Notes on Political Correctness

In January 2018 the conservative National Review magazine published a piece The Most Ridiculous PC Moments of 2017 . The comedian and television personality Katherine Timpf commented on eleven nonsensical episodes of political correctness on campus and elsewhere.…

“Novelists are now employing ‘sensitivity readers’ in order to make sure that they don’t portray fictional characters from other communities in an inaccurate way. Note: No one actually knows how to portray a fictional person ‘accurately,’ because fictional people do not exist. In all seriousness, this trend is a terrifying one that threatens to ruin the art of fiction as we know it.”

I believe the comedian is right. Political correctness has gone too far. It threatens freedom of expression at universities and in publishing.

Thus, the PC people propose we stop studying Shakespeare and Mark Twain. They intimidate writers and publishers by setting off online outrage against books they deem offensive. But the definition of “offensive” is vague. It can be endlessly stretched. This is why hiring “sensitivity readers” will not always work. Someone who looks for cultural stereotypes will find them between the lines.

When in 2009 my book, Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography was being published, my editor insisted on removing the word “black” from the following paragraph: “A famous tragedian of the day, the black American actor Ira Aldridge, was on tour in Russia and his performance in Moscow was not to be missed.” Ira Aldridge was playing Othello, so I failed to understand how this could be offensive and did not budge. In the end, my editor, who threatened to delay my book’s publication, backed off.

Today there’s also much ado over the issue of cultural appropriation. I find this issue highly confusing and debatable. A few years ago at a writers’ conference an aspiring Canadian writer, a German immigrant married to an aboriginal man, asked whether she can write a fictional story about her neighbors on an Indian reserve. She said she attempted to publish her stories, but was always refused––not because her stories were bad, but because of the cultural appropriation issue. She argued that she did not write outside her immediate experience: she lived with an aboriginal man next to the reserve. “Does the Canadian government prohibit writers of non-aboriginal ancestry to explore aboriginal subjects?” she asked.

When it comes to cultural appropriation I also want to ask seemingly naïve questions. What does it mean to write outside one’s own cultural experience? Journalists, scholars, artists, and writers have always explored unchartered territories with success. (As in the Shakespearean play cited above.)

The best and most comprehensive nineteenth-century dictionary of the Russian language was compiled by Vladimir Dahl, neither an ethnic Russian nor a trained lexicographer. Dahl, whose father was Danish and whose mother was of mixed German and French ancestry, had served in the Russian Navy and was later trained as a military doctor. Yet, his dictionary of the Russian language informed generations of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Some of the most influential books on Ukraine’s famine were written by Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum, also the author of the Gulag. Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine has just been named the 2018 world’s best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs.

For centuries foreigners produced illuminating and astute travel accounts. George Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia captures ethnographies and histories of Siberia’s native peoples. This book continues to inform audiences, and no one yet complained about cultural appropriation.

Are we traveling less in the age of globalization? Can we travel and can explore another culture but cannot write about it? Was Life of Pi, Yan Martel’s best-selling novel about India, cultural appropriation? The truth is––nobody cares.

Yet, a Canadian editor of Write magazine Hal Niedzviecki was forced to resign for urging white middle-class writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.” In 2017 a campaign of shaming was launched against him and his supporters.

Would these PC people shame the French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin for his Tahiti paintings?

This March I learned that the Cambridge Dictionary will include the term “cultural appropriation” and will define it as cultural theft.…

Actually, writers and artists do not steal from other cultures––they create their own work, which enriches us globally.

Cultural appropriation strikes me as a brainchild of a radical minority, empowered by social media.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and the notion of enforced “political correctness” brings back the memory of political censorship.

Do we want censorship in the free world?


In One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Márquez tells how in Macondo three thousand workers are machine-gunned at the behest of a ruthless banana company. Their corpses are thrown into the sea and relatives are told that there haven’t been any dead bodies: “You must have been dreaming… Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened…This is a happy town.” Residents accept the official account and dismiss the testimony of the only survivor. But subsequently the town sinks into ruin. Such is the story of Macondo, and of all world dictatorships, which leave a destructive, lasting, and demoralizing legacy.

The brutal Stalinist regime left Russia depopulated and suffering from collective loss of memory. Millions were destroyed in the Gulag and during the Terror Famine. But in Putin’s Russia, the history of Communist terror has been replaced with the myth of the country’s great past. There is no national monument to the numerous victims; instead, there are calls to restore monuments and museums honoring Stalin. Recently, in her Nobel lecture Svetlana Alexievich called Russia “a country without memory, the space of total amnesia.”

