Tolstoy Died a Hundred Years ago Last Saturday. Why Are Russia’s Celebrations So Muted?

This is a question that has been posed several times this year by Western journalists but few in Russia have been willing to confront it head-on. The fiery, outspoken writer Dmitry Bykov seems to have been the first to speak out, but others have followed his lead.

Bykov attributes Russia’s silence to lack of interest, lack of money, and Tolstoy’s lack of commercial potential in a cultural market dominated by translated blockbusters and foreign imports, but he also posits a deeper underlying reason – the country’s signal lack of progress in confronting the ethical issues that were still exercising Tolstoy at the very end of his life.

Tolstoy’s conscience would not allow him to remain silent about the injustice, lawless violence and poverty he saw all around him in late Tsarist Russia, and he appealed continually to his fellow countrymen to take a stand. Bykov argues that the situation is no better in early twenty-first-century Russia, but that unlike the millions of pre-revolutionary Russians for whom Tolstoy was a shining beacon of truth, his contemporaries prefer not to remember the greatness and humanity of their 19th-century writers out of a feeling of discomfort in the face of their own compromise and apathy. Tolstoy’s appeal to hearts and minds, Bykov concludes, is as futile in today’s Russia as his own self-flagellating response to the country’s disgraceful failure to honour the memory of one of its greatest citizens.

Certainly at the official level there seems no place for the views of a vegetarian pacifist anarchist who preached the brotherhood of man in a country that now exalts machismo, patriotic duty and strong government. And the influence of a resurgent Orthodox Church, which once again enjoys close ties with the Russian government, may also play a role.

Source: Rosamund Bartlett, author of Chekhov: A Life in Letters, in Open Democracy, November 19

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