Leo Tolstoy: the mighty conscience of Russia


Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in the Yasnaya Polyana family estate, not far from the city of Tula, south of Moscow, on September 9th, 1828. Tolstoy’s parents died, when he was young, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives.

In 1840, they moved to the city of Kazan. As a youth, Tolstoy strived hard to become conspicuous in society, “comme it faut”, as it would be termed at the time, but the native shyness and a “lack of outward attractiveness”, as he put it, hindered him from being a man of the world. At about that time, various “philosophizings” over the fundamental questions of human existence started tormenting him. Those questions had to do with such notions as happiness, death, God, love, eternity, etc. This eventually resulted in a habit of a continuous soul searching.

In 1844, Tolstoy entered Kazan University, having displayed a perfect knowledge of the Turkish-Tartar language at a preliminary examination. It should also be noted that during his years at university he and his elder brother became god-fathers of two Jewish youths who had adopted Christianity.

Also in those years, Tolstoy, imitating Benjamin Franklin, started to keep a diary. In it, he set himself goals and rules of self-improving, and assessed his achievements and failures. In doing so, he analyzed his drawbacks and the train of thought, and also the motives of his actions. However, Tolstoy’s university classes did not get going. Education imposed by others had always been difficult for him, and whatever he learned in his life, he did it by himself.

In 1847, he returned to Yasnaya Polyana, where he concentrated on reading Montesquieu, Rousseau, and other French enlighteners, with whom he had been carried away at the university. He also studied English, jurisprudence, and music. Tolstoy learned to play the piano rather well, and even composed some pieces of music. Chopin was his favourite composer.

Besides, Tolstoy tried to establish anew his relations with peasants and somewhat expiate a centuries-old guilt of nobility before common people. In particular, he opened a school for peasant children, where he himself would often teach.

While staying in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy, however, would frequently turn up in Moscow and St.-Petersburg, where he spent time in worldly amusements. In the process, he could not escape a passion for card games, as a result of which he incurred many debts. In 1851, at the insistence of his elder brother, who was also a friend and advisor to him, he went to the Caucasus. There, in a remote Cossack village, his literary work began.

Apparently, influenced by Hegel’s philosophy, Tolstoy was initially planning to write a tetralogy, “The four epochs of development”, out of which eventually a trilogy came out, “Childhood. Adolescence. Youth” (the last part, “Early Manhood,” was rejected as running counter to the idea of development). Having sent the manuscript of “The Childhood” to the literary journal “Sovremennik” (The Contemporary), Tolstoy received support from the journal’s editor, poet Nikolay Nekrasov. Printed in the journal, the narrative enjoyed tremendous success among readers.

In 1854–1855, Tolstoy took part in the Crimean War, as a result of which his “Sebastopol Sketches” appeared.

In 1857 Tolstoy’s tours across Europe started. It should be noted that it was not just idle curiosity that he was guided by in those tours. At that time, he was most of all preoccupied with the question: How to fill the gap between a handful of educated people and a huge mass of common folk? He was wondering how the problem of people’s education was tackled in various European countries. It was, in particular, this matter that he dealt with during his stay in France and Germany. When in Brussels, he met with one of the founders of anarchism P.-J. Proudhon, and in London, with a Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen. Many of Tolstoy’s subsequent works were written under the impression of his tours and meetings in Europe.

Tolstoy returned to Russia in 1861, already after the emancipation of the serfs. He engaged himself with renewed vigour in the organization of schools – not only in his estate, but also all over the neighbourhood. Tolstoy opposed excessive regulation of the classes. In his view, everything in teaching should be done on an individual basis, with regard to the personalities of the teacher and pupil, and their mutual relationship. In the Yasnaya Polyana school, each pupil would sit where he or she liked, as long as he or she liked, and the way he or she liked. However, the classes were proceeding well.

In 1862 Tolstoy married. In this period of his life he created his most famous novels, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. Also, he finished his short novel “The Cossacks” which he had started writing in the Caucasus. Tolstoy was happy in his family life and reached the zenith of his fame, as a writer.

