We are celebrating the great Leo Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories.
Tolstoy was a master of realistic fiction and is widely considered one of the world’s greatest novelists.
He is best known for two long novels, “War and Peace” (1869) and “Anna Karenina” (1877).
Tolstoy first achieved literary acclaim in his 20s for his “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), based on his experiences in the Crimean War, followed by the publication of a semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1855-1858).
His fiction output also includes two additional novels, dozens of short stories, and several famous novellas, including “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, “Family Happiness”, and “Hadji Murad”.
Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.
His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist.
His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Life and career:
Tolstoy was born in Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate in the Tula region of Russia. The Tolstoys were a well-known family of old Russian nobility. He was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy, a veteran of the Patriotic War of 1812, and Countess Mariya Tolstaya (Volkonskaya). Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives. In 1844, he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn.”
Tolstoy left university in the middle of his studies, returned to Yasnaya Polyana and then spent much of his time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. It was about this time that he started writing.
His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61. Others who followed the same path were Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. During his 1857 visit, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that would mark the rest of his life. Writing in a letter to his friend Vasily Botkin: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens … Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”
His European trip in 1860–61 shaped both his political and literary development when he met Victor Hugo, whose literary talents Tolstoy praised after reading Hugo’s newly finished Les Misérables. The similar evocation of battle scenes in Hugo’s novel and Tolstoy’s War and Peace indicates this influence.
Tolstoy’s political philosophy was also influenced by a March 1861 visit to French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then living in exile under an assumed name in Brussels. Apart from reviewing Proudhon’s forthcoming publication, La Guerre et la Paix (War and Peace in French), whose title Tolstoy would borrow for his masterpiece, the two men discussed education, as Tolstoy wrote in his educational notebooks: “If I recount this conversation with Proudhon, it is to show that, in my personal experience, he was the only man who understood the significance of education and of the printing press in our time.”
Fired by enthusiasm, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and founded thirteen schools for his serfs’ children, based on the principles Tolstoy described in his 1862 essay “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”.
Tolstoy’s educational experiments were short-lived, partly due to harassment by the Tsarist secret police. However, as a direct forerunner to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, the school at Yasnaya Polyana can justifiably be claimed the first example of a coherent theory of democratic education.
Tolstoy died in 1910, at the age of 82. He died of pneumonia at Astapovo train station, after falling ill when he left home in the middle of the winter, and in the dead of night.
His death came only days after he had finally gathered the nerve to secretly leave home, and to separate from his wife, meanwhile renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle.
His night-time departure was an apparent attempt to escape unannounced from the jealous tirades of his wife Sonia, who was outspokenly opposed to many of his teachings and who in recent years had grown envious of the attention which it seemed to her, Tolstoy had lavished upon his Tolstoyan “disciples”.
Just prior to his death his health had been a concern of his family who had been actively engaged in his healthcare on a daily basis. In his last few days before passing he had been speaking and writing of his own death, and in fact he did contract his final illness only a few days afterwards at a train station after approximately a day’s rail journey towards the South. The station master took Tolstoy to his apartment, where his personal doctors were called to the scene. He was given injections of morphine and camphor.
The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral. Still, some peasants were heard to say that, other than knowing that “some nobleman had died,” they knew little else about Tolstoy.
Novels and fictional works:
Tolstoy is one of the giants of Russian literature; his works include the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina and novellas such as Hadji Murad and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His contemporaries paid him lofty tributes. Fyodor Dostoyevsky thought him the greatest of all living novelists. Gustave Flaubert, on reading a translation of War and Peace, exclaimed, “What an artist and what a psychologist!” Anton Chekhov, who often visited Tolstoy at his country estate, wrote, “When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature.”
Later critics and novelists continue to bear testament to Tolstoy’s art. Virginia Woolf declared him the greatest of all novelists. James Joyce noted that, “He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!”. Thomas Mann wrote of Tolstoy’s seemingly guileless artistry: “Seldom did art work so much like nature”. Such sentiments were shared by the likes of Proust, Faulkner and Nabokov. The latter heaped superlatives upon The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Anna Karenina; he questioned, however, the reputation of War and Peace, and sharply criticized Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata.