The loss of Russia’s national memory is the main theme in Sergei Lebedev’s insightful debut novel, Oblivion. It belongs to a new generation literature examining the impact of Stalinism on Russia today. The novel is masterfully translated by Antonina W. Bouis, whose list comprises 80 titles––writings by famous Soviet and post-Soviet authors as diverse as Mikhail Bulgakov and the Nobel Prize Laureates Alexievich and Andrei Sakharov. Lebedev’s compressed metaphorical novel is the prose of a poet, and Bouis renders his original style effortlessly and artfully.

Lebedev’s writing benefitted from his training as a geologist: he can read the story in a rock or the tundra permafrost. As a poet, he tells it through imagery, creating sensual portraits of objects: “It was through a break in the fog that I saw the barracks in a mountain pass… The barracks stood like plywood cargo crates in which people were stacked… The outlines felt like a long scream…” Having traveled widely in Siberia and Russia’s north, Lebedev had come across the many decaying barracks of the Gulag Archipelago. Soviet labor camps were constructed in desolate places with no witnesses, at the “limit of the inhabited world,” as Lebedev aptly puts it. Russia’s vastness helped conceal the existence of prison camps where conditions were similar to the Mauthausen. Scientists, philosophers, writers, dispossessed peasants, and international communists shared a single and horrible fate. Branded as “enemies of the people,” they were starved and worked to death in uranium and gold mines or constructing railroads and canals. Lebedev creates a collective portrait of the generation, which vanished without a trace, of people whose lives were “smashed” by the will of the state. His novel traces their experiences through visions and dreams––of people becoming prisoners instantaneously; of freight cars with barred windows; of a train engineer unaware he is transporting his own brother to the Gulag. Robbed of names, families, and freedom, multitudes were banished to places where everything from landscape to speech was meant to dehumanize. Their destruction was complete: branded as “enemies of the people,” they were crossed out of contemporary records and died in anonymity, so that “their deaths took place in geography, not in history.”

The Soviet State viewed its people as dispensable and their lives as subordinate to production targets. But the gigantic construction projects, devised by the Party and built by slave labor, such as the White Sea canal and railways constructed beyond the Polar Circle, proved useless. Lebedev alludes to this through the story of an abandoned railroad he saw in the mountains near the Arctic Ocean. He makes the reader feel the anguish of prisoners who cleared the rock with bare hands, only to realize futility of their labor. The railway line was left unfinished: “the ends of rusty rails hung over the emptiness.” The mountain, where prisoners toiled, opens a view to the lake with striking contours: “A mean trick of nature, a joke that had waited several million years: the lake looked like Lenin’s profile, which was imprinted on us by medals, badges, stamps, statues, paintings, and drawings in books.” Numerous lives were sacrificed to the socialist dogma. Soviet history was a series of falsifications, its ideals were stillborn, and the end of the Soviet era spelled out their demise. Soviet textbooks and insignia with Lenin’s profile were discarded; paper money, too toxic to be burned, was dumped in plastic bags in a northern mine. But Stalinism did not end there: the old guard resisted the change.

Oblivion is a first person account, a meditation on the memory of millions, and on personal memory. The narrator recalls his family’s neighbor at their dacha, whom he had met in childhood and whom he named Grandfather II. The old man is hiding his past, so his story unwinds slowly, until it becomes apparent that Grandfather II was a warden in a Gulag camp where prisoners dug radioactive ore; he had “administered death through labor.” For this service the state rewarded him with a luxury apartment. Grandfather II is blind, and his secretiveness and blindness are suggestive of Russia’s suppression of facts about the past. Having outlasted his epoch, “dead inside,” the old man wants to continue living through the boy. The episode of Grandfather II saving the boy’s life by donating his “scrawny” blood is symbolic. The transfusion takes place in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the new era dawned. Grandfather II dies, and the boy, saved by his blood, grows “like a graft on old wood.” This is a fitting image for an embryonic Russian democracy, grafted on Stalinist stock.

The Stalinist legacy is pervasive in contemporary Russia: “There were barriers everywhere, warning signs, ‘no entry’ symbols, guard booths…Man … was not master in these lands, and the guard booths were the architectural descendants of prison camp guardhouses; this land was infected with a fungus, the fungus of the watchman, and all of this, the fences, wire, barricades, was like a single never-ending shout: ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’” The northern town, where Grandfather II had lived supervising prisoners in a nearby uranium mine, was built by slave labor. Every brick tells the story of working under duress. Love of labor has been destroyed here forever, which is why “the whole town drank,” its residents bent on self-destruction. The town’s self-isolation is a part of the Soviet legacy and of Russia’s present. The town “cut off its own path to the outside, destroyed the window to the big world.”

Russia’s failure to deal with its Stalinist legacy, to establish the truth by remembering the millions who died, has invited the past to return. Lebedev’s imaginative novel is thoroughly pessimistic, as it’s meant to be: “This text is a memorial, a wailing wall, for the dead and the mourners have no other place to meet, except by the wall of words…” An insightful and soulful tale about Russia’s historical amnesia, Oblivion speaks of the need for us to remember and to renounce evil regimes with their man-made calamities.



