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Leo Tolstoy, The Godfather of Non-Violent Resistance

R. William Attwood By R. William Attwood Published on August 25, 2017

It’s old-fashioned to talk about Great Writers, and the label brings to mind a list of names which skews white, male, European and dead. All the same, it doesn’t seem right to refer to Leo Tolstoy as just a ‘writer.’

His literary achievement needs little introduction. The epic War and Peace, together with the domestic tragedy Anna Karenina, are cornerstones of Russian literature and of the Western canon. Few novels have been so widely read, admired, imitated and adapted, and few twentieth-century novelists are untouched by their influence. Russian writers are forced to wrestle with Tolstoy’s legacy the way English-speaking writers must wrestle with Shakespeare’s. Isaac Babel, whose Red Cavalry is another of Russia’s literary treasures, expresses the awe, envy and helplessness of a writer confronted with Tolstoy’s work: ‘if life itself could write, it would write like Tolstoy.’

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What makes Tolstoy a uniquely important writer, however, is that his influence extends far beyond the field of literature. After a profound spiritual crisis in middle age, Tolstoy began to publish passionate polemics on the subjects of Christian faith, anarchist politics and pacifism which came to the attention of a young anti-colonial activist named Mohandas Gandhi. The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy’s treatise on non-violence, shaped the strategy of non-violent resistance which helped Gandhi lead India to independence, and which in turn influenced figures as significant as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.

September 9th will be Leo Tolstoy’s 189th birthday. We live in a world he helped to shape for the better, and the passion and power of his political writing still has much to teach us—now, perhaps, more than ever.

In his early life Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy gave little sign of being a spiritual leader in the making. Born to a wealthy noble family, Tolstoy cultivated the aristocratic virtues of expenditure and daring. He preferred drinking, duelling and gambling to academic study, and his tutors at Kazan University reported that he was ‘both unable and unwilling to learn.’ Unsurprisingly, he left without taking a degree and returned to his family’s estates at Yasnaya Polyana.

Here he showed the first stirrings of interest in politics, albeit of a very aristocratic kind, when he announced his determination to be a model farmer, a ‘father’ to his serfs—which lofty ambition quickly collapsed under the pressure of his social calendar.

A more significant signpost to Tolstoy’s future lies in the Diaries he began to keep at this time. They reveal a talent for self-scrutiny and a growing capacity for self-discipline. In this entry from 1851—when he was twenty-three—Tolstoy reprimands himself for the day’s failings:

“Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness).”

This new self-discipline bore fruit in the form of Tolstoy’s first published writing, a story called Childhood, written after he had once more abandoned the family estates, this time for military training in the Caucasus. Once his writing routine was established, not even the Crimean War was permitted to interfere with it. In the thick of the long and bloody defence of Sevastopol Tolstoy managed to write a sequel to Childhood, entitled Boyhood, and the Sevastopol Sketches, which show for the first time a troubled fascination with war and violence.

When he returned to Russia Tolstoy was a burdened man. Although highly in demand as a war hero and society author, he was disgusted by the life of a celebrity. Declaring himself an ‘anarchist,’ he decamped to Paris, where he immersed himself in his old lifestyle: drinking, fighting and running up huge gambling debts. In the midst of this debauchery, however, he witnessed a public execution, which seems to have had a lasting effect on him. Decades later, in A Confession, he would describe how the experience changed him:

When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box, I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of the rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act.

He was particularly appalled that this spectacle of violence should be state-sanctioned. He declared in a letter to a friend that ‘henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.’

He left Paris under the shadow of his gambling debts, but when he returned to Europe two years later the other side of Tolstoy’s personality had reasserted itself, and he began a process of diligent self-education. He met Victor Hugo, echoes of whose Les Misérables can be discerned in the battle sequences of War and Peace, and the anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was about to publish a treatise entitled La guerre et la paix—that is, ‘War and Peace.’ When he returned to Russia in 1862, Tolstoy was ready to begin work on his great novel.

War and Peace relates the story of Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars. Its cast of characters numbers nearly six hundred, and includes Napoleon himself, but its central focus is on the younger members of three aristocratic Russian families. One of these central characters is Pierre Bezukhov, a young count who begins the novel drunkenly strapping a policeman to the back of a bear. When he is captured by the French army, Pierre witnesses the execution of fellow prisoners and undergoes a perilous forced march through the Russian winter. He emerges spiritually transformed.

