On Tolstoy, Feminism, and 1%ers

I’m reading a new biography of Leo Tolstoy by Pavel Basinsky. There is no translation yet, so I can’t link to it, but I wanted to share my impressions nonetheless. (If you read in Russian, though, here is the book.)

First of all, I’m really traumatized by the story of Tolstoy’s poor wife, Sonia. If you have read Tolstoy’s Kreutzer’s Sonata, you probably already can imagine the extent of Tolstoy’s contempt for women. It turns out, however, that the writer’s wife wrote her own response to Kreutzer’s Sonata and narrated her side of their marital drama. When Tolstoy married Sonia, he was a very sexually experienced man of 35, while she was a very innocent young girl of barely 18. The way young women from “good families” were brought up at that time made them more ignorant of human sexuality than any of today’s 5-year-olds. Sonia saw her entire married life with Tolstoy as a series of rapes he constantly perpetrated against her. And this was Tolstoy, a great humanist, a deeply religious person, a philosopher whose ideas of non-violent resistance to evil later inspired Gandhi. One can only imagine what less humanistically inspired men did to their wives.

Sonia gave birth to 13 children, eight of whom survived. She spent 10 years of her life pregnant and 13 years nursing. Tolstoy insisted that she keep having children as long as she physically could, even though doctors insisted it put her life at risk. He also prevented her from getting wet nurses for her children because he believed that “breast is best.” Those who are still not sure of the value of feminism will be well-served to read about Sonia’s life and ask themselves how fair is the system where Sonia’s kind of existence was actually the best a woman could hope for.

Tolstoy was a count, a landowner, a celebrity, and a very rich man. In the last decades of his life, however, he became deeply ashamed of his existence as a 1%er and dreamt of joining the 99% in their life of hardship, poverty, and hard labor. For years, he tried to convince his family to get rid of all their property and begin living the life of poor peasants. When it became clear that they were not interested, Tolstoy ran away from home and started putting into practice his plan of being a 99%er. Of course, in the very first village he reached on his journey, he discovered that he had left behind his nail-brush, his favorite cushion, and a special ink-well that had been created especially for him. And what peasant can do without an ink-well and a nail-brush? It is not surprising that Tolstoy only survived 10 days of living as a regular Russian 99%.

I read all 14 volumes of Tolstoy’s Collected Works when I was a teenager and I always considered all of the fiction he wrote to be of very little value, except one novel, Resurrection. From Basinsky’s biography of Tolstoy, I discovered that there was one person who agreed with my evaluation of the writer’s novelistic production: Tolstoy himself. In his later years, he repudiated everything he wrote before Resurrection, including the supremely boring War and Peace and the failed attempt at imitating the French realists that is Anna Karenina.

47 thoughts on “On Tolstoy, Feminism, and 1%ers”

    1. And you are absolutely right. He was tortured with guilt about sexuality his entire life and eventually that resulted in his conversion. This is why I always saw his writings as hypocritical.


  1. My Russian Literature professor had the same view of Tolstoy. He said that he deliberately arranged the course so we would read Chekhov right after and get a break from reading Tolstoy’s “Guilt Chronicles” as he called them.


      1. Chekhov is the kind of author I could see myself grabbing a cognac with and chatting. Which is quite a nice thing, on top of him being a good writer and amazingly forward thinking in his life.


      2. Chekhov is the kind of author I could see trying not to look at me over his cognac. We would be sitting on either side of a small table. I would not know why I was there and I would think that he too did not know why I was there. He is thinking of one of his patients, I think, a hernia patient. With the cognac on the table is a cloth and under the cloth is a revolver. I cannot take my eyes off the cloth. Every once in a while, without looking at me, he picks up the snifter and sips at the cognac. Every time after setting down the glass, as he takes his hand away, his little finger brushes the cloth.


  2. Andrea Dworkin writes about The Kreutzer Sonata and also about Tolstoy raping his wife, in her book Intercourse; that’s how I knew poor Sonia’s story.

    I didn’t know she had written her own story, though! I’ll have to check that out.

    (I do love Anna Karenina, though. How Tolstoy could have such empathy for this woman he made up, and none at all for the real woman he married, mystifies me).