The BBC Adaptation of War and Peace

The BBC has produced an adaptation of War and Peace featuring scenes of nudity and incest. The adaptation, by Andrew Davis, will air in the New Year. As The Telegraph writes, Davis is known “for his racy take on Pride and Prejudice and for admitting that he read Austen’s book only when he undertook the project.

So, does Tolstoy depict an incestuous relationship? I read War and Peace many times in Russian and in translations by Anthony Briggs, and Pevear and Volokhonsky. I will be quoting here from the latter, but first a few words about Tolstoy’s plot.

Scholars are now debating Tolstoy’s intention in depicting Anatole and Hélèn Kuragin, more specifically the brother and sister relationship. I believe there is hardly any need to speculate––Tolstoy clearly suggests it involved incest.

When Pierre Bezukhov receives a vast inheritance, becoming a millionaire overnight, the Kuragin family at once considers him a match for their beautiful daughter, Hélèn. During Anna Pavlovna’s soirée, attended by the cream of Petersburg aristocracy, Hélèn is seated next to Pierre: money and beauty go together.

Pierre is divided in his heart between everyone’s expectations of him to marry Hélèn and the unattractive things he knows about her: “I’ve been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story, and that’s why Anatole was sent away.”

True, not everything Tolstoy wrote appears in the final draft. As Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, writes in her autobiography, she persuaded her husband to exclude some “cynical scenes” involving the beautiful Hélèn Kuragina. However, Tolstoy was no puritan and an ardent reviser, so it’s hard to know whether he heeded her advice or slashed some paragraphs because he wanted to.

In an early draft, published in Tolstoy’s 90-volume Collected Works, the brother and sister relationship is shown in more detail. Anatole refuses to leave his sister’s room until the small hours of the morning; their mother, entering unexpectedly, witnesses Anatole caressing Hélèn. Tolstoy further suggests that Anatole experiences sexual arousal and that Hélèn enjoys being fondled. After the incident the old Prince Kuragin strictly forbids brother and sister to be together and sends Anatole away.

Tolstoy undoubtedly implies an incestuous relationship. But he certainly doesn’t show brother and sister in bed. It is enough to depict Anatole’s sensuality, to show “animal” expression on his face when he is caressing Hélèn’s bare shoulders. Less is more––the reader gets the message.

I believe that scenes of nudity in the BBC production of War and Peace will not affect audiences as much as Tolstoy’s implication, which leaves room for imagination.

Finally, because I know and love the novel, I unlikely will be watching the BBC production, although I also realize that some viewers may be drawn to the adaptation because of the bedroom scene. And this is regrettable. While scandal helps draw attention to the film, it takes away the audience’s attention from the book.

Fifteen years ago a Russian publisher produced Tolstoy’s magnificent novel without the war and philosophical parts––a sensational publication of War and Peace minus the war. The BBC adaptation strikes me as an attempt to sell the masterpiece on the strength of nude scenes, to which modern audiences are accustomed, but which present some novelty because this is about nineteenth-century aristocracy.

Russia’s ‘Year of Literature’


Russia has proclaimed 2015 the Year of Literature. Coming from the state where nothing happens without Putin’s personal approval, the initiative can only inspire scepticism, not pride.

Throughout Russia’s history, genuine writers were the main opposition to authoritarian regimes and were relentlessly harassed for speaking out. Sensing hypocrisy, Kommersant newspaper is publishing a calendar of Russia’s literary persecutions: e.g., February 24 marks Leo Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Orthodox Church and February 28 confiscation of Vasily Grossman’s famous novel, Life and Fate.

If the Kommersant calendar of Russia’s literary harassments were comprehensive there would be enough cases of writers’ arrests, book banning, deportations, and murder to mark every day of a year. All literary celebrations in Russia begin with Alexander Pushkin, the national genius and the country’s pride. The poet, however, pursued his entire writing career under police surveillance. Censored by the Tsar himself and prohibited from traveling even within Russia, he needed a special permit to publish and to read his poems to friends.

Tolstoy lived under police surveillance for 50 years. Russia’s intellectuals were always watched; yet, there are more police reports on Tolstoy than on any other public figure. Three police departments maintained constant surveillance. Scrutiny was intensified during Tolstoy’s last decades, after he had denounced the authoritarian regime and its obedient Orthodox Church. Tolstoy accused the Church of endorsing all repressive government policies and war. Had Tolstoy lived today, he would protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the role of the official Church, which hasn’t changed. During Tolstoy’s life, his nonfiction circulated in underground copies. It was never reprinted in Soviet Russia; will it be celebrated today?

