The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 12

London: Cassell, pages 109–117



The new religio-philosophic works of Tolstoy were prohibited in Russia, but they continued to spread. In his native land they were circulated either by hand-written copies or in lithographed or hectographed form, but they were printed in Russian beyond the frontier—in Geneva, London, and Berlin—where also translations appeared. The French translation of Tolstoy's most important work, "What is My Faith?" was carried out by his friend Prince Leonide Urusoff, who sincerely sympathised with the views expressed in that work. A somewhat shortened English translation was published by V. G. Tchertkoff, together with "Confession" and a short exposition of the Gospels. Shortly after, the same works appeared in Germany. These translations acquainted the western world with Tolstoy's new views, and they undoubtedly popularised him much more than his novels, which, though appreciated, often were not fully understood by western readers, owing in great part to difficulties of translation.

Simultaneously with the wider dissemination of Tolstoy's works, there began to pour into Yasnaya Polyana books and manuscripts from people more or less in sympathy with his views. Later, visitors from countries far and near made pilgrimage to his home, and Tolstoy began to be the centre of a definite and widespread phase of spiritual life.

One of the first of these new acquaintances was a sectarian, Sutaieff, to whom earlier reference has been made. He was a typical Russian religious personality. Basing his views on the Gospel, he preached personal life in harmony with the inner voice of conscience, and communism and brotherhood in social life. Tolstoy visited Sutaieff in his village, Shavelino, in the Tver province, and Sutaieff paid a return visit to Tolstoy in Moscow. Afterwards they met once more in Yasnaya Polyana. Each meeting with Sutaieff accentuated the favourable impression he had made upon Tolstoy. During Sutaieff's stay in Moscow, according to Tolstoy's own words, he greatly helped the latter to elucidate his ideas upon charity. Sutaieff startled Tolstoy by his daring thought: his project to abolish poverty—to distribute the poor among the well-to-do people in order that together they might lead useful, productive lives.

The life of Tolstoy 153.jpg

The House in which Tolstoy died.

Another remarkable man who produced a great impression upon Tolstoy was also a self-taught sectarian—the peasant Timothy Bondaref. Deported to Siberia together with his peasant co-religionists, for spreading the teachings of the Sabbatarians, they settled near Minusinsk, the southern part of Central Siberia, where they formed a community. Bondaref's mind was especially occupied with the question of the causes of social inequality. His arguments were very original, and based on the Bible. The first commandment given by God to man, said he, was "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"; to woman, "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." The majority of women up to to-day have obeyed the latter commandment—even the Empress "brings forth children in sorrow"—because one cannot buy a child: it would always be another's. But the men try by every means to avoid the commandment laid upon them; the educated classes do not earn their bread in the sweat of their face, but buy the bread of others. Hence the evil caused by the privileged classes: the sloth, luxury, and immorality on the one side, and poverty, ignorance, and wretchedness on the other. No preaching of love will remedy this evil. The commandment of love came later, and people are trying to shield themselves under it. Unless the commandment of work is fulfilled, that of love cannot be carried out, and all preaching of love without labour appears hypocrisy.

All these ideas were developed by Bondaref in his book, "Diligence, or the Triumph of Agriculturists," the manuscript of which was sent to Tolstoy. Finding that Bondaref had many views in common with himself, Tolstoy exchanged with him several friendly letters. He decided to publish Bondaref's work, which was written in a powerful, original style. He corrected it, and wrote an introduction. At first the censor prohibited the publication, but now the book is issued by the Posrednik.

Tolstoy's views began to penetrate into Russian intellectual circles. After the assassination of Alexander II. the number of young people with revolutionary tendencies considerably diminished. Ideals and projects for a reconstruction of society were sought in another direction, and the new thoughts of Tolstoy were much more sympathetic with the state of mind of those young people. Amongst them began to develop a serious moral and religious movement combined with the desire for radical political reforms. Owing to this movement, several agricultural colonies of intellectual people were started; also many persons from the middle classes and nobility went to live among the workers; others refused to take the oath or to fulfil their military duties. One of the first cases was the refusal, in 1886, of Alexis Zabulovsky to serve as a soldier. He was condemned to two years in the disciplinary battalion at Askhabad in Central Asia, where he suffered greatly, especially during the long marches to his destination. Afterwards the refusals became more and more frequent, in Russia as well as in foreign countries, and nowadays they occur at every recruiting season.

