Event Recap – “Tolstoy’s Orphans” with David Herman

On November 4th, 2021, the Jordan Center hosted Professor David Herman for a talk “Tolstoy’s Orphans.” Professor Herman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is titled ​​Poverty of the Imagination: 19th-Century Russian Literature about the Poor, and he is currently working on The Tragic Tolstoy: The Writings after 1876. The talk recording is available on YouTube.

Herman began his talk by explaining cliches about Tolstoy and his writing that he dislikes, not because they are untrue, but because these cliches are repeated more often than they should be, particularly surrounding Tolstoy’s “crisis.” Before his crisis, Tolstoy lived for a “cult” of two things: the authentic self, and its ecstatic union in a perfect marriage with the perfect soulmate. After his crisis, this “becomes an almost exactly opposite cult of selflessness and impersonal cold Christian love.” Herman’s reading of Tolstoy’s crisis is quite different from the common narrative. He believes that the common narrative’s functional elements are correct, but they’re simply combined in the wrong order. The standard narrative is that 2/3rds of the way through writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suddenly had an existential crisis and became obsessed with death. This obsession supposedly pushed him towards Christianity, whose pursuit of virtue puts him at odds with his wife, and eventually ruins his marriage. Herman believes that the order should be different: he thinks Tolstoy was profoundly unhappy at this time and “bitterly disillusioned with his marriage” to the point that he decides not that they have irreparably damaged their marriage, but that marriage itself “has been proven bankrupt” and that love between humans is an illusion, and that all people are “badly matched for each other.” Tolstoy came to Christianity in a time of despair and fear. He believed that people can care about God, but they cannot care deeply about one another because humans are innately selfish.

Herman then moved on to the main point of his talk. He explained that Tolstoy himself was an orphan––his mother died when he was 9. Tolstoy believed that it is more painful for a child to lose their mother than to lose their father because mothers provide nurture and care. Herman explained that “in Russia, you don’t need to lose both parents to be an orphan. One is bad enough.” Most of Tolstoy’s heroes are orphans, even if this fact has no impact on the story. In some way, shape ,or form, orphanhood is present in every one of Tolstoy’s writings, you just have to learn to see it.

All of Tolstoy’s characters before his crisis are orphans in this way, all except their lovers, who have parents. Therefore, marriage is an exchange of sorts, a way for the main characters to access the “warmth and connectedness” they desire. Though, the first example of this actually isn’t shown through marriage. In Tolstoy’s trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, Tolstoy gushes over his closest friendship, and comes to realize that he wants what his friend has––a close-knit, loving family. Six of his seven major characters in Anna Karenina are couples with orphan/non-orphan couples, and many characters in War and Peace are the same way. The only characters who aren’t like this are Anna and Karenin, who are both orphans––theirs is the “only marriage without a natural warmth” and consequently the only one that fails. Interestingly, all relationships in which both parties have living parents also fail.

Tolstoy’s philosophy is that people are inherently good and all evil comes from the world. Children are born ready to love, perfectly happy and virtuous. Unfortunately, along the way, they learn that the world is not like this. The world corrupts the child so the child grows into an adult with a hard shell. Herman explained that both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky agreed that because of this, victims become victimizers. Yet, while Dostoevsky believed that, if the world is spoiled, then it’s his own fault and he alone must answer for it, Tolstoy believed that the “world is horrible to the self and the self is still young and pure,” so all of that horribleness is the world’s fault. Tolstoy became defensive and put walls up for himself. Herman explained that he “practiced non-love” and became used to it, although it begins uncomfortably.

Many quirks that are hallmarks of Tolstoy’s writing are also characteristics of his characters without mothers. These characteristics include the rejection of convention, being crippled by thoughts of death, not settling for an average marriage and holding out for “ecstatic union,” and writing novels, so the writer can observe rather than participate (most writing is done by the orphans). Epiphanies are also a common occurrence among his orphans, often about the act of escaping from orphanhood. The epiphanies are transitory, fleeting, and impermanent, which is similar to how Tolstoy ends his books. Herman says that “the innate restlessness of the orphan is why Tolstoy can produce a happy ending only by abruptly cutting off a narrative in midstream.” He also says that “in Tolstoy, you have to love life, no matter how much it hurts. the world is too big to change; if something gnaws at us we can only change ourselves.” Unfortunately, orphans cannot overcome their restlessness in Tolstoy’s fiction. Tolstoy’s novels contradict themselves due to orphanhood. War and Peace and Anna Karenina are “vast acts of repression” by Tolstoy to suppress the orphan’s feelings of grievance.

