Andrew Donskov takes a critical look not only at Tolstoy’s attitude towards the peasant class he so often championed for their simple ways and freedom from upper-class sophistication and pretentiousness, but more importantly, gives voice to representatives of the peasant class itself.
The theme of the peasantry is central throughout most of Tolstoy’s long career. His obsession with this class is seen not just as a matter of social or humanitarian concern, but as a response to the questions of “how to live a good life” and “what is the meaning of life that an inevitable death will not destroy?” These questions plagued him his entire life.
The letters he exchanged with the four major peasant sectarian writers (Bondarev, Zheltov, Verigin, and Novikov) reveal that Tolstoy was matched as a profound thinker by his correspondents, as they converse on religious-moral questions, the meaning of life and how one should strive to find it, and on a wide array of burning social and personal problems. Reading through the analysis and the extensively annotated letters as a unified whole, elucidates the progressive development of the ideas they shared (and where these diverged) and which guided Tolstoy’s and his correspondents’ lives. Juxtaposing Tolstoy’s letters with those of his four sectarian correspondents makes them even more significant as it shows them in their original context – a dialogue, or conversation.
Also, with the aim to present the conversation in an even broader context, Andrew Donskov briefly discusses Tolstoy’s relationship with peasants in general as well as with each of the four individual writers in particular. In addition, he provides a background sketch of two major religious groups, namely the Doukhobors and the Molokans, both of which still claim sizeable populations of followers in North America today.
Originally published in 2008 by the Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa under the title Leo Tolstoy and Russian peasant sectarian writers: Selected correspondence, the expanded University of Ottawa Press edition includes 44 letters never published in English, out of the total 155 letters. Correspondence translated by John Woodsworth.
Published in English.
About the authors
Andrew Donskov (author and editor) is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Distinguished University Professor and Founding Director, Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa. He has authored and/or edited many critical studies on nineteenth-century Russian literature, notably on Leo Tolstoy and Sofia Tolstaya. Another focus of his research and publication has been on Tolstoy’s relationship to the Canadian Doukhobors as well as Russian peasant sectarian writers.
John Woodsworth (co-translator) is a former ATIO-certified translator, Member of the Literary Translators Association of Canada, and Member of the Russian Interregional Union of Writers. He has translated and/or edited many books and articles from Russian to English, including the nine-volume Ringing Cedars Series by Vladimir Megré and the thirteen-volume Teaching of the Heart series by Zinovia Dushkova. One of his specialties is the translation of rhyming poetry into English.
Excerpt: Leo Tolstoy in Conversation with Four Peasant Sectarian Writers: The Complete Correspondence (edited by Andrew Donskov; translated by John Woodsworth)
The Doukhobors’ emigration to Canada was supported both morally and financially by none other than Leo Tolstoy, who saw in their manifest pacifism and simple Christian approach to life a practical embodiment of his own ideals.