Some Thoughts On Tolstoy

At 4am on October 28, 1910, Tolstoy slipped out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana, took a carriage to a nearby station, bought a third-class ticket, and jumped on a train heading for a town nearest to the monastery known as Optina Pustyn.  At the age of 82, with just 10 days to live, Tolstoy was renouncing everything–his wife, his children, his family home in which he had lived for nearly 50 years, and his literary career.  He was seeking refuge in a monastery.  He had felt the urge to flee many times before.  Since the 1880s he had got into the habit of setting out at night to walk with the pilgrims on the Kiev road that passed by his estate–often not returning until breakfeast time.

Such begins a description of Tolstoy’s last days.  This man was a giant of literature, a symbol of so much of what it means to be Russian, a spiritual seeker, a moral reformer, indeed a revolutionary, and also an amazingly complex and conflicted human being.  During the Stalin era, the darkest period of Russian history, Communist Party officials called Tolstoy’s work “counter-revolutionary.”  But Stalin refused to suppress it.  Tolstoy’s country home was turned into a state shrine and in a pamphlet the great Russian writer Gorky reminds the visitor:  “Tolstoy is a profoundly national writer who with astounding fullness embodies in his soul all the peculiarities of the complex Russian psyche: he has the turbulent mischief of Vaska Buslayev and the gentle thoughtfulness of the chronicler Nestor; he burns with the fanaticism of Avvakum; he is a sceptic like Chaadayev, no less of a poet than Pushkin and as clever as Herzen–Tolstoy is a whole world”

Tolstoy fathered at least 13 children–we say “at least” because in his younger days and even in middle-age he seduced a number of peasant girls.  He was not exactly a model of sexual self-control.  That’s why so many people find it hard to take him seriously when in his 60s he becomes an advocate of celibacy and sexual abstinence! And his wife claimed that even then he did not live up to his ideals!   And this was meant for the general populace if they wanted to live a religious life according to Tolstoy.

On Feb.24, 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church–a rare thing to achieve!  After 20 years of excoriating the Orthodox Church AND the Tsar and pretty much rejecting most of Church doctrine, he finally went “over the brink” with his novel, Resurrection. It was an all-out religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state–the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy, of which he was a member. It was by far the most popular of his novels in his own time. You would think, though,  that in a society where the Church played such an enormous role, such a condemnation would be the end of him.  Hardly.  On the day that the edict was pronounced, the Government forbade any mention of Tolstoy in the press.  But crowds gathered around a painting of him in a St. Petersburg gallery.  People adorned it with flowers.  It had become an icon!   He did get death threats from reactionaries and Orthodox fanatics and the Bishop of Kronstadt even wrote a prayer for his death which was circulated in the right-wing press.  Yet for every threatening message, Tolstoy received a hundred letters of support from villages across the country.  They thanked him for his condemnation of the Tsar in his famous article, “I Cannot Remain Silent,” written in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre which sparked the revolution of 1905.

Excommunication did have some consequences.  Because he never did reconcile with the Church, even though he had visited Optina  and the holy staretz there, he was denied a Christian burial.  However, as one biographer put it:  “But if the Church refused to say a mass for the dead man, the people said one for him in another way.  Despite the attempts of the police to stop them, thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favorite childhood spot…  As Tolstoy’s coffin was lowered into the ground, the mourners started singing an ancient Russian chant, and someone shouted, in defiance of the police who had been instructed to impose the Church’s excommunication of the writer to the end, “On your knees! Take off your hats!”  Everyone obeyed the Christian ritual and, hesitating for a moment, the police kneeled down too and removed their caps.”

Tolstoy in his own words:

“Life is the minute by minute living of it, that’s all isn’t it?  And loving all things.”

“I stumbled this way and that way looking for this or that secret of life, little did I know that I’d find it through suffering.”

Very Russian!! (But the Greek tragedians knew this long ago!)

About 1880 he wrote a little tract called What Then Shall We Do?.  Its recommendations are anarchist and pacifist.  He advocates the abolition of every aspect of modern society and a return to communal subsistence farming.  He sees the way to his utopia in passive resistance to draft boards, tax collectors and all the blandishments of modern civilization.

Tolstoy made several pilgrimages to the Optina Monastery.  On June 10, 1881, he set off with an old peasant coat, bark shoes and a staff in his hand.  Being unused to walking such long distances and having home-made shoes which were quite inadequate for  the journey, he arrived covered in blisters.  The return journey was done by train!  In general, Tolstoy was very attracted to monasteries.  One of his sisters was a nun and he loved visiting her.  One time he said that he would love to live in a monastery, carrying out the most humble and difficult tasks, as long as they didn’t compel him to go to church!  What’s striking about this is that most people find the Orthodox liturgy so beautiful and so attractive–it is this which draws them to Orthodoxy, but Tolstoy’s heart was elsewhere.

One commentator put it this way:  “Tolstoy had a mystical approach to God.  He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer.  For Tolstoy, prayer is a moment of awareness of divinity, a moment of ecstasy and freedom, when the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.  Not a few Orthodox theologians have compared Tolstoy’s religion to Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  But in fact his mystical approach had more in common with the hermits’ way of prayer at Optina.  Tolstoy’s division from the Russian Church, however, was a fundamental one, and not even Optina could satisfy his spiritual requirements.  Tolstoy came to reject the doctines of the Church…and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being.  His was a form of Christianity that could not be contained by any Church.  It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues–of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression….  Here was the religious basis of Tolstoy’s moral crisis and renunciation of society from the end  of the 1870s.  Increasingly persuaded that the truly Christian person had to live as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy vowed to sell his property, to give away his money to the poor, and to live with them in Christian brotherhood.  Essentially his beliefs amounted to a kind of Christian socialism–or rather anarchism, insofar as he rejected all forms of Church and state authority.”