Tolstoy used these books to construct a fairy tale for himself, and at the end of both, the orphan inside gets the better of him and he realizes that life isn’t fair and orphans are left with nothing. The novels always end with the solitary orphaned hero, surrounded by people, frantically yet fruitlessly clinging to their dreams.

Review: “I Want a Baby and Other Plays” by Sergei Tretyakov, Translated by Robert Leach and Stephen Holland

This new collection of plays by Sergei Tretyakov, translated by Robert Leach and Stephen Holland, attempts to solidify Tretyakov’s role in the Russian Theatrical Avant-Garde Canon. In his introduction, Leach bemoans that Tretyakov is often left out of the narrative of the theatrical experiments of the radical Soviet 20’s, especially in the West. While figures such as Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Mayakovsky, all of whom closely collaborated with Tretyakov throughout the decade, have become darlings of the study of Avant-Garde Theater, Tretyakov has been left by the wayside. 

Continue reading...

Event Recap: On Soviet Occidentalism, Empire, and Modernity

On September 30, 2021, the Jordan Center hosted Dr. Volodymyr Ryzhkovskyi, a Georgetown University PhD recipient and current Jordan Center Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Ryzhkovskyi’s research connects empire, culture, and knowledge to Russia and the Soviet’s Union’s place within global history, with a distinct focus on their relation to Western Imperialism and colonialism.

Continue reading...

The Central Asian Antigay Movement in Global and Local Perspective

Russia, in short, did not drive Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBTI upswell any more than Moscow propelled the upswell of anti-LGBTI rhetoric at Virginia school board meetings. What political entrepreneurs in Russia did do, however, was demonstrate the political effectiveness of portraying the LGBTI community as a threat, particularly a threat to children. Central Asian politicians, much like politicians here in Virginia, recognized the expediency of this newly prominent anti-LGBTI strategy and have adopted antigay rhetoric to mobilize their political base.

Continue reading...

Event Recap – Lamas, Leaders, and Lay Believers: A History of Buddhists in Russia

On November 2nd, 2021, the Jordan Center hosted Dr. Melissa Chakars, an associate professor and Chair of the Department of History at Saint Joseph’s University. Dr. Chakars research focuses on Eurasian history with a specialization and focus on the Mongolian peoples of Russia. Having published The Socialist Way of Life in Siberia: Transformation in Buryatia in 2014 and the co-edited volume Modernization, Nation-Building, and Television History in 2015, Dr. Chakars’ current research project is a history of Buddhism in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, and modern Russian Federation.

Continue reading...

The Rule of Law and Democratic Rule at Odds

For three decades now, a pervasive obsession with the “rule of law” has transformed governance across continents. Both political liberals concerned with human rights and economic ones concerned with market efficiency have united in the conviction that rule of law reforms and anti-corruption programs will both safeguard the judiciary and human rights from authoritarian overreach, and ensure a stable investment climate for businesses. That these expectations have not always been fulfilled may be seen on the example of Bulgaria.

Continue reading...

Holodomor and the Double Logic of Soviet Archives

In the 1930s, holodomor was not yet “the Holodomor” as we know it today. In the flow of bureaucratic papers, letters, investigation orders, and administrative notes that circulated among different levels of the Soviet administration, the word “holod” (starvation) is almost never mentioned. In fact any records that relate to the Famine were subjected to severe discursive cleansing with carefully chosen wording and widespread uses of euphemisms such as “food difficulties,” “mismanagement,” or “temporary problems,” suggesting moments in which silencing entered the production of sources – and hence the archives. The central question becomes not of visibility but of secrecy. Not what the Soviet bureaucrats wanted to know about the situation on the ground — but how they pretended not to know and why.

