Mark, we would like to talk about this: Leo Tolstoy is our classic, we’ve recently marked the 100-year anniversary since his death, he is well-known all around the world and he wrote such thoughtful and lengthy works. But now the pace of life is a lot faster and there is so little time just to stand and stare. How popular is Tolstoy today in Russia and abroad? How easy is he to understand?
Mark Shatunovsky: I find it hard to judge Tolstoy’s popularity. This could probably better be evaluated by people in the publishing business. I am a writer and I’m not much interested in statistics.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: But literature is a way to get to know the world.
Mark Shatunovsky: Literature is a way to acquaint yourself with the world, yes, but the way to do this is changing somewhat. The instruments are changing. And the Tolstoy issue is connected to this instrumentality. Tolstoy’s work is filled with syncretism. In his time, in the 19th century, which as we know finished in 1913, he filled up a whole number of areas in the socio-cultural domain that today exist independently of one another.
Tolstoy’s prose, indeed all of his works, united all of them and consolidated in one person – Leo Tolstoy. Aside from the fact that he wrote fiction, his prose actually contains a lot of politico-social commentary, which later became a standalone tenet of journalism. His prose is also very documental and this became its own subset of cinematic art. He wrote epics that remind of today’s soap operas, or perhaps today’s equivalent to Tolstoy is Harry Potter.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: That’s a stretch!
Mark Shatunovsky: Why? It’s only a stretch because we’re attempting to extract from Harry Potter the syncretism that was present in War and Peace. The scale of the imagery, the epic nature, the verbosity and the popularity. Tolstoy had a lot of these things. I can take chunks out of War and Peace and if you didn’t know the context, you wouldn’t think that they’re from War and Peace. He talks about integrals, infinitesimally small numbers and various concepts of defining reality that have little artistic value, instead being ideological in nature.
Tolstoy was the father of post-modernism in that sense. Tolstoy himself did a lot of different things that are today being done by different people. Lucas makes Star Wars moves. Tolstoy authored War and Peace. But War and Peace embodies not only Lucas’s Star Wars, but also religious philosophy that was articulated by people like Berdyaev or Florensky, or at least its seminal points, which Lucas’s work doesn’t have.
So you see Tolstoy’s syncretism is that he managed to play multiple roles at once. When we want to find something out about the 19th century, we pick up a Tolstoy book and we read it. And we learn how people lived, how they dressed, how they interacted, how noblemen behaved, what simple folk did, how they spoke and what they thought about, and how this differed between the social strata. We judge the time through Tolstoy’s work.
Today, that function is filled by lots of different people. Photographers snap up multitudes of photos, cinematographers make huge numbers of films, there are hoards of newspapers being published – there weren’t that many newspapers published in Tolstoy’s day. And today we can find about our time through many different sources. Whereas Tolstoy is practically the only powerful source of information about his time.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Mark, how accessible would you say this information is? As you say, when we want to find out about the 19th century, we pick up Tolstoy. But if we just want to learn about the materialistic aspects of 19th century culture, we can’t do away with his other thoughts in the text – say, his religious musings. So, in a sense, this is an aggregation of information, which conditions interpretation. Whereas now, we have specialized information sources that we can get particular types of information from.
Mark Shatunovsky: You see, Tolstoy’s syncretism has its town drawbacks. A year after Tolstoy died, great Russian civil religious philosophers, including Berdyaev, Florensky, Rozanov and Bulgakov published an anthology where they criticize Tolstoy’s syncretism. Dostoevsky was rather pained by this syncretism, because it contains a certain pop culture component.
And it’s true – there really is that sort of pop culture in Tolstoy’s prose. A lot of pop culture tidbits were borne out of Tolstoy’s syncretism – comics, for example. It’s no accident that a summary version of War and Peace exists, you know.
Tolstoy created an analogy for a virtual reality, for instance.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: He did?
Mark Shatunovsky: If you read War and Peace, there’s a description of a prayer before the Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy describes how an icon is brought out, how ribbons flitter in the wind, which ruffles the pope’s beard. He describes Kutuzov and the generals and he writes about one general in particular, who doesn’t pray himself, like all the others do. He’s a German atheist, but he thinks that it’s useful to pray, because it heartens the troops. These are Tolstoy’s thoughts and as you read it you understand that there really was a prayer, but it wasn’t necessarily as Tolstoy described. That this is, in essence, a virtual reality. He basically created some sort of replica of the reality, very closely resembling what actually went on, without being exactly documental.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: But this is just viewing the situation through Tolstoy’s prism, no?
Mark Shatunovsky: And it’s not just a matter of being viewed through his prism, it is an analogous reality. Which is exactly what a virtual reality is.
Everything that in the 20th century became separate, stand-alone creative tenets is united in Tolstoy’s work. And this is both its strength and its weakness, because this syncretism in essence kills the individuality of interpretation.
Tolstoy was creating something that was convincing to a large number of people. Yet if we consider an individual who doesn’t share the prevailing opinion, Tolstoy becomes less convincing. And Dostoevsky faulted him for this, because he thought about individuality, because he was primarily concerned with the idea of a broken individual, someone who is at odds with social realities, someone who gambles in Baden-Baden and loses his young wife’s new dress and who can commit acts that don’t fit into the general framework of views and morals on world order.
Meanwhile, in Tolstoy we see a general truth, but the more generalized it is, the larger the number of people it applies to, the less compelling it is for a single person, for an individual.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: Do I understand correctly that you view Tolstoy’s work as a sort of predecessor to today’s mass culture?
Mark Shatunovsky: Undoubtedly. And this is confirmed over and over again. There is no Russian writer that is more American than Tolstoy. I won’t even mention Gone with the Wind.
This was picked up by Bondarchuk Senior, who filmed Russia’s biggest Oscar movie, where Russia was a super-power not just in missiles and ballet, but also in cinema. At that stage, Russian cinematography was on equal footing with Hollywood. What’s more, its scale, discounting for time, stands up to some movies of Cameron’s. Bondarchuk hit the nail on the head and got the Oscar.
Tolstoy has the biggest mass appeal of all Russian authors. It’s no accident that Tolstoy-ism was a mass phenomenon.
If Tolstoy lived in our time given the current instrumental diversity – the Internet, cameras, technical gadgetry – Tolstoy couldn’t play the syncretism function. Today’s Tolstoy, being so adaptable to the West, would be today’s Lucas making Star Wars movies, he wouldn’t be writing War and Peace.
Today literature is not as influential as back then and Tolstoy was very influential, he pursued a lot of PR. He met with a lot of people, talked with them, received a lot of visitors at Yasnaya Polyana, posed for correspondents with the plough – all powerful PR tricks.
Ekaterina Kudashkina: So am I correct to say that the Tolstoy of the 19th century wouldn’t have lost his magnitude in the 20th century, he would just have shown it differently?
Mark Shatunovsky: He wouldn’t have lost his significance, no, he would still be as prominent. But today, he would be accused of all kinds of sins. Because he wouldn’t have time to translate Laozi, like Cameron doesn’t have time to do today. Because he physically couldn’t fulfill that syncretism function. His activities would be chastised as too simplistic, we would say “in the 19th century, you did more complex things, drew a lot more things together – you’re a bit simple now”.