Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest of Russia's literary giants, is respected as a founder of the modern peace movement. He also deserves recognition as one of humanity's great moral and spiritual leaders. It is timely now to recall the foundations of his faith.
Tolstoy (1828-1910) was descended from Peter Tolstoy, a close friend of Czar Peter I, (1672-1725). The Tolstoy family enjoyed the privileges of Russian aristocracy, and Leo's early life included activities that were usual for those of his social rank, but which he would later consider profligate--including military service. He was one of the first war correspondents and won literary attention for his book on the Crimean War, Sevastopol Sketches. This truthful reporting from the front lines was unusual for the period. Later he gained immense recognition for his epic novel, War and Peace, which depicted Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Tolstoy could communicate in 14 languages. In his home, a country estate called Yasnaya Polyana, he received many fascinating visitors.
Despite his early success as a writer, Tolstoy's life was primarily dedicated to spiritual matters, and he developed a profound understanding through a reflective process that some called "the dialectics of the soul." At the age of fifty he experienced a spiritual crisis, after which he wrote Confession and shortly thereafter The Gospel in Brief, and What I Believe. In these writings Tolstoy renounced the dissolute, worldly life that he had previously led. He even rejected his former values and the fame that his popular writings had brought him, turning instead toward eternal values and universal principles. This period marked the beginning of his most significant work, the flower of his life, which continued until his death.
He set out on the spiritual path with characteristic dedication, even learning Greek so as to study the original New Testament and rediscover Christianity at its source. He found much to criticize in the practices of Russian Orthodoxy, a church that he regarded as an appendage to the state, as imposed by Peter I. He reviled its corruption and its condoning of violence, conscription, militarism, and cruelty toward the people. Tolstoy took the word of Jesus as his authority and as the measure of other influences. Yet he was also influenced by other authorities, such as Pascal, certain English authors--especially Dickens--and American Quakers, such as the civil war writer William Lloyd Garrison.
His enthusiasm and energy, based on what he understood of the New Testament, made him the leading citizen diplomat of his time. It was said that in his day there were two Czars--the visible Czar, and Leo Tolstoy behind him, rattling his throne. Tolstoy often wrote to the Czar and to other Russian authorities about the problems and issues that concerned him. He was influenced culturally by Russian Orthodox spirituality, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the Christian duty to make real Christ's prayer, "Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." He did what he could.
Many of his later writings addressed the moral themes of good and evil. Tolstoy was ardently dedicated to human rights long before the modern term for it was invented. When famine struck, delegations came asking for help. With his wife and family, he operated soup kitchens.
Several dissident communities of the day were concerned with the same issues that troubled him. Among them, Tolstoy had contact with the Salvation Army, then in its early phase and based mainly in England, and the Doukhobors, a group whose name-meaning "Spirit Wrestlers"--was given jeeringly by Russian Orthodox believers. They were dissident Christians in southern Russia who rejected sacraments and the veneration of icons in the 18th century and were persecuted for upholding beliefs that were similar to Tolstoy's own.
In 1850 Russian imperialism over-whelmed the people who had been living in the Caucasus for over 5,000 years. Imperial Russia sought access to the Black Sea. Doukhobors persisted in honoring the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." Czarist authorities tried to force them to bear arms, even resorting to mass persecutions and atrocities against them. In response, the Doukhobors throughout the Caucasus decided to suffer any consequences rather than kill their fellow beings, and ceremonially burnt their weapons on June 29, 1895.
The Burning of Weapons was the definitive event in Doukhobor history. The Russian occupiers responded violently, whipping them and sending them into exile. At least 7,000 of them came to Canada, where they flourished; their descendants now number 30,000. The public conscience was aroused by their suffering.