Back to the calendar of literary persecutions: April 23 will mark an anniversary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s incarceration in Peter and Paul’s Fortress. In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for belonging to a group studying utopian socialism and narrowly avoided execution by firing squad. The day when his death sentence was commuted to hard labour in Siberia was the happiest in his life, he said: Dostoevsky was singing in his cell. Later, when he became loyal to the regime, the police still treated him as a former political convict, confiscating some of his manuscripts at the Russian border.

The fate of twentieth-century writers was far more tragic: under the Soviet dictatorship 2,000 were arrested and of those 1,500 perished in the gulags. Every Soviet republic lost its bravest and most talented. In Russia, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, and Osip Mandelstam were among those tortured and killed under Stalin. Mandelstam was re-arrested on May 2, 1938, for composing a satirical poem about Stalin; he died that year in a transitory camp in the Far East. As he had famously remarked, “Poetry is respected only in this country––people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Mandelstam’s spiritual legacy survives today only because his widow, Nadezhda, was heroically hiding it for decades from the authorities.

The Soviet state routinely persecuted writers, seizing their manuscripts, libraries, and archives in the course of arrests. There was one case though when a novel was “arrested” independently from its author.

On February 28, 1961, the writers’ community in Moscow, to which my family belonged, was shaken by the news that the KGB had searched Vasily Grossman’s apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his major novel, Life and Fate. Depicting WWII, the Gulag, and the Holocaust this novel is compared today to War and Peace––both in scope and mastery. However, the author died without seeing his masterpiece published or his papers returned to him. Grossman was the first to compare, with clarity and depth, the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian systems. Timely release of this novel would have had tremendous impact on Soviet Russia and would have changed what the nation knew about its Stalinist past. Sensing a threat to the regime, the authorities vowed to keep it suppressed for 200 years; in the event, they succeeded in postponing the book’s publication by three decades. In December 2013, the FSB released Grossman’s papers from its vaults, much to surprise and delight of the Russian State Archive for Literature and Arts. This archive had long petitioned the authorities to release all confiscated writers’ libraries and manuscripts, including Grossman’s.

Writers’ deportations should also be marked on the calendar, like feast days: along with freedom deportees were awarded world fame. Joseph Brodsky was put on a plane to Vienna on June 4, 1972; Alexander Solzhenitsyn was flown to West Germany on February 14, 1974. (A tradition of exiling Russia’s intellectuals to Germany is an old one.

In 1922, protesting Lenin’s deportations, the German chancellor quipped that “Germany was not Siberia.” The list of Russia’s literary martyrs is long and distinguished. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Mikhail Bulgakov were not imprisoned, but they endured decades of persecution.

Bulgakov, to whom Stalin himself had repeatedly denied publication, died in obscurity on March 10, 1939. A brilliant satirical writer and playwright, he was destined for posthumous world fame. One of the finest poets of her generation, Tsvetaeva was driven to despair and took her own life on August 31, 1941. It should be noted that by the end of the Soviet era, the same Party officials who earlier prohibited Bulgakov’s and Tsvetaeva’s works were showing off the volumes in their own libraries––not because they came to value genuine literature, but because these editions were impossible to get.

During the Year of Russia’s Literature officials will make speeches, to be broadcast through state-controlled media. This strikes me as ironic, since writers succeeded despite government interference in their lives and work. Today, the state is broadening its sphere of influence, and Soviet practices of controlling literature are being revived. Last December, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky said that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should be excluded from the high school curriculum as inappropriate. The minister, whose previous responsibilities include the Federal Tax Police and the menacing Presidential Commission Against the Falsification of History, will determine the lists of books for patriotic reading. Will Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, and Grossman make it to the recommended lists?

Tolstoy’s False Disciple –– Q&A

I am publishing my answers to questions about my book, “Tolstoy’s False Disciple,” that I have received through social media and during the book’s launch at McNally Robinson Bookstore in Saskatoon.

Q. How intimate were Tolstoy and Chertkov?

A. Tolstoy’s contemporary biographer and translator, Aylmer Maude, describes the relationship as intimate and non-transparent. Chertkov was at the center of events that generated lasting controversy––Tolstoy’s signing of the secret will, his flight from home at eighty-two, and his pathetic death at Astapovo. This is when Chertkov was first brought into the public eye. But it remains little known that he was Tolstoy’s companion and confidante for three decades.

Tolstoy’s personal doctor, Makovitsky, describes Chertkov’s influence over the writer as “tremendous and despotic.” Sophia alleged that her husband’s relationship with Chertkov was homosexual in nature. She implied this in her diary (not all her entries are published to this day) and spoke her mind with Makovitsky and the writer’s secretary, Bulgakov. Because of Tolstoy’s moral authority, her allegations were dismissed. But this doesn’t mean that Sophia’s suspicion was unfounded.

