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Tolstoy and
Prerevolutionary Critics


By BYUNG-WOO KIM
 

Man discovers truth
         
   by reason only,
                         
 not by faith.

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On the whole, most pre-revolutionary critics liked the artist but disliked the thinker. Even when the critics thought that the function of the writer was to communicate ideas, they did not like Tolstoy’s brand of ideas. Because his conclusions did not support their own brand of social philosophy, they attacked him. They misread Tolstoy because they did not understand him. In order to show this, I will describe the current problems as seen by the prerevolutionary critics and Tolstoy’s reaction to them.

Throughout Tolstoy’s lifetime, Russian society encountered awesome problems that required wise and effective solutions as alternatives to a bloody revolt. These problems had two aspects: an outer social one, in which injustice, for example, was objectively seen; and an inner psychological one, relating to the individual, where issues often appeared as ideological. The question had become not only "what to do?" but also "what to think?" about the realities of modern life. Tolstoy's answers to either side of the dual question struck his critics as inadequate. (Sorokin, 283)

 

At first there were relatively few major changes in Russian society, and adjustment to them was not an overwhelming problem. In the 1850s and 1860s the three burning issues were the freeing of the serfs, the conflicts between the old establishment and the raznochintsy, and nihilism. Reviewers saw none of these subjects treated in young Tolstoy’s works. The landlord-serf relations, powerfully represented in "A landowner’s Morning" and "Polikushka," and the typically Tolstoyan moral contrast of peasant (good) versus gentry (bad) outlined in "Three Deaths" were seen as mere Slavophile sentiment. The message was moral, rather than social and Tolstoy never mentioned the need to free the serfs. Although the various states of mind and psychological problems of his main characters were projected against a contemporary background, the relevance of the issues raised and characters portrayed to any social issue was minor.

 

In the 1870s and 1880s, however, these problems began to aggravate. During this period, Tolstoy wrote "The Divine and the Human," in which he depicted the tragic fate of the millionaire Lisogub who, like thousands of others in those days, went to live with the peasants in their wretched villages. But this true story and the fictional story of Levin in Anna Karenina were bitterly reviewed as narodnik and Slavophile, as marred by mysticism and irrelevance to social issues. (Sorokin, 286)

By the latter part of the nineteenth century Russia’s internal problems were countless. The major issues now were industrialization, upcoming capitalism, exploitation of labor, communism, anarchism, and terrorism. Although Tolstoy had organized some famine relief in this period, his pacifism and vague Christian anarchism were blamed by his critics for insensitivity to the situation, whereas his refusal to write any more fiction annoyed them. Critics reviewed his occasional fiction as remote from reality, dealing only with universals. He was accused of quietism. It was said that he had no need to relate to the present and its experiments, just so long as he received respect.

 

The controversial Russian message of moral regeneration bears a curious resemblance to Tolstoy’s international plea for moral renewal. Yet, despite widespread popular support, the latter received almost no understanding or support from Russian critics, who dismissed it as mysticism. They thought that the causes of moral problem were external, not within man.

The most perplexing problem confronting critics of Tolstoy was to decide to whether he merely wrote well about Russia past and present, or was able to find answers to her problems and a message for the future, that is, whether Tolstoy was simply a good storyteller or a prophet. Most critics never satisfactorily resolved this dilemma. Indeed, Tolstoy himself provided the clue to the chronic misinterpretation of his message and suggested why he was so frequently misread: his message was neither social nor ideological but psychological. "It was an attempt to reconcile civilized man with his shadow-the uncivilized, irrational side of our nature that we must face in order to grow. In Tolstoy’s works this inferior side is laid open with an incisive, psychologically subtle narrative technique, which analyzes the motive factors of consciousness. These are the will and compulsion- an unconscious dynamism that replaces our wills by an involuntary motivation or impulse, ranging from mere interest to possession. Tolstoy shows this compulsion to be the great mystery of human life that often thwarts our conscious will and our reason by an inflammable element within us, appearing now as a consuming fire and now as life-giving warmth." (Sorokin, 283)

 

In summary, it can be said that the critics rejected Tolstoy’s ideas because they disagreed with his interpretation of current events. They were too "spellbound by their own ideas to understand the innovative author."(Sorokin, 36) The Russians today, however, know Tolstoy far more thoroughly than their predecessors did. The amount that has been written in Russian on Tolstoy during the past decades would fill whole libraries. Tolstoy is popular today because he understood the Russians better that any other writer. His work often dealt with Russia’s destiny, which he regarded with profound optimism. Tolstoy is perhaps the only figure in the social history of the Russians to become identified with Russia itself. When a Russian reads Tolstoy, he communicates with his forebears, he relates to his colleagues, and he understands himself better. (Fodor, 146)

 

SOURCES:

  • Fodor, Alexander. Tolstoy and the Russians. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1984.

  • Sorokin, Boris. Tolstoy in Prerevolutionary Russian Criticism. Ohio: Ohio State University, 1979.

 

 

 

 

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