Leo Tolstoy: From Writer to Pacifist Saint
By Asif Javed MD
There is a saying in Russia that people visit that country for three reasons: to see Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yasnaya Polyana — home of Leo Tolstoy. More than a century after death, Tolstoy continues to be the most popular writer in Russia. Ninety volumes of his works adorn the libraries in his home country. It is hard to believe that he had not set out to be a writer; he wanted to be a diplomat.
Tolstoy was the scion of an aristocratic family of such standing that some considered them higher than the Tsars. His maternal grandfather had been ambassador in Berlin and a confidant of Catherine the Great; his paternal grandfather had been governor of Kazan while his cousin was the home minister in the cabinet of Tsar Alexander the III.
Having lost both his parents at a young age, Tolstoy was brought up by an aunt. By a strange twist of history, his life was sandwiched between two major events in the history of modern Russia: the Decembrist uprising of 1825 and the communist revolution of 1917. The early loss of his parents, and the failed Decembrist uprising — a second cousin of Tolstoy, General Volkonsky, one of the conspirators, was dragged in chains in front of Tsar and sent into exile in Siberia, having his title and lands confiscated -- left a lasting imprint on the mind of young Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was sent to Kazan University but failed to graduate partly due to bad company that included his older brothers. There were visits to brothels, gambling and all kind of boisterous fun so typical of spoiled children of aristocracy. Having failed his exam in geography -- he was unable to name a single French port and flunked some simple questions of Russian history -- he withdrew from the University. The decision was made easy for him since at age ten, his inheritance included Yasnaya Polyana -- his ancestral home - a large piece of land as well as 330 peasants. Had he graduated, he would have been well on his way to a career in the foreign servic, but what a loss would that have been for literature!
Upon his return home, he made a master plan for self-learning: he would learn math, law, languages, geography, history, medicine, agriculture, music and painting. Oddly missing from this long list was writing – the literary giant of the future had no inclination in that direction yet. Having become bored at home, he went off to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg where he resumed the customary life of a young aristocrat: visits to bath-houses, gambling and drinking -- the same spots that were to be frequented by the infamous Rasputin, a few years later. Having incurred heavy losses at cards, Tolstoy enlisted as an NCO in the army and was posted in Crimea. He saw active combat in the Crimean War that was to sow the seeds for War and Peace as well as Hadji Murad, one of his finest writings about a Chechen warlord.
As often happens, somewhere along the line, Tolstoy decided to become a writer. He sent his first manuscript, Childhood, to an editor in St. Petersburg with the following cover letter: “My request will cost you so little labor that I am sure that you will not refuse to grant it. Look through this manuscript, and if it is not fit to publish, return it to me. Otherwise evaluate it and send me what you think it is worth, and publish it in your journal….” There is palpable nervousness in the young writer’s words that seemed uncertain of the merit of his novel. Childhood was accepted for publication and the rest is history. War and Peace and Anna Karenina were to come years later but Childhood had launched the literary journey of Tolstoy.
Tolstoy married Sofia Bers, the beautiful daughter of a Moscow physician. She was eighteen years younger than him, cultured and intelligent. Their marriage produced a partnership rarely seen in the history of literature. Sofia was not only to inspire him but also did the editing and drafting for many of his writings including War and Peace, many characters of which were based upon their family members: Piere, the shy and awkward hero, is based upon Tolstoy himself while Tatyana, his sister-in-law, became the model for the heroine, Natasha. Tolstoy went through enormous difficulties to write War and Peace, the compelling saga of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that has enthralled generations; this included a visit to the battleground of Borodino, the only large scale battle fought between the grand-army and Russia.
War and Peace was initially serialized in a magazine. Coincidentally, another masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky was also being published in the same magazine at the same time. The two writers were probably wary of each other. It is mind-boggling that they never met although they must have moved in similar literary circles. One has to attribute this to the unfortunate trait of jealously so inherent in writers; surprisingly, the great ones are not immune from this failing either.
Tolstoy was a prolific writer and over the years was to bring out many more novels. Anna Karenina, the story of tragic love between a young Russian army officer and a married housewife, was also based upon a real incidence that took place not far from Yasnaya Polyana. Having finished Anna Karenina, Tolstoy went through a period of depression and stopped writing for a while. When he decided to resume, the task appeared unattainable. Sadly, somewhere along the line, Tolstoy had lost what his biographer A.N. Wilson calls, his sustained brilliance. For years, he had desperately wanted to write a novel on Peter the Great: he had the material — it just would not come. After seventeen attempts, he gave up. The same fate awaited his long deferred desire to write of the Decembrist uprising; his efforts ended in vain. But by then, Tolstoy’s mind was beginning to move in a different direction.
