A Night with Alexander Boot

The picture is of Ilya Repin, of Tolstoy in His Study, 1891. I found it on IlyaRepin.org.

I spent a great night a few days ago at the Thomas More Institute, which sponsors talks on civic values and ethical engagement in public life. The speaker was Alexander Boot, who gave a paper on his interpretation of Tolstoy. He is a scintillating, learned man. Alex escaped the KGB in the early nineteen seventies, and went to live in Texas and New York, where he met his talented, funny wife. His experiences seem to have added to his moral appreciation of the damage his great Russian predecessor had done, and to the contempt for Marxism as the vicious nonsense which it is that I share.

Tolstoy always struck me as a contradiction; a vegetarian hunter who relished the kill, a narcissist who went as far as proclaiming himself the best Christian ever, and, before Solzenitsyn, a guaranteed name-drop to attach to whatever western agrarian populist fantasy you were pushing in the name of anti-modernist values. Richard Nixon liked him.

As Alex showed, however, the Western wish, repeated oft elsewhere, that we could find in Russia a voice that may have had values, if not microwave ovens, was misplaced. He drew, in his new book--which I recommend as thoroughly as his others--the point that Tolstoy actually was a father of new age modernism. He inspired Gandhi, whom I can recognise as an Inner Temple lawyer on the make, used and sidelined by Nehru and Jinnah; indirectly, though less convincingly, he seems to have had an impact on Martin King.

The greatest Russian writer--maybe, I'm prepared to believe, on a par with Shakespeare, though my own tastes run to Webster and Dostoyevsky--was not the guru he is often presented as. He was a follower and inspirer of cults. We read his literature, and forget his anti-religious and ultimately corporeal nonsense; would Ayn Rand's rubbish have damaged so many had Tolstoy not blazed a trail?

He indulged every sense as only a rich and untouchable man can, and then blamed the corrupt state around him. I won't listen to the Kreutzer Sonata again without thinking of Teddy Kennedy.

Tolstoy founded a view of the spiritual propounded by gurus linked to success in other fields, who presented their knowledge as transferable. He upheld mystic nationalism whilst decrying the war intimately connected to it. Lenin liked him. I mean, Lenin. Short of Hitler, Genghis Khan, and most South American rulers ever, is there any worse endorsement?

Like Churchill, he took history for the personal reflection of his mental canvas, but unlike Churchill he did so with no conception of the original sin and vices of men to hold him back. Alex, I think, blames Rousseau and atheism for the pernicious badness; I blame materialism's search for any delusional consciousness not founded in God.

I loved that talk the other night. I've visited Netherhall House twice now, and can only sing its praises, reader. It, with the Middle Temple, is now on my patented 'paradise hauntings' wish list. Read or buy Alexander's books if you like your surveys of the West's fall rich and witty. And, of course, don't let them hold you away from War and Peace....

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