Tolstoy and the Kremlin

ERNEST J. SIMMONS is an authority on Russian writing and a frequent visitor to the U.S.S.R. He did research there before World War II, and his monumental biography of Leo Tolstoy, as well as his fine critical work RUSSIAN FICTION AND SOVIET IDEOLOGY, is the result of working on firsthand sources. He is now completing a biography of Chekhov which promises to be as definitive as his life of Tolstoy.


FIFTY years ago, Leo Tolstoy lay dying in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo, a tiny railroad siding in the center of Russia. One of his children bent down to catch the almost inaudible last words of her aged father: “To seek, always to seek. . . .” Then this articulate voice of the conscience of humanity ceased forever. The press of every country anxiously waited for information concerning the illness of the world’s foremost literary figure. Finally, the flash came: “Tolstoy is dead!” A hush fell over hundreds of thousands of people who had been patiently standing before the news centers throughout the cities and towns of Russia. Young and old removed their hats. Many wept.

Tolstoy’s voice as the conscience of humanity has become a still, small one since 1910, although it resounded loudly once again among a group of distinguished thinkers, writers, and scholars, representing a dozen countries, who gathered recently in an international conference to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the great man’s death. The setting was an austere hall of the ancient Benedictine monastery on the lovely little island of San Giorgio Maggiore, set like a bright jewel in the sun-drenched, shimmering green lagoon directly opposite the fabulous San Marco shore line of Venice. High up on the back wall of the conference room, an enormous canvas of the school of Tintoretto, depicting the mystic marriage of the Virgin, looked down piously on some fifty participants, who for days poured forth a torrent of words in four languages on the art and thought of a man whom the church, in his own day, had denounced as an “anathematized atheist and Drawing by Ilya Repin. anarchist revolutionist” and “an accursed and most disdained Russian Judas.”

The universal deterrence of fear which contributes so profoundly to our anxieties over the state of the world today no doubt focused the thoughts of many of the conference participants on Tolstoy’s conviction that the tendency to replace moral and spiritual progress with technical progress is one of the main calamities of modern life. Indeed, the presence of several eminent Soviet Tolstoyan scholars inevitably resulted in the introduction into the debate of Cold War overtones. Tolstoy’s works are proudly acclaimed by the Soviet Union as being among the greatest in the country’s artistic heritage. Millions of copies have been distributed over the years of Soviet power, and in 1958 the definitive ninetyvolume jubilee edition of his writings was finished — certainly in completeness, textual accuracy, and scholarly annotations the most magnificent monument ever erected to the memory of a famous author. And now 1960 has been designated as the “year of Tolstoy” in the Soviet Union.

There can be no question of the reverence of Soviet people for Tolstoy, but the official position of the Communist Party in regard to him is compounded of praise and that familiar moral shuffling in ideological matters that is at once naive and offensive to all who pursue historical truth. Since Lenin devoted several articles to Tolstoy, Lenin’s position has necessarily established the line which subsequent official Soviet commentators have followed. Although Lenin was much more modest as a literary critic than Stalin, he unhesitatingly placed Tolstoy among the greatest writers of fiction in the world. But he made the sharpest distinction between Tolstoy the artist and Tolstoy the thinker. Lenin called him “the mirror of the Russian revolution” and praised his stubborn struggle against the repressive measures of the regimes of Alexander III and Nicholas II. However, he contemptuously dismissed Tolstoy’s basic doctrine of moral perfectibility and nonresistance to evil, and he blamed him for not realizing that the old order could be destroyed only by a class-conscious proletariat. Finally, he accused Tolstoy of helping to bring about the failure ot the 1905 Revolution because of his quietist influence on the peasantry.