  3. I saw War and Peace recently on video. It seems Tolstoy had the view that the peasant has access to an animal level of being that is denied the aristocrat. Of course, the desire to access this animal level is linked to shamanism. It may well be an inherent hunger in humankind for all I know. You can’t turn it into a moral recipe, though. That makes for so much floundering around and idiocy. In effect, a Christian such as Tolstoy, trying to find his way to shamanism, is going to look awkward and strange. The sex guilt and shame thing I cannot comment upon.

    Regarding experimenting with a simpler, more peasant like level of living, that can be very refreshing if done right. I did this myself when I stayed in the outer-lying areas of Zimbabwe for about a month. (I think my richer cousin thought I was engaging in a Tolstoyian maneuver, but I had a different idea in mind — primarily to teach self defence.)

    There are real problems with education about sexuality and women’s health in Zimbabwe. In contrast to Tolstoy’s society, the lower you go in terms of socio-economic status, the less people seem to know about this. I heard, for instance, a very weird description about what happened to a friend of the woman whose house I was staying in. Apparently, her womb tipped over and all the blood spilled out and consequently she died. The same woman told me that the wrong angle of the womb was visible from the hospital X-ray.


    1. In villages people at least see animals mate and discover about sexuality from there. Also, cramped living conditions make them aware that something happens between married couples at night.

      I knew a woman of my mother’s generation who was just as innocent as Tolstoy’s wife on her wedding night and who was also raped by her husband in a really horrible way. She ran home to her parents but they turned her out, so she had to go back to her husband. They have lived together for over 40 years and her hatred for him is still very intense. And understandably so.


    2. This is a side note, but the problem you describe here is called uterine torsion. (It can happen to the ovaries too, and is slightly more common.) Considered one of the more agonizing ways to die; death frequently occurs as a result of rupture of the uterine arteries, which accounts for them thinking the blood ‘spilled out’.


  4. well Gandhi did weird things to his wife too. I am not defending anybody but will just point out two things to try and restore some sort of balance to the discussion :
    a) People ought to be judged according to the times and social mores they lived in.
    b) A lot of artists, intellectuals, politicians, etc. we are indebted to for their great ideas or work in some field may have been extremely imperfect in other areas, etc.

    About Tolstoy’s literary merit, I do not read Russian, have not read more than a few of his works, and am not a literature scholar (you are the one who satisfies all those criteria 😀 ), but I have liked the ones I have read including Anna Karenina, and although shades of misogyny are very evident in some works, he also redeems himself in places (there is Anna and there is a short story where he comments on the sexual hypocrisies of aristocratic men of his time) and comes across as an intelligent and observant writer. I find it interesting that you disparage him so much. Is it just because of the ideology he stands for that you so detest, or do you discount altogether his writerly abilities? If so, why do you think he is such a celebrated author? Was an entire generation of literary scholars misguided in your opinion?


    1. Anna is a pathetic, miserable, hysterical drug addict.

      “People ought to be judged according to the times and social mores they lived in.”

      -I disagree with this completely. There were always people capable and incapable of rape. Their numbers never change. In this thread, I told a similar story that happened over 100 years later. Tolstoy himself obviously understood that what he kept doing to his wife was horrible. In his diaries, where he was honest about every aspect of his life, he studiously avoided any mention of the rapes.


  5. bloggerclarissa :
    Anna is a pathetic, miserable, hysterical drug addict.

    A lot of men are capable of loving and admiring a woman so long as she is damaged. They find that state of being “touching”. If she speaks out against damaging forces, she becomes a monster — somehow “unfeminine” and therefore also extremely unlovable.


  6. nominatissima :
    Hence the popularity of Broken Bird, Troubled But Cute, Break the Haughty, and Break the Cutie in popular culture?

    I’m sure. It’s sado-masochism, plain and simple. Many men get turned on if they think the woman is masochistic. Otherwise, they lose their self-esteem and discover all the ways they can’t relate to another human being — which is demoralising.


  7. “There were always people capable and incapable of rape.” And I disagree with this completely. What about periods of conflict – wars and riots – when otherwise law-abiding seemingly innocent men turn into killers and rapists?

