Authors: Tatyana Tolstaya

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Kys, 2001 (The Slynx, 2003)

Short Fiction:

Na zolotom kryl’tse sideli, 1987 (On the Golden Porch, 1989)

Sleepwalker in a Fog, 1992


“Intelligentsia and Intellectuals,” 1989

“In a Land of Conquered Men,” 1989

“Apples as Citrus Fruit,” 1990

“President Potemkin,” 1991

Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians, 2003


During the late 1980’s Tatyana Tolstaya (tohl-STI-yah) came to be considered one of the greatest talents in Russian literature. She and her six siblings, all of whom grew up with unusual privileges for the time, were grandchildren of the historical novelist Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoy, himself a relative of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstaya’s other grandfather was Mikhail Lozinskii, a minor poet and well-known translator.{$I[AN]9810001591}{$I[A]Tolstaya, Tatyana}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Tolstaya, Tatyana}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Tolstaya, Tatyana}{$I[tim]1951;Tolstaya, Tatyana}

Tolstaya came of age during the period in the Soviet Union that came to be referred to as “the stagnation,” years during the Brezhnev era that show remarkably little original prose literature. Many of the more interesting writers, among them Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Vasily Aksyonov had already left the country. Others, including Yuri Trifonov and Lidia Chukovskaya, who never left the Soviet Union, were also out of the picture, due to either death or the lack of publishing opportunities. The impoverished monumentalism of the official genre of Socialist Realism had reached its nadir.

After Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982 a liberalizing atmosphere began that eventually culminated with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 and the period called glasnost, a reference to the opening of the closed, controlled society created by Soviet socialism. It is not coincidental that Tatyana Tolstaya began writing at about this time. In 1983 came the publication of her first story, “Kleem i nozhnitsami” (with glue and scissors), which set the stage for such later stories as “On the Golden Porch.”

The period of openness brought with it the so-called new thinking, which undoubtedly played a significant role in the success of Tolstaya’s next story, “Peters.” This complex psychological work focuses on the childhood of a boy made to conform to a despotic older generation, personified in his grandmother, who does not allow him to grow in a natural fashion but attempts to create a robotlike compendium of “good manners.” The origin of the final letter s in the name derives from the nineteenth century custom of reducing the word for “sir” to this sound, which was added, in deference, by a person of the lower classes in speaking to someone from the nobility. With a twist of irony, Tolstaya presents the act of preparing for life as the life-draining force of the twentieth century Soviet era. In this the work is reminiscent of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957), where, however, the principals are all unmasked, playing their natural parts; in “Peters” the force is masked, the role of the intimate exchanged for the baton of the despot.

Tolstaya’s prose does not show the linear quality typical of Soviet writing. The deeply textured language, in which thought and action sometimes become meshed, would probably not have been accepted for publication in Russia at an earlier time. Tolstaya has been absolutely uncompromising in her writing, never allowing any changes to her texts whatsoever.

Tolstaya has achieved considerable success among English-language readers, especially in the United States. The translation of thirteen of her stories in On the Golden Porch, met with enthusiastic critical attention in The New York Times and elsewhere. Her second collection, Sleepwalker in a Fog met with similar success, making Tolstaya a very well-known literary figure in the United States.

“New-thinking” Russia was actually not as open as its name would seem to imply. Tolstaya was subjected to considerable pressure from editors and censors to conform to the “taste” of the political structure, even to the extent of being denied a place in the Writers’ Union for a year on the basis of her ideological failures. Her straightforward, uncompromising style resists control from the power structures, and she persists in her artistic denunciation of Soviet society. In some of her stories she uses words with politically negative associations, like “dorevolutsionnyi” (prerevolutionary), which she transforms into something positive, a nostalgic longing for the loss of continuity with the Old Russia. Tolstaya’s eventual path cannot be predicted, but her estimable early contribution to literature promises much for the future.

BibliographyChapple, Richard L. “Tatyana Tolstaya’s Russian Family Portrait Gallery.” Midwest Quarterly 32 (Winter, 1991): 156-166. A profile of the writer and her work.Gifford, Henry. “The Real Thing.” The New York Review of Books 36 (June 1, 1989): 3-5. This article contains a review of On the Golden Porch and of three books on contemporary Soviet fiction, including Balancing Acts by Helena Goscilo, cited below.Goscilo, Helena. The Explosive World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya’s Fiction. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. This is a critical review of Tolstaya’s œuvre, covering her whole career to the date of publication.Goscilo, Helena. “Monsters Monomaniacal, Marital, and Medical: Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Regenerative Use of Gender Stereotypes.” In Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, edited by Jane Costlow, et al. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. This chapter discusses Tolstaya’s symbolism and sound sources in her prose.Goscilo, Helena. “Tatyana Tolstaia’s ‘Dome of Many-Colored Glass’: The World Refracted Through Multiple Perspectives.” Slavic Review 47 (Summer, 1988): 280-290. A detailed scholarly analysis of Tolstaya’s stories. Includes explanatory and reference footnotes, several of them in Russian and untranslated.Goscilo, Helena, ed. Balancing Acts: Contemporary Stories by Russian Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. This 337-page anthology includes one story by Tolstaya, “Peters,” and the short-story collection On the Golden Porch. Goscilo provides commentary.Goscilo, Helena, ed. Heritage and Heresy: Recent Fiction by Russian Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. This volume includes three stories by Tolstaya, all published in On the Golden Porch, with commentary by Goscilo.Hamilton, Denise. “A Literary Heiress.” The Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1992, p. E1. An interview story that provides a brief biographical sketch of Tolstaya’s life. Tolstaya contends that she often distorts reality so that it comes back stronger than before and closer to the truth; discusses her collection Sleepwalker in a Fog.See, Carolyn. “In the Russian Tradition.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 19, 1992, p. 3. A review of Sleepwalker in a Fog; suggests that the point in the stories is their timelessness; calls them elegant, overwritten mystical tales that are everything that communism was not.Trosky, Susan M., ed. Contemporary Authors 130. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. Includes a brief personal history of Tolstaya, a concise summary of her career, and a short general description of her characters.Wisniewska, Sophia T. “Tat’iana Tolstaia.” In Russian Women Writers, edited by Christine D. Tomei. New York: Garland. This is a critical biography of Tolstaya and her contribution to Russian literature.Zalygin, Sergei, comp. The New Soviet Fiction: Sixteen Short Stories. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989. This 318-page anthology contains one story by Tolstaya, one of only three women represented. A critical introduction by the compiler analyzes the state of fiction in the Soviet Union during perestroika and glasnost.
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