Getting to know the human side of a literary giant“Is there any meaning in my life,” Leo Tolstoy once asked, “that the inevitable death waiting for me does not destroy?”
Recorded in “A Confession” in 1882, it was one of the Russian writer’s many ruminations on mortality, a subject that consumed him for much of his life and wove a thread of grim existentialism throughout his novels.
And yet, nearly a century after his death, it is Tolstoy’s immortality that is celebrated in a new exhibit opening tomorrow at the Seoul Museum of History, which invites the well-versed and the uninitiated alike to “Meet the Living Tolstoy” in a display of over 600 documents, artifacts, photos and artwork from the State Museum of Leo Tolstoy in Moscow.
The mammoth size and scale of the collection, however, are mere grace notes to six sheets of inked paper included in the exhibit ― two pages each from the original manuscripts of Tolstoy’s three most important works: “War and Peace,” his magnum opus from 1868; “Anna Karenina” from 1873; and “Resurrection,” from 1889. These national treasures are leaving Russia for the first time following the recent lifting of legal restrictions ― and landing exclusively in Seoul.
“This represents the strong neighborly spirit that exists between the two countries,” says Polina Mironova, secretary of cultural affairs at the Russian Embassy, “and reflects a great deal of trust and respect on our part.”
“Bringing the exhibit to Korea was a priority of the State Tolstoy Museum from the outset,” says Kim Woo-lim, director of the Seoul Museum of History, noting that Vitaly Remizov, his counterpart at the Moscow institution, “greatly values the Korean readership, among whom are the most avid fans of Tolstoy anywhere in the world.”
Both the Korean and Russian teams behind the exhibition point out that Tolstoy, perhaps more than any other foreign novelist of his time, taps into the unique sympathies of Korean readers, possibly aided by the fact that his entire body of work has been translated directly into Korean from Russian for almost a century.
Though “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are permanent fixtures on any required reading list, Son Sang-mok of Indebook Publishing Co., one of the organizing sponsors of the exhibition, points out that “There’s so much more within them that Koreans enjoy for its own sake.”
Nina Vasilievna Zaitseva of the State Tolstoy Museum offers that, for one thing, Tolstoy's novels hark back to oral traditions, and elicit strong responses since “these are stories, not just books.”
A universe operating on dualities
But within the stories themselves, the Tolstoyan universe operates on dualities that deeply resonate on the peninsula, often depicting, for example, the tension between a traditional culture and infiltrating Western sensibilities. Tolstoy's narratives also juxtapose the sweeping theater of historic events with the private theater of small, personal but no less important dramas ― both unfolding within the parameters of mortality.
According to Natalia Alekseevna Kalinina, a deputy director of the State Tolstoy Museum, in Korean as well as Russian culture there is an affinity for both the epic and the intimate.
“Although it’s my first time here, I get the sense that Koreans and Russians value the concept of jeong, which is explored in the family novel ‘Anna Karenina,’ and at the same time their greater freedom, reflected in the national novel ‘War and Peace,’” she says, using a Korean word indicating the empathetic, emotional ties between two individuals.
While there is much in this exhibit for the literati ― a segment in the “War and Peace” manuscript that was ultimately deleted from the published version, for example ― the museums designed it with a broader goal in mind. “Korea has only known Tolstoy through his writings thus far,” says Mr. Kim of the Seoul Museum of History. “Now we can get to know the man, not just ‘that famous author.’”
To that end, “Meet the Living Tolstoy,” scheduled to run to March 27, 2005, traces not so much the works as the life of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) in an exhaustive presentation divided into sections on Tolstoy's personal life, his writings, friends, Tolstoy as educator and as philosopher.
“We've pulled out all the stops,” Mr. Kim says with a laugh. “We’ll play recordings of Tolstoy's own voice; we've hauled in film projectors and hologram monitors?basically, the works.”
On display are such personal items as the writer’s hats, shawls, socks and ever-present folding-chair cane, as well as some belongings of his devoted wife and secretary, Sonya Andreyevna.
Ms. Kalinina urges visitors not to overlook “the small items that are packed with significance,” mentioning a fountain pen with which Tolstoy wrote his last letters and diary entries just days before his death, and a cherished travel clock “so valuable even [Russian viewers] haven’t seen it yet.”
80th birthday gifts
Then there are the obvious showpieces, such as a phonograph presented by Thomas Edison on Tolstoy’s 80th birthday in 1908, an occasion that provided many of the items in the museum collection.
Today, these gifts, which include Russia's first color photograph, represent auguries of not only future technology but Tolstoy's own endurance into posterity. “The entire world celebrated this milestone,” Ms. Kalinina explains, “showing what a far-reaching figure he already was near the end of his life.”
Tolstoy also had a prolific presence in the visual arts, says Ms. Zaitseva, who heads the Department of Paintings, Graphics and Sculpture at the State Tolstoy Museum. For one thing, unlike most writers of this period, Tolstoy welcomed illustrations to his works and collaborated closely with many famous artists of the time, such as Iliya Repin.
In addition, the Moscow museum has brought the first likeness ever drawn of Tolstoy, by Ivan Kramskoy. “Tolstoy was an introvert who hated posing,” says Ms. Kalinina, “but ironically, after Kramskoy's painting, he received so many requests from artists that he became one the most represented faces of his time.”
Ultimately, the quiet, bearded Tolstoy struck a bargain with his would-be portraitists ― “I'll write, you paint” ― and these ‘working’ images are displayed as well, next to personal photos of the author with his family and friends. There is a particularly memorable one of a gnomish-looking Tolstoy lounging next to playwright Anton Chekhov, who’s sporting his signature dark hat and bifocals.
The exhibition examines the “living Tolstoy” that extends past the writer's death. In addition to posthumous landscapes of Tolstoy's birthplace in Yasnaya Polyana, in the Moscow region ― to where, Ms. Zaetseva explains, artists such as Nesterov and Saltanov flocked to pay their respects on canvas ― it also features clips from film, theater and ballet adaptations of Tolstoy's novels.
In his search for meaning in a world filled with the certainty of death, it seems that Tolstoy ultimately arrived at another layer of understanding. “All people live,” he is reported to have said, “not by reason of any care they have for themselves, but by the love for them that is in other people.”
And if it is indeed true that Korea loves Tolstoy, as Mr. Kim asserts, then perhaps it is on this assurance that the exhibit rests its conviction that “Tolstoy lived, lives and will continue living.”
by Kim Sun-jung
To reach the Seoul Museum of History, get off at Gwanghwamun subway station on line No. 5, exit 8, and walk about 10 minutes in the direction of Seodaemun. Museum hours are 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Call (02) 724-0250 for more information.