Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XVI

Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter XVI. Religion and Politics



Tolstoy never renounced his art. A great artist cannot, even if he would, abandon the reason of his existence. He can, for religious reasons, cease to publish, but he cannot cease to write. Tolstoy never interrupted his work of artistic creation. M. Paul Boyer, who saw him, during the last few years, at Yasnaya Polyana, says that he would now give prominence to his evangelistic works, now to his works of imagination; he would work at the one as a relaxation from the other. When he had finished some social pamphlet, some Appeal to the Rulers or to the Ruled, he would allow himself to resume one of the charming tales which he was, so to speak, in process of recounting to himself; such as his Hadji-Mourad, a military epic, which celebrated an episode of the wars of the Caucasus and the resistance of the mountaineers under Schamyl.[1] Art was still his relaxation, his pleasure; but he would have thought it a piece of vanity to make a parade of it. With the exception of his Cycle of Readings for Every Day of the Year (1904-5),[2] in which he collected the thoughts of various writers upon Life and the Truth—a true anthology of the poetical wisdom of the world, from the Holy Books of the East to the works of contemporary writers—nearly all his literary works of art, properly so called, which have been written later than 1900 have remained in manuscript.[3]

On the other hand he was boldly and ardently casting his mystical and polemical writings upon the social battlefield. From 1900 to 1910 such work absorbed the greater part of his time and energy. Russia was passing through an alarming crisis; for a moment the empire of the Tsars seemed to totter on its foundations and about to fall in ruin. The Russo-Japanese war, the disasters which followed it, the revolutionary troubles, the mutinies in the army and the fleet, the massacres, the agrarian disorders, seemed to mark "the end of a world," to quote the title of one of Tolstoy's writings. The height of the crisis was reached in 1904 and 1905. During these years Tolstoy published a remarkable series of works: War and Revolution, The Great Crime, The End of a World. During the last ten years of his life he occupied a situation unique not only in Russia but in the world. He was alone, a stranger to all the parties, to all countries, and rejected by his Church, which had excommunicated him.[4] The logic of his reason and the revolutionary character of his faith had "led him to this dilemma; to live a stranger to other men, or a stranger to the truth." He recalls the Russian proverb: "An old man who lies is a rich man who steals," and he severs himself from mankind in order to speak the truth. He tells the whole truth, and to all. The old hunter of lies continues, unweariedly, to mark down all superstitions, religious or social, and all fetishes. The only exceptions are the old maleficent powers—the persecutrix, the Church, and the imperial autocracy. Perhaps his enmity towards them was in some degree appeased now that all were casting stones at them. They were familiar; therefore they were already not so formidable! After all, too, the Church and the Tsar were carrying on their peculiar trades; they were at least not deceptive. Tolstoy, in his letter to the Tsar Nikolas II.,[5] although he speaks the truth in a manner entirely unaccommodating to the man as sovereign, is full of gentleness for the sovereign as man; addressing him as "dear brother," praying him to "pardon him if he has hurt him unintentionally," and signing himself, "Your brother who wishes you true happiness."

What Tolstoy can least find it in him to pardon—what he denounces with the utmost hatred—are the new lies; not the old ones, which are no longer able to deceive; not despotism, but the illusion of liberty. It is difficult to say which he hates the more among the followers of the newer idols: whether the Socialists or the "Liberals."

He had a long-standing antipathy for the Liberals. It had seized upon him suddenly when, as an officer fresh from Sebastopol, he found himself in the society of the literary men of St. Petersburg. It had been one of the causes of his misunderstanding with Tourgenev. The arrogant noble, the man of ancient race, could not support these "intellectuals," with their profession of making the nation happy, whether by its will or against it, by forcing their Utopian schemes upon it. Very much a Russian, and of the old stamp,[6] he instinctively distrusted all liberal innovations, and the constitutional ideas which came from the West; and his two journeys abroad only intensified his prejudices. On his return from his first journey he wrote:

"To avoid the ambition of Liberalism."

On his return from the second:

"A privileged society has no right whatsoever to educate in its own way the masses of which it knows nothing."

