A guest post by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO, author of Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, just published by Routledge Mental Health
By the end of his long life, in 1910, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy had become the greatest public critic of the Russian Tsarist empire. By destabilising the Romanov autocracy through his writings, which amounted to more than eighty volumes, Lev Nikolaevich became Tsar Nicholas II’s most significant rival.
As a result, the Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, a status he retains to this day. Alexei Suvorin, the editor of New Times [the late 19th century Russian journal], afterwards observed that Russia effectively had two Tsars: namely, Nicholas II and Tolstoy.
Indeed, the Imperial state had raided Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s family estate, in 1862; surveilled him for the last twenty-five years of his life; censored, banned, and burned his writings; and come close to executing him in 1891, after the translation of an explicitly anarchist essay of his came out in England. It was only thanks to the intervention of his cousin Alexandrine Tolstaya that Lev Nikolaevich survived this last episode.
It is therefore highly disconcerting to see photographs on social media that show Tolstoy’s face plastered—alongside those of fellow artists Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, who were Russian and Ukrainian, respectively—on a high fence surrounding the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theatre in occupied southeastern Ukraine.
The Drama Theatre is the site of a horrific massacre perpetrated by Russian forces in March 2022. An estimated 300 Ukrainian civilians died there while seeking shelter from the ruthless invasion. In parallel, the new documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, provides grisly and heartbreaking evidence of the widespread war crimes, and crimes against humanity, committed by the Russian military as it stormed the city.
In this light, the decision by Vladimir Putin’s regime to cover up one of the worst of these atrocities using Tolstoy and Gogol’s faces amounts to little more than cynical trolling. Such “bourgeois coldness” is consistent with the far-right’s attempt to rationalise ultra-violent barbarism across the globe. Given Tolstoy’s artistic critiques of violence and militarism, the scene is simply absurd.
Yet, confronted with Russia’s genocidal attack, Ukrainians are now engaged in a debate about how, or even whether, to engage with Russian artists and intellectuals. Last year, a Ukrainian Education Ministry working group recommended excluding several Russian and Soviet writers, including Tolstoy, from school curricula – but Ukraine’s proposed bans on literature published in Russia and Belarus appear to provide exceptions for Pushkin and Tolstoy’s works. Last month, citizens of Kyiv voted to rename Tolstoy Square the Square of Ukrainian Heroes, and Tolstoy Street in Lviv was renamed after the Archbishop Liubomyr Huzar in mid-2022.Read the rest of this entry »