence toward Tolstoy is new in Russia.