Category: Alexei Tolstoy

book review: The Road to Calvary


Sadly whenever you have the surname and the country of birth that Alexei Tolstoy does you are always going to be compared to the great Russian writer sharing that surname.

But this is a book in three parts that cannot just be compared to War & Peace. It also chimes in with other works that looked at the impact of the civil war on Russians at different levels of society. It reminds you of War & Peace because of the grand descriptions of the movement of the armies of initially Russia and Germany and then Red versus White.

But it also reminds you of The River follows to the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Just like those stories there are the same disruptive and life-changing forces at work as the state collapses into bitter war. Those at all levels of society have to be careful just who they choose to support.

But the key to understanding this epic is to put it in the context of when it was being written. Completed in 1944 when the Russians had started to turn the tide against Hitler this is a morale boosting tale, a reminder of Stalin’s military greatness (that point will be returned to) and a history lesson on how much blood was split to produce the Communist state in the first place. The reward for Tolstoy was the Stalin prize but for the reader it is an occasionally dangerous rewriting of history. Something you never felt that was happening in War & Peace.

The first part describes the lives of two sisters Dasha and Katia. The youngest Dasha lives with her sister and brother-in-law and is studying as well as branching out into society for the first time. She destroys her sister’s world when she discovers that Katia has had an affair with a well-known Casanova and forces her to tell her husband. Quickly stability is lost and Katia flees to Paris and Dasha is eventually forced home to her father. But before she goes she falls in love with Telegin who informs is the one to inform her and her brother-in-law, who is staying in the Crimea, that war has started and Katia, is now cut off from them on the other side of the fighting. Katie’s husband joins up and is killed, a deserter needlessly murders the Casanova and the generation of luxurious debaters starts to find reality far more uncomfortable than a smoking room argument. Katia falls in love with Roshchin who is also fighting but there position remains sketchy as the story moves on.

In part two the focus is the year 1918 and the story picks up as the revolution is about to begin and follows the breakdown of the front and the difficulty of the four characters to settle. Telegin and Dasha find themselves in a cold harsh flat having watched their new born die and their relationships starts to fall apart and Telegin falls into the Red Army believing he has nothing left at home. Meanwhile Katia and Roshchin go in a different direction and he joins the Whites. The sister’s father, a provincial doctor, is used as an example of the opportunism many felt and tries to become part of a breakaway government in Samaria. He is quite happy to get the police to hand out retribution to those that have wronged him. Meanwhile in a similar fashion to Telegin and Dasha the strain of civil war leads Roshchin to leave Katia and go off to the killing fields leaving the two sisters left wandering Russia looking for comfort in a comfortless society.

The final part, A Bleak Morning, starts to bring the two strands together and for a convenient end to the story Roshchin decides he has had enough of fighting for those who are only looking to restore their own power and privileges. He ends up with the Reds but his main motivation is to find Katia who has been told he is dead. She ends up almost being raped by his old man at arms from the war but manages to fend him off and become a village teacher. Roshchin traces her down but too late she has gone. Meanwhile Telegin has become a loyal Red fighter and is reunited with Dasha in a field hospital where she is working as a nurse. Their love has never gone but it takes time to have the confidence to blossom again. In the final acts of the book the Whites are mounting their last desperate attempt to take Moscow and the two sisters find themselves back at the flat where is tall started. Roshchin is reunited in a moving scene with Katia and the foursome – once would-be aristocrats – are left in love and model Red fighters prepared to defend the city against the White hordes.

The story weaves this way and that and although you know that characters will end up reunited there is a skill to the way in which those moments take place. There is one great scene where Telegin has gone through enemy lines to deliver a message and is sitting in a station next to Roshchin and the recognition is brief but the later decides to spare the formers life.

The problem is that unlike War & peace the balance is wrong here with too much political information that is towards the end just blatant cheerleading for Stalin. The characters sometimes feel as if they are being forgotten and then simply stuck into a scene to reintroduce them. In War & Peace the history was deep but it never felt dull, which it can do here.

This reminds you of one of those black and white films that were made to keep the war spirit high. No one went in watching them expecting for anything other than drum beating patriotic fervour and this has to be seen in that context. When this was being written Russia was bleeding white with losses that are staggering and if this book helped keep some people going and reminded them of why they were fighting then it did its job. Clearly without that job to do today it fails to have the same impact.

Version read – Hutchinson International Authors hardback

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book review: The Road to Calvary


Sadly whenever you have the surname and the country of birth that Alexei Tolstoy does you are always going to be compared to the great Russian writer sharing that surname.

