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Many people have heard of the novels ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, even if they haven’t read them. Tolstoy, who wrote them, is perhaps less well-known as a man whose experience of war, among other things, led him to become a pacifist. He believed that ‘evil’ could not be overcome by using ‘evil’ methods against it, especially violence. He also spent much time in working out what a pacifist way of life might be, and in trying to live it.
This wasn’t the only sadness during his childhood. When Lyov was 9 his father also died, followed in less than a year by Grandmother Tolstoy. Yet many of Lyov’s childhood memories were happy ones, sometimes even idyllic. Some this was due to Aunt Tatyana, a distant relative who had been brought up by the Tolstoy grandparents and lived at Yasnaya Polyana; she became a mother-figure to the children. Lyov remembered her tenderness and compassion, particularly when, at the age of 5, he left the comforts of secluded nursery life with his little sister and kind nannies, to begin a much tougher regime with his older brothers. ‘I saw that Aunt Tatyana felt as I did, that it was sad, terribly sad, but had to happen. For the first time I felt that life isn’t a game but a serious matter.’ She was, he said, one of the greatest influences on his life, and he learned from her the value of human love.
One day the children encountered a stable-worker being led away by a senior servant to be whipped for some misdeed. It gave young Lyov ‘a dreadful feeling’, and he told Aunt Tatyana about it. She hated corporal punishment, and cried, ‘Why ever didn’t you stop it happening?’ The boy was astonished: ‘I never thought we could interfere.’ But, as one of the master’s children, he could. Incidents like these helped to form his attitudes not only to violence but also to the way many people lived in slavery. In Russia at that time the peasants were the property of the estate-owners on whose land they lived and worked. This practice, which Tolstoy thought barbaric, was abolished in 1861. But the poverty afflicting most peasants – the majority of the Russian people – continued.
Lyov Tolstoy got on well with his brothers, especially Nikolay, five years older. It was Nikolay who, aged 10, told the other children that he knew a secret: it would mean that human beings would stop being angry, miserable or ill, and would live together in happiness and harmony. Nikolay told them he had written the secret on a green stick which he had buried at a certain place on the estate. The children played games around this idea, with Nikolay setting them inventive co-operative tasks. Nikolay’s concept of ‘universal welfare’ and all humankind supporting each other was one that Lyov never forgot.
By the time he was 20, Lyov Tolstoy was a young man with a great deal of energy and great difficulty in sorting out his ideas. Between bouts of determination to be disciplined and ‘good’, he got into debt, drank heavily, ran hair-raising risks riding horses, gambled compulsively, and pursued girls. ‘His animal passions were very strong,’ observed one of his first biographers, and it was true that Tolstoy found them hard to control. He was not a good-looking man, but had great power to charm when he chose. One fellow-student described his ‘bristling hair and the piercing expression of his half-closed eyes’; other contemporaries spoke of the way he compelled people’s attention.
In the Caucasus
Yet in the same year he completed his story ‘The Raid’. ‘How is it,’ he wrote, ‘that surrounded by the most entrancing beauties of nature, men can continue to be gripped by hatred, vengeance and the desire to kill?’ In his diary he observed how ‘war is such an unjust and evil thing that the people who wage war have to try to stifle their consciences,’ and wondered if he should be taking part in it. He also noticed how military discipline and drilling ‘brought men to a state of mechanical obedience’ so that they no longer had to take responsibility for their actions or questioned the orders they were given.
In the Crimean war
A fellow officer had another viewpoint. ‘The Count was the life and soul of our unit, and we drooped when he was away. He’d disappear for a few days, and return, gloomy and fed up with himself. He’d tell me how he had drunk and gambled, and how he condemned himself for it – he got really distressed. He was a strange chap, and hard to understand, but a great comrade. A man you could never forget.’
What Lyov Tolstoy never forgot was his experience of war. He wrote about the Crimean war in three ‘Sevastopol Sketches’, one of which ran into trouble with the censor for not portraying ’our brave officers’ in a properly noble light. But he did convey (as he would do again in his novel ‘War and Peace’) the tragic stupidity and inhumanity of war. This is how he described a brief truce, held to allow both warring armies to bury their dead:
‘The flowery valley is covered with corpses; the beautiful sun sinks towards the blue sea, which glitters in its rays. Thousands of people gather together, looking at each other, talking, smiling at one another. And yet these people, though Christians believing in the law of love, don’t fall on their knees at the sight of what they’ve done, or embrace like brothers..... Then the white flags on the bastions are taken down, the machinery of death and suffering resounds again, innocent blood flows again, and the air is full of moans and curses.’
Years later he wrote again of his experiences in the Crimea, and said ‘what is dreadful in war is not the wounds, suffering and death, but what allows people to inflict these things on each other’. He remembered a young cadet whom he’d advised not to drink. ‘But it’s sometimes necessary in military service,’ the boy had argued. ‘For instance, when the commander needed to massacre a village, the soldiers didn’t want to, but he issued them with drink, and then – !‘. That was the horror of war, said Tolstoy: ‘this lad with his fresh young face, his neat uniform, his naive eyes and his perverted conception of life.’