In fact, it’s hard to explain Tolstoy’s attachment otherwise. The only thing they shared was Tolstoy’s religion. But this doesn’t justify the exclusive relationship: Tolstoy had other followers and a dogmatic Chertkov could not contribute any ideas to him.
Tolstoy referred to Chertkov as the man he “most needed,” the “person closest” to him, and frequently wrote him about his love. The two had secrets, and some of their early exchange was destroyed by mutual consent. The writer’s son-in-law, Mikhail Sukhotin (his full diary also remains unpublished) has remarked that Tolstoy loved Chertkov “with exceptional tenderness, partially and blindly” and this love drove him “to become completely subordinated to Chertkov’s will.”

Tolstoy did have homosexual leanings, having admitted in his youthful diary, that he had been in love with men.

Q. What do you think about Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Chertkov in The Last Station?

A. Giamatti portrays Chertkov as a conniving adviser to Tolstoy, and I think he got it right.

Actually, the most surprising thing about Chertkov was his banality. He did not value Tolstoy’s talent and time and was manipulative and rude with him.

Q. Did Chertkov ever marry?

A. Chertkov had homosexual relationships, and married through Tolstoy’s insistence. His wife was a semi-invalid, who spent much of her life in a wheelchair.

Q. Was Chertkov an agent of the secret police? And if so, did he spy on Tolstoy from the very beginning?

A. Tolstoy lived under surveillance for fifty years. Chertkov met him in the fall of 1883, soon after the police watch was intensified. This was because Tolstoy in his new writings began to challenge the Orthodox Church and the authoritarian state. The secret police collected information about Tolstoy’s causes, writing, and private life. During his last decades Tolstoy lived under double surveillance: in addition to the police scrutiny Chertkov arranged to keep a copy of his entire correspondence and diaries. The disciple insisted on this privilege despite Tolstoy’s objections. Over the years, Chertkov employed secretaries who aside from helping Tolstoy copied for Chertkov. He was obsessed with Tolstoy, but his method of collecting intelligence resembles that of the secret police.

Chertkov’s family was close to the tsars and to the interior ministry, and he maintained close ties to the establishment. His lifelong friend, Dmitry Trepov, was the chief of the gendarmes, and later an assistant minister of the interior. Trepov is infamous for organizing Jewish pogroms and shooting student demonstrators. Chertkov called him “a decent man.” Chertkov’s other friend was a member of the secret police. While it is unknown what role Chertkov played in surveillance over Tolstoy, his handwriting was identified on one of the reports to the Petersburg Police Department.

Chertkov was a chronic manipulator and schemer with a knack for conspiracy. These traits would make him ideally suited for clandestine activity.

Q. Was Chertkov a psychopath?

A. Chertkov’s intricate plots and a secret will he imposed on Tolstoy suggest he had a psychopathic mind. His exaggerated sense of self-worth, emotional shallowness, superficial charm, and persuasiveness would make him a case study. He was also quarrelsome and despotic and, as Maude writes, had an unmatched ability to impose his will on other people: “Everybody connected with him became his instrument, quarreled with him, or had to escape.” Tolstoy admitted that Chertkov was “a difficult man.”

Q. Why did Tolstoy maintain a lasting relationship with such a man?

A. This question drives my book. Tolstoy’s contemporaries, including Bulgakov, were unable to fathom the relationship. In his marginally published memoir Bulgakov asks, rhetorically, how could such a man as Tolstoy love such a man as Chertkov? There is no rational answer to this.
I think that Tolstoy maintained the relationship because he loved Chertkov and also because he was afraid that Chertkov would not spare him if they broke up. So, he tried to appease his companion by satisfying all his demands for privileges and promotions. But this only inspired Chertkov to demand more. His ultimate goal was to become the executor of Tolstoy’s literary estate, and to possess the writer’s manuscripts. This is why Chertkov imposed a secret will on the writer. When, after signing it, Tolstoy attempted to change his mind, Chertkov threatened him with a scandal. Later, Chertkov composed a persuasive, but entirely false account of Tolstoy’s final year, misleading biographers and the public for a century.

Q. How does your book affect what we know about Tolstoy?

A. The book tells about Tolstoy’s behind-the-scenes relationship, which impacted his private and public lives. Chertkov was responsible for Tolstoy’s marital conflicts and eventual alienation from his wife. He also aspired to the role of Tolstoy’s editor and censor. As such, he meddled in Tolstoy’s work, took his energy and time, and nipped many of his ideas in the bud.

