Saturday, March 06, 2010

Tolstoy: What We Need Most

Leo Tolstoy wrote the words, but his wife Sofia added brilliance to them. She copied War and Peace at least seven times - in longhand! - editing the text as she went. With all the excitement surrounding the Oscars this year where The Last Station (starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer) is competing, I remembered my own little discovery of how true old Tolstoy's observations can be. Here is a column I wrote years ago about raising bi-lingual children.

by Alexander Anichkin with Miranda Ingram

Leo Tolstoy once had a school for the children of the peasants at his Yasnaya Polyana estate south of Moscow. There he experimented with various educational tricks and even wrote an 'Azbuka', or book of ABCs.  (translated into English and available in many different editions, on Amazon –  Classic Tales and Fables for Children (Literary Classics (Amherst, N.Y.).

This experience lead him to remark once that peasants' children could describe the most complicated things in life like no educated grown-up could – What is fascinating about a sunrise; why a sunset is so romantic; and why a children's love for parents is so profound  and parents' love for their children so selfless.

In the course of educating Vita, Miranda and I discovered that the good old Peasant Count, as they called Tolstoy, was absolutely right: There is nothing too complicated for a child to comprehend. There will always be an answer that will surprise you with its unexpected clarity or a paradoxical new dimension to something you already knew.

Miranda has been in England for an unexpectedly long time and  it is up to me to keep the evening routine going with Vita. On a recent night, as I was rocking Vita to sleep, she said confidently: "Papa - Sasha."

"Of all the ways to describe herself, the child chose one: her being the beloved and the needed."

"Yes," I said. "And who is mama?"

"Mama - Miranda", she announced with conviction.

It is a game we often play with her, remembering all the relatives, friends and pets by names and nicknames. And because our family lives across all of Europe, we also attach a place to every person. So Vita knows the relationship of other people and things to her. And, in any case, remembering people and places is as good for developing memory as nursery rhymes. What I didn't know is that it's also good for developing abstract thinking  and imagination, I had always thought that Tolstoy's observation was a bit of aristocratic coquetry.

Anyway, one evening, after the usual listing of names, I wickedly asked my daughter: "And who is Vita?"

I thought she wouldn't know how to deal with this. She knows her name is Vita, but she refers to herself as "my", in English, no matter whether she is speaking Russian or English. It could be "my khochet juice" (I want juice) or "My want izyum" (I want raisins). She also knows that she can call herself a girl, and her little brother a boy.

So, "Who is Vita?"

Vita paused to think and said: "Mama ochen lyubit Vitu" (Mama loves Vita very much).

It sounded simple at first, but as I walked past the bookshelves with my old volumes of Tolstoy  I suddenly remembered his remark. And the full depth of a simple, almost baby talk, phrase struck me. Of all the ways to describe herself, the child chose one: her being the beloved and the needed.

After all, isn't that what we grown-ups need most, too?

Photo: Helen Mirren by Caroline Bonarde Ucci

This article was first published in the Moscow Times in the weekly column 'Educating Vita'  under the title
'Baby-Talk Philosophy Proves Tolstoy Correct'.

Read another 'Educating Vita' column: 'Who Quacks – Ducks or Frogs?'

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