Holy Cross Hosts Conference to Delve Into Tolstoy’s Controversial Take on Christianity

An international slate of acclaimed authors and scholars of the work of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) will participate in a conference titled “Tolstoy and Spirituality” on April 21-22 at the College of the Holy Cross. All conference sessions, which will be held in the Rehm Library, are free and open to the public. A schedule is available on the conference website.

Tolstoy, best known for his books including “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” succumbed to a severe spiritual crisis around his 50th birthday, which he resolved by rediscovering Christianity. However, Tolstoy’s rereading of the faith was considered highly controversial. In this conference, presenters will analyze his works of fiction and nonfiction to assess the viability and fruitfulness of Tolstoy’s approach to Christianity.

“Tolstoy had a highly original, almost paradoxical view of Christianity,” said Predrag Cicovacki, professor of philosophy at Holy Cross and the conference co-organizer. “He defended the moralizing mission of Christianity, while also maintaining the innocence of nature. Instead of blaming our ‘fallen’ nature for our sins, Tolstoy put the blame squarely on social institutions, such as State and Church.”

The conference will open with a talk by celebrated Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin, author of “One Night Befalls Us All” (Vagrius, 1993), “The Taking of Izmail” (Inapress, 1999), "Maidenhair" (Vagrius, 2005) and "The Light and the Dark" (AST: Astrel, 2010). He also authored “Montreux-Missolunghi-Astapovo, in the Steps of Byron and Tolstoy,” an essay collection in German (Rotpunktverlag, 2002).

In concert with the conference, a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor will take place Friday, April 21 at 8 p.m. in Brooks Concert Hall. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is said to have inspired Tolstoy to write his most controversial piece, the novella “The Kreutzer Sonata.” The performance will feature Victor Santiago Asuncion, piano; Markus Placci, violin; and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello. The concert is free and open to the public.

Other presenters will include:

  • Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy biographer, author of "Tolstoy: A Russian Life" (Profile, 2010) and "Chekhov: Scenes from a Life" (Simon and Schuster, 2004), co-author of "Literary Russia: A Guide" (with Anna Benn, new edition, Duckworth, 2007 ), and translator of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" (Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Predrag Cicovacki, professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, author of “Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life” (Transaction Publishers, 2014) and “Gandhi’s Footprints” (Transaction Publishers, 2015)
  • Robert L. Holmes, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, and author of “The Ethics of Nonviolence: Essays by Robert L. Holmes,” edited by Predrag Cicovocki (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)
  • Liza Knapp, professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University, author of “Anna Karenina and Others: Tolstoy’s Labyrinth of Plots” (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) and editor of critical companions to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”
  • Donna Tussing Orwin, professor of Russian literature and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, author of “Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880” (Princeton University Press, 1993) and “Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy” (Stanford University Press, 2007)
  • Vladimir Pištalo, professor of liberal arts at Becker College, author of the novels “Venice” (Agora, 2011) and “Tesla, Portrait Among Masks” (Agora, 2008)
  • Alexandra Smith, reader in Russian Studies at the University of Edinburgh and author of “Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian 20th-century Poetry” (Editions Rodopi B.V., 2006) and “The Song of the Mockingbird: Pushkin in the Work of Marina Tsvetaeva” (Peter Lang, 1994)
  • Ilya Vinitsky, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Princeton University, co-author of “A Cultural History of Russian Literature” (Polity Press, 2009) and author of “Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism” (University of Toronto Press, 2009) and “Vasily Zhukovsky’s Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia” (Northwestern University Press, 2015)

The conference is organized by Cicovacki and Olga Partan, assistant professor of Russian at Holy Cross. It is sponsored by the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and supported by the Rehm Family Fund.

Learn more about the event on the conference website.