Tolstoy now saw that in his unequal struggle to live a moral life during his twenties he had been on his own. ‘Ambition, love of power, greed, lasciviousness, pride, anger and revenge – all these were respected.’ Later he wrote of his life as a young man: ‘I can’t think of those years without horror, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, exploited the poor, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery, drunkenness, violence, murder - there was no crime I didn’t commit.’
He carried another burden, of grief, though it also helped him to leave his troubled past behind. In 1856 his brother Dimitri died, followed in 1860 by ‘wise, good, serious’ Nikolay; both died of tuberculosis. He was devastated by their deaths – but they also rescued him: Lyov’s share of his dead brothers’ property meant that, having gambled away his own, he now had money again. In 1862 he married, settled at Yasnaya Polyana, began a large family, and wrote his world-famous novel ‘War and Peace’. For a while he was busy and content.
Knowing that human beings had for centuries relied on their religious faith to provide the meaning, purpose and value in life they needed, Lyov Tolstoy turned to religion. He found out all he could about the major religions – noticing how most of them carried a gospel of peace. He also went back to the Russian Orthodox church in which he had been brought up (but had rejected while still in his teens). For a few years he went to church every Sunday and tried to fit in with its teaching and rituals. But it bothered him that each of the major faiths claimed to be the only one to hold ‘the Truth’. Tolstoy thought that hostility to people who didn’t share one’s beliefs, and, especially, telling them (often with violence) that their beliefs were wrong, was cruel, contemptuous and arrogant.
In 1877 Russia began a war with Turkey, an Islamic nation; and so Russians, said Tolstoy, ‘in the name of Christian love began to kill their fellow men. It was impossible not to think about it, impossible not to see that killing is an evil. Yet they prayed in the churches for Russian success, and the clerics admitted that this killing was a result of Christian faith’. Tolstoy saw that the murders committed as part of war weren’t the only evil: in the unrest and disorder that follows all war, church officers approved the killing of young offenders. ‘I took note of what is done by men who profess Christianity, and was horrified.’ He had reached a point when he couldn’t square the church’s demands with his own conscience.
The gospel according to Tolstoy
Tolstoy wrote down and published his interpretation of the sermon and its five significant commandments. Not only ‘don’t kill’: don’t even be angry, or at any rate express anger. Don’t give in to lust. Don’t sign up to anything that takes away your control of your own actions – which means not joining any army. (‘The whole system of organised murder called war is based on the practice of getting people to entrust their consciences to others.’) Don’t fight evil, but disarm it by gentleness and kindness. Love your enemies, whatever they say or do to you.
Tolstoy saw that one of the causes of conflict (especially in the Western world) was the huge importance attached to state government, law, ownership of property and possessions, trade, and love of country. These things were responsible everywhere for inequality and discontent. As Tolstoy saw it, ‘Remembering all the evil I have done, suffered and seen resulting from the enmity of nations, it’s clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism... As long as we praise patriotism, and cultivate it in young people, there will be armaments which destroy physical and spiritual life, and there will be vast, awful wars.’
By 1884 he had reached a point where he could say: ‘I cannot acknowledge any states or nations. I cannot take part in matters that are based on the difference of nations.’ Such ‘matters’ included the manufacture and stockpiling of military weapons and ammunition, serving in the army, or war itself. And ‘I cannot help others to take part’, either.
Living the simple life
Mindful of the warning of Jesus, ‘judge not’, Lyov Tolstoy refused to do jury service. He dropped his title. He became a vegetarian. He gave up smoking and hunting. He tried to give up things he owned. ‘I felt and feel that as long as I have two coats and someone else has none, I share in a constantly repeated crime.’
But once again, in his efforts to live rightly, he found himself isolated. His wife was quite unable to understand what he was trying to do, and saw her husband’s efforts to live the simple life as irresponsible to her and his children. The marriage suffered, and they were never again completely reconciled. But when Tolstoy, on principle, gave up ownership of his land, he did agree that it should be divided (as fairly as possible) between his wife and children, not handed over to the peasants who worked on it.
Compromises always left him uneasy. But there were still times when the Tolstoy family were able to pull together. In 1891 parts of Russia were hit by severe famine, in which up to 400,000 people died. All the adult Tolstoys worked hard to raise money and give practical help. Soup kitchens were set up; so were temporary hospitals, and schools for the younger children. Tolstoy, characteristically, was distressed when people praised his efforts: he felt that the class he belonged to was responsible for the sufferings of the peasants, and simply providing food and aid was a kind of sticking-plaster patronage which didn’t deal with the fundamental problem. ‘It has all come about as a result of our sinful enslavement of people. We must change our lives, and return to the people what we have taken from them.’ An article expressing such ideas had to be ‘toned down’, simply to get it published.
Tolstoy was much criticised for ideas like these, which people thought were both over-simple and far too difficult to apply to real life. But he understood his critics’ problem: he knew, none better, the difficulties of managing human nature and human society. ‘It frightens me to think of the complexity of circumstances in which history is made.’ In ‘War and Peace’ he had shown how events on a large scale can be affected by the actions of a single individual, every human action a pebble dropped in the pool of events and spreading its ripples of change.
