October 21, 2013

Russian volunteers put the complete works of Tolstoy online


“You see, Seryozha, the iPad will be this big. Perfect for reading my ‘Why Do Men Intoxicate Themselves?’ on!”

Leo Tolstoy lived several lifetimes in one, and filled them all with writing.

So when his great-great-granddaughter, Fyokla Tolstaya, initiated a project to put his complete works online, free and accessible to all — a project that would involve proofreading every single scanned page from the print edition — she was facing a 46,800 pg proofreading job. Tolstaya put out an appeal for volunteers, but she had modest expectations for it; she expected to get part of the work done in six months.

The result was somewhat other than expected. As Sally McGrane tells it on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog:

Within days, some three thousand Russians—engineers, I.T. workers, schoolteachers, retirees, a student pilot, a twenty-year-old waitress—signed on. “We were so happy and so surprised,” said Tolstaya. “They finished in fourteen days.”

This tremendous response is apposite for Tolstoy: not only of course is he one of the most beloved of the Russian greats, but he believed in the extraordinary possibilities of collective effort. Tolstaya:

“It’s according to Leo Tolstoy’s ideas, to do it with the help of all people around the world—vsem mirom—even the world’s hardest task can be done with the help of everyone.”

And indeed, one imagines that Tolstoy might have loved the age of crowdsourcing and instant mass communication: for all his solitary two-hundred kilometer walks and rough peasant blouses, he was always interested in reaching as many people as possible through the many mediums they might turn to. Now, his complete works will be available for download on the website http://tolstoy.ru/, in formats compatible with all devices.

McGrane quotes interviews with some of the volunteers, who sound almost implausibly devoted to the endeavor (shades of old rhetoric possibly bleeding through). For instance, Damir Shakurov, a IT employee from Kazan:

“I think I got more out of this project than I gave to it,” he said. “When I slowly read the corrected texts, I felt that it was all worth it, no matter how monotonous or painful the proofreading. Luckily, my children are avid readers, and I hope that when they are older they will discover Tolstoy—whose works I have helped to make available online.”

Or Anton Maltsev, an engineer from Moscow:

“There was no stopping me,” he recalled. “I spent all my free time ‘in conversation with’ Tolstoy. Proofreading was engrossing. You couldn’t predict what a new set of pages would be about, and this element of surprise made me want to read more.”

Underlying this mammoth digital corpus — which includes novels, diaries, letters, religious tracts, philosophical treatises, travelogues, and more — lies the original Complete Collected Works, the story of whose publication Rosamund Bartlett tells in her recent biography, Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Though editions of Tolstoy’s collected works were proposed immediately following his death, and, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, it became possible to publish all of his banned writing, it wasn’t until 1958 that the final volumes of the Jubilee Edition (so-called because the first volumes were intended to be published in time for the centenary of Tolstoy’s birth in 1928 — though they weren’t) came out.

And while it was underway, the project faced a perpetual lack of funding, constant bureaucratic delays, and, by the ’30s, the near-insuperable hurdles of reconciling parts of Tolstoy’s work (especially his religious writings) with the state’s demands. Other commentators were ditched in favor of Lenin’s commentaries on the author, and controversial volumes were left for publication sometime in the future. Work eventually petered out — there were other things to worry about, like the war — and it was only resumed after Stalin’s death in 1953.

By the time the final volumes were published, a new and incomplete national myth of Tolstoy had been established. As Bartlett describes it:

In the 1950s Tolstoy was firmly entrenched in the Soviet imagination as a symbol of Russia, and as her most ardent patriot. Generations of Russian schoolchildren now grew up with the officially approved novels and stories that had become a fixture on the national curriculum, completely unaware of Tolstoy’s enormous legacy of religious and political writings.

Tolstoyans — the numerous communities of people who’d chosen to live by Tolstoy’s religious and political writings — suffered the costs of this deliberately limited view of his work: they had refused to be collectivised and were persecuted throughout the Soviet era.

So, the opening-up of all of Tolstoy’s writings to any Russian speaker with access to the internet is a positive development: it’ll allow readers to judge for themselves the relevance of his work, with its vast ambition, its decades-long, evolving contemplation of the big and small questions of life, its still-radical  views on nonviolence and anarchism. And the fact that this has come about through the efforts of thousands of new, volunteer “Tolstoyans” of a sort is cause for cheer. And maybe a long walk or two.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.