Uncovered Gem: Leo Tolstoy’s Grandson Meets the Dalai Lama
What tea has to do with critical moments in political history and iconic Russian literature.
By Maria Popova
In 1942, at the peak of WWII, Japan threw the Allies a formidable curveball — it blocked off the Burma Road, the essential artery supplying China with munitions from India to fight the occupying Japanese forces. Desperate for an alternative, the Allies diverted planes to the Himalayas, but the dangerous terrain and inclement weather caused too many pilots to crash into the mountains. A new land route between China and India had to be found, and two OSS men took it upon themselves to find it: Captain Brooke Dolan, an American explorer, and Major Ilia Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s grandson. To do so, they’d have to cross Tibet and seek the permission of a 7-year-old boy: The Dalai Lama.
Undeterred, the pair proceeded with their mission and came carrying a letter from President Roosevelt. At 9:20 in the morning of December 20, 1942, they were granted audience with His Holiness, establishing for the first time in history direct contact between a U.S. Presidnet and the Dalai Lama and thus bridging two cultures that had never met. Five months later, the two crossed the Tibetan platau and arrived in Northern China, completing the journey of over a thousand miles.
Dolan filmed the entire expedition and rare reels are now held in the motion picture library of The National Archive, who have kindly digitized and uploaded the footage for the world to see — just one instance of the importance of the digital humanities and the open web.
Tibetans are inherently sociable and on the slightest provocation pause their labors to visit over a cup of tea. Native drivers congregate at the ferry crossing. Tea is the chief drink of the country, made of barley, salt and butter. It gives them resistance to hunger and cold. They drink anywhere from 30 to 50 cups a day.”
The film offers a glimpse of a fascinating culture whose unique geopolitical position remains, as it was in 1942, a point of much political tension that has festered into grave human rights violations over the past half-century. For a well-rounded approach to one of modern history’s most critical justice issues, we highly recommend this pairing: The ambitious and scholarly Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope by former Reagan strategist Roberts and political journalist Elizabeth Roberts, and the tenderly meditative The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama.
Published February 9, 2011