A bridge to two continents, a host to a hundred million, Russia has remained a giant among nations for centuries. Few have conquered it. Few have subdued its winter fury. How could anything generalize such a country—nay—a nation? Yet one man, an artist with a mind as great as his patriotism, has tamed its beast twice over. He proved how one could love a flawed country.
Leo Tolstoy was a writer, known for his essays and short stories on war and the plights of man when he began the next decade and a half that would transform him to the conquerer of East Slavia. In 1865, he began writing the first of his two novels, although this wouldn't be considered a novel. This titan of literature, War and Peace, held no character above the rest. Five aristocratic families dealt equally with the trials and tribulations of war and of peace. Scenes at the ball contrasted scenes firing cannon balls, and still not one person, nor one family, was the hero of the day.
Russia was. War and Peace was as much an ode to Russia's grand ferocity in battle as it was an ode to Russia's fierce grandeur in high society. With the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, The army's arsenal was as graceful as the parties's dialogues were vengeful, and Russia was the star, the hero, the one who should be praised.
Fast forward ten years. Tolstoy is now renowned for his disembowelment of the conventions of a novel and his depiction of Russia. He begins to write his second novel, this time an actual novel. Not only a novel, but the Great Russian Novel. The pinnacle of the Tsar's literature came in the name of a venerated woman, Anna Karenina.
The novel does have a named protagonist: the eponymous, tragic Anna. And she has an antagonist who scrutinizes her for her affair, driving her to her infamous finale. They have not one name, nor one face. They have words that slice Anna's formidable demeanor, and that turn the reader to Anna's defense. They are the crowds, the whispers. The enemy is the society that she was darling of and to. The antagonist in this Tolstoy masterpiece is the same as the protagonist in the previous Tolstoy monolith.
In these ten years in Tolstoy's life, Russia is the hero and Russia is the villain. Russia should be commended for her glory and condemned for her hate. For Tolstoy, Russia is regina incarnate and regina is ruined by Russia. In the 1860s, Tolstoy gave the slavs an applause. Ten years after, he gave them a dressing down. He told them what they did right and what they did wrong in two of the greatest works of literature to come out of their country.
He was patriotic. He was critical. The two do not spar, not contradict, for being critical of one's nation is to be patriotic. To shine light on the flaws is to shine light on one's allegiance.