In Anna Karenin he freely expresses his contempt for Liberals in general. Levine refuses to associate himself with the work of the provincial institutions for educating the people, and the innovations which are the order of the day. The picture of the elections to the provincial assembly exposes the fool's bargain by which the country changes its ancient Conservative administration for a Liberal régime—nothing is really altered, except that there is one lie the more, while the masters are of inferior blood.

"We are not worth very much perhaps," says the representative of the aristocracy, "but none the less we have lasted a thousand years."

Tolstoy fulminates against the manner in which the Liberals abuse the words, "The People: The Will of the People." What do they know of the people? Who are the People?

But it is more especially when the Liberal movement seemed on the point of succeeding and achieving the convocation of the first Duma that Tolstoy expressed most violently his disapprobation of its constitutional ideas.

"During the last few years the deformation of Christianity has given rise to a new species of fraud, which has rooted our peoples yet more firmly in their servility. With the help of a complicated system of parliamentary elections it was suggested to them that by electing their representatives directly they were participating in the government, and that in obeying them they were obeying their own will: in short, that they were free. This is a piece of imposture. The people cannot express its will, even with the aid of universal suffrage—1, because no such collective will of a nation of many millions of inhabitants could exist; 2, because even if it existed the majority of voices would not be its expression. Without insisting on the fact that those elected would legislate and administrate not for the general good but in order to maintain themselves in power—without counting on the fact of the popular corruption due to pressure and electoral corruption—this fraud is particularly harmful because of the presumptuous slavery into which all those who submit to it fall. . . . These free men recall the prisoners who imagine that they are enjoying freedom when they have the right to elect those of their gaolers who are entrusted with the interior policing of the prison. . . . A member of a despotic State may be entirely free, even in the midst of the most brutal violence. But a member of a constitutional State is always a slave, for he recognises the legality of the violence done him. . . . And now men wish to lead the Russian people into the same state of constitutional slavery in which the other European peoples dwell!"[7]

In his hostility towards Liberalism contempt was his dominant feeling. In respect of Socialism his dominant feeling was or rather would have been hatred, if Tolstoy had not forbidden himself to hate anything whatever. He detested it doubly, because Socialism was the amalgamation of two lies: the lie of liberty and the lie of science. Does it not profess to be founded upon some sort of economic science, whose laws absolutely rule the progress of the world? Tolstoy is very hard upon science. He has pages full of terrible irony concerning this modern superstition and "these futile problems: the origin of species, spectrum analysis, the nature of radium, the theory of numbers, animal fossils and other nonsense, to which people attach as much importance to-day as they attributed in the Middle Ages to the Immaculate Conception or the Duality of Substance." He derides these "servants of science, who, just as the servants of the Church, persuade themselves and others that they are saving humanity; who, like the Church, believe in their own infallibility, never agree among themselves, divide themselves into sects, and, like the Church, are the chief cause of unmannerliness, moral ignorance, and the long delay of humanity in freeing itself from the evils under which it suffers; for they have rejected the only thing that could unite humanity: the religious conscience."[8]

But his anxiety redoubles, and his indignation bursts its bounds, when he sees the dangerous weapon of the new fanaticism in the hands of those who profess to be regenerating humanity. Every revolutionist saddens him when he resorts to violence. But the intellectual and theoretical revolutionary inspires him with horror: he is a pedantic murderer, an arrogant, sterile intelligence, who loves not men but ideas.[9]

Moreover, these ideas are of a low order.

"The object of Socialism is the satisfaction of the lowest needs of man: his material well-being. And it cannot attain even this end by the means it recommends."[10]

At heart, he is without love. He feels only hatred for the oppressors and "a black envy for the assured and easy life of the rich: a greed like that of the flies that gather about ordure."[11] When Socialism is victorious the aspect of the world will be terrible. The European horde will rush upon the weak and barbarous peoples with redoubled force, and will enslave them, in order that the ancient proletariats of Europe may debauch themselves at their leisure by idle luxury, as did the people of Rome.[12]

Happily the principal energies of Socialism spend themselves in smoke in speeches, like those of M. Jaurès.

