MOSCOW (AFP) ― A century ago, all of Russia mourned Leo Tolstoy’s death at a backwater train station. But today the novelist and pacifist, who abhorred any form of government, is more respected in the West than his home country.
The centennial of Tolstoy’s death, 100 years ago Saturday, seems to be passing virtually unnoticed in Russia.
No specials in state channels’ primetime schedules. No retrospectives in Russia’s main state museums. Facing the moral dilemmas posed by Russia’s most famous son would simply be “inconvenient.”
“He is just as inconvenient today as a century ago ... to mark the date you have to think of Russia’s past 100 years, which nobody wants to do,” said Pavel Basinsky, author of “Flight From Heaven,” a recent book on the circumstances of the writer’s run in the dark of the night from his estate in Yasnaya Polyana.
Fleeing from his home and wife of 48 years with just 50 rubles in his pocket, 82-year-old Tolstoy rushed from one monastery to another before catching a cold on a train and dying at a small train station in Astapovo, Lipetsk region.
Researchers routinely point to the writer’s last years and days as a focal point for Russia, which was about to face World War I and the Revolution.
“It was a death that shook the world, it was a symbolic event,” director of Tolstoy’s museum in Moscow Vitaly Remizov told AFP.
But Remizov conceded the centennial is not marked on a grand scale in the country, with most events awaited only by the literary and museum community.
Most events marking the date are going to take place beyond Russia’s capital. A restored museum will open doors in Astapovo on Saturday, followed by a scholarly forum that is unlikely to draw a massive audience.
Hollywood’s “The Last Station” starring Helen Mirren, the latest take on Tolstoy’s dramatic flight from his estate in the dreary autumn days in 1910, is playing on 35 screens in the capital.
But Russian studios, usually eager to produce a lavish epic on state funds, have kept mum.
Compared with Russia’s darling Alexander Pushkin, a celebrated poet whose birth bi-centennial in 1999 was a grandiose event that led to initiating an official Pushkin Day, Tolstoy is perceived as a heavy, moralizing figure, who in today’s Russia would likely be labeled as extremist.
“He would likely not be pleased if he saw Russia today,” said Vladimir Tolstoy, the writer’s great grandson, who heads the main estate museum in Yasnaya Polyana, where the writer’s numerous family resided until its nationalization in 1921.
“He liked truth, and in Russia this is a time of many lies and hypocrisy,” Tolstoy told AFP.
The author of celebrated novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” was a larger than life figure even in his lifetime. “We have two tsars, Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy,” contemporary Alexei Suvorin wrote in 1901.
But the ideas he adopted and professed in the second part of his life, of non-violence, asceticism, and refusal to pass down inheritance, were too ahead of his time. In Russia, many still are 100 years later.
“His ideas of giving up material wealth seem absurd in Russia, where we are in a period of money-grabbing capitalism,” Basinsky said, adding that while “tolstovian gestures” like refusing colossal inheritance to one’s children can come from Bill Gates, they are unlikely to be made by any Russian oligarch.
Marking Tolstoy’s death would also put the Orthodox Church, which has achieved an increased clout and wealth in the past 20 years, in an awkward position, as the writer is still formally excommunicated.
The writer rejected many religious dogmas, and his novel “Resurrection” especially irked the Russian Orthodox Church, which announced publicly in 1901 that Tolstoy can no longer be considered its member.
Although Tolstoy’s grandchildren asked Russia’s former patriarch Alexy II to reconsider, he said “reconsidering is possible only if the person changes his position.”
Tolstoy was buried without any ritual near his estate, and no cross adorns his simple grassy mound of a grave.
Since Tolstoy lived, “violence and alienation only increased” in Russian society, said Abdusalam Guseinov, director of the Philosophy Institute in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “There are policemen with clubs walking city streets,” he said, “20 years ago it would be impossible to imagine.”
The parallels between the time of Tolstoy’s passing and today are scary, said Basinsky, “starting from the fact that a revolution-prone situation is having extremely rich people and a mass of poor people.”
“It’s a snowball that is gaining momentum. The social fractures that Tolstoy exclaimed about they are again prominent. It is tragic that history repeats itself in Russia, that we are stuck in a vicious circle,” he said.