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Pierre is to some extent an authorial self-portrait, but when he created Count Bezukhov, Tolstoy’s own spiritual transformation had only just begun. The writing of War and Peace had taken most of the 1860s, and Tolstoy would spend the 1870s working on Anna Karenina. It was not until 1879, when he was fifty-one, that Tolstoy first addressed his own beliefs in print. A Confession is a short, brutally self-critical autobiography which stands alongside Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and the writings of Nietzsche as an account of that profound moment at the end of the nineteenth century when a general belief in Reason and Progress succumbed to nihilism. The celebrated author looks at his life and finds it meaningless. Remembering his misspent youth fills him with ‘horror, loathing, and heartrending pain.’ His writing he dismisses as a ‘trivial endeavour’ (which can’t be easy for other novelists to hear), motivated by ‘vanity, self-interest, and pride.’ So meaningless and empty does his life seem to him that he begins obsessively to contemplate suicide. 

I described my spiritual condition to myself in this way: my life is some kind of stupid and evil practical joke that someone is playing on me.

Watching the way his serfs live, however, Tolstoy experiences a revelation. It is not life in general which is stupid and evil, but only his own privileged and self-indulgent life. He and others of his class are ‘parasites,’ and it is small wonder that they must suffer pangs of conscience, unless they are wilfully blind to the reality of their situation. Working people, by contrast, endure hardship and suffering, but not bad conscience. They feel their lives to be well lived, and therefore have no trouble affirming that life in general is worthwhile.

Tolstoy was certainly not the first aristocrat to find solace in a romantic valorisation of working-class life. But unlike most of his predecessors, he attempted to put his money where his mouth was. Tolstoy’s decision to give up his wealth was fiercely and understandably contested by his wife Sonya. Their previously happy marriage was strained to breaking point, and Tolstoy backed down. He retained much of his inherited wealth, and rather than renounce altogether his copyright over his published work, he assigned it to Sonya. Nevertheless, Tolstoy gradually gave up the trappings of aristocracy. He began to eat simple meals and dress in work clothes. He spent more and more time labouring in the fields alongside his serfs.

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Tolstoy continued to write fiction—The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a short masterpiece, imagines the existential crisis of A Confession happening to a character on his deathbed, when it is already too late to change his life—but from this point forward, Tolstoy’s writing was directed primarily towards developing and disseminating his spiritual and political beliefs.

The centre of Tolstoy’s creed was pacifism. Drawing on his experiences of war and his memory of the brutal execution he witnessed in Paris, Tolstoy asserted that no ideology, no crime, and no greater good can justify a violent act. Pacifism leads him inexorably to anarchism: since the State is, in Tolstoy’s experience, intrinsically violent, nothing justifies submissive service to the State.

This spiritual-political platform finds its pithiest expression in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy’s blistering defence of non-resistance as the essence of a righteous political life.

Starting with the unambiguous teaching of Jesus—‘render good for evil’—Tolstoy proceeds to declare the Russian Orthodox Church, the Christian Church in general, the Russian state and finally the entire global political system an unsustainable hypocrisy:

“That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organization were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organization, while those who suffer from it – and they are ten times as numerous – think and say quite the contrary.”

It was The Kingdom of God Is Within You that left an ‘abiding impression’ on a young Mohandas Gandhi. In his Autobiography, Gandhi recalls being ‘overwhelmed’ by the clarity and fierceness of Tolstoy’s thinking. The two men began a correspondence which altered the course of global history.

Gandhi, of course, would go on to lead India’s independence movement, and the strategy he adopted would test the real-world effectiveness of Tolstoy’s ideas. In the end Gandhi proved that non-violent resistance, could, as Tolstoy had believed, challenge an unjust order and even overthrow it. Gandhi’s success would in turn inspire Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. to adopt a strategy of non-violence in his own struggle against an unjust system. Throughout the twentieth century and all over the world, non-violent resistance has time and again proven able to dismantle political oppression.

Tolstoy did not invent non-violent resistance, nor did he claim to have done, but he used his genius as a writer and his worldwide fame to promote it. Gandhi called him ‘the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.’

Tolstoy would not live to see this fruition of his ideas. He publically supported another anti-colonial movement, China’s Boxer Rebellion, and campaigned against the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. He exerted his influence to end the persecution in Russia of a pacifist sect called the Doukhobors and he advocated for the abolition of private property. When he was 82, Tolstoy finally decided that he must leave his family in order to complete his renunciation of the aristocratic life. His health had been deteriorating, and he may have known that he didn’t have much time to achieve this long-held goal.

He left suddenly, without telling his wife, who still did not share his beliefs. Accompanied by his daughter he travelled by train. At Astapovo, a day’s journey south of his home, he fell ill and was taken to the station master’s house, where he died.

Few writers achieve the literary fame that Tolstoy achieved in his lifetime. Fewer still use that fame, and the talent that created it, to take the side of the weak against the strong, the powerless against the powerful-and-heavily-armed. More remarkable still is that Tolstoy, the possessor of vast estates and dependent serfs, had nothing to gain by his actions except a less troubled conscience. Nearly two hundred years after his birth, in our own era of political plutocrats and mounting global injustice, Tolstoy’s work remains a vital source of courage, inspiration and strength.


I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.


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