Tolstoy’s earliest works, the autobiographical novels Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), tell of a rich landowner’s son and his slow realization of the chasm between himself and his peasants. Though he later rejected them as sentimental, a great deal of Tolstoy’s own life is revealed. They retain their relevance as accounts of the universal story of growing up.
Tolstoy served as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, recounted in his Sevastapol Sketches. His experiences in battle helped stir his subsequent pacifism and gave him material for realistic depiction of the horrors of war in his later work.
His fiction consistently attempts to convey realistically the Russian society in which he lived.
The Cossacks (1863) describes the Cossack life and people through a story of a Russian aristocrat in love with a Cossack girl. Anna Karenina (1877) tells parallel stories of an adulterous woman trapped by the conventions and falsities of society and of a philosophical landowner (much like Tolstoy), who works alongside the peasants in the fields and seeks to reform their lives. Tolstoy not only drew from his own life experiences but also created characters in his own image, such as Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei in War and Peace, Levin in Anna Karenina and to some extent, Prince Nekhlyudov in Resurrection.
War and Peace is generally thought to be one of the greatest novels ever written, remarkable for its dramatic breadth and unity. Its vast canvas includes 580 characters, many historical with others fictional. The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoleon, from the court of Alexander I of Russia to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. Tolstoy’s original idea for the novel was to investigate the causes of the Decembrist revolt, to which it refers only in the last chapters, from which can be deduced that Andrei Bolkonski’s son will become one of the Decembrists. The novel explores Tolstoy’s theory of history, and in particular the insignificance of individuals such as Napoleon and Alexander. Somewhat surprisingly, Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace to be a novel (nor did he consider many of the great Russian fictions written at that time to be novels). This view becomes less surprising if one considers that Tolstoy was a novelist of the realist school who considered the novel to be a framework for the examination of social and political issues in nineteenth-century life.
War and Peace (which is to Tolstoy really an epic in prose) therefore did not qualify. Tolstoy thought that Anna Karenina was his first true novel.
After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy concentrated on Christian themes, and his later novels such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and What Is to Be Done? develop a radical anarcho-pacifist Christian philosophy which led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.
For all the praise showered on Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Tolstoy rejected the two works later in his life as something not as true of reality.
Religious and political beliefs:
After reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Tolstoy gradually became converted to the ascetic morality upheld in that work as the proper spiritual path for the upper classes: “Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I’ve never experienced before. … no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer”
In Chapter VI of A Confession, Tolstoy quoted the final paragraph of Schopenhauer’s work. It explained how the nothingness that results from complete denial of self is only a relative nothingness, and is not to be feared. The novelist was struck by the description of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu ascetic renunciation as being the path to holiness. After reading passages such as the following, which abound in Schopenhauer’s ethical chapters, the Russian nobleman chose poverty and formal denial of the will:
But this very necessity of involuntary suffering (by poor people) for eternal salvation is also expressed by that utterance of the Savior (Matthew 19:24): “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Therefore those who were greatly in earnest about their eternal salvation, chose voluntary poverty when fate had denied this to them and they had been born in wealth. Thus Buddha Sakyamuni was born a prince, but voluntarily took to the mendicant’s staff; and Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant orders who, as a youngster at a ball, where the daughters of all the notabilities were sitting together, was asked: “Now Francis, will you not soon make your choice from these beauties?” and who replied: “I have made a far more beautiful choice!” “Whom?” “La povertà (poverty)”: whereupon he abandoned every thing shortly afterwards and wandered through the land as a mendicant.
In 1884, Tolstoy wrote a book called “What I Believe”, in which he openly confessed his Christian beliefs. He affirmed his belief in Jesus Christ’s teachings and was particularly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, and the injunction to turn the other cheek, which he understood as a “commandment of non-resistance to evil by force” and a doctrine of pacifism and nonviolence. In his work The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, he explains that he considered mistaken the Church’s doctrine because they had made a “perversion” of Christ’s teachings. Tolstoy also received letters from American quakers who introduced him to the non-violence writings of Quaker Christians such as George Fox, William Penn and Jonathan Dymond. Tolstoy believed being a Christian required him to be a pacifist; the consequences of being a pacifist, and the apparently inevitable waging of war by government, are the reason why he is considered a philosophical anarchist.
