How Copyright Laws Killed Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s intellectual journey brought him to a realization that works of art and ideas should not be privately owned. Tolstoy didn’t want to make anybody believe what he did. All he wanted was to share his own work with the world.

In the last three decades of the writer’s long life, he was driven by a single powerful wish. Tolstoy wanted to ensure that after his death, everybody who wanted to read his books could do so for free. He felt that most of the people in tsarist Russia who really needed to have access to his ideas might be too poor to buy the books. Time and again, Tolstoy expressed his wish to have the entirety of his creative production made available to the world. He published articles and official statements to this effect, he begged his family members and friends to respect his wishes and make this possible, he wrote several wills making this desire of his very explicit, and he filled several volumes of his diaries with worries as to whether he would be able to make the gift of his art to the world.

The copyright laws of the Russian Empire, however, made Tolstoy’s dream impossible. There was simply no provision among them that would allow people to put the fruits of their intellectual and creative labor into open access. Tolstoy’s lawyers told the writer that only an individual or a group of specific individuals could inherit his works.

The writer’s family and friends had no respect for Tolstoy’s ideas. Or they didn’t have enough of it to renounce the huge profits that ownership of the rights to his collected works would bring. Tolstoy spent the last years of his life feeling torn apart by his relatives and acquaintances who bickered and schemed for the right to inherit his work. At that point, Tolstoy felt horrified by the idea of possessing any private property. Thirty years before he died, he transferred all of his money and land to his wife and children. However, the idea that readers would be deprived of reading his books so that his dissolute and useless sons would be able to booze their way into the grave was intolerable to the writer. In vain did he consult lawyers and beg the authorities to allow him to dispose of his creative legacy the way he wanted to.

Eventually, the screaming matches between the hopeful heirs became so impossible for the ailing old man to stand that Tolstoy ran away from home. He felt that even one more day of listening to endless arguments about copyright laws and inheritances would drive him mad. All the writer wanted was to dedicate the last months of his life to peaceful contemplation of his journey towards God. This wasn’t meant to be. Ten days after running away from home, Tolstoy died.

The bickering over the rights to his work continued for decades after that.

Clarissa Meets Che

After we spent over an hour discussing Che Guevara’s life and his assassination by the CIA in 1967, I asked students if they had any questions.

“You told us about how you listened to Fidel Castro’s speeches in Cuba,” one of the students said. “Did you ever meet Che? Or hear him speak?”

Nobody laughed.

I’ve spent the past 15 minutes staring at myself in the mirror, trying to determine whether I really look that ancient or if this is simply a bad day for me.

Well, at least nobody asked me about my experiences during World War I.

Don’t Mess With Soviet Women!

What people don’t get is that they can’t just come to a person’s blog, skim a few posts, insult their professionalism, abuse the people they work with, and expect to be treated nicely in response. It is especially ludicrous to attack a Soviet woman and to expect not to be attacked in return.

We, the women who were born in the Soviet Union, are very powerful and aggressive. You try to bully us, and we will bully you right back in ways you are not likely to forget any time soon. Don’t expect a Soviet woman to crawl into a corner and feel all sad after she is insulted. If anybody is likely to sit there and cry in this situation, it’s the offender.

So if you want to offend people with impunity, you alighted on the wrong blog. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.


How to Write Emails in a Professional or Academic Context

I just received the following two emails from students and I’m sitting here, fuming.

Email 1.

I’m read the material need for the final paper but I do not understand it. I am confused and is unsure how to start my Final paper.

Email 2.

Do to my computer internet not workin at home, I was not able to send it to you at the moment you requested. Sorry for the inconvience but i made sure i sent it as soon as i back.

That’s all the emails contained. I did not edit them in any way. There is no signature or any information that would allow me to identify these students. I have no idea which of my courses they are taking. There was no subject line, either.

Mind you, these students know how to write a correct sentence. We’ve done enough written assignments in both of my courses for me to know that I don’t have students who always write as badly as this. It’s just in the email format that they regale me with something like this. Why, people, why? And this is the technology generation we have been hearing about?

I’m so fed up with getting this kind of email that I just devised a PowerPoint presentation for them on how to write emails in a professional context. I know that the PowerPoint sounds snooty and patronizing, and I hate doing that to students. But I can’t face a flurry of such emails at the end of the semester, and I know they are coming.

Here is the presentation if you are interested:

How to Write Emails

Is there anything I should change or add?


I kept wondering what makes so many of my students each year state in the final exam that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were gay. Finally, the mystery has been solved. The following statement from the documentary we watch in class was what gave them that impression: “Between Ernesto and Fidel the attraction is mutual. Their relationship will last for 10 years.”

There is also a reference to Che Guevara having “the beauty of an archangel.” And, as we all know, all beautiful men have to be gay, right?

Homophobia on the Offensive in Russia

Russia is preparing for the elections to its parliament (called Duma.) Everybody knows that the elections will be a sham. The government forces state employees to vote for the party that is currently in power by threatening to fire them. It forces business people to vote the “right” way by threatening them with sanctions in case they refuse. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the results of the elections have been predetermined. The Russian Prime-Minister Putin doesn’t even try to conceal that he is the puppet-master behind the current lame-duck President Medvedev.

So what do you do when you are planning to perpetrate such a massive electoral fraud against the people of your country? The answer is clear: distract them by something that will make them feel good and in control. It is no surprise that the authorities of St. Petersburg have introduced a bill that will impose fines on everybody who “engages in propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia.” Of course, the idea that homosexuality can be “promoted” makes as much sense as a plan to promote tallness. I’ve tried asking many a homophobe how much “propaganda” of gayness would be enough to make them gay. The answer is always the same: “Of course, nothing would make me gay, but I’m just worried about others.” Equating homosexuality and pedophilia, like this bill does, is also egregiously offensive.

However, many people in the fiercely homophobic Russia that inherited its hatred of homosexuality from the Soviet Union are happy about this bill. The authorities humiliate them by using them to pretend that there is some form of democracy in Russia. In reality, though, people are powerless to choose who will be in charge of their country. The attacks on gays make these downtrodden and humiliated people feel proud of their heterosexuality because there isn’t much else to be proud of. The suggestion that homosexuality can be promoted makes the heterosexual majority feel that sexual orientation is a choice and congratulate itself for making the “right” and the “moral” choice on this issue.

The anti-gay bill in St. Petersburg is still under review. Other areas in Russia, however, have already implemented this kind of legislation (Arkhangelsk and Ryazan). The economy in these areas is in even worse shape than elsewhere in the country, which gives their inhabitants more reasons to be unhappy with the government. And whenever popular discontent in Russia grows, you can always expect to see a distracting maneuver aimed at getting people to concentrate on their hatred towards some marginalized group instead of questioning the ruling party.