How Russian Literature has changed my life

This is an inspiring story.

Reading Leo Tolstoy has become a life changer.

Impressed by the novel “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, an English woman Mary Hobson decided to learn Russian and entered the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University at the age of 62.

Now she is 90. Mary explains her long living by the urge to study Russian language and literature that she has got through reading the epic novel. Her life has not been easy though.

I understand why this could happen. Russian Literature has changed my life too, but in a different way.

For Russians this is not something distant and romantic.

“Russian Literature” is a title of a subject we all learn at school.

All these terribly long novels by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, etc. – we had to read and discuss them to get our “5”s (or “A”s) in a journal.

In my post-soviet school years we didn’t have to read thoroughly. The main point was to learn the correct (approved) opinion on a piece of writing to make our teacher happy.

I had almost mastered this game when a new teacher of Russian Literature came.

He was a disaster! Vladimir Fedorovich didn’t want our superficial essays. Which was worse he made us read and write much more then the school program required.

I hated this style of teaching first.

But when I realized how much easier he made my school life, I couldn’t wait until the next lesson.

He made us read, he made us feel and cry over the stories of Tolstoy and Paustovsky. He even taught us to be rebels and resist parents’ selfish love.

We didn’t have to guess the correct answer anymore. There were no correct answers; there were only feelings that arise when you go deep into a piece of Russian literature.

Being superficial is boring – diving deep is exciting.

Being false is difficult – being genuine is easy.

That is exactly what the Russian writers teach.

The novel “War and Peace” could also be titled “The true and the false”. Though being authentic is easy and rewarding, sometimes it’s terribly difficult to see the things how they really are.

Even if you experience the moments of truth you can easily get lost.

You need something strong to wake up.

Being on the edge of life and death Tolstoy’s characters experienced the moments of real happiness. Not in spite of the war, but because of the war.

Pier Besukhov (laughting in a prison)

Не пустил меня солдат. Поймали меня, заперли меня. В плену держат меня. Кого меня? Меня? Меня — мою бессмертную душу!

Andrey Balkonsky (lying wounded on a field of battle)

Над ним не было ничего уже, кроме неба, – высокого неба, не ясного, но все-таки неизмеримо высокого, с тихо ползущими по нём серыми облаками. “Как тихо, спокойно и торжественно, совсем не так, как я бежал, – подумал князь Андрей, – не так, как мы бежали, кричали и дрались, совсем не так, как с озлобленными и испуганными лицами тащили друг у друга банник француз и артиллерист, – совсем не так ползут облака по этому высокому бесконечному небу. Как же я не видал прежде этого высокого неба? И как я счастлив, что узнал его наконец. Да! Все пустое, все обман, кроме этого бесконечного неба. Ничего, ничего нет, кроме его. Но и того даже нет, ничего нет, кроме тишины, успокоения. И слава богу!

After those lessons I could not be the same.

I just couldn’t follow the standard way of living that I was trained at school and the university.

And when you are honest you may have a very hard time.

When you are honest there is no religion and no guru to console you. Only you and your bare feet.

A count Leo Tolstoy with his bare feet
A count Leo Tolstoy with his bare feet

You get a good job with a huge salary – and you get lost

You think you fell in love – and you got lost

You stick to a group of other “Truth seekers” – and you get lost.

These are only toys that postpone solving a problem. They drive you away from the real happiness of being authentic and shining to yourself and others.

And when you are completely lost you learn from Russian writers how music speaks to you, how green oak leaves, blue sky and a face of a child speak to you.

You can’t see the truth looking at other fake and empty people.

But you can see the truth looking how an old oak tree turns green after a long Russian winter.

If you are still not happy you are lazy. You don’t think deep enough and you don’t serve enough, still remaining on the surface.

Many of Russian writers and poets died early. But Leo Tolstoy lived a long life helping other people and especially children to be happy and genuine. And he still continues to help.


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