Later, various versions of “Tolstoy’s Bible” would be published, indicating the passages Tolstoy most relied on, specifically, the reported words of Jesus himself.
Tolstoy believed that a true Christian could find lasting happiness by striving for inner self-perfection through following the Great Commandment of loving one’s neighbor and God rather than looking outward to the Church or state for guidance. His belief in nonresistance (nonviolence) when faced by conflict is another distinct attribute of his philosophy based on Christ’s teachings. By directly influencing Mahatma Gandhi with this idea through his work The Kingdom of God Is Within You (full text of English translation available on “Wikisource”!), Tolstoy has had a huge influence on the nonviolent resistance movement to this day. He believed that the aristocracy were a burden on the poor, and that the only solution to how we live together is through anarchism.
He also opposed private property and the institution of marriage and valued the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence (discussed in Father Sergius and his preface to The Kreutzer Sonata), ideals also held by the young Gandhi. Tolstoy’s later work derives a passion and verve from the depth of his austere moral views.
The sequence of the temptation of Sergius in Father Sergius, for example, is among his later triumphs. Gorky relates how Tolstoy once read this passage before himself and Chekhov and that Tolstoy was moved to tears by the end of the reading. Other later passages of rare power include the crises of self-faced by the protagonists of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Master and Man, where the main character in the former or the reader in the latter is made aware of the foolishness of the protagonists’ lives.
Tolstoy had a profound influence on the development of Christian anarchist thought.
The Tolstoyans were a small Christian anarchist group formed by Tolstoy’s companion, Vladimir Chertkov (1854–1936), to spread Tolstoy’s religious teachings. Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote of Tolstoy in the article on anarchism in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might of his talent he made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.
During the Boxer Rebellion in China, Tolstoy praised the Boxers. He was harshly critical of the atrocities committed by the Russians, Germans, and other western troops. He accused them of engaging in slaughter when he heard about the lootings, rapes, and murders, in what he saw as Christian brutality. Tolstoy also named the two monarchs most responsible for the atrocities; Nicholas II of Russia and Wilhelm II of Germany.
Tolstoy also read the works of Chinese thinker and philosopher, Confucius
In hundreds of essays over the last twenty years of his life, Tolstoy reiterated the anarchist critique of the state and recommended books by Kropotkin and Proudhon to his readers, whilst rejecting anarchism’s espousal of violent revolutionary means. In the 1900 essay, “On Anarchy”, he wrote; “The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power … There can be only one permanent revolution—a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man.” Despite his misgivings about anarchist violence, Tolstoy took risks to circulate the prohibited publications of anarchist thinkers in Russia, and corrected the proofs of Kropotkin’s “Words of a Rebel”, illegally published in St Petersburg in 1906.
Tolstoy was enthused by the economic thinking of Henry George, incorporating it approvingly into later works such as Resurrection, the book that played a major factor in his excommunication.
In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindoo outlining his belief in non-violence as a means for India to gain independence from British colonial rule. In 1909, a copy of the letter fell into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and in the beginnings of becoming an activist. Tolstoy’s letter was significant for Gandhi who wrote to the famous writer seeking proof that he was the real author, leading to further correspondence between them.
Reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You also convinced Gandhi to avoid violence and espouse nonviolent resistance, a debt Gandhi acknowledged in his autobiography, calling Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced”. The correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi would only last a year, from October 1909 until Tolstoy’s death in November 1910, but led Gandhi to give the name, the Tolstoy Colony, to his second ashram in South Africa. Besides non-violent resistance, the two men shared a common belief in the merits of vegetarianism, the subject of several of Tolstoy’s essays.
Tolstoy also became a major supporter of the Esperanto movement. Tolstoy was impressed by the pacifist beliefs of the Doukhobors and brought their persecution to the attention of the international community, after they burned their weapons in peaceful protest in 1895. He aided the Doukhobors in migrating to Canada.
In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Tolstoy condemned the war and wrote to the Japanese Buddhist priest Soyen Shaku in a failed attempt to make a joint pacifist statement.
Celebrating Leo Tolstoy!