Chertkov introduced secrecy into Tolstoy’s life. It’s disappointing that Tolstoy preached high morals, despite his involvement with a cad. Tolstoy used his authority to promote Chertkov and to silence his scandals, all of which was against his beliefs. This shows that Tolstoy was inconsistent and weak in private life, unable to defend his own privacy and peace, let alone such benefits for his family.
Tags: Tolstoy, Chertkov, homosexuality, Paul Giamatti, psychopaths, Russian secret police, The Last Station

Tolstoy’s Writing Advice

Today, authors approach famous writers for a book cover blurb. Few expect honest advice.

But over a century ago, when beginning writers sent their manuscripts to Tolstoy, they wanted his advice and some even asked him to revise their prose. He was generous with his time and frequently helped authors from underprivileged backgrounds. In some cases, their prose would get published because Tolstoy had marked it.

His suggestions to authors were paradoxical: Tolstoy advised them not to write, unless they felt it was absolutely necessary, and never to write with an eye to publication. In 1887, replying to an obscure writer, Tolstoy suggested: “The main thing is not to be in a hurry to write, not to grudge correcting and revising the same thing 10 or 20 times, not to write a lot and not, for heaven’s sake, to make of writing a means of livelihood or of winning importance in people’s eyes.”

However, most authors approached him precisely because they sought publication and were hoping for praise. Some thought that Tolstoy’s advice would boost their writing skills. This was precisely what Tolstoy warned them against: “God save you from that.” Attaining the skill was secondary to what he called “inner content.”

He did not believe that it was possible to teach one how to become a writer, and was annoyed when authors asked him to share secrets of the trade. In 1895, he replied to an author: “…I won’t answer your questions, or rather interrogation, about writing, because they are all empty questions. The one thing I can say to you is to try as hard as you can not to be a writer, or only to be one when you can no longer help being one.”

As he suggested to another author, “You should only write when you feel within you some completely new and important content, clear to you but unintelligible to others, and when the need to express this content gives you no peace.”

He valued sincerity, but thought this quality extremely rare. His advice to fiction writers was simple, although hard to follow: “…Live the lives of the people described, describe in images their inner feelings, and the characters themselves will do what they must do according to their natures…” A fiction writer “needs two things: firstly, to know thoroughly what should be; and secondly, to believe in what should be…” But, as he complained to a friend, immature writers have one without the other.

Preparation for writing mattered most: according to Tolstoy, one had to sift through 1,000 thoughts before recording a valid one. “Just as in speech the spoken word is silver and the unspoken one gold, so in writing––I would say that the written word is tin, and the unwritten one gold…” Many authors, who approached him, lacked this vital ability to restrain their thoughts and do the necessary work, which precedes writing.

In style Tolstoy valued clarity, and to achieve it, he endlessly revised his own prose. “Don’t spare your labour,” he advised an author in 1890, “write as it comes, at length, and then revise it, and above all shorten it. In the business of writing, gold is only obtained, in my experience, by sifting.”

He wrote nonfiction, he said, to clarify his own thoughts. There were “two kinds of writing.” The first and most demanding, came from the writer’s need achieve “the greatest possible clarity” of expression. Such a writer would work assiduously and reject everything that obscures his idea. But there was also writing driven by ambition and the need to impress. It served “to obscure and confuse the truth for oneself and others.” This second type was prevalent and filled newspapers and magazines. As Tolstoy remarked, “I hate it with all my soul.”

In this blog I relied on R.F. Christian’s translation of Tolstoy’s Letters.

Tolstoy and Anti-Semitism

The Washington Times’ recent review of Sarah Honig’s “Debunking the Bull” praises the book of essays by The Jerusalem Post correspondent as a truthful exploration of Jewish history. What caught my attention was the paragraph about Honig’s essay “The German Robbed Cossack.” It tells of anti-Semitism among the literary elite in Europe, beginning with Leo Tolstoy’s reaction to the 1903 Jewish pogrom in Kishinev. Here Steven Bernstein’s reliance on Honig’s facts is unfortunate.

After the horrific pogrom in Kishinev (Chişinǎu, now the capital of Moldova; in 1903, a part of the Russian Empire), writer Shalom Aleichem asked Tolstoy to contribute to a Yiddish collection for the benefit of the victims. As Honig writes, “Tolstoy never so much as bothered to reply.” Unaware that Honig is wrong, Bernstein echoes that Tolstoy “not only didn’t bother to reply, he resented the request” made by Aleichem.

In reality, Tolstoy wrote him several letters and contributed three stories to the Yiddish anthology, which were published in Warsaw in 1903. On May 6, Tolstoy told Aleichem: “The terrible crime perpetrated in Kishinev made a painful impression on me… We recently sent a collective letter from Moscow to the mayor of Kishinev expressing our feelings about this terrible affair.” This letter from Russia’s intellectuals, for which Tolstoy suggested the text, expressed condolences to the victims of violence, horror for the brutal actions of the Russian people, and disgust towards those who incited the mob –– the Russian government. This letter was published in Yiddish also in 1903. Honig’s –– and Bernstein’s –– allegations that Tolstoy had demonstrated “indifference to Jewish suffering” are thus unfounded.

