A Russian Life

By Rosamund Bartlett

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 544 pages 


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.


But his writings, with the possible exception of his theological works, were
superb, and Bartlett gives many more examples in this fact-filled book how
Tolstoy drew on his own life experiences, prejudices, superstitions, and
insights in writing his novels and short stories.