"What an admirable orator! There is something of everything in his speeches—and there is nothing. . . . Socialism is a little like our Russian orthodoxy: you press it, you push it into its last trenches, you think you have got it fast, and suddenly it turns round and tells you: `No, I'm not the one you think, I'm somebody else.’ And it slips out of your hands. . . . Patience! Let time do its work. There will be socialistic theories, as there are women's fashions, which soon pass from the drawing room to the servant's hall."[13]

Although Tolstoy waged war in this manner upon the Liberals and Socialists, it was not far from it to leave the field free for autocracy; on the contrary, it was that the battle might be fought in all its fierceness between the old world and the new, after the army of disorderly and dangerous elements had been eliminated. For Tolstoy too was a believer in the Revolution. But his Revolution was of a very different colour to that of the revolutionaries; it was rather that of a believer of the Middle Ages, who looked on the morrow, perhaps that very day, for the reign of the Holy Spirit.

"I believe that at this very hour the great revolution is beginning which has been preparing for two thousand years in the Christian world the revolution which will substitute for corrupted Christianity and the system of domination which proceeds therefrom the true Christianity, the basis of equality between men and of the true liberty to which all beings endowed with reason aspire.’[14]

What time does he choose, this seer and prophet, for his announcement of the new era of love and happiness? The darkest hour of Russian history; the hour of disaster and of shame! Superb power of creative faith! All around it is light even in darkness. Tolstoy saw in death the signs of renewal; in the calamities of the war in Manchuria, in the downfall of the Russian armies, in the frightful anarchy and the bloody struggle of the classes. His logic—the logic of a dream!—drew from the victory of Japan the astonishing conclusion that Russia should withdraw from all warfare, because the non-Christian peoples will always have the advantage in warfare over the Christian peoples "who have passed through the phase of servile submission." Does this mean the abdication of the Russian people? No; this is pride at its supremest. Russia should withdraw from all warfare because she must accomplish "the great revolution."

"The Revolution of 1905, which will set men free from brutal oppression, must commence in Russia. It is beginning."

Why must Russia play the part of the chosen people? Because the new Revolution must before all repair the "Great Crime," the great monopolisation of the soil for the profit of a few thousands of wealthy men and the slavery of millions of men—the cruellest of enslavements;[15] and because no people was so conscious of this iniquity as the Russian people.[16]

Again, and more especially, because the Russian people is of all peoples most thoroughly steeped in the true Christianity, so that the coming revolution should realise, in the name of Christ, the law of union and of love. Now this law of love cannot be fulfilled unless it is based upon the law of non-resistance to evil.[17] This non-resistance (let us mark this well, we who have the misfortune to see in it simply an Utopian fad peculiar to Tolstoy and to a few dreamers) has always been an essential trait of the Russian people.

"The Russian people has always assumed, with regard to power, an attitude entirely strange to the other peoples of Europe. It has never entered upon a conflict with power; it has never participated in it, and consequently has never been depraved by it. It has regarded power as an evil which must be avoided. An ancient legend represents the Russians as appealing to the Varingians to come and govern them. The majority of the Russians have always preferred to submit to acts of violence rather than respond with violence or participate therein. They have therefore always submitted.

"A voluntary submission, having nothing in common with servile obedience."[18]

"The true Christian may submit, indeed it is impossible for him not to submit without a struggle to no matter what violence; but he could not obey it—that is, he could not recognise it as legitimate.’[19]

At the time of writing these lines Tolstoy was still subject to the emotion caused by one of the most tragical examples of this heroic non-resistance of a people—the bloody manifestation of January 22nd in St. Petersburg, when an unarmed crowd, led by Father Gapon, allowed itself to be shot down without a cry of hatred or a gesture of self-defence.

For a long time the Old Believers, known in Russia as the Sectators, had been obstinately practising, in spite of persecution, non-obedience to the State, and had refused to recognise the legitimacy of its power.[20] The absurdity of the Russo-Japanese war enabled this state of mind to spread without difficulty through the rural districts. Refusals of military service became more and more general; and the more brutally they were punished the more stubborn the revolt grew in secret. In the provinces, moreover, whole races who knew nothing of Tolstoy had given the example of an absolute and passive refusal to obey the State—the Doukhobors of the Caucasus as early as 1898 and the Georgians of the Gouri towards 1905. Tolstoy influenced these movements far less than they influenced him; and the interest of his writings lies in the fact that in spite of the criticisms of those writers who were of the party of revolution, as was Gorky,[21] he was the mouthpiece of the Old Russian people.