It is safe to assume that Tolstoy, had he lived, would have discerned no essential difference between the authoritarian government of the czars and that of the Kremlin. In fact, he frequently prophesied as much in his writings. Economic ideals, he said, could never be real ideals, and he saw that the mistake of the Marxists and of the whole materialistic school was in believing an economic cause to be at the root of all problems, whereas the life of humanity was really moved by the growth of consciousness and religion. Tolstoy abhorred the violence of revolution, and he declared that “socialists will never destroy poverty and the injustice of the inequality of capacities. The strongest and most intelligent will always make use of the weaker and more stupid. . . . Even if that takes place which Marx predicted, then the only thing that will happen is that despotism will be passed on.” And with surprising prescience, he pointed out a further danger in a Communist revolution. The one sphere of human life which governmental power did not encroach upon — the domestic economic sphere — “thanks to the efforts of socialists and Communists, will be gradually encroached upon, so that labor and recreation, housing, dress, and food (if the hopes of the reformers are fulfilled) will all gradually be prescribed and allotted by the government.”

Soviet critics today either ignore this insight of Tolstoy’s on the future of Communism or else adopt Lenin’s line of differentiating between the virtues of the artist and the faults of the philosopher. Occasionally they also profess to see in the novels an implicit faith in the triumph of a world-wide brotherhood of men, which they hope the reader will identify with the ultimate aims of Communism. To be sure, there is a certain identity in the final aim of a classless and stateless society. As one contemporary revolutionist put it to Tolstoy in his Marxian phraseology: “You use the tactic of love, and we use that of violence.” But it was just this violence which creates violence, the evil-begetting power of evil, that Tolstoy could not tolerate as a substitute for his eternal law — the “tactic of love.”

FOR different reasons, Western critics also tend to make an unfavorable distinction between Tolstoy as the supreme literary artist of War and Peace and Anna Karenina and the Tolstoy who, after his spiritual revelation in 1880, turned his back on art and became the cranky preacher of an uncompromising and impractical moral philosophy, a kind of latter-day prophet, tiresomely warning the world that, if his prescriptions for its social ills were not heeded, the very existence of civilization would be threatened.

However, Tolstoy did not actually turn his back on art after 1880. Many artistic works were still to come from his pen, including such memorable efforts as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Resurrection, Hadji Murad, some of his best plays, and the superb moral tales. It is nonsense to imagine that the great literary artist of before 1880 suddenly transformed himself into a kind of intellectual crackpot once he began to seek the meaning of life. The truth, which had been his hero from the very beginning, remained his hero to the end. All the moral and spiritual searching and the intellectual and artistic direction of his being after 1880 are plainly indicated in his diaries, letters, and writings from his early youth. After his spiritual revelation, however, these factors underwent not a change but a significant development. When Turgenev, on his deathbed, pleaded with Tolstoy to return to the art which had made him, in the much-quoted phrase, the “great author of the Russian land,” he did not understand that for Tolstoy the measure of true greatness was not what we are but what we strive to be in the ceaseless struggle to achieve moral perfection. Nor did Turgenev comprehend that the same magnificent qualities that made Tolstoy’s art immortal — his sincerity and love of truth — were the very qualities that drove him on in his religious and social mission. No, the search had to continue, and in pursuing it Tolstoy won for himself a place among the foremost thinkers in the second half of the nineteenth century.

It is probably true that, if Tolstoy had not first written War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the numerous works that followed on his philosophy of life would never have received the attention they did in his own day. But a major reason for the success of these now forgotten religious, social, and moral tracts, such as What I Believe, What Then Must We Do?, and The Kingdom of God Is Within You, is that they contain much of the rich art and vision of life of the master novelist. For the amazing persuasiveness of these works depends in large measure on Tolstoy’s uncanny matter-of-fact imagination and that quality of his fiction which reveals a natural taste for the elemental universal activities of humanity. The ruthless realism that provided the matchless descriptions of mortal combat in War and Peace is the same realism that conveys the brilliant but grim pictures of life in the flophouses of the Moscow Khitrov Market in What Then Must We Do? And Tolstoy’s agonizing search in Confession, What I Believe, and The Kingdom of God Is Within You for the moral law that will determine the future course of his life is simply an extension of the intense artistic search for the moral laws which guide the lives of the great characters of his novels.

