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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Ruined for Russians, Tolstoy Belongs to All




One of the most profound moments in all of literature comes in a scene in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" after Prince Andrei is wounded at Borodino. He has been gored by shrapnel, and as he lies in a field hospital, a doctor saws the leg off of a screaming man nearby.


When they are done, the man sobs, "Show it to me." The doctor holds up the bloody leg, boot still attached. Suddenly Andrei recognizes the man as Anatoly Kuragin, the rival who stole the prince's betrothed and left his life hollow and bitter.


Many readers weep when they read the scene. Like "King Lear" or the Gospel of John, "War and Peace" is a transcendent work that demands our response. The literary critic George Steiner says Tolstoy and Dostoevsky dominated one of the three greatest movements in Western literature (the others are the flowering of Athenian drama and the age of Shakespeare). If that isn't enough, Tolstoy is funny, scathing, moving, and (unlike Dostoevsky) entertaining. Speakers of some languages, such as Serbo-Croatian, would kill vast numbers of their fellow citizens in exchange for an author capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shakespeare. So why don't Russians love their greatest writer?


Recently, I have heard of a distaste for Tolstoy from teachers, fellow journalists, and even a professor of literature. Our webmaster hasn't read him since he was forced to do so in school. A quick survey of our parent paper, the daily Vladivostok, revealed few fans of Tolstoy's novels. Nobody rereads "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" every five years, as I vowed to do when I was 20. And certainly no one cheats and reads them every three years, as I do.


When I first met my girlfriend at a party, rogue that I am, I tried to chat her up by discussing "War and Peace." She replied, "I don't like Tolstoy. Our communist teachers ruined him for me." Crushed, I drifted to a nearby discussion of imported beer. But she put her finger on the problem. You can bludgeon children with tomes of Pushkin, and when they grow old, the rhythms will echo in their skulls. But novels don't work that way. For decades, schools have stuffed Lenin's supercilious essay on Tolstoy down the throats of 15-year-olds, and then compelled them to read editions that only translate the French dialogue in footnotes. No wonder their efforts backfired.


"Maybe it's too early to teach Tolstoy in school," said Sergei Mikhailov, a copy editor. "Most people are just disgusted with him."


Writers diverse as D.H. Lawrence and Salmon Rushdie envied Tolstoy's gifts. America and Ireland have sent forth their greatest challengers - Faulkner, Joyce - only to have the angry Goliath of Yasnaya Polyana squash them like bugs.


So maybe it doesn't matter if many Russians dislike Tolstoy. After all, he belongs to all of us.