But this is a book in three parts that cannot just be compared to War & Peace. It also chimes in with other works that looked at the impact of the civil war on Russians at different levels of society. It reminds you of War & Peace because of the grand descriptions of the movement of the armies of initially Russia and Germany and then Red versus White.

But it also reminds you of The River follows to the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Just like those stories there are the same disruptive and life-changing forces at work as the state collapses into bitter war. Those at all levels of society have to be careful just who they choose to support.

But the key to understanding this epic is to put it in the context of when it was being written. Completed in 1944 when the Russians had started to turn the tide against Hitler this is a morale boosting tale, a reminder of Stalin’s military greatness (that point will be returned to) and a history lesson on how much blood was split to produce the Communist state in the first place. The reward for Tolstoy was the Stalin prize but for the reader it is an occasionally dangerous rewriting of history. Something you never felt that was happening in War & Peace.

The first part describes the lives of two sisters Dasha and Katia. The youngest Dasha lives with her sister and brother-in-law and is studying as well as branching out into society for the first time. She destroys her sister’s world when she discovers that Katia has had an affair with a well-known Casanova and forces her to tell her husband. Quickly stability is lost and Katia flees to Paris and Dasha is eventually forced home to her father. But before she goes she falls in love with Telegin who informs is the one to inform her and her brother-in-law, who is staying in the Crimea, that war has started and Katia, is now cut off from them on the other side of the fighting. Katie’s husband joins up and is killed, a deserter needlessly murders the Casanova and the generation of luxurious debaters starts to find reality far more uncomfortable than a smoking room argument. Katia falls in love with Roshchin who is also fighting but there position remains sketchy as the story moves on.

In part two the focus is the year 1918 and the story picks up as the revolution is about to begin and follows the breakdown of the front and the difficulty of the four characters to settle. Telegin and Dasha find themselves in a cold harsh flat having watched their new born die and their relationships starts to fall apart and Telegin falls into the Red Army believing he has nothing left at home. Meanwhile Katia and Roshchin go in a different direction and he joins the Whites. The sister’s father, a provincial doctor, is used as an example of the opportunism many felt and tries to become part of a breakaway government in Samaria. He is quite happy to get the police to hand out retribution to those that have wronged him. Meanwhile in a similar fashion to Telegin and Dasha the strain of civil war leads Roshchin to leave Katia and go off to the killing fields leaving the two sisters left wandering Russia looking for comfort in a comfortless society.

The final part, A Bleak Morning, starts to bring the two strands together and for a convenient end to the story Roshchin decides he has had enough of fighting for those who are only looking to restore their own power and privileges. He ends up with the Reds but his main motivation is to find Katia who has been told he is dead. She ends up almost being raped by his old man at arms from the war but manages to fend him off and become a village teacher. Roshchin traces her down but too late she has gone. Meanwhile Telegin has become a loyal Red fighter and is reunited with Dasha in a field hospital where she is working as a nurse. Their love has never gone but it takes time to have the confidence to blossom again. In the final acts of the book the Whites are mounting their last desperate attempt to take Moscow and the two sisters find themselves back at the flat where is tall started. Roshchin is reunited in a moving scene with Katia and the foursome – once would-be aristocrats – are left in love and model Red fighters prepared to defend the city against the White hordes.

The story weaves this way and that and although you know that characters will end up reunited there is a skill to the way in which those moments take place. There is one great scene where Telegin has gone through enemy lines to deliver a message and is sitting in a station next to Roshchin and the recognition is brief but the later decides to spare the formers life.

The problem is that unlike War & peace the balance is wrong here with too much political information that is towards the end just blatant cheerleading for Stalin. The characters sometimes feel as if they are being forgotten and then simply stuck into a scene to reintroduce them. In War & Peace the history was deep but it never felt dull, which it can do here.

This reminds you of one of those black and white films that were made to keep the war spirit high. No one went in watching them expecting for anything other than drum beating patriotic fervour and this has to be seen in that context. When this was being written Russia was bleeding white with losses that are staggering and if this book helped keep some people going and reminded them of why they were fighting then it did its job. Clearly without that job to do today it fails to have the same impact.

Version read – Hutchinson International Authors hardback

The Road to Calvary (part III) – post VI

I avoided posting about this last night because it was just a few pages until the end and it seemed like a better idea to hold it over until tonight.

Two reactions spring to mind after the conclusion of 680 pages of small type and thin margins. Firstly, there are two great love stories here that are concluded neatly at the end. But secondly, there is a political message that towards the end sadly overshadows the human story.

The blatant rewriting of history with Stalin taking the role of Trotsky running the Red Army and repelling the Whites really spoilt the ending. Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge would know that the Red Army was galvanised by Trotsky and his War Communism changed the direction of the war.

