I bought a copy of Tolstoy’s novel: War and Peace, many years ago now, and gave it pride of place on my bookshelf. I moved home quite a bit during that period in my life, but the novel always came with me, along with the firm intention to read it, cover to cover. I knew of Tolstoy’s reputation as a literary giant so I felt compelled to explore his work. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, my reading preferences shifted and changed and so consequently I never got to read the novel and fairly soon after that it disappeared from my collection, without trace.
….Much later I discovered another Tolstoy – not the aristocratic, worldly novelist who indulged himself in everything that high society could offer; but a Tolstoy of simplicity, intensely focused on pursuing a spiritually inspired life. And this time around I did read his work…An early example was an essay entitled: “ What Is Art? “
Here Tolstoy denounced all the work he had created up to the time of his spiritual awakening. He had come to believe that art should be a vehicle for positive, moral change that filters through to improve everyone’s life, from the nobility to the peasantry – without exception. By this measurement he dismissed most of his earlier work as “ aristocratic art “, written for self – seeking, elitist motives that excluded so many from readership.
After the novel Anna Karenina his writing increasingly focused on spiritual matters. He became intensely preoccupied with reading the Gospels and felt deeply that they should inform his entire life. The Sermon on the Mount, in particular, he felt to be morally indisputable and therefore a rich source of spiritual inspiration that could provide him with a practical yardstick for his personal behaviour and conduct. However, when it came to the other orthodox, Christian teachings he took a very different, radical stance. He had difficulties with accepting the incarnation, the resurrection, and the miracles ( as performed by Christ and the succession of saints that followed ). He also had difficulties with the idea of parousia ( the second coming ).This eventually led to him being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.
But Tolstoy still persisted in his work of studying, probing and clarifying what the life of Christ and his teachings meant; reflecting on their significance, their importance, and how they could be brought firmly into his life. This intellectual and spiritual enquiry led him into a strikingly, new landscape of life that found pragmatic expression in the following areas:
FREEDOM FOR THE PEOPLE: THE CASE FOR POLITICAL EMANCIPATION.
The physical, educational and spiritual well-being of Russian peasants had come to concern many theologians, liberals and radicals. Under Tsarist rule these serfs were often ruthlessly oppressed which led to an increasing number of enlightened people, from all ranks of Russian society ( including Count Leo Nikolayvich Tolstoy himself, who claimed, with some justification, to have more noble blood than the Tsars ) coming around to the idea of political emancipation. Tolstoy not only wrote about this issue, he also actively supported it in any way he practically could. He knew within his heart that a new, libertarian Russia, entering the twentieth century, could no longer be able to hold back a vast population of people from participating in the political structures of their society simply because they were born into a particular class. The shackles of autocratic rule, that had held back the peasant population in Russia for centuries, would have to be removed…..
He had read Rousseau and was impressed by his enlightened views on how a new social order, that embraced equality, could be achieved through educational means. He soon started a school ( there had been an earlier attempt ) at Yasnaya Polyana ( his accessorial home ) for a group of peasant children. He had a strong resolve to make it succeed this time around and so employed a number of teachers for the work. Later, he left Russia to embark on a fact finding mission to Germany, France and England to study progressive, educational ideas and practices that could be utilized back home.
Many persecuted groups in Russia, that were suffering under Tsarist autocracy, found moral and financial support from Tolstoy. An interesting example is that of the Doukhobors ( Spirit wrestlers ) who still exist today in some parts of Canada where they fled and finally settled from the harsh discriminations of Tsarist rule. The Doukhobors were a religious sect, similar to the Quakers in some ways, who embraced pacifism. Most members were illiterate, and proudly so, because they thought the best way to engage spiritually with the message of Christ was through the cultivation and expression of inner experiences and states – the ‘ living Gospel ‘, rather that through the study of dry and rigid theological texts. When Tolstoy heard that he was being considered for the first ever Nobel Prize for Literature he stated that the prize money should go to the Doukhobors, to help finance their passage to Canada. But unfortunately, in the end, the prize went to another writer. However, Tolstoy still managed to raise money for the Doukhobor’s cause by selling the serial rights of his novel, Resurrection
SPIRITUAL SIMPLICITY: THE INNER STRUGGLE
Tolstoy had fought, as a young officer, in the Crimean War. He was then, a fierce patriot and supporter of Russian imperialism and entered the war in a positive, buoyant mood ready and willing to fight to the death. He distinguished himself for bravery at the Battle of Sevastopol but soon after contradictory tensions arose within him. In a number of written pieces for magazines he started to portray war negatively and challenged the romantic ideas of the war hero. Increasingly he came to see human life differently, as something quite sacred and precious that no one has the right to take away. The dawning of his pacifism had come…
Tolstoy, as a young man, enjoyed all the human vices that came his way: women, gambling, drinking and hunting. Indeed his passions were so alive to these aspects of life that he never missed out on any real opportunity to pursue them with ruthless endeavour. But this wasn’t to last as he slowly turned his life around to follow a spiritual path that led him to renounce his former ways.
In his middle years Tolstoy gradually started to engage more deeply with a life of spiritual simplicity. He quite regularly sought out the company of peasants and indeed tried to follow some of their simple ways, including their style of dress. His days of aristocratic living were over and this caused great tension for his wife and some of his children, who thought that the great man, born of noble birth, should not be associating so closely with common serfs. Many arguments ensued over this issue but Tolstoy remained resolute. He had come to enjoy and appreciate the company of peasants, as he worked along side them, often undertaking hard physical labour.
THE GROWTH OF A LEGEND
Tolstoy’s reputation grew steadily over the years to such an extent that he attained the status of a modern day prophet who was revered and respected, by so many admirers, around the world.
A young Indian by the name of Mohandas Gandhi had read Tolstoy’s book: “ The Kingdom of God is Within You “ and was immediately struck by its powerful and cogent arguments. Gandhi had developed a deep respect and regard for Tolstoy, and the work that he was doing, so when he set up a spiritual community / settlement in South Africa he didn’t hesitate to name it Tolstoy Farm after the old seer. Tolstoy’s thoughts and ideas continued to filter through and influence Gandhi, even when he returned to India.
In other countries too, including here in England, his influence as a spiritual sage had spread, and many communities were established based on his spiritual teachings. Tolstoy had become, without question, a legend in his own lifetime ( a fate that very few mortals really achieve ) and he was very much aware of this reality.
THE END OF A FRUITFUL LIFE
Tolstoy may have had a reputation as a sage, but he was no saint. He had a dreadful temper – he once challenged Turgenev to a duel. And he could be accused, with some justification, to being vain, arrogant, impatient and temperamental at times. The long standing, corrosive relationship he had with his wife is well documented in the journals and dairies they both kept. The seer of peace and love, who preached compassion and forgiveness, was engaged in the perpetuation of a domestic hell that carried on right up to his eventual death.
Tolstoy died in a lonely railway station after fleeing from his home. It was a sad and unfitting ending for man of Tolstoy’s statue. Maxim Gorky said:“ It was a blow to the heart. I wept from pain and grief….I saw how much of life that man embraced, how superhumanly wise he was.”
The local priest was instructed, by his superiors, not to conduct any form of ceremonial service for Tolstoy ( such was their fear and resentment of him, even in death ) but it didn’t matter. When the serfs, from all the neighbouring villages, gathered around to pay their last respects, they started to sing, with full heart and committed passion, the funeral hymn: Eternal Memory. Such was their deeply felt love for him. And I cannot help but think that the great man of the people, who had reached out to touch so many lives, would have considered that a most fitting and beautiful ending……