Semen Frank on Tolstoj

This paper proposes to examine the evolution of Semen Frank’s (1877–1950) views on Tolstoj, from his earlier “Vexi” period to the last expansive essay he wrote on Tolstoj in 1933. Such a tactic will be fruitful in bringing out the reasons which made Frank consider Tolstoj an enduring moral model for the twentieth century.

Why is this important? Frank approached Tolstoj’s moral canon as an interpretive task, one which the Russian intelligentsia was obliged to fulfil. With a special angle on literary creativity taken early on in his career, Frank reiterated that the way Russian intelligentsia, the germ for wholesome organic socium, fulfills its interpretative task in understanding Puškin (“O zadačax poznanija Puškina”), Dostoevskij, or Tolstoj will define its potency and value. In the earlier essays, Frank “deconstructs” Tolstoj’s teaching, a critical period which I propose to call “from adulation to valuation.” He imputes to Tolstoj a narrow “moral utilitarianism” and simultaneously an infectious “ineffectiveness” of his religious teaching to the intelligentsia. In the later essays, he reconfigures the tasks of intelligentsial self-identification for which Tolstoj emerges, reinterpreted, as a new moral beacon in the dark spaces of nepostižimoe. This period may be called “from valuation to initiation”: the very way to approach Tolstoj is a rite of passage, the inhalation of the life-saving essence.

In the late 1900s–1910s, according to Frank, the incense burnt to Tolstoj was a smoke screen that the intelligentsia erected to hide from moral responsibility pressed upon it by Tolstoj’s teaching. Of most interest here is Frank’s “Nravstvennoe učenie L. N. Tolstogo” and “Lev Tolstoj i russkaja intelligencija,” both of 1908. As it would be to the investigator of “ethical thought” (ètičeskaja mysl′), conscience to Frank is the result of a highly developed “[new] religious consciousness.” Of what worth, asks Frank, is a moral prophet of primitivist leanings (like Tolstoj) in modern society, torn between political wars and individual anarchy. Frank is primarily intrigued by why Tolstoj’s teaching can be rejected but never efficiently refuted, not even by strong critics like Vladimir Solov′ev. Frank’s goal is to elicit glimpses of individual conscience in Tolstoj’s readers by exposing the complex meanderings of Tolstoj’s “oproščenija.” He explains that critics of Solov′ev’s type fail to notice how Tolstoj’s highly principled method fulfills two of most impossible tasks: 1) the exposure of a prevalent social ethical value (by exploiting it exhaustively as a dogmatic premise) and 2) the pushing forward of an individual value (by denying any compromise of premise with instance). Tolstoj’s absolute non-violence releases an instance to “grow” under its own specific moral duress and thus encourages moral individualism. Tolstoj’s “fruitful individualism” [plodotvornyj individualizm] is an instance of “novoe religioznoe soznanie,” and his preaching is the word of a new type of religious thinker. “Pamjati L′va Tolstogo” (1910) is a eulogy for the self-hater Tolstoj (“chužd ljubvi”), who accomplished the zaraženie dobrom which he preached. “Tolstoj and Bol′ševism” (1928) is the jealous and anxious account of the reception of Tolstoj in the Bol′ševik Russia on the eve of his centennial jubilee. Tolstoj’s moral and religious dogmatism (especially neprotivlenie) is seen here as a bedrock against the monopoly that Bol′ševik dogma is trying to establish over art, and the hatred that this art is being forced to serve. Finally, “Lev Tolstoj kak myslitel′ i xudožnik” (1933) recalls Tolstoj’s moral authority at a time when humanity was taking another fatal step in its descent to total satanization. The essay eulogizes and deifies Tolstoj into modern Godmanhood (not without cause, Vladimir Solov′ev’s other coinages vseedinstvo and predčuvstvie velikoj istiny are directly invoked). As the summation of Frank on Tolstoj, this essay is a sophisticated contribution to the landscape of tragic disjunctions that marked the interwar period. Tolstoj is placed into context of Russian and European existentialism and embodies the tragedy of an unattained “ontologically-anchored goodness.” In him, the tragic dichotomy of “life” versus “goodness” finds its most vivid representative, but his mighty leanings towards “goodness” are likewise most vivid representations of the “obižennoe bytie čeloveka.” Tolstoj’s moral message, in Frank’s analysis, is not a vehicle of choking indoctrination. Critically assessed and applied, it can serve, Frank insists, as a rescuing antidote to violent enforcements of one-sided and detrimental truths.