The attitude which he preserved, in respect of men who at the peril of their lives were putting into practice the principles which he professed,[22] was one of extreme modesty and dignity. Neither to the Doukhobors and the Gourians nor to the refractory soldiers did he assume the pose of a master or teacher.

"He who suffers no trials can teach nothing to him who does so suffer."

He implores "the forgiveness of all those whom his words and his writings may have caused to suffer."[23]

He never urges any one to refuse military service. It is a matter for every man to decide for himself. If he discusses the matter with any one who is hesitating, "he always advises him not to refuse obedience so long as it would not be morally impossible." For if a man hesitates it is because he is not ripe; and "it is better to have one soldier the more than a regenade or hypocrite, which is what becomes of those who undertake a task beyond their strength."[24] He distrusts the resolution of the refractory Gontcharenko. He fears "that this young man may have been carried away by vanity and vainglory, not by the love of God."[25] To the Doukhobors he writes that they should not persist in their refusal of obedience out of pride, but "if they are capable of so doing, they should save their weaker women and their children. No one will blame them for that." They must persist "only if the spirit of Christ is indeed within them, because then they will be happy to suffer."[26] In any case he prays those who are persecuted "at any cost not to break their affectionate relations with those who persecute them."[27] One must love even Herod, as he says in a letter to a friend: "You say, `One cannot love Herod.’—I do not know, but I feel, and you also, that one must love him. I know, and you also, that if I do not love him I suffer, that there is no life in me."[28]

The Divine purity, the unvarying ardour of this love, which in the end can no longer be contented even by the words of the Gospel: "Love thy neighbour as thyself," because he finds in them a taint of egoism![29]

Too vast a love in the opinion of some; and so free from human egoism that it wastes itself in the void. Yet who more than Tolstoy distrusts "abstract love"?

"The greatest modern sin: the abstract love of humanity, impersonal love for those who are—somewhere, out of sight. . . . To love those we do not know, those whom we shall never meet, is so easy a thing! There is no need to sacrifice anything; and at the same time we are so pleased with ourselves! The conscience is fooled.—No. We must love our neighbours—those we live with, and who are in our way and embarrass us."[30]

I have read in most of the studies of Tolstoy's work that his faith and philosophy are not original. It is true; the beauty of these ideas is eternal and can never appear a momentary fashion. Others complain of their Utopian character. This also is true; they are Utopian, the New Testament is Utopian. A prophet is a Utopian; he treads the earth but sees the life of eternity; and that this apparition should have been granted to us, that we should have seen among us the last of the prophets, that the greatest of our artists should wear this aureole on his brow there, it seems to me, is a fact more novel and of far greater importance to the world than one religion the more, or a new philosophy. Those are blind who do not perceive the miracle of this great mind, the incarnation of fraternal love in the midst of a people and a century stained with the blood of hatred!

  1. Le Temps, November 2, 1902.
  2. Tolstoy regarded this as one of his most important works. "One of my books—For Every Day—to which I have the conceit to attach a great importance . . . ." (Letter to Jan Styka, July 27-August 9, 1909).
  3. These works should shortly appear, under the supervision of Countess Alexandra, Tolstoy's daughter. The list of them has been published in various journals. We may mention Hadji-Mourad, Father Sergius, the psychology of a monk; She Had Every Virtue, the study of a woman; the Diary of a Madman, the Diary of a Mother, the Story of a Doukhobor, the Story of a Hive, the Posthumous Journal of Theodore Kouzmitch, Aliocha Govchkoff, Tikhon and Melanie, After the Ball, The Moon shines in the Dark, A Young Tsar, What I saw in a Dream, Who is the Murderer? (containing social ideas), Modern Socialism, a comedy; The Learned Woman, Childish Wisdom, sketches of children who converse upon moral subjects; The Living Corpse, a drama in seventeen tableaux; It is all her Fault, a peasant comedy in two acts, directed against alcohol (apparently Tolstoy's last literary work, as he wrote it in May-June, 1910), and a number of social studies. It is announced that they will form two octavo volumes of six hundred pages each.