Tolstoy’s reaction to the pogrom is well documented. He learned about the tragic events from a brief newspaper report and correctly assumed that the true culprit of the terrible crime was the Russian government along with fanatical clergy and corrupt officials.

Today we know that the pogroms were organized by local authorities in conjunction with the Petersburg Police Department; the goal was to keep minorities in submission. The police had a secret printing shop where proclamations to incite the riots were printed. During several days of rioting in Kishinev the police did not interfere, allowing the mobs to kill and rape, and burn Jewish property.

Although an advocate for religious tolerance, Tolstoy had never specifically supported the Jewish community. But the charge of anti-Semitism is ludicrous, since in his day, he was a rare example of the opposite. In the 1880s, Tolstoy had studied Hebrew with Moscow’s first rabbi and read the Talmud in the original.

Steven Bernstein’s review in The Washington Times:

Sarah Honig’s essay in The Jerusalem Post:

Stalin and ‘Casual Vacancy’

This spring, while in Moscow, I visited a central bookstore on Tverskaya Street. Shop windows displayed the familiar red and yellow jackets of J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy in Russian translation. But upon coming in, I found myself face to face with Stalin’s flamboyant photographs gazing at me from the red covers of Soviet-style editions, prominently placed by the entrance. For a few seconds, I was baffled and lost in time. Stacks of Rowling’s book were further back in the store, and I recalled an advertisement on a Russian website saying that her book was read by the entire world.

Promoting Casual Vacancy alongside Stalin biographies is ironic. This March marked sixty years since Stalin died, and one hopes his death left no casual vacancies. But in the past decade, Stalin’s popularity in Russia has visibly grown. When it comes to popular novels, Russians read what the rest of the world is reading. But when it comes to Soviet history, they are encouraged to read books that tell a different version than what the rest of the world knows.

While Stalin biographers in the West have produced factual accounts, the tendency in Russia is to bring back the myth. This is why the comprehensive Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield is hard to find; as far as I know the book was published only marginally in Russia. This also applies to Anne Applebaum’s famous book Gulag: A History, which was translated into scores of foreign languages, but is barely accessible in Russian. Yet, one can easily find trashy editions that attempt to resurrect the myth of Stalin’s greatness.

Although millions died in Stalin’s mass purges, understanding the history of the gulag is still not believed to be essential. The dictator is celebrated with a new biography in the series of “Lives of Remarkable People” and such titles as Stalin Won the War, Stalin. The Military Genius, and a memoir How I.V. Stalin Lived, Worked, and Raised Children. Over a recent decade, scores of obscure authors have created his sympathetic portrait and even suggested his martyrdom in Krushchev Killed Stalin Twice and What Stalin Was Killed For?

Articles emphasizing Stalin’s achievements abound on Russian websites. In 2010, a website, “Truth About Stalin,” was launched. The most amazing thing about it is that it provides entirely false information. Unlike with the Holocaust, which now cannot be openly denied in most countries, deniers of Stalin’s mass murders are functioning in the open. In the absence of full information about Stalin’s regime, there is still no consensus in Russia about mass repressions, forced collectivization, and the organized famine, which depopulated entire areas in Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus.

There is no shortage of books about the gulag in Russia, including Solzhenitsyn’s volumes, which are sold everywhere. In recent decades, scores of memoirs by the gulag survivors were produced. I’ve seen these editions in a kiosk at the entrance to the former Lenin Library (now the Russian State Library) where they are sold by volunteers. Over the years, I noticed fewer people were buying them.

This situation invites a parallel with China where no full account of Mao’s Great Famine has ever been published, while memoirs of victims, less damaging to the current leadership, are available. Thus, a recent book by a journalist Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962, is banned in the mainland China because of the author’s sweeping investigation. Mao’s disastrous policies were closely copied from Stalin’s and the reasons for historical amnesia and censorship in both countries are similar. But while in China is it no longer possible to openly admire Mao, in Russia, Stalin’s cult is being gradually resurrected and a school textbook discussing his accomplishments has been produced.


Why People Write About Tolstoy?