But, alas, Tolstoy never really did divest himself totally of his possessions–unless you count those last days of his life.  He was a truly wealthy man–all of it inherited–huge estates with numerous peasant villages on them.  From his writings he got a good income so he could live off that, but what to do with all his family wealth?  Here, as elsewhere, he was truly conflicted.  He sincerely yearned to be “one with the peasants,” but somehow he never went the whole way as it were.  He thought that they held the secret of life and a special closeness to God–certainly it was not the aristocracy whom he knew quite well.  He also used his wealth to support a number of religious and reforming groups and movements.  Gandhi, for example,  got a good amount from him when he was starting to build his ashram in South Africa–he corresponded with Gandhi and they became good friends irregardless of their great differences.  Certainly Tolstoy was not like the fictional character Lady Marchmain  in Brideshead Revisited, who is one of the richest women in England and a devout Catholic but quite smug in her religion and in her wealth.  According to Lady Marchmain, the rich have this special burden and calling to not envy the privileged position of the poor in the Gospel.  Hey, it’s tough taking a back seat to the poor in the Kingdom of Heaven–tough job but somebody has to do it!!  No, Tolstoy was far from that–there was no smugness in him but only anxiety and anguish over his belongings, over celibacy, over the mystery of just living life.  One is also reminded of well-to-do people today who dabble in spirituality.  How much of this has any reality, only God knows!  But there are all these workshops, retreats, “experiences,” etc.–all costing a goodly sum–but hardly any life is disturbed out of its somnabulistic state, more likely made to feel ok with its privileged position in our society compared to the billions who live in misery in our world.  At least Tolstoy was not like that.

In A Confession, Tolstoy attempts to give an account of his life up to about 1879.  It is the story of a thoughtless sensualist, who had put all thoughts of God, the meaning of life, soul or goodness aside.  He had pursued first, as a young soldier, the sins of the flesh, and the cruel pleasures of war.  Then, as a literary man, he had pursued fame and money, and had enjoyed the didactic role thrust upon the Russian writer, even though he had nothing to teach.  Then he had got married and become wholly absorbed in his family.  He had, however, been haunted by a terrible sense of the pointlessness of existence in upper-class society.  He had known both the anguish of ennui so profound that he had often been tempted to commit suicide.  He had turned this way and that for a solution to the questions Who am I? and What is the point of living?  Finally, he had discovered that while the pampered intelligentsia and aristocracy were leading lives which were indeed pointless, and which led only to despair, there was a huge category of persons who had faith, who were able to live and who did know life’s secret.  These were the peasants.  Although he could not accept their church–and maybe his pride and lack of humility was still an obstacle there–but he did find some semblance of peace as he resolved to live the Sermon on the Mount.

One of Tolstoy’s lesser known stories is Father Sergius.  Sergius is a famous staretz.  In his youth he had been a nobly born army officer, who abandoned his fiancee when he discovered that she had been the mistress of the Emperor.  Sergius does not merely become a monk, he becomes a famed master of the spiritual life, who eventually leaves his monastery to become a hermit.  The first powerful moment of sexual temptation in the story occurs when he is 49 years old.  A passing group of frivolous rich people see if they can get the hermit seduced by a member of their party.  When this beautiful girl “makes her move,” he is so tempted by her that the only means by which he can resist is through the infliction of physical torment on himself, and so he takes an axe and cuts off a finger from his left hand.  She is so impressed by this demonstration that she herself is converted and becomes a nun.  Well, the story does not stop at this conventional point.  Sergius is not really a saint.  He became a monk because he was jealous and hurt, not because his heart loved God.  And he recognizes that the spiritual reputation he now has, although not really faked by him, is not truly real either.  Then one day he is visited by a merchant whose daughter had a nervous disorder–her father brought her hoping for a cure.  When they are alone, she tells Father Sergius that she has had erotic dreams about him, and it is only a matter of minutes before she embraces him.  He wanders out of his cell, a completely disillusioned man; disillusioned, that is, with his own self-image.  After a spell of wandering, he comes upon his former fiancee, now an old babushka and very poor.  He realizes that his renunciation of her has been priggish and ultimately ungodly.  It is she who must bless him, and not the other way around.  After this, he becomes a wandering pilgrim, and little by little God starts to reveal Himself to him.  The real meaning of holiness and life is finally discovered by him.

Tolstoy greatly influenced a number of significant figures in the 20th Century–like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of lesser known people who would lead resistance to war and injustice all over the world.  Typically Tolstoyean, this is not a simple story either–he also was an influence on such figures as that young man who went out into the Alaskan wilderness a few years ago and ended up starving to death.  The rhetoric of Tolstoy’s zealousness needs careful discernment.

Eight years after Tolstoy died, his wife remarked:  “I lived with Lev Nikolayevich for 48 years, but I never really learned what kind of man he was.”  This may be said even more of his many critics and admirers.  But at the very least we can say that Lev Tolstoy was “totally Russian”!

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