    But the essential work as yet unpublished is Tolstoy's Journal, which covers forty years of his life, and will fill, so it is said, no less than thirty volumes.

  4. The excommunication of Tolstoy by the Holy Synod was declared on February 22, 1901. The excuse was a chapter of Resurrection relating to Mass and the Eucharist. This chapter has unhappily been suppressed in the French edition.
  5. On the nationalisation of the soil. (The Great Crime, 1905.)
  6. "A `Great-Russian,’ touched with Finnish blood." (M. Leroy-Beaulieu.)
  7. The End of a World (1905-6). See the telegram addressed by Tolstoy to an American journal: "The agitation in the Zemstvos has as its object the limitation of despotic power and the establishment of a representative government. Whether or no they succeed the result will be a postponement of any true social improvement. Political agitation, while producing the unfortunate illusion of such improvement by external means, arrests true progress, as may be proved by the example of all the constitutional States—France, England, America, &c." (Preface to the French translation of The Great Crime, 1905.)

    In a long and interesting letter to a lady who asked him to join a Committee for the Propagation of Reading and Writing among the People, Tolstoy expressed yet other objections to the Liberals: they have always played the part of dupes; they act as the accomplices of the autocracy through fear; their participation in the government gives the latter a moral prestige, and accustoms them to compromises, which quickly make them the instruments of power. Alexander II. used to say that all the Liberals were ready to sell themselves for honours if not for money; Alexander III. was able, without danger, to eradicate the liberal work of his father. "The Liberals whispered among themselves that this did not please them; but they continued to attend the tribunals, to serve the State and the press; in the press they alluded to those things to which allusion was allowed, and were silent upon matters to which allusion was prohibited." They did the same under Nikolas II. "When this young man, who knows nothing and understands nothing, replies tactlessly and with effrontery to the representatives of the people, do the Liberals protest? By no means . . . From every side they send the young Tsar their cowardly and flattering congratulations." (Further Letters.)

  8. War and Revolution.

    In Resurrection, at the hearing of Maslova's appeal, in the Senate, it is a materialistic Darwinist who is most strongly opposed to the revision, because he is secretly shocked that Nekhludov should wish, as a matter of duty, to marry a prostitute; any manifestation of duty, and still more, of religious feeling, having the effect upon him of a personal insult.

  9. As a type, take Novodvorov, the revolutionary leader in Resurrection, whose excessive vanity and egoism have sterilised a fine intelligence. No imagination; "a total absence of the moral and aesthetic qualities which produce doubt."

    Following his footsteps like a shadow is Markel, the artisan who has become a revolutionist through humiliation and the desire for revenge; a passionate worshipper of science, which he cannot comprehend; a fanatical anti-clerical and an ascetic.

    In Three More Dead or The Divine and the Human we shall find a few specimens of the new generation of revolutionaries: Romane and his friends, who despise the old Terrorists, and profess to attain their ends scientifically, by transforming an agricultural into an industrial people.

  10. Letters to the Japanese Izo-Abe, 1904. (Further Letters.)
  11. Conversations, reported by Teneromo (published in Revolutionaries, 1906)
  12. Conversations, reported by Teneromo (published in Revolutionaries, 1906).
  13. Conversation with M. Paul Boyer. (Le Temps, November 4, 1902.)
  14. The End of a World.
  15. "The cruellest enslavement is to be deprived of the earth, for the slave of a master is the slave of only one; but the man deprived of the land is the slave of all the world." (The Great Crime.)
  16. Russia was actually in a somewhat special situation; and although Tolstoy may have been wrong to found his generalisations concerning other European States upon the condition of Russia, we cannot be surprised that he was most sensible to the sufferings which touched him most nearly. See, in The Great Crime, his conversations on the road to Toula with the peasants, who were all in want of bread because they lacked land, and who were all secretly waiting for the land to be restored to them. The agricultural population of Russia forms 80 per cent, of the nation. A hundred million of men, says Tolstoy, are dying of hunger because of the seizure of the soil by the landed proprietors. When people speak to them of remedying their evils through the agency of the Press, or by the separation of Church and State, or by nationalist representation, or even by the eight-hours day, they impudently mock at them:

    "Those who are apparently looking everywhere for the means of bettering the condition of the masses of the people remind one of what one sees in the theatre, when all the spectators have an excellent view of an actor who is supposed to be concealed, while his fellow-players, who also have a full view of him, pretend not to see him, and endeavour to distract one another's attention from him."

