Monday, 22 August 2011

Review: 'The Trouble With Tolstoy'

Soviet commemorative stamp
The Trouble with Tolstoy: Soldier, Seducer, Saint and Sinner is a sensitive two-hour BBC television production that captures some of the essence of why Lev N. Tolstoy was such a huge literary and moral figure in Tsarist Russia. Truly, he was the voice of moral authority that even went beyond the borders of Russia.

The Narrator Alan Yentob of St. Petersburg raises the question of Tolstoy’s greatness. During the film, he tries to answer the question with archival historical footage and images, with readings from his novels, and with comments from various historians and commentators on this writer.

Lev Tolstoy’s 82 years of turbulent life included:
  • his mother who died when he was 2
  • father died when he was 8
  • as a student he faced extremisms of gambling, drinking and sexual promiscuity
  • as a soldier he was shocked by the utter horror of war
  • he survived a loving, but rocky marriage of 46 years
  • as a writer of gold standard, he experienced a mid-life crisis which led him to question what is good in society and what is bad.

The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him; while the Tsarist Government feared his influence ‘as a trouble-maker’ might lead to a revolution. That would disturb the balance between the rich and the poor. The Imperial state dared not arrest him because he was a man of the people. He was a man that the peasants saw as their savour; a man who could stand up and support them.

When Tolstoy learned that a Russian dissident group burnt their guns in 1895 as a protest against militarism and wars, he completed his book Resurrection and used its funds to help the migration of 7,500 of the group to Canada (including my grandparents). Towards the end of Part 2, the Narrator interviews Doukhobor descendant Elaine Popoff Podovinikoff in front of a large house that her family built near Yasnaya Polyana. This was a fitting tribute of the relationship of Tolstoy to the Doukhobors.

Tolstoy was Socratic in approach. He always said exactly what he saw. He was a critic of social justice and continually raised the question of what is moral. In seeking happiness in life, he discovered that love was a central ingredient here.

The concluding statement of the Narrator captured the essence of the times: The real trouble with Tolstoy is ‘his uncomfortability’ which is ‘unavoidably true’. It is this timelessness that is applicable to society after his death in 1910 right up to the present. Here are a few individuals who like Lev Tolstoy dared to speak out on issues that can lead to a just society with happiness as its core message:

  • Mahatma Gandhi, influenced by Tolstoy’s nonviolence paradigm, devoted his life to political struggle for India’s independence from British rule. In and out of prisons, he used his unique civil disobedience of Satyagraha grounded in the principles of Truth and Nonviolence. Independence came in1947.
  • In 1935 U.S. Marine Major General Smedley Butler published a book War is a Racket in which he showed how business interests have commercially benefited from warfare. This message applies to our times (such as the CANSEC arms show event in Ottawa, in May 2009).
  • In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. acted nonviolently as he courageously spoke out against social racial inequality in US society. His efforts led to desegregation of buses and washrooms in America. In 1969, King called to conscience in a stance against the war in Vietnam. King, like Tolstoy, challenged the whole architecture of war now.
  • Filmmaker Michael Moore and Linguist and Philosopher Noam Chomsky have questioned privatization; they revealed that free market economy while  being good for the wealthy,  often is a disaster for the population. These people dared to question orthodoxy in their American society.
  • In Canada, Order of Canada recipient Murray T. Thomson, has publicly campaigned to close down NATO. He urged the Doukhobors, Quakers, and Mennonites to support him in this effort.
  • In Hawaii, Dr. Glenn D. Paige, founder and director of the Center for Global Nonviolence, had the wisdom to challenge the prevailing dogma of wars and violence. He discovered that a nonkilling global society is possible. He observed that despite lethal capability most humans are not and have not been killers. Love and compassion is the way.

Like Lev N. Tolstoy of the past century, these wisdom people had the courage to raise some of the Big questions of our time. The film reminds us that we must be vigilant in each generation to ensure that happiness and love remains as our practical beacon for the present and the future.

More: Video Excerpt: 'The Trouble with Tolstoy' showing the Doukhobors.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Koozma,

    Thank you so much for your commentary and the video excerpt from the BBC film. It just occurred to me that we need Tolstoy’s and the Doukhobors' wisdom about religions and war today even more than that of Gandhi.

    Tolstoy and King were clearer against war than Gandhi, I think. Especially when King spoke against war in Vietnam.

    Indeed it’s a blessing to have Tolstoy "resurrected" by the mass media a century after his passing.

    Another good sign may be the King memorial dedicated in Washington this week. I do not yet know the texts that have been placed on the memorial wall. Hopefully some words gainst war.

    Since Tolstoy is little known in the USA let‘s hope some arrangment with PBS can be made to show the BBC fillm here.

    Love and Peace,

    Glenn D. Paige
    Chair, Governing Council
    Center for Global Nonkilling
    Home: 3653 Tantalus Drive
    Honolulu, HI 96822-5033 USA
    Tel. (+1) 808-536-7442