Life in Russia had been intolerable for decades. Over the years, there had been many attempts to overthrow Tsars. In 1886, six students were caught by police with explosives, accused of plotting Tsar’s assassination, hurriedly tried and hanged. Tsar showed no mercy to the unfortunate hot bloods. The failed coup leader’s brother vowed revenge; his name was Vladimir Ulyanov. Years later, when he returned to Russia from exile to lead the communist revolution, he was better known as Lenin. Tsar’s successor was to pay dearly for the cruelty of his father when Tsar Nicholas and most of his family were butchered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Tolstoy was well aware of the miserable conditions of the poor. The famine of 1892 had claimed thousands of lives. Tolstoy participated tirelessly in providing famine relief; he established hundreds of kitchens feeding almost 13000 people daily, and raised more than half a million dollars from the USA and England. At that stage, the master writer had been transformed into a dissident. There was widespread discontent about the slow response of the government to famine ownership. Seizing the opportunity, Tolstoy launched a devastating assault on the Tsarist regime, aristocracy and the wickedness of land. Years before the Bolshovick Revolution, this is what he prophetically wrote in What then must we do: “The hatred and contempt of the masses are increasing and the physical and moral forces of the wealthy are weakening; the deception on which everything depends is wearing out…To return to the old ways is not possible; only one thing is left for those who do not wish to change their way of life and that is to hope that things will last my time…That is what the blind crowd of rich are doing but the danger is ever growing and the terrible catastrophe draws near.” His warning was brushed aside.
The Tsarist regime was in a quandary: Tolstoy had become a menace but had always been seen as part of aristocracy too. He still had powerful friends and relatives at court. What was to be done with him? The authorities tried to deal with him in a gentle way. Some of his works were censored, others banned. His disciple Chertkov who oversaw the publication of his works was sent into exile. His school at Yasnaya Polyana for peasant children was raided by police. Undeterred, Tolstoy continued his onslaught against political oppression and aristocracy. But by then, he also had another target: the Orthodox Church.
Tolstoy dared to attack the traditional church doctrines of holy trinity, Christ’s ascension, the miracles of the gospels and saints as well as theology of grace; he called these teachings real blasphemy. The church reacted the way it always has: he was excommunicated. Tolstoy had in the meantime, turned in to a holy man. Gone were his aristocratic ways: he quit smoking and drinking, preached manual labor, started making his own shoes and insisted upon simple living. His later writings reflect a deep conviction that the real peace lies in simple life.
Around that time, an Indian lawyer working in Transvaal, South Africa was starting his own struggle against apartheid; he wrote to Tolstoy asking for advice. Tolstoy suggested passive resistance. The young man, took this lesson by heart and carried it with him to colonial India. Years later, he was to make his name as Gandhi.
A few years before death, Tolstoy visited Crimea with his family. While there, he was visited by Chekov (the renowned author was then dying of TB) and Maxine Gorky. Much older, Tolstoy was held in awe by the two young writers. Gorky has left an amusing account of their conversation: without any premeditation, Tolstoy suddenly asked Chekov, “How many women have you fucked so far?” Unprepared, Chekov mumbled something. With a mischievous smile, the old master then confessed: “I was myself an indefatigable fucker in my youth.”
Tolstoy did have a dark side to him: he had had numerous sexual liaisons; one of his illegitimate children worked as a coachman for his son; he could also be intensely jealous and carried the seeds of self-destruction; this unfortunate trait destroyed a genius like Pushkin (who tragically lost his life in a senseless duel at thirty seven), Mozart (a reckless spender and always in debt), Manto, and Majaz (both were alcoholics). Tolstoy could also be impulsive and eccentric: he insisted that Sofia deliver their children on the same sofa where he himself had opened his eyes. He recklessly signed away the copyrights to many of his publication. His wife being a shrewd business woman resented that. Sofia also disagreed with his anti-Tsar work but was unable to rein him in. As a result, the domestic life for the prophet of peace became an ordeal. Things came to a head when in a fit of anger, Tolstoy slipped away from home at night. He wanted to move away from all the pain, hatred and miserable life at Yasnaya Polyana. After a couple of days on the road and having travelled in an unheated train compartment, the eighty-two-year old Tolstoy developed pneumonia and died at the Astapavo train station. His last words before slipping into delirium were: “always keep searching.”
Ignoring the ex-communication from the church, his admirers came in thousand as the beloved writer was lowered into grave. “The huge crowd was full of reverence,” writes his biographer, A.N. Wilson. “They defied their priests by singing the ancient Russian funeral hymns. When his coffin passed, many fell to their knees. It was one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of public sympathy in the history of the world. No novelist has ever been given such a funeral, but it was not for his novels that they honored him. It was for the deeds which now seem to us half mad and quixotic; it was for those volumes of his work which most readers now leave unread.”
Tolstoy had once financed the emigration of some poor Russian peasants to Canada. On their arrival in Canada, they were greeted by a local delegate who said: “I do not know the name of your Emperor, but the name of your patron and friend, Count Tolstoy, is as well known in Canada as in Russia, and I hope that one of the boys now listening to me, fifty years hence, will fill, like him, with honor to his country, the literary throne of the world.”
Count Tolstoy’s legacy has endured the test of time. Even today, multiple volumes of his work are available in this writer’s hometown library and bookstore in rural Pennsylvania. Just two years ago, a movie based on his last days was nominated for Oscar. What more can a writer wish for?
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at asifjaved@comcast .net )