Alexei Tolstoy’s First Take on Peter I (and Curtis on Bulgakov)

The venerable journal Index on Censorship has just released its latest issue, which is dedicated to the legacy of the Russian Revolution. It’s full of thought-provoking material on a wide range of subjects, including the propaganda value of Sergei Eisenstein’s films, the nefarious rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan, and the suppression of free speech in today’s Russia and Uzbekistan. In one piece, Nina Khrushcheva — Nikita’s great-granddaughter — reflects on life in Trump’s America. I was asked to contribute a work from the revolutionary period and chose to translate an excerpt from a gripping, disturbing story by Alexei Tolstoy (1882-1945), titled “Peter’s” (1918). Here is my introduction to the excerpt:

Few authors associated with the pre-revolutionary regime, and especially those of noble origin, adapted so well to Soviet life and literary culture as Alexei Tolstoy. But this wasn’t the case from the start.

Born into a prosperous and literary family in 1882, Alexei was a remote relative of the more famous Leo Tolstoy (and a descendant of Peter Andreyevich Tolstoy, who appears in the excerpt). He published his first story in 1908, and soon developed a reputation both as a gifted craftsman of prose and an essentially apolitical bon vivant. During the civil war in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, Tolstoy sided with the monarchist White Russians. In 1919, Tolstoy escaped the advancing Bolshevik army via Odessa, winding up, along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian refugees, in Paris. He quickly realised, however, that emigration did not suit him; he missed his native land, and saw no way to establish the kind of sumptuous lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. After proving his bona fides by writing for a number of Bolshevik-friendly publications, he returned to Soviet Russia in 1923.

Although he started his Soviet career with experimental works in a number of popular genres, including the science fiction classic Aelita, published the year he returned, he found his true métier in historical fiction. Peter the Great (1929-1943), his three-volume novel chronicling the emperor’s life, won the acclaim of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s portrait of a fearless Russian moderniser appealed to a man then implementing his own radical policies of industrialisation and collectivisation. As the historian Robert C. Tucker puts it, Tolstoy’s “Peter became the would-be Stalin of yesteryear, and his revolution from above the partial piatiletka [five-year plan] of early eighteenth century Russia”.

But Peter the Great wasn’t Tolstoy’s first work about the monarch. In 1918, in the midst of the civil war, Tolstoy wrote a very different story tracing a single day in Peter’s life, never before published in English. This Peter is a somewhat different type — a self-indulgent, drunken fanatic and sadist. In the scene below, which is based on an actual historical incident, he tortures Varlaam, one of the “Old Believers”, a sect that split off from the Russian Orthodox Church, for preaching that he, Peter, is the Antichrist.

What Tolstoy’s story dramatises is the personal interest — the downright pleasure — Peter took in crushing opposition and those who spoke against him, as well as the foolhardiness of his mission. This image of Peter as bloodthirsty tyrant, clearly inspired by the bloodshed of the civil war, is an uncensored moment of truth. It is a message in a bottle from 1918, which profoundly alters our impression of the glorified Peter in Tolstoy’s later work. This is not the image of Peter that Stalin authorised, precisely because it is far closer to the leader Stalin actually was. Needless to say, this powerful story was not widely circulated in the Soviet Union at the time.

Those who have access to the SAGE Journals database through an academic institution or library can read the excerpt online.

And the latest issue of the TLS (23 June 2017) carries my review of J. A. E. Curtis’s compelling and concise biography Mikhail Bulgakov, an entry in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series.

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