    There is no remedy but that of returning the soil to the labouring people. As a solution of the property question, Tolstoy recommends the doctrine of Henry George and his suggested single tax upon the value of the soil. This is his economic gospel; he returns to it unwearied, and has assimilated it so thoroughly that in his writings he often uses entire phrases of George's.

  17. "The law of non-resistance to evil is the keystone of the whole building. To admit the law of mutual help while misunderstanding the precept of non-resistance is to build the vault without sealing the central portion." (The End of a World.)
  18. In a letter written in 1900 to a friend (Further Letters) Tolstoy complains of the false interpretation given to his doctrine of non-resistance. People, he says, confound Do not oppose evil by evil with Do not oppose evil: that is to say, Be indifferent to evil. . . ." "Whereas the conflict with evil is the sole object of Christianity, and the commandment of non-resistance to evil is given as the most effectual means of conflict."
  19. The End of a World.
  20. Tolstoy has drawn two types of these "Sectators," one in Resurrection (towards the end) and one in Three More Dead.
  21. After Tolstoy's condemnation of the upheaval in the Zemstvos, Gorky, making himself the interpreter of the displeasure of his friends, wrote as follows: "This man has become the slave of his theory. For a long time he has isolated himself from the life of Russia, and he no longer listens to the voice of the people. He hovers over Russia at too great a height."
  22. It was a bitter trial to him that he could not contrive to be persecuted. He had a thirst for martyrdom; but the Government very wisely took good care not to satisfy him.

    "They are persecuting my friends all around me, and leaving me in peace, although if any one is dangerous it is I. Evidently I am not worth persecution, and I am ashamed of the fact." (Letter to Teneromo, 1892, Further Letters.)

    "Evidently I am not worthy of persecution, and I shall have to die like this, without having ever been able to testify to the truth by physical suffering." (To Teneromo, May 16, 1892, ibid.)

    "It hurts me to be at liberty." (To Teneromo, June 1, 1894, ibid.)

    That he was at liberty was, Heaven knows, no fault of his! He insults the Tsars, he attacks the fatherland, "that ghastly fetish to which men sacrifice their life and liberty and reason." (The End of a World.) Then see, in War and Revolution, the summary of Russian history. It is a gallery of monsters: "The maniac Ivan the Terrible, the drunkard Peter I., the ignorant cook, Catherine I., the sensual and profligate Elizabeth, the degenerate Paul, the parricide Alexander I. [the only one of them for whom Tolstoy felt a secret liking], the cruel and ignorant Nikolas I.; Alexander II., unintelligent and evil rather than good; Alexander III., an undeniable sot, brutal and ignorant; Nikolas II., an innocent young officer of hussars, with an entourage of coxcombs, a young man who knows nothing and understands nothing."

  23. Letter to Gontcharenko, a "refractory," January 17, 1903. (Further Letters.)
  24. Letter to a friend, 1900. (Correspondence.)
  25. To Gontcharenko, February 2, 1903 (ibid.).
  26. To the Doukhobors of the Caucasus, 1898 (ibid.).
  27. To Gontcharenko, January 17, 1903 (ibid.).
  28. To a friend, November, 1901. (Correspondence.)
  29. "It is like a crack in a pneumatic machine; all the vapour of egoism that we wish to drain from the human soul re-enters by it." He ingeniously strives to prove that the original text has been wrongly read; that the exact wording of the Second Commandment was in fact "Love thy neighbour as Himself (as God)." (Conversations with Teneromo.)
  30. Conversations with Teneromo.