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MOSCOW, Russia — Russians love few things better than a good anniversary — any excuse to celebrate the country’s rich cultural history gives rise to festivals and forums, concerts and commemorative films.
As 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Anton Chekhov, President Dmitry Medvedev flew to the playwright’s small southern hometown and laid a bouquet of white roses. One hundred years after his death in 1837, poet Alexander Pushkin was celebrated across the country — a city was even named after him.
Why, then, the silence in Russia around Leo Tolstoy, widely considered to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived?
Nov. 20 will mark 100 years since Tolstoy’s dramatic death. Having achieved world fame and acclaim with "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy turned later in life to the spiritual treatises that would lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1910, at the age of 82, he abandoned his family and his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, outside Moscow, dying days later at a nearby train station, never having recovered from the pneumonia that had long plagued him.
It’s a dramatic end befitting a novelist who explored, with poetic realism, life’s greatest thrills: family, war, love.
At least, that’s how he is remembered in the West. In Russia, Tolstoy’s writing is always and everywhere linked with his work as a philosopher, one who preached principles of nonviolence, simple living and brotherly love.
That may be where the problem lies.
“Lev Nikolayevich posed very uncomfortable questions,” said Fyokla Tolstaya, a great-great-granddaughter of the writer, using his Russian name and patronymic. “The problems he wrote about — militarism and pacifism, justice, religion, the Caucasus — none of them have been solved.”
“He is a very difficult author for today’s leadership,” she said.
Perhaps that is why, on a government level, the anniversary is being entirely ignored.
“We’ve received no orders to prepare for the anniversary,” said a woman who answered the phone at the Culture Ministry’s anniversaries committee, but declined to provide her name. For anniversaries honoring many of Russia’s other great writers, less well-known in the West but celebrated here, the department is given years to plan and organize. The department first received an order in 2007 to prepare for this year’s celebrations marking 150 years since Chekhov’s birth, she said by way of example.
“The government, which is normally very proactive in organizing anniversaries seems to have put Tolstoy away on the shelf,” said Catherine Tolstoy, a 22-year-old member of the abundant Tolstoy clan.
“He is very well respected, but he’s not useful and hasn’t got the right views,” she said. “He’s got very different values from the current government.”
Yet other celebrated writers, including Chekhov and the great satirist Nikolai Gogol, also criticized the country for issues that remain little changed today: officials’ corruption, their countrymen’s love of vodka, treatment of prisoners.
The government’s decision to ignore Tolstoy’s centenary is something that has surprised some of his greatest champions, yet is something they overwhelmingly choose to explain away by saying that it is births, not deaths, that should be celebrated.
“There hasn’t been one television program dedicated to him, but that doesn’t mean we don’t value him,” said Marina Tikhonycheva, the head of the Tolstoy Institute. All 10th graders in Russia, she noted, are required to plow through "War and Peace." (She later noted that Russia’s Kultura channel recently aired a celebrated film adaptation, failing to note that it was Tolstoy’s centenary but celebrating the fact that it was the 90th anniversary of director and star Sergei Bondarchuk’s birth.)
Others see something more deliberate in the Tolstoy void, blaming his relationship with the Orthodox Church, which expelled him in 1901 citing his repudiation of Jesus Christ and the church.
“The church’s position to Tolstoy has not changed,” said a source inside the Orthodox Church’s committee on culture. “Tolstoy is anti-Christian. He is excommunicated and therefore presents no interest for the church.”
Tolstoy’s family has put in several requests to have the church re-examine the writer’s excommunication. But it categorically refuses to do so.
“The order can only change if a person himself repents. This can’t happen after a person is dead,” the church source said.
“The church does pressure culture but not to such a degree,” said Boris Felikov, an associate professor of religion at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
Some members of Tolstoy’s family disagree. “The government is very friendly with the church, as it was in pre-revolutionary times, and puts a lot of pressure on the state,” said Tolstaya. In Soviet times, his views against organized religion and in support of the country’s peasantry made him a hero of the communist regime (Lenin even published an essay titled “Tolstoy as Mirror of the Revolution”).
“Now there’s a different approach,” Tolstaya said. “He isn’t comfortable and he isn’t needed.”
That may be true of the Russian government and its powerful church, but not so in the West. To mark the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, new translations of his novels have been issued. A film about his last days, “The Last Station,” was released to critical acclaim, its lead actors (Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer) both nominated for Oscars. New biographies of Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, were released, as well as her letters.
Inside Russia, the Tolstoy estate, as well as a handful of museums and institutes in Moscow, are organizing forums. On Nov. 20, they will open a small museum at Ostankino, the provincial railway station where Tolstoy met his death.
“Tolstoy is still relevant,” said Tolstaya, his great-great-granddaughter. “The question becomes: what have the people in Russia done in the 100 years since he left us? Have we managed to answer his questions? And the answer is no.”