“Virtue on Display” – Tolstoj’s Treatment of Fame

Kerry Sabbag, Brown University

As Nadejda Gorodetzky has observed, “The finest most tempting substitute for love is, for the heroes of Tolstoy, not sensuality or selfish affection for a man’s flesh and blood but the admiration of other men – human glory” (50). It is not accidental that Gorodetzky specifies the temptation of human glory, as the Russian experience of Eastern Orthodoxy is characterized in part by its emphasis on the split between heavenly and earthly glory. In this presentation I will examine the depiction of fame in Tolstoj’s oeuvre, specifically within the context of Russian Orthodoxy. Of particular interest will be the image of Sergij of Radonež, whose Life powerfully demonstrates the division between heavenly and earthly glory and addresses issues of fame and recognition. This Life has been suggested as an influence for what is perhaps the strongest expression of Tolstoj’s suspicion of fame, “Father Sergius,” in which its corrupting effect is linked to religious institutions (monasticism). Father Sergius’s self-consciousness while ministering to the people suggests an aspect of performance theoretically absent from pure virtue, aptly described by Margaret Ziolkowski as “virtue on display” (241). The result is an “anti-hagiography” that challenges the integrity of monasticism and, by extension, Orthodoxy. I would posit that on a more basic level Tolstoj questions in this text the benefits or, more appropriately, dangers of human praise. Although by the time he wrote “Father Sergius” Tolstoj’s struggle with the tenets of Christianity and Orthodoxy in particular had reached a crisis point, one can see the admonition of Mathew reflected in the text: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (6: 1-4).  Upon considering the problem of “virtue on display” in conjunction with the idea of fame, similar examples in the author’s other works may be recalled. His suspicion of renown for good deeds is evident in Pierre’s experience with Freemasonry in War and Peace, the charity of Lidija Ivanovna in Anna Karenina, and the interaction between Varen’ka and Kitty and continues in the same vein in “Master and Man” and “Xodynka.” In each case Tolstoj questions the value of fame achieved through virtue both as regards individual salvation and service to society. The impact of Tolstoj’s position on fame in “Father Sergius” is striking because of its connection with religion, but his criticism of the desire for human glory resonates throughout his works. 


Gorodetzky, Nadejda. The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1938.

Ziolkowski, Margaret. Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.