A Russian Life

Book - 2011
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Bartlett draws extensively on key Russian sources, including much fascinating new material made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She sheds light on Tolstoy's remarkable journey from callow youth to writer to prophet; discusses his troubled relationship with his wife, Sonya, a subject long neglected; and vividly evokes the Russian landscapes Tolstoy so loved. Above all, she gives us an eloquent portrait of the brilliant, maddening, and contrary man who has, once again, been discovered by a new generation of readers.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [2011]
Edition: First U.S. edition
Copyright Date: ©2011
ISBN: 9780151014385
Characteristics: xv, 544 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : genealogical tables, illustrations, maps, portraits ; 24 cm


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Jan 15, 2012

This is a wonderful biography of Tolstoy, that can be read with profit even by those who have read previous biographies. No-one can ever write the final definitive biography for such an important figure as Tolstoy because his impact on the generations is an ongoing story. I particulary liked the anecdote about the Chechen warriors torching other Russian museums in the Caucasus but leaving the Tolstoy museum untouched.

It can't replace the much longer life of Tolstoi by Henri Troyat, but it is a worthy complement to his book. Unlike Troyat, this British author devotes a lot of attention to the Tolstoyan movement in Russia, relying on documents only recently released from state archives. Much of this is interesting and touching, but one is still left with the impression that the Tolstoyans were a quite marginal group in Russian society and are likely to remain so.

She gets a few things wrong. Tolstoy may have been riveted by what he thought was the American economist Herbert George's "central idea that all land should become common property" but George never advocated any such thing. His was a taxation proposal, aimed at taxing away pure ground tax, while exempting property improvements from taxation. Also, Tolstoy was never excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church as she states; the hierarchy backed down from going through with excommunication ceremonies in all the churches that a formal excommunication required, so Tolstoy's excommunication became null and void.


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