Instead Stalin is deposited in his place and you then start to wonder which generals being referred to in the story are actually real or have been replaced with current political favourites. In one sense you could argue that this is fiction so what does it matter. But because Tolstoy has aped War & Peace and introduced stages of the story with big chunks of historical explanation if those facts are wrong then it does undermine the experience for the reader. In some senses it is a breach of trust.

But there is a voice in the back of your head which tells you that the most important sentence in the book is the very last one: June 22, 1944.

Until June 1944 Russia stood alone against the Germans in terms of fighting on the same continent and it was only after D-Day that the allies took the pressure of with a legitimate Western front. This is a clarion call for people to take the sufferings of war, remember what cause it is all in aid of and to remember what a glorious leader Stalin is. If he did it once before (debatable) he will do it again.

A review will follow soon…

The Road to Calvary (part III) – post V

The book is moving into the final stages and it looks set for a happy ending. Of course in this context a happy ending means that everyone becomes a supporter of the Reds and the Whites are crushed.

As the story has unfolded it has been dogged by a political stance that the other Tolstoy managed to avoid in War and Peace. Here there is an agenda that manages to make those parts of the narrative that are setting up the next stage of the civil war feel slightly too long and when the action comes the characters are sometimes lost to the politics.

But when they do break through there is a great writer underneath that is able to describe people and places in a way that makes it powerfully imaginable. Roshchin closes in on Katia. His wife has to fend off the attentions of the peasant who has set his heart on owning her and she flees before he returns just as Roshchin arrives in her village. He is so close to her he can see her handwriting in her diary and the small cottage where she has been staying.

Meanwhile, Telegin and Dasha have been in hard fighting and there love blossoms again as they realise how precious the moments together are. She becomes ill and is left by Telegin in the care of a former priest who promises to get them removed from the battle area.

More, possibly the last chunk, tomorrow…

Road to Calvary (part III) – post IV

The two strands of the story with the two sisters start to get to a stage where you can see them coming back together again with a possible happy conclusion.

Telegin and Dasha are comrades in arms fighting the Cossacks and thanks to good fortune are holding off the enemy and seem to be happily allowing their love to push out from each other’s hearts and flourish.

Meanwhile, Roshchin is moving further away from his White position and the more he has to justify his position the more it becomes clear he is not only confused but sick of the political posturing. He wants to find his wife and nothing more. At this rate he is not yet close enough to grasp her but it can only be a matter of time before they meet or news of the existence of her husband gets back to Katia.

The potential fly in the ointment is the arrival on the scene of the allies in the form of the French and British. Presumably these opportunists are going to be slammed in the text because they will fit uncomfortably in the context of the revolutionary war. They can only be seen as defenders of privilege and a way of life that has already ended but most, apart from Roshchin are unable to see that.

More to come…

Road to Calvary (part III) – post III

This epic Tolystian mimicking tale starts to get down to brass tacks with the real battle that is being fought in Russia coming to the fore – class war. Katia best illustrates the situation with her reluctance to marry a peasant even though he loves her and her husband is believed to be dead.

She challenges her would be husband with a speech that sums up the problem of ambition with those that were once downtrodden now dreaming of becoming the gentry. There has been no real change just a shift in personnel.

Meanwhile her husband is doing his best to get back to her and is inching closer but will he get to her in time and even if he does will a jealous peasant sabre him?

Meanwhile Telegin and Dasha move to the frontline and start to fight against White forces in what must be one of the final large scale battles to settle the future of the Don.

More tomorrow…

The Road to Calvary (part III) – post II

To a certain degree one half of the story starts to fuse with Dasha finally meeting Telegin in a makeshift army hospital. She keeps her identity secret from the wounded battery commander until she can keep it secret no longer and then their love, which both had believed to be dormant, over flows and they start to plan for the future.

Meanwhile a totally disillusioned Roshchin sets out to look for Katia and drops his allegiance to the White army. While on leave he sets out to find her and as he starts to lose hope he also starts to question he decision to fight for a cause that he no longer believes in.

Germany surrenders and starts to pull out of the Ukraine and all around the signs that the Whites and the Reds are near to an end start to disappear and the ebb of flow of attack and reprisals starts afresh.

Meanwhile, Katia has set up home with the anarchists and believing her husband is dead starts to contemplate the idea that she might have to marry the peasant who has protected her.

Will Roshchin find her in time? It is quite a testament to the style and the writing that even after a collective 500 pages of this three-part novel you can be gripped by the struggle to reunite lovers across the war zones.

More tomorrow…