Leo Tolstoy, who felt only contempt for militarism, enormously admired those Doukhobors who refused to bear arms, came to their aid and incurred the strongest disapproval of the state, including excommunication from the Orthodox Church. In 1899 Tolstoy completed his book, Resurrection, and gave all the proceeds to assist Doukhobor emigration. The book's title refers to the resurrection of true life, as taught by Christ, and as it is fulfilled when His Spirit is truly manifest on earth as it is in Heaven. Expecting to be treated as a Doukhobor himself, he transferred his papers to England in the care of his associate, Vladimir Chertkov, who was already exiled there. This action created tension within his family--conflicts that to some extent poisoned his latter days. The devastating impact and disillusion resulting from official Russian barbarity made him an angry, saddened old man. Yet he responded with grace and insight, proposing for example to a Swedish editor that Doukhobors be awarded the Nobel Bequest. All this took place before the revolution of 1905, which presaged the two revolutions of 1917.
Tolstoy was also familiar with the Salvation Army, receiving its weekly publication, War Cry, from London. Like the Doukhobors, the Salvation Army's Christianity is non-sacramental, service oriented, and non-liturgical. On the one hand, Tolstoy made scathing remarks about the Salvation Army in his book, The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You--probably on the basis of his intense dislike of every allusion to militarism. Yet there were contacts between Tolstoy and the Salvation Army founders, William and Catherine Booth.
William Booth's finest literary contribution was In Darkest England and the Way Out. There, with his wife's help, he proposed what would become the blue-print for social security. Winston Churchill studied the book and discussed it with Booth before he introduced the world's first social security plan in the English parliament. One element in this great book was the "Farm Colony" scheme-a visionary plan to resettle the downtrodden poor of "Darkest England" in the new colonies, especially Canada and Australia.
In Russia, Tolstoy is still known as a great literary figure. In Soviet times he was never portrayed as a profound Christian, though it was seen that his life and death defined a vanished era. To this day, his countrymen do not recall his pioneering work for human rights. To remember the novelist, yet ignore the spiritual foundations and values on which his life, thought, and work were built, is to know only a shadow of the man.
The injustice perpetrated upon the Doukhobors left scars on Tolstoy as well as the Doukhobors, who love him and keep statues of him in their settlements in Canada. The Doukhobor persecution was widely known in Russia, where it influenced the tense pre-revolutionary ferment. Was this a factor in the discontent of the 1905 revolution?
Tolstoy's understanding of human nature was exceptional. His novels are so beautiful and realistic that some consider his writing divinely inspired. His deep insight also illuminates political psychology and the causes of war. In Patriotism and Government he wrote about the evils of nationalism and lampooned the Russian-French "peace celebrations," which he recognized as threatening Germany. Germany responded as Tolstoy perceived, accelerating its rearmament toward the dark events of 1914.
Living close to Tula, Tolstoy may have gained special insight into weapons development from the Czar's armory that was located there, for he wrote about "the ever increasing production of ever more terrible instruments of destruction." Today the Tula Armory Museum occupies a converted Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Tula Kremlin, as if to mock the enlightenment that Tolstoy offered.
Though known today mainly as the mentor in nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Tolstoy will always be loved by those who appreciate his righteous anger about injustice, his struggle to help the poor, the hungry, the persecuted and the under-privileged. He was a troublesome author, for his words have potential to waken the sleeping conscience. His writings could become an antidote for the modern epidemic of apathy and hypocrisy.
Three years ago I was involved with some activities for the Salvation Army in Russia, and thereafter I visited Tolsoy's home, Yasnaya Polyana. One book in his home caught my eye: Booth's book, In Darkest England and the Way Out. Later, while visiting Doukhobors in Canada, I saw the connection between this book and their "Farm Colonies." Tolstoy had adapted the book to "Darkest Russia and The Way Out." Having conceived a plan to resettle Doukhobors, he had found a legal loophole that allowed them to emigrate from Russia and, with the help of British, Canadian, and American Quakers, had helped them settle in Canada, where they continue their Christian tradition of nonviolence today, occasionally still in contact with the Salvation Army. As part of the celebration of the centenary of the Burning of Weapons, ironically, the Canadian Doukhobor choir are singing this year at the United Nations on the Fiftieth Hiroshima Day in August and go on to perform in Russia. Tragedy came again to the Caucasus in 1995 in the form of new genocidal persecution and massacre inflicted by today's Russian regime. May the United Canadian Doukhobor Centennial Choir touch Russian hearts, and human hearts everywhere!
Ross Wilcock is a physician and Christian peace activist in Woodstock, ON.