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.