Tolstoi in the Seventies

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

When Boris Eikhenbaum conducted research for Lev Tolstoi, semidesiatye gody (1960; Tolstoi in the Seventies) in the 1930’s, he was very much under the scrutiny of Stalinist critics. This period was perhaps the most repressive to date in the Soviet era, and ideologists enforced a narrow interpretation of Socialist Realism, the doctrine which defines literature as an adjunct to socio-economic determinants. The conditions attending work on this volume thus were significantly more constraining than those in which Eikhenbaum completed his earlier Tolstoy studies: Molodoi Tolstoi (1922; The Young Tolstoi, 1972), Lev Tolstoi, Vol. I (1928) and Lev Tolstoi, Vol. II (1931; Tolstoi in the Sixties, 1982). In these first studies, he had already attempted to accommodate ideological requirements by concentrating on the literary environment in which Tolstoy worked, and in Tolstoi in the Seventies, he was even more careful to include elements of class conflict in order to render his work acceptable. For example, in the first part of this three-part study, which deals with Tolstoy’s activity following the publication of Voina i mir (1868-1869; War and Peace), 1886), Eikhenbaum presents a detailed account of a minor confrontation between Tolstoy and V. V. Bervi, the author of Polozhenie Rabochago Klassa v Ossii (1869) and of other works calling for political reform. Bervi’s writings competed with War and Peace for public attention, much to the detriment of Tolstoy’s novel, which Bervi, echoing the sentiments of other reformers, considered a morally hideous blueprint for continued oppression by a selfish aristocracy. Eikhenbaum’s foregrounding of Bervi’s revolutionary activity gave Tolstoi in the Seventies an apparant socialist orientation, which he hoped would balance the concentration on Anna Karenina (1877; English translation, 1888) in the latter part of the book.

In part 1, entitled “After War and Peace,” Eikhenbaum also recounts Tolstoy’s publication of a primer and his subsequent polemic with Russian pedagogues. Prior to writing War and Peace in the early 1860’s, Tolstoy had withdrawn to his estate and published his own conservative views on educating the illiterate masses. In the interlude between the negative reception of War and Peace and the search for new themes for his fiction, Tolstoy once more became embroiled in a pedagogical controversy. His Primer (1872) still reflected a strictly traditional outlook. Tolstoy rejected scientific reasoning as unnecessary and burdensome for peasant children and favored teaching through fables and didactic homilies of a practical nature, composed by himself.

Eikhenbaum reproduces Tolstoy’s battle with the reform-minded educators of the time by quoting at length from articles on both sides of the issue. The arguments show that Tolstoy, stung by the criticism, wished to shed the popular image of being retrograde which prominent critics had imparted to him, but he did not feel persuaded to change his conservative views. He confidently subjected both his principles and textbook approach to the scrutiny of learned commissions and agreed to practical evaluation. From this trial, he emerged with something of a victory, since the liberals themselves were under suspicion by the czarist regime and had to show restraint in politicizing the issue of public education. Tolstoy even managed to maneuver hostile journals into giving him a fair hearing. As a result, he kept his name before the reading public and found an interested audience when the first installment of Anna Karenina appeared in The Russian Herald in 1875. At the time of Eikhenbaum’s writing, Tolstoy’s position on primary education was not viewed favorably by Stalinist authorities, and Eikhenbaum carefully refrained from treating it positively, even though sections of the Primer, geared to adults, proved popular and effective in the eradication of illiteracy after the Russian Revolution.

Eikhenbaum’s analysis of Tolstoy’s sociocultural environment, following the pedagogical controversy, centers on Tolstoy’s renewed interest in the philosophical-historical issues which had attracted his attention in the latter stages of writing War and Peace. For his next novel, Tolstoy decided to use an earlier period of Russian history, equally crucial to the country’s development. In the second section of the book, Eikhenbaum elucidates Tolstoy’s choice of Peter the Great’s era by recounting the disagreements between liberal Westernizers and conservative Slavophiles. Westernizers credited Peter with the limited modernization achieved by Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, while Slavophiles believed that the Petrine reforms had alienated the masses and the traditional landowning gentry from the progressive aristocratic elite, and thus had caused a schism in Russian culture. According to Eikhenbaum, it was Tolstoy’s plan to justify the Slavophile position, supplementing it with an innovative historical view of his own.

Just as in Tolstoi in the Sixties, Eikhenbaum had described S. S. Urusov’s influence on the historical chapters of War and Peace, so here he posits an equally strong influence on the part of Arthur Schopenhauer. By juxtaposing the views of the latter with those of S. M. Solovyev, who regarded Russian history as one long series of regressions and disgraces, Eikhenbaum concludes that Tolstoy was drawn to Schopenhauer in order to oppose Solovyev’s dismal evaluation with a more...

(The entire section is 2311 words.)