At about that time, however, a feeling of the senselessness of life and the dread of death started to haunt Tolstoy. The questions that had tormented him in his youth now recurred to him with renewed vigour, demanding from him a speedy answer. His desperation reached such a point that, he, as one of his characters put it, “had to hide a rope for fear of hanging himself and refrain from carrying a gun lest he shoot himself”. It looked as though his own life was becoming the last part of the tetralogy he had once left unfinished.
Art starts to lose for Tolstoy the meaning as the absolute value. “Very well, you are going to be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere, all the writers in the world. What of that?”, – reflects he. So, Tolstoy was trying to find answers to those questions in science, philosophy, and religion. He perused the latest science books, studied the Ancient Greek and Hebrew languages to familiarize himself with various philosophical and religious teachings in the original. But none of the doctrines available to him could satisfy him. Eventually, he created his own philosophical and religious teaching to be subsequently known as “tolstovstvo”.

Tolstoy’s teaching may seem to represent a branch of philosophical materialism. But, unlike Karl Marx, who relied on wage labourers, Tolstoy, influenced by the Populists (Narodniks), makes his choice in favour of peasantry, the ploughman, breadwinner of the entire human society, custodian of ancient traditions. Like Marx, Tolstoy comes forward for social reconstruction. But this reconstruction, according to Tolstoy, should be implemented non-violently, “from inside”, “from self”, by way of comprehensive self-improvement. So, the Tolstoyan “materialism” turns out to be a certain philosophy of existence, where peasantry appears just as a model of “true life” for the conscious and developing Person. This is well in line with the famous slogan of Christ: “Become like children”.

Accordingly, man’s way of life, in Tolstoy’s view, should be close to that of a peasant. This implies being in a habit of labour and the restriction of one’s requirements. Furthermore, Tolstoy makes a stress on achieving by man of a certain moral standard, which implies striving for justice, love of truth, doing good, and the non-resistance to evil with violence. “Never commit an act which is opposed to love”, – Tolstoy wrote.

Tolstoy’s teaching gained widespread popularity in Russia. It also greatly influenced the ideologist of Indian national liberation movement Mahatma Gandhi. The musician and public figure John Lennon’s world view was also concordant with that of Tolstoy. “Surely, we all want to accomplish a revolution…, – he wrote, – but isn’t it better to start with your elf and try to change the world without resorting to violence”?

Tolstoy valued his achievements in the field of philosophy and religion and rated them much higher than those reached by him in art. When someone for the umpteenth time started showering praise on his literary work, he retorted vexedly: “It’s just like someone would come to Edison and say: I hold you in high respect for your ability to dance the mazurka”.

He was too big a figure to fit into whatever limits and caused annoyance both on the “right”, on the “left”, and in the “middle”. He recognized no authority and would feel free to speak out on all burning issues of his time without fear or favour. As a result, the philosophical materialist Lenin reproached him with “inconsistency”, the government ordered secret surveillance over him, the Russian Orthodox Church put him out of communion, while his wife threatened to send him to a mental hospital for his intention to hand out his property to the poor.

Despite his slogan of “simplification” and ostentatious negligence towards “high art”, Tolstoy had never stopped admiring the latter. Of all the arts, he was most profoundly affected by music. Echoing Beethoven, he believed that music kindled some “inner fire” in the human soul. Tolstoy always tried to find a rationale for music’s impact on man. Here, Schopenhauer’s views seemed to him most remarkable, although he did not think they provided an insight into the true essence of music. Tolstoy was rather inclined to compare music to a dream, and here some similarity to Nietzsche can be noticed (which, most likely, is just outward similarity, though). It was an honour for many outstanding musicians to perform in front of Tolstoy. Those included Nikolas and Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Fyodor Chaliapin. Such a coryphaeus of the Russian piano school as Alexander Goldenweiser was his close friend, who subsequently wrote the book “Close to Tolstoy”.

Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy would tend to “flee” away from the family and, most likely, from the country, so as to start a new life, in accordance with his convictions. During one of those desperate attempts, on the way to a “new life”, while riding the train, he fell ill with pneumonia. Tolstoy died at a small railway station on the 20th of November 1910, when he was 82.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was buried in his estate, on the edge of the ravine, where, as a child, he, together with his brother, would look out for the “green stick” believed to keep the secret of how to make all the people happy.


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