For Lyov Tolstoy, the principle of non-resistance demanded actions that had the best chance to bring about a change for the better. Non-resistance, by definition, couldn’t be enforced. The point was that individual people should deliberately choose, and commit themselves to, a way of life that was morally good for society. Tolstoy also thought that people who believed in a kindly deity ought to find that choice easy, and that Christians claiming to follow the teaching of Jesus had little or no excuse for not trying it out.
‘If a considerable minority followed Jesus’ commandment of non-resistance, never resisting evil with evil, never using violence, they would have a corrective effect on society. If there was only a small minority, they might have to put up with some contempt; yet all the time the world would be growing wiser and better from their quiet influence. Even those who died for their beliefs would leave their teaching behind.’
The proper business of right-minded human society was, Tolstoy said, to bring about the ancient poetically-expressed prophecy that ‘spears would be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks’: no more weapons, and no more war. But he knew this wasn’t easy. As he said, ruefully, ‘The habits of the stone age are still strong in us.’
Tolstoy was appalled, seeing at first hand how ‘the whole order of our lives rests not on a basis of law and justice, as people like to think, but on sheer brutal violence’. He published an account of this incident, and of how the peasants were being abused. Since he was now hugely influential because of his novels and famine-relief work, what he wrote reached the authorities. The commander he had spoken to was sacked.
Tolstoy, meanwhile, was working harder than ever to promote his own suggestions for protest against war. Private individuals, he said, should refuse to be conscripted, and become conscientious objectors instead. They should also refuse to pay taxes levied to pay for war.
He knew this was difficult to do. As he told the Peace Conference at the Hague in 1899: though ‘governments readily allow all sorts of liberal sentiments to be expressed in parliaments, they never openly tolerate refusals of military service or refusals to pay war taxes, because they know that such refusals strike at the root of their power’.
‘Governments,’ he went on, ‘say that preparations for war, and even wars themselves, are necessary to preserve peace. They pretend they are keen to find ways to reduce the size of armies and to put an end to war. But armies will only be abolished when people stop putting their faith in governments and make the choice themselves not to do to other people what they don’t want done to themselves: killing.’
In 1895 the Dukhobors held a large meeting at which they publicly burned their firearms. Cossack troops were sent into the crowd with orders to attack the Dukhobors and beat them up. Accused of refusing to die for the emperor, the Dukhobors replied: ‘We are ready to lay down our lives for everyone, including the Tsar, but we cannot commit murder for anyone.’
The army’s brutal attack was only the first in a series of acts of persecution. Tolstoy immediately launched an appeal on behalf of the Dukhobors. In 1897 three friends of his published a pamphlet, which described how ‘a terrible cruelty is now being perpetrated in the Caucasus. More than 4,000 people are suffering and dying from hunger, disease and exhaustion, beating, tortures and other persecutions at the hands of the Russian authorities’.
The three publishers were arrested and exiled. One of them went to Britain, where he spent the next 8 years promoting Tolstoy and Tolstoyism, and set in motion plans to help the remaining Dukhobors to emigrate to Canada. Tolstoy paid much of the cost of the migration, donating to the Dukhobors the royalties for his last great novel, ‘Resurrection’.
‘I have long been troubled by the inconsistency between my life and my beliefs,’ wrote Tolstoy in 1897. He had already given up his property, though still living there, as it were his family’s guest. But the tempting comfort of his life, and the lack of support for his opinions from his wife and most of his children, distressed him, and over the years he had made several attempts to leave home altogether.
When in 1910 he finally did leave home, exhausted by family conflict and hoping to end his days in a monastery, he didn’t get far. On the train journey he was taken ill with pneumonia. A station-master gave up his house so that the traveller could rest in relative comfort, and here, at a railway station, Tolstoy died a week later. He was 82.
It had been Tolstoy’s wish to die in solitude, but, as one biographer remarked, ‘Never before had the deathbed of a recluse received so much publicity’. There were 5 doctors in attendance. The station was packed with officials of all kinds. Crowds of journalists hung about waiting to get stories and pictures. Many people temporarily lived and slept in railway carriages parked in the station sidings. The telephone and telegraph systems nearly broke down.
After Tolstoy’s death there was both grief and malevolence. Some newspapers printed their front pages with black borders. Theatres were closed and university lectures cancelled. Students demonstrated publicly in Tolstoy’s honour – for which the universities were made to suffer later. The government banned the special trains meant to carry mourners to the funeral, and anti-Tolstoyans denounced him in parliament and media.
Lyov Nikolayevich Tolstoy was buried at Yasnaya Polyana as he had asked: at the spot on the estate where his brother Nikolay had said the ‘green stick’ was also buried, on which was written the secret of how to bring peace to the world.
‘Remembering all the evil I have done, suffered and seen resulting from the enmity of nations, it’s clear to me that the cause of it all lay in the gross fraud called patriotism... As long as we praise patriotism, and cultivate it in young people, there will be armaments which destroy physical and spiritual life, and there will be vast, awful wars.’