As Sir Isaiah Berlin has pointed out, Tolstoy perceived with extraordinary clarity and penetration the multiplicity of reality, yet he persisted in placing his faith in one vast unitary whole. This led him to search for absolutes in a world of incomplete knowledge and imperfect men. And his inner need to achieve the ultimate in rational explanation often prompted him to push theory to the limits of absurdity, which lie comes very close to doing in his views on history, education, and art. Yet the iconoclastic questions which his theories on these matters attempt to answer are nearly always profound and disturbing and compel the thoughtful reader to re-examine his own premises. This is certainly true of the theories of that undeservedly forgotten book What Is Art? For much of what he had to say in this treatise has a peculiar relevance nowadays, when so many so-called works of art would justify his findings in a very melancholy way.

It is not easy to quarrel with his belief that art is a human activity and, as such, must have a clear purpose and aim, discernible by the aid of reason and conscience. What distinguishes art from its counterfeit is its communication, its infectiousness; and the stronger the infection, the better is the art as art. But the one great quality that makes a work of art truly contagious, he argued, is its sincerity, which contributes most to its becoming a means of union among men. Counterfeit art he excoriated as pandering to the lowest taste, and with startling insight he predicted that it would eventually become the mass art of the future, shamelessly exploited for commercial gain, a hideous menace to human sanity and culture. With that maddening consistency which is as much the hallmark of pride as of humility, he relegated his own great works of fiction up to this point to the category of bad art, because they did not conform to the moral purpose of his new theory. And when an admirer remonstrated with him for not employing his artistic powers to create more novels such as War and Peace, he replied: “Why, you know, that is just like the former admirers of some ancient French whore repeating to her, ‘Oh, how adorably you used to sing chansonettes and flip up your petticoats.’ ”

Soviet critics make much of the identity of their own position with Tolstoy’s insistence that when art ceases to be art for all the people and caters only to the wealthy and educated, it ceases to be necessary and important and becomes an empty amusement. That art should be accessible to all was Tolstoy’s contention, but he also demanded that the artist must be entirely free to “infect” his audience with any feeling whatever; freedom was the core of Tolstoy’s total thinking about the human state of man.

THE European doctrine of natural law, which Tolstoy had become interested in as a young man, is the starting point of the philosophy that he developed in his old age — that is, all man’s moral, aesthetic, and spiritual values are objective and eternal, and his inner harmony depends upon his correct relation to these values. In the 1880s this approach led him to discover in the Gospels that the purpose of life on earth is to serve not our lower, animal nature but the power which our higher nature recognizes its kinship to. There is a power in each of us, declared Tolstoy, which enables us to discern what is good. We are in touch with that power; our reason and conscience flow from it; and the purpose of our conscious life is to do its will — to do good.

Tolstoy based the practical application of this purpose of life on his famous five commandments: Do not be angry; Do not lust; Do not bind yourself by oaths; Resist not him that is evil; Be good to the just and the unjust. And his attempts to observe these commandments drove him into a comprehensive examination of the whole organization of modern society. He proved to his own satisfaction that institutionalized religion amounted to a belief in what one knows to be untrue. The Russian Church replied by excommunicating him. He next attacked all the institutions of government in terms of the five commandments. The result was the theoretical destruction of government: a man who will not submit his will to another, who loves all nations equally, and who will not use coercion or violence against either the just or the unjust — such a man can obviously take no part in war, be patriotic, serve in any capacity in government, or hold property, since force is required to protect it. The Russian government, unwilling to risk international indignation by making a martyr of Tolstoy, contented itself with jailing his followers and forbidding his “treasonable” books and pamphlets to be circulated.