As I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22, I stumbled upon the phrase that The Kreutzer Sonata, “was the title of Tolstoy’s own personal favorite among his own works.” Hitchens, who expertly discusses Vladimir Nabokov or Wystan Hugh Auden, among other writers, makes a blunder with Tolstoy whose personal dislike of The Kreutzer Sonata is well-known. True, Tolstoy had made confusing and contradictory pronouncements about his own works, dismissing War and Peace and Anna Karenina and expecting the public to like his ABCs, written for peasant children during his literacy campaign. I don’t know if Tolstoy ever named any of his fictional works as his “personal favorite.” It took him a long time to write and perfect his fiction and non-fiction, but he was rarely satisfied with the result and was also impatient to move on to other projects, not necessarily literature. Having completed The Kreutzer Sonata, he told several people that the novella was “terribly repulsive” to him. This attitude is reflected in several sources and in Sophia’s Diaries: in March 1891, she wrote that Tolstoy “has grown to hate this story and cannot bear its name to be mentioned.”
Of course, nobody is immune from making mistakes, but I wonder why Hitchens, despite his journalistic accuracy, did not check this simple fact about Tolstoy. Or perhaps, he did, but much that has been written about Tolstoy (especially on the Internet) is inaccurate or even untrue.
Take, for example, discussions of the new film Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright. The film itself was recently described in The New Yorker as “forget Tolstoy.”…

While reading discussions of the film, I stumbled on this posting of November 15, in which Joe McGasko also gives his take on Tolstoy:….
Describing the later period of Tolstoy’s life, following his religious transformation, McGasko mentions that the writer’s ascetic beliefs generated a lasting conflict in the family. Then he goes on to say something utterly ridiculous:
“This conflict reached its tipping point when Tolstoy announced that he would divest himself of all worldly goods and leave his family to wander the world as a monk. His advanced age almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t get very far; shortly after leaving home, he caught pneumonia and returned home to die at age 82.”
There are many blunders here, but most appallingly, the author of this biographical piece is unaware that Tolstoy could not and did not return home to die; he died in a stationmaster’s hut in Astapovo.
So, why write about Tolstoy without checking basic facts? McGasko quotes Tolstoy as supposedly saying, “I wrote everything into Anna Karenina, and nothing was left over.” I don’t know where he got this quote, but I wonder if he would discuss Dickens’ life and work with the same assurance.
Misconceptions about Tolstoy abound, not only on the Internet, but, say, in the popular film The Last Station. Unlike the latest version of Anna Karenina, this film was praised far and wide, even though it misinterpreted Tolstoy’s life, showing the writer to enjoy luxury in the Yasnaya Polyana mansion. In fact, the house, with its bare wood floors, became known to visitors for its simplicity. There are numerous inaccuracies in this film, but I just want to mention one particular blunder at the very end. You might remember the text in the epilogue to The Last Station, which reads that the Senate awarded Sophia the copyright to her late husband’s works. This never happened, since Sophia did not challenge Tolstoy’s secret will.
I will be updating you on other inaccuracies concerning Tolstoy as they pour in.

Writers About Themselves

Despite the sweeping success of the Animal Farm, George Orwell suspected his next book would become a failure. Throughout his life, he thought that each of his new undertakings was bound to fail. But Orwell’s fear was not a bad thing, since it drove him to do more and to continually struggle for success.

I am intrigued with famous writers’ lack of contentment when they describe their own successful lives. At eighty-one, Somerset Maugham said in an interview that he did not want his biography written, for his life was “bound to be dull,” and he did not want “to be associated with dullness.” But he never was. Among the most prolific and successful writers, Maugham had seen his plays simultaneously performed in London theaters; his novels, beginning with his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, were adapted into popular films. He had traveled the world to research his fiction and early on, during the Great War, even did some spying for the British. Throughout his literary career of over six decades Maugham did what he loved, saying that writing was “the most enthralling of human activities.”

Like Charles Strickland in The Moon and the Sixpence, who abruptly changes his career to become an artist, Maugham had left medicine upon discovering his true vocation. But unlike Strickland, who died in oblivion, Maugham enjoyed fame and popular success few serious writers ever achieve. However, it’s not usual for writers to make dismissive remarks about their lives and work. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy did just that. When writing The Idiot, his most original novel, Dostoevsky was continually disappointed with its execution and complained that he was implementing only one-tenth of his poetic idea.

One of the most successful writers of all times, Tolstoy, was perennially dissatisfied with his own character, life, and literary production. Later he made his self-dissatisfaction a virtue. According to Tolstoy’s philosophy, one should perennially strive for perfection––an idea that prevented him from celebrating his achievement at any stage. He was rarely content with his writing since it did not measure up to the ideal.

Tolstoy had said that an artist invests the best of himself into his work, “hence his writing is beautiful and his life is bad.” But upon achieving celebrity, he entirely dismissed his great literature, along with his vocation as a novelist. Among writers who had been critical of their own work Tolstoy’s remarks about his novels stand out as most ruthless. Can this be fathomed? This is the topic of my next post.

This post was inspired by Michael Shelden’s biography of Orwell and by Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.