Dr Ruth Coates speaking on Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Mind in the BRLSI Victor Suchar Christmas Lecture 2010
In 1998 Victor Suchar, one of the key figures in the rebirth of BRLSI, founded the Institution’s annual Christmas Lecture. 12 years later it’s held in his memory, renamed the Victor Suchar Christmas Lecture and this year acting as the finale to BRLSI’s 2010 lecture programme. Previous years’ lectures have been on science subjects (including geneticist Prof Steve Jones on Evolution in 2009), but this year the focus switched to the Humanities, as BRLSI Literature and Humanities convenor Dr Robert Blackburn introduced Dr Ruth Coates of Bristol University to speak on Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Mind.
Tolstoy (1828-1910) is seen by many as the embodiment of pre-revolutionary Russia, but in a carefully-structured argument Dr Coates told us that his philosophies were too radical (and too radically-shifting), and too out of sympathy with the Russian Orthodox Church, to make him truly representative of the 19th Century Russian mind. She divided his life into three periods – youth, mid-life crisis and post-crisis years – and in the first showed him as a Slavophile, suspicious of the West and of Russia’s capital of modernity, St Petersburg. He used War and Peace to portray Napoleon as a vain and ultimately inept leader, and in Anna Karenina turned his fire on industrialisation (as seen in England and its railways), which he saw as bringing about moral degeneration.
Bety Suchar, BRLSI Trustee and Chair of Management, opened the evening in memory of her late husband Victor.
Tolstoy’s post-crisis years saw him develop in ways which left him out of sympathy not only with the Russia of the past and present, but of the future too. Although deeply religious (as Dr Coates told us, he saw religion as ‘the most fundamental phenomenon of life’), he grew further from the Orthodox Church, rejecting its hierarchy and becoming ‘not so much a Christian as a theist’. And while he was drawn to the radical intelligentsia, he remained anti-liberal, anti-collectivist and unconvinced that science had rendered religion obsolete. If he was with us today, Dr Coates suggested, he probably wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas – but it was clear that he probably wouldn’t have celebrated Communist Russia either.
Dr Coates’ lecture was, indeed, a Christmas treat – scholarship of the highest order, delivered for 70 minutes without hesitation, and with a lively Q&A session afterwards. Victor Suchar, who believed with some passion in the BRLSI’s lectures programme (and helped to run it as Philosophy Convenor), would, without doubt, have approved.