Enjoy this Light Magazine article and feel free to repost. Praying for the soul of Russia.
Leo Tolstoy’s battle for the tortured soul of Russia
By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
After publishing his wildly successful War and Peace in 1865, Tolstoy thought of writing a novel on Peter the Great. So, he began learning ancient Greek.
Tolstoy called the time of terrible uncertainty between writing projects “the dead time.” His self-doubt perhaps meant that he would never write anything again. He was plagued by fears that he himself was finished as a writer. “It was all over for him; it was time for him to die.”
Two years after finishing War and Peace, he still felt so depressed that he privately told a friend that he had no will to live, and had never felt so miserable in all his life. It would be three years before Tolstoy started Anna Karenina, a novel in which both key characters Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin struggled with great self-doubt about their relationships and even life itself. It seems that many of Tolstoy’s more painful emotions were projected onto Anna Karenina.
Perhaps more than any other, Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s novel that readers consistently say they cannot stop reading. If you are still mystified to why Russia recently invaded Ukraine, read Anna Karenina. The intense humanity of Tolstoy’s complex characters allows us to read it again and again with new insights about the Russian soul. Many consider Anna Karenina to be the best novel ever written. Over 300,000,000 people have purchased it so far. You could be next. Tolstoy saw it as his first novel, as he refused to call his earlier War & Peace a novel.
Why did Tolstoy write such an intense novel about adultery? Biblically speaking, adultery is often a metaphor for spiritual idolatry. As Romans 1 puts it, we are tempted to abandon ourselves to the twin temptations of adultery and idolatry.
How was Tolstoy able to write so vividly and realistic about adultery and idolatry? Because like the Apostle Paul, he considered himself to be the chief of sinners. In his 1882 book Confessional, he commented:
I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was not a crime I did not commit… Thus, I lived for ten years.”
His mother died when Tolstoy was two year’s old. Raised as an aristocratic orphan, he came into massive wealth and landholdings at age 19. His wild gambling debts in the military forced him to sell off villages that he owned, before he finally lost his principal house itself. Similarly, Levin, the hero of the Anna Karenina novel, struggled with gambling temptations before getting married and settling down. Many of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s were renowned for massive gambling debts in the military, while simultaneously despising money itself. Is the reckless Russian invasion of the Ukraine an expression of this same gambling addiction?
Like many in the Russian aristocracy, Tolstoy was trained to see hunting and warfare as vital to masculine courage and bravery. Many of Tolstoy’s books, including Anna Karenina, give a seldom-seen, up-close view of the battlefield. He was the first newspaper war correspondent. Tolstoy no more glorified warfare than John Newton glorified slavery. Both Tolstoy and Newton, however, because of their first-hand experience, were able to give a first-hand critique of what was really happening in their time. Both helped turn many others to peace and reconciliation.
Tolstoy defined his essential family trait by the Russian word dikost which means wildness, shyness, originality and independence in thinking, much like the quintessential Russian bear. Not even the autocratic Tzar himself could tame Tolstoy. In his novels, Tolstoy could get away with saying things that would immediately exile other Russians to Siberia. He was so uncontrollable, almost like John the Baptist, so that even the top officials feared to criticize him publicly.
One of Tolstoy’s more scandalous behaviours was that he wrote his novels in the Russian language, rather than using any of the twelve other languages he knew. The accepted language of communication for the Russian aristocracy was French, which their serfs could not understand. Because the Russian literary language had been created specifically to translate the bible, the Russian Orthodox Church saw it as blasphemous to degrade the holy Russian language in the writing of ‘heathen’ folktales or novels. The Anna Karenina novel scandalized many religious officials by its thoughtful critique of religious hypocrisy and judgementalism, and its rejection of violence. He became a pacifist after fighting in the Crimea.
Tolstoy chose Romans 12: 19 “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay” as an epigraph to Anna Karenina. Many people in life, even as Christians, are tempted to take revenge when they have been hurt. Just think of all the trauma that the Ukrainian people have been through recently. How could they ever forgive the Russians? Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, shows us again and again how tempting revenge is, yet how unsatisfying it is to the soul. Kitty had to give up her desire for revenge regarding Anna & Vronsky before she could be well again and marry Levin. Similarly, Levin had to forgive Kitty for initially rejecting his marriage proposal, before he could give her a second chance. It is only when we trust that God alone will bring justice and fairness that we lose the need to even the score. Could God make a way where there is no way in the current mess between Russia and Ukraine?
Reading Anna Karenina reminds us of Isaiah 5:20 where it warns against calling evil good and good evil, putting darkness for light and light for darkness, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Though Anna is initially used to save Dolly and Stepan Oblonsky’s marriage from his affair, everything following become a twisted web of deceit and half-truths. Again, it reminds us of Jeremiah 17:9 “our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked; who can understand them?” Self-deception, which so many fell into, is the worst form of deception. Often our eyes and ears are closed shut, and we refuse to hear and see. We often deceive ourselves that we know better than God himself and His Word.
Anna was described as being clad in an impenetrable armour of falsehood. Deception ultimately kills relationships, as it did with Anna and Count Vronsky. Romans 3:23 has never stopped being true; the wages of sin and self-deception are still death. Tolstoy symbolizes this at both the beginning and ending of the novel, where the railway station is the place not only of progress, but also of death. Progress, for its own sake, only turns us into unfeeling machines.
By contrast, the joy of Levin and Kitty’s marriage was that it became a relationship without guile or deceit. They held back no secrets on each other. They were who they were, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health. As a result, they went from being tortured souls to becoming healthy souls. What might it take for tortured Russia to rediscover the deeply Christ-like, profoundly human souls of Levin and Kitty? Lord, have mercy on Russia and their neighbours, in Jesus’ name. Amen.