The spread of Tolstoy's works in western Europe and America also led to communications from and correspondence with societies accepting Christianity in the same spirit as himself; that is to say, condemning violence whether by the individual or by the State. From England the first response came from the Quakers; from America the Shakers, and members of non-resistance societies formed by Harrison and Ball; from Austria wrote a sect of Nazarenes, the members of which regularly refuse military service and are imprisoned in consequence. As to the Russian Dukhobors, we shall speak of them later.

In 1885, Tolstoy was visited by a Russian emigrant who had been living a long time in AmericaWilliam Frey, a follower of Auguste Comte, and an exponent of Comte's "Religion of Humanity." Notwithstanding some eccentricity in his teaching, his charming personality made a deep and sympathetic impression on Tolstoy. Frey tried to induce Tolstoy to promulgate Comte's doctrine and, although he did not succeed, he gained Tolstoy's personal sympathy and deep love.

Just at this period Tolstoy studied Henry George's theory of land nationalisation and single tax. He adopted it whole-heartedly. As is known, this theory consists in the abolition of all taxes except one, namely a tax on the land, and that in proportion to its rent. By this means, it was argued, the nationalisation of the land would be accomplished, and large properties in land would be abolished without any violence or expropriation. Henry George developed his ideas in many works, the majority of which are translated into Russian.

In 1887 George Kennan, the well-known traveller in Siberia, went to see Tolstoy, but they could not agree in their views. Kennan found nonresistance to violence, especially in self-defence, absurd, and notwithstanding Tolstoy's great esteem for Kennan because of his denunciation of the horrors of Russian prisons and deportation to Siberia, he was far from satisfied with the visit.

Quite the contrary was the case in the visit of Professor Massarik, a Czech and a doctor of philosophy, who left a very pleasant impression by his simplicity and clear understanding of high, spiritual problems. But the visit of Déroulède, the well-known French patriot, was not fruitful of mutual understanding. His hatred of Germany, and his hope of revenge, brought him to Russia with the view of arousing public opinion there against Germany and of inducing Russia to declare war against her neighbour, so that the latter might be attacked from two sides. He therefore appealed to Tolstoy as being a leader of public opinion. Tolstoy, in a humorous sketch, described the efforts of Déroulède to explain to the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana how Germany was to be squeezed from two sides, and how the peasants replied that it would be better to invite the Germans to work beside them. Déroulède's mission proved a failure.

Tolstoy's ideas began to penetrate amongst the peasantry and working classes chiefly owing to the publications of the Posrednik. In 1887 he received a copy of a catechism from the south Russian Stundis community, in which the texts of the gospels had been quoted from Tolstoy's edition, and the whole catechism was in accordance with his conception of Christianity. Thus the light he had kindled began to shine over a world thirsting for love and truth.

Towards the end of the 'eighties, the bitterness of Tolstoy's relations with his family and surroundings, and especially with his former aristocratic friends, gradually lessened, and his spiritual life began to be serene and tranquil. On October 5th, 1887, he celebrated his silver wedding in the seclusion of his family circle.

His works were always highly appreciated by the best of the Russian painters. As early as 1873, Kramskoy had painted his portrait, which may be considered the best for its resemblance and expression. In 1882, the radical painter, N. Gay, first visited Tolstoy and became his friend and follower. This passionate, impressionable, and at the same time kind and ingenuous, man was whole-heartedly attached to the great Russian reformer, and remained so till his death. He often stayed at the latter's house, and Tolstoy in his turn frequently visited Gay on his small estate in the Chernigov province; besides which they maintained a steady correspondence. In 1884 Gay painted Tolstoy sitting at his writing-table. Though his eyes are not visible, the whole figure is so characteristic, and so lovingly and strikingly rendered, that this portrait became very dear to Tolstoy's friends.

In 1887, Russia's greatest painter, Eliah Rèpin, came to Yasnaya Polyana. His picture—Tolstoy ploughing—is wonderful for its deep meaning. Besides the technical and artistic value, it is an emblem of the union of the greatest Russian genius with the Russian people and land. This picture is now one of the most popular in lithographic and photographic copies and post cards; it is, for Russia, one of the epoch-making pictures. The best Russian sculptors also, such as Trubetskoy, Ginsburg, and Aronson, have immortalised Tolstoy in their works.

During Tolstoy's conversation with his numerous visitors on the new conception of Christianity, and on the consequent change in the relation of man to man, he observed that his words were not always convincing to his visitors, chiefly because they differed on the very fundamental principles of life. This led Tolstoy to a systematic explanation of his philosophy in a book called "On Life," published towards the end of the 'eighties.