In effect, the task that Tolstoy undertook during the last years of his life was the establishment on earth of the kingdom of God, which for him meant the kingdom of truth and good. He did this by practical example and the advocacy of his writings, for, despite thousands of adherents who set up organizations to carry out his beliefs, he discouraged any church in his name, learned to detest Tolstoyans, and sadly admitted in the end that the spirit of stupidity as well as the spirit of God lived in every man. He did not demand that men be truthful and do good in order to achieve a personal immortality but because this was the fullest expression of their own personalities and the only way that peace and happiness could be achieved on earth. Organized government he deplored as a vast conspiracy against man, designed to exploit his labor, corrupt his soul, and murder him in the violence of war. He admitted that the ends he sought belonged to a distant millennium, but this did not discourage him from devoting all his extraordinary powers to denouncing nearly every aspect of modern society which he considered a violation of the natural rights of man.

It is perhaps ironical that Tolstoy’s beliefs, derived primarily from the teachings of Christianity, as well as from other great religions, have frequently been dismissed as of no consequence precisely by the Christian West. In the East, and especially in India, Tolstoy’s beliefs seem still to be very much alive. Gandhi regarded himself as a humble follower, and his tremendously effective civil disobedience campaign stemmed in large measure from Tolstoy’s teaching. And Sarvodaya, the mass movement today headed by Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Ghandi’s, aims at the creation of a social order based on the Tolstoyan principle of love inspired by nonresistance or nonviolence. Though Tolstoy felt that the Japanese imitation of Western civilization would bring about Japan’s undoing, he prophesied a great future for the people of the Eastern world. In his “Letter to a Chinese” (1906) he wrote, “In our time a great revolution in the life of humanity will be accomplished, and in this revolution China ought to play a tremendous role at the head of the Eastern peoples.”

On the other hand, Western critics ridiculed Tolstoy’s more extreme beliefs. They laughed at the defense of chastity by this father of thirteen children in The Kreutzer Sonata and in the personal Afterword to that celebrated book, and they cynically guessed that the grapes had turned sour for the old man. Even his wife, again fearing pregnancy by her husband of sixty-one, maliciously told visitors that this would be the real Afterword to The Kreutzer Sonata. Yet Tolstoy never believed that people, and least of all himself, could achieve his ideal of perfect chastity. When nearly seventy he frankly told a friend: “I was myself a husband last night, but that is no reason for abandoning the struggle. God may grant me not to be so again.”

Perhaps the doctrine that more than any other damaged his reputation as a thinker was that of nonresistance, which for Tolstoy meant that no physical force must be used to compel any man to do what he does not want to do or to make him desist from doing what he likes. Few visitors to Yasnaya Polyana failed to confront him with the obvious conundrums that arose out of such an extreme position. This was especially true of Americans, whose practical-mindedness and lack of spiritual qualities he criticized, although he was devoted to certain American thinkers and writers, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry George, and he won a number of eager disciples in America. But it was the casual, curious American tourists who annoyed him. “It is just as though they had learned about me in a Baedeker and had come to confirm it,” he once remarked of two of them. William Jennings Bryan, however, he admired as an “intelligent and religious American,” and when the Great Commoner confronted him on the problem of nonresistance with the stock argument, What would he do if he saw a bandit murdering or assaulting a child?, Tolstoy gave his stock answer, that in all his seventy-five years he had never met anywhere this fantastic brigand who would murder or outrage a child before his eyes, whereas in war millions of brigands kill with complete license.

IN REALITY, Tolstoy, though adamant about the theory and the ends of his faith, was anything but dogmatic about the means of achieving them. He realized that the goal he set was often perfection, and though he might be uncompromising about it as a goal, he never expected men to achieve it. Striving for perfection became the end. “We search for mind, powers, goodness, perfection in all this,” he wrote in his diary, “but perfection is not given to man in anything.”