Continue reading...

Expanding the Gulag Archipelago (No, not that way)

These women’s Gulag stories, as I unceremoniously call them for the time being, contribute in significant ways to Russia’s current mediascape. First, the change in setting is important. Moving the subject’s perspective from victims of fascism to victims of Stalinism introduces nuance into representations of mourning WWII-era victims. If the resurgence of Victory Day celebrations in Russia over the past decade speak to a desire to re-create feelings of national pride, the introduction of Gulag victims as equally worthy of grieving expands the narrative, now including survivors and families of camp victims in this communal mourning.

Continue reading...

A Soviet Imprimatur on Imperial Smut: Politizdat’s “Luka Mudishchev” as Parody of the Soviet Book

On January 11, 1970, the British émigré newspaper Wiadomości reported on the publication of a new Russian book, a pocket-sized volume that had been a London bestseller during late 1969. In its article, Wiadomości emphasized the volume’s pedigree, writing “[t]he book was published in Moscow by the Central Committee of the CPSU, the editorial board was composed of eight of the most eminent members of the Soviet Writers…the book is dedicated to Sholokhov, and the preface was written by Furatseva, the Minister of Culture.” However, after laboriously establishing these credentials, the newspaper continues in an unexpected direction: “the reader, so prepared, opens the book – and is unable to believe his eyes.” Rather than a work of socialist prose, the book constituted an edition of Luka Mudishchev, an infamous pornographic poem popularly attributed to the eighteenth-century poet Ivan Barkov.

Continue reading...

Truth Unclaimed: Why Russians Trust Propaganda and Distrust Independent Media

In countries like Russia, independent journalists are marginalized not only by governments who prosecute them but also by citizens. Most Russians do not care about the truths reported by Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, Rain, and other independent news organizations; neither can they be bothered by the Kremlin’s attempts to silence these media for good. Rather, many citizens seem to be satisfied with their mainstream media, most of which are controlled by the state.

Continue reading...

Russia’s “Great Game” in the Biden Era

Around an hour long including commercial breaks, “The Great Game” features two hosts, a moderator, and a rotating cast of expert commentators. Rather than just having Russian panelists, the show’s defining feature is that it purports to present both the Russian and American perspectives, with a host and guests from each nation.

Continue reading...

Ethical Questions in Researching the Religious Underground in Romania’s Secret Police Archives, Part II

Several immediately identifiable problems arose in our talks: the problem of questioning the authority of the canonical historical narrative of the church elders based on documents that were created by the enemies of the church; the problem of the “truth” of the archives, of their already accepted narrative; the issues related to what is private and how much of it we should have access to; the moral issue, the judgment of the action of their elders; the religious issue – attendance to the canons and practices of the church.

Continue reading...

Ethical Questions in Researching the Religious Underground in Romania’s Secret Police Archives, Part I

In their effort to curtail the clandestine practice of religion, the secret police produced a thorough database of names, places, biographies, activities, and networks. It created one of the most important extant collections of religious literature — in many cases, that literature is only preserved in these archives. Since documents on these minorities were rarely collected in other state archives, the secret police became an inadvertent producer of history.

Continue reading...

Searching for Józef Herburt in Kazakhstan

The fact that an escaped Polish exile from Ukraine managed to integrate himself into Kazakh society and impersonate a relative of Kenesary would make an exceptional find both for the myth of the Polish revolutionary and the more prosaic reality of cross-cultural interaction and exchange.

Continue reading...

For Whom the Windfalls? Oil Tax Revenues and Inequality in Russia


Our research shows that once oil windfalls in Russia are taxed and transferred to the state budgets, they may easily fall prey to the corrupt, politically connected elite, but this unfair redistribution would not go unnoticed by the population and eventually may play its role in the rising political instability. Of course, the central government has put an end to the oil windfalls at the regional level by channeling them into the federal budget, but this does not guarantee a fairer distribution of the natural resource rent and raises even more serious concerns about the potential political capture. 

Continue reading...