'Tolstoy: A Russian Life' by Rosamund Bartlett

'Tolstoy: A Russian Life' by Rosamund Bartlett was a Christmas present of mine that had been sitting around my home since January, looking so rich and informative that I kept passing it over for easier-looking books, probably because my job was requiring so much research of a similar ilk from me at the time. I'm glad I left it until I had some mental-room for it, as this book is very involving and hugely informative, if requiring of a little concentration to read all the way through.

I found Bartlett's writing both very clear and very illustrative of the Russian context, Tolstoy's friends, family and contemporaries, and of the great man himself. The narrative line was also very clear, making sense of Tolstoy's legendarily haphazard, passion-driven life, and it wasn't too difficult to keep track of who's who and how they relate to everyone else.

The most engaging parts for me were the sections in which he was writing Anna Karenina and War and Peace, partly because they're the works of his I know best, and also because Anna Karenina, in particular, gets to the heart of how Tolstoy viewed women and their contemporary role. He was a complicated chap, let's say. I was also thrilled to learnt that Tolstoy made huge, impressive efforts to build and reform educational practices for Russia's serf population, the vast majority of whom were illiterate, and he personally recorded and distributed some of the first statistical information on the living conditions of Russian peasants that was ever published. Of course, his dramatic shedding of possessions at the end of his life is well-known, but I was surprised to find out how early he began on this path, how he struggled and rebelled against the Russian Orthodox church because of it, and how 'Tolstoyans' were acknowledged throughout Russia, Europe and the US as proponents and followers of his neo-religious teachings. I was fascinated by the fact that his social and religious activism was largely suppressed and forgotten until Glasnost allowed its revival and acknowledgement over the last few decades.

As is acknowledged throughout this book, he was a paradoxical man who in many ways seemed to inhabit several lives at once, personifying Russia to an extraordinary degree. In fact, my main thoughts on this book post-read are two-fold: firstly, that Bartlett's achievement is quite momentous, considering the vast depth and breadth of the information to consider, and, secondly, that Tolstoy was rather a difficult man.

It struck me some way through this book that Tolstoy's character and idiosyncrasies bear a  striking resemblance to Charles Dickens's; in particular, his huge energy, socialist reformist missions and sadly, his unkindness to his wife. Both also neglected their families in favour of looking after the fortunes of the country at large, worrying about other people's families and children rather than their own. They could also both be remarkably unfeeling: for instance, Tolstoy's wife Sonya gave birth to 7 children AFTER telling Tolstoy that she'd had enough (by that point I think she'd had 5) (!!) as he refused to allow her an opinion on the subject; Dickens's domestic flaws are well-known enough for me not to have to go into them here. Both, I think it would be fair to say, were essential men for their time, but people you wanted to admire from afar, rather than live close to.

The failing of this book is the dryness of the subject which meant that, at times, it required quite a lot of motivation to keep reading; however, it is made clear that this is Tolstoy's failing, rather than Bartlett's:
'It is no wonder that Tolstoy saw himself in Rousseau [another comparison!], who had also lost his mother at a young age, and followed a number of different paths in his life before finding his metier. Both figures are united by a soaring genius, overweening vanity, a dogged, noble but often misguided sincerity, and a lamentable lack of a sense of humour, the latter being the single thing which sometimes makes the study of Tolstoy's life and works slightly hard-going.' (p76)
 So, the things to glean from this quote are that Tolstoy lacked a sense of humour, hence the dryness, and great male writers and philosophers often have several qualities in common, which I find simultaneously fascinating and depressing.

A good book, but one primarily for dedicated Tolstoy fans.

Title: Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Author: Rosamund Bartlett
Publisher: Profile Books
Date: 2011
Format: Paperback, 454 pages, plus notes and an index, and it was a gift.


  1. Sounds great! I'd love to read this one at some point. :)

    1. Hi Jillian, I think you'd really enjoy this.

  2. I've read Anna K and plan on reading War and Peace sometime. I think I'll tackle that before I take on a book like this!
    The comparison with Dickens is a good one, I think.

    1. Hi Sam, thanks - the similarities between the two men are really quite striking. Maybe we could do a War and Peace readathon perhaps? It's one of the few books that I have struggled to maintain motivation whilst reading, even though it's very, very good.

    2. A War and Peace readathon would be fab! I'm thinking maybe early in 2013?

    3. Sounds wonderful! Totally up for that :)

  3. Like Sam, I've read Anna K and have War and Peace on my classics club list. I've also read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and one other. I love his writing and am very fascinated by him as an individual outside of his work. I was disheartened recently to see the comments on the announcement of the Russian government celebrating his wedding anniversary. Many commenting painted his wife as a burden and a nag, saying she deserved being virtually abandoned, but most people know that it takes two to tango. :) I'll have to put this on the TBR when I'm looking for some hearty non-fiction.

    1. Hi Beth, yeah, the wife issue is a tricky one. This book paints SOnya really quite sympathetically, presenting her as a sturdy woman who was literally left holding 13 or so different babies, whilst Tolstoy went off being Tolstoy, ignoring his family for the large part, thwarting their income in later years and being largely unsupportive. Also, she was an educated woman who was barely allowed to leave Yasnaya Polyana for years on end, which I found a horrifying notion.


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