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 Sholem 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:

Writers: Rating Their Own Books

Upon completing his first great novel, Tolstoy told a friend, “I’ve stopped writing, and will never again write verbose nonsense like War and Peace… I swear I’ll never do it again.” The story repeated itself when, after finishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy dismissed it in one sentence: “I assure you that this vile thing no longer exists for me.” While he was celebrated as the greatest living writer, Tolstoy moved on to study religion and to make his own translation of the Gospels. His refusal to take his artistic achievement for granted allowed him to move on and explore life from other angles.
Tolstoy’s scathing remarks about his fiction remind me of Somerset Maugham’s story about Marcel Proust told in the introduction to his novel Of Human Bondage. Proust decided to review his own novel (I presume it was his monumental In Search of Lost Time), thinking he could do it better than a critic. Having written the review, Proust asked a friend, a young writer, to submit it under his own name. The review was turned down: the editor said that Marcel Proust would never forgive him for publishing such an insensitive piece of criticism. Proust must have torn his own book to pieces, without realizing it. Maugham, who called Proust’s novel “the greatest fiction to date,” thought that authors alone know what they fell short of accomplishing: “Their aim is perfection and they are wretchedly aware that they have not attained it.” But if authors cannot be trusted to judge their own work, why listen to their remarks? I think that a sense of openness is essential for any writer or an artist.
Writers of today are silent about their failings. I could give examples of the opposite when, facing pressure to promote their books, some get carried away in praising them. Orlando Figes, the author of prize-winning books on Russian history, was exposed in 2010 on Amazon’s British site assessing his own book as “beautiful and necessary” and rating his competitors’ books as “rubbish” and “pretentious.”
I’m troubled by the fact that the book industry has become so commercialized that authors no longer tell the reader what they actually think about their writing.
While in the days of Tolstoy and Maugham a reader was perceived as a trusted friend, now he is treated like a customer. Writers of the past were frank with their audiences –– and I think about this when reading blurbs on the book covers describing every modern novel as fascinating and every biography as definitive.
Writers of today participate in publishers’ boot camps where they are trained to promote their own books. They learn to listen to readers’ praise and to ignore their mispraise.
I’m not suggesting that someone should be trying to match Tolstoy’s remarks about Anna Karenina, a book he described as “unbearably repulsive.” But I regret that being honest or humble is no longer an option for a writer. In the introduction to Of Human Bondage Maugham wrote apologetically, “This is a very long novel and I am ashamed to make it longer by writing a preface to it.” Today, describing one’s book as less than perfect is a costly mistake, so truth suffers as a result.