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Russia: Rehabilitating Tolstoy?

Russian Writer, Leo Tolstoy.  Source:

Russian Writer, Leo Tolstoy. Source:

Some Russians want to rehabilitate the great novelist Leo Tolstoy.  (Read a NYTimes article on the subject here.)  Russia’s post-Soviet regime turned a cold shoulder to the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace because the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1901 and because he was later exalted by Soviet leaders.  In the late 19th century, Tolstoy attacked the Church (all authority, in fact) and advocated an anarcho-pacifist Christian philosophy. Lenin admired Tolstoy’s ire and called him the mirror of the Russian Revolution.    The Russian Orthodox Church of late, a pillar of Russia’s post-Soviet identity, has refused to rehabilitate him because of how he undermined Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order.  The Church still has recognized the greatness of his art, mourning him as a lost soul.  Second largest in Christendom after the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church refused last year to allow the lighting of candles inside churches to mark the centennial of his death, while still giving the green light to its flock to say solitary prayers for him. 

According to the IR theory of Constructivism, nations form identities and interests based on social interaction with other nations.  Domestic developments clearly feed into a nation’s identity as well.  Identity formation is not easy, rocked by contradictions within a society.  Such is the case with Tolstoy, a symbol of Russia’s culture, language and religion, its social development and historical narrative, yet anathema to Russian conservatives.  Culture wars are endemic to the life of the nation, not only in Russia.  One only has to think of the conflict in France during Tolstoy’s latter days, between the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, and in America today between the Tea Party stalwarts and the liberal, erstwhile Obama enthusiasts.  Sorting out cultural contradictions in a productive way that avoids violence and repression and oxygenates the lifeblood of the nation, is essential to a nation’s power.  Russia’s success as a “rising power” will depend in part on how its competing identities are managed.  With Putin’s Siloviki in charge, Tolstoy’s rehabilitation is not assured.

The Russian Orthodox Church cast some blame for Bolshevism on Tolstoy, raising the question, still relevant today, can we hold artists accountable for the politics of their admirers?  Should Wagner be shunned because of Hilter’s love of him, or instead because of his own well-documented anti-Semitism?  Should art be completely divorced from the beliefs of the artist?  What about Mel Gibson?  Sometimes artists themselves do not want to be associated with certain politicians.  Witness British eighties rock band, The Smiths, forbidding Tory Prime Minister David Cameron from liking them!  And George W. Bush could only claim Ozzy Osbourne as his own.  Finally, let us remember, that great artists should not necessarily be looked to for public policy ideas.  It’s not their bailiwick.  Interesting questions these…



Roger Scher

Roger Scher is a political analyst and economist with eighteen years of experience as a country risk specialist. He headed Latin American and Asian Sovereign Ratings at Fitch Ratings and Duff & Phelps, leading rating missions to Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, among other nations. He was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer based in Venezuela and a foreign exchange analyst at the Federal Reserve. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, an M.B.A. in International Finance from the Wharton School, and a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University. He currently teaches International Relations at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy.

Areas of Focus:
International Political Economy; American Foreign Policy