    Also, I agree that there are limits to moral relativism, and it probably should not be extended to something universally detestable as murder and rape. My comment about judging people according to the times was more in the context of the kind of ideas and attitudes they held. Also since I haven’t read this book in question or any sort of comprehensive biography of Tolstoy I wasn’t aware of these rapes that you now mention. Your earlier statement, “Sonia ‘saw her’ entire married life with Tolstoy as a series of rapes he constantly perpetrated against her” certainly left an element of ambiguity about these “rapes”, which are not easy to establish now.


    1. “What about periods of conflict – wars and riots – when otherwise law-abiding seemingly innocent men turn into killers and rapists”

      -No event can bring out of you what isn’t already there.


  8. But you did not answer my question about literary merit.
    So what if you don’t particularly like Anna as a character, I don’t much like Humbert. That doesn’t stop Lolita from being a great novel. Nor does Polansky’s being statutory rapist make “Rosemary’s baby” a dull movie. I am only coaxing you to be more objective.


    1. In terms of artistic merit of Anna Karenina, I honestly don’t see any. Tolstoy was studiously rewriting the famous French authors of the “novel of adultery.” When Spain’s Leopoldo Alas rewrote Madame Bovary, he did it in a way that added so much unique value to the trite plot of an adulterous wife, that he created a masterpiece which was much higher in quality than Flaubert’s original novel.

      Tolstoy, in my opinion, managed to do nothing of the kind. His novel is secondary. It’s a pale copy of the originals he was imitating, at best.

      This is, of course, my own reading.


      1. I had to read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace in high school and I didn’t like either one. In AK, I found the parts with Anna to feel completely fake and her character to have no depth [the parts with Kitty and Levin (sp?) were much more realistic]. I am not a literary critic, obviously, but IMHO Tolstoy writes epic scenes well. People, especially women — not so much.

        I enjoyed Madame Bovary, though. She came across like an actual person. I’m now intrigued to read Leopoldo Alas’s take on the story.


  9. “No event can bring out of you what isn’t already there.”
    Then it’s there in most people, although I’m not going to actually take the trouble to go look for it, deep inside myself or other people. So maybe you can say this is my reading of it.


    1. Where is the statistics on “most people” coming from? In any riot, for example, there is always just a small group of criminals who terrorize people. usually, those are people who already had criminal history.


  10. FD :
    This is a side note, but the problem you describe here is called uterine torsion. (It can happen to the ovaries too, and is slightly more common.) Considered one of the more agonizing ways to die; death frequently occurs as a result of rupture of the uterine arteries, which accounts for them thinking the blood ‘spilled out’.

    Oh, I see. That could have been, in fact, what happened.


    1. Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, and twice as ghastly – just thinking about it gives me the shudders and I’m not particularly squeamish.


  11. The word “riot” probably doesn’t have the same import in the West as it does in the subcontinent. My apologies for choosing a bad example. Think Congo and the rape epidemic there, or even South Africa which sees a lot of sexual violence even without war, if that helps.


    1. Yeah they got epidemic rape and murder each individual case is not that big a deal. Furthermore I am a good person who is saving the world by voting Democrat and driving a Prius.

      nominatissima :Hence the popularity of Broken Bird, Troubled But Cute, Break the Haughty, and Break the Cutie in popular culture?

      What’s this then?


      1. I ‘unno. Sounds kinda S&M. Or maybe those weird names they give secret military operations?

        Operation Troubled but Cute — the CIA plot to steal Vladimir Putin’s inexplicable sex appeal.


  12. “Are you saying that the high incidence of rape in South Africa somehow makes those rapes less horrific? Less morally wrong?” Somehow we have managed to lose the whole thread of the debate here. Never mind. Let’s move on. To an extent, I was playing a devil’s advocate anyway. 🙂


  13. I suppose you wrote this to vent out both your few real and many self-imagined frustrations and hatreds against the world and specially men, and that you intended this to make anyone, specially men, angry.
    I’m not, however. I just smile thinking about how insignificant the hysterical rants of a dysthimic teenage mind trapped inside an adult (which is you) are, compared to the greatness of Tolstoy’s work.
    All your rants go barely noticed on one unknown corner of the web, and you will be forgotten almost as soon as you die, while Tolstoy has been remembered for a century and will still be remembered, admired, and will keep influencing people to be better for many more, very long after your bones have turned into dust.
    You have so little influence and are so powerless to change this, that you might not have written anything, and the world would be exactly the same as it is now.



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