It is perhaps only in this limited sense of his doctrines, this striving through individual effort to achieve a more perfect world, that Tolstoy’s philosophy can have any meaning for us at this time of international chaos. Like many thoughtful people today, he questioned whether human progress could be measured by its technical or scientific achievements or whether modern civilization in general was moving toward the greater good. Progress, he insisted, does not consist of an increase in knowledge or in the material improvement of life. There can be progress only in a greater understanding of the answers to the fundamental questions of life. A popular worship of scientific progress in a society still incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong represented a terrible danger to Tolstoy. “When the life of people is unmoral,” he jotted down in his diary, “and their relations are not based on love, but on egoism, then all technical improvements, the increase of man’s power over nature, steam, electricity, the telegraph, every machine, gunpowder, and dynamite, produce the impression of dangerous toys placed in the hands of children.”

That governments, in their systematic organization of society, might logically strive to achieve righteousness, Tolstoy emphatically denied. When an American newspaper asked him in 1899 to comment on a proposal of the czar for a Summit conference of the great powers at the Hague to consider the question of disarmament in the interests of world peace, he replied: “My answer to your question is that peace can never be achieved by conferences or be decided by people who not only jabber, but who themselves go to war. ... All such conferences can be summed up in a single dictum: All people are sons of God and brothers, and therefore they ought to love and not kill each other. Forgive my sharpness, but all these conferences invoke in me a strong feeling of disgust over the hypocrisy that is so obvious in them.” The only tangible result of the Hague Conference was a series of conventions on the more humane conduct of war, and shortly after its conclusion the English plunged into a bloody struggle with the Boers.

The power that corrupts, Tolstoy asserted, was just as capable of existing in a democracy or a socialist state as in an absolute monarchy. For him, political progress could not be measured in terms of democratic or socialist progress, for he saw in both the hypocrisy behind universal suffrage and the ever-present danger of power. His writings are full of warnings of the inevitability of both democratic and socialist states turning into monstrous dictatorships; of nonmilitary democracies becoming powerful military states; of civilized countries championing fiendish theories of racial superiority; and of all the amazing advances of science being turned into frightful instruments of war to kill millions of people more expeditiously. All this, he foretold, will be achieved in the name of political, social, and scientific progress. And there will be no end of such progress, he warned, as long as humanity continues to worship the law of man as higher than the law of God.

Tolstoyism was in no sense the moral rearmament movement of its day, although some of its principles do bear a similarity to those of the Buchmanites. Any careful and systematic study of the whole of Tolstoy’s thought reveals that he was fundamentally working within the concepts of nineteenth-century liberalism. Carried to its logical, and perhaps utopian, conclusion, such liberal thought inevitably results in the doctrine of Karl Marx or in the doctrine of Leo Tolstoy, for the end product of both is a classless and stateless society.

Marx sought to achieve his objective by revolutionary action, based on a materialistic approach to history which sanctioned the use of violence. Tolstoy believed that the whole history of the last two thousand years had essentially consisted of the moral development of the masses and the demoralization of governments. He placed his faith in the moral development of the masses as a final answer to the universal oppression of the many by the few. For him, the progressive movement toward a classless and stateless condition of mankind depended upon the growing moral perfection of every individual through strict observance of the supreme law of love and the consequent repudiation of every form of violence. The West, with its incomplete liberalism today, condemns Soviet Marxism, but it has also decided that Tolstoy, though he may have diagnosed the disease of society correctly, has prescribed a kind of incantation for a cure. His way of love and moral perfection, we say, is impractical. On the other hand, we must now decide how practical is a hydrogen-bomb war to end all wars — or civilization.

However much of an incantation his remedy may have been, there was nevertheless a certain strength in Tolstoy’s unworldliness from which we can perhaps learn something, for it enabled him to stand above the turmoil of everyday life and reach beyond history, beyond time itself, to find universal answers to the problems of living. Nor did the seer of Yasnaya Polyana ever lose his wonderful optimism. Returning home one day after seeing a beautiful sunset, he wrote in his diary: “No, this world is not a joke, and not a vale of trials or a transition to a better, everlasting world, but this world here is one of the eternal worlds that is beautiful, joyous, which we can and must make more beautiful and more joyous for those living with us and for those who will live in it after us.”