Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s Thunderous Prophet

The great writer’s life and work, 100 years on.

Leo Tolstoy

The death of Leo Tolstoy on November 20, 1910 in a small railway station in southern Russia, was being turned into mythology even as it was happening. Pathé, the pioneer of newsreels, made one of its first moving-pictures about the event. Lenin had said two years earlier that Tolstoy was “a mirror of the revolution.” Both communist revolutionaries and the Russian government were watching to see what the effect of the death of the great anarchist would be on the Russian people, who felt that they had lost not just a great artist but the most eloquent voice that had thundered on their behalf against monstrous injustices.

To such deceptively simple questions as how should we live, the answers he gave caused tsars, armies, secret police and church inquisitors to shake in their souls. By the end, millions of people worldwide were hanging on his words. A week after he died, a woman in a Moscow railway cafeteria made a slighting remark about Tolstoy. The café workers rounded on her and the waiter refused to give her tea.

The anniversary of a writer’s death is usually a chance to reassess and re-read their work but it is rarely a provocation to ask the most searching questions about the world as it is now, and about ourselves. Yet Tolstoy’s death still challenges us to ask the deepest political and personal questions. It is hard to think of any of the great public questions facing the world today that Tolstoy did not anticipate and address in some way, whether we speak of the environmental crisis, religious debate (creationist versus atheist) or the anti-war movement.

So who was the man who came to represent the soul of his nation? Tolstoy was born in 1828 and was related to some of the grandest diplomats and courtiers in Russia. He joined the army and served in the Crimean war. In 1862 he married, going on to have a huge family (13 children) as well as help to start the education of the peasants with a wide network of local schools, and pioneer agriculture. After his early travels, he spent most of his life in the country at the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana, about 130 miles south of Moscow.

In his Sevastopol Sketches and in the Caucasian tales translated as Cossacks, he revealed early his genius for closely observed realistic depictions not only of military life, but of nature. The desire to find out how best to live is at the core of all Tolstoy’s writings, finding its way into the inner musings of Prince Andrei and Pierre in War and Peace and in the self-questionings of Levin in Anna Karenina.

After writing that novel, however, Tolstoy had a midlife crisis and became a fervent Orthodox Christian. Changing again, he decided that the Church was teaching mumbo-jumbo. What mattered was what Jesus himself had taught. And what Jesus taught, in Tolstoy’s version—he actually rewrote the gospels —was pacifism, anarchism, no government, no army, no upper classes, no quest for wealth. To this was added Tolstoy’s own increasingly obsessive vegetarianism.

Rosamund Bartlett’s new biography, Tolstoy: A Russian Life, conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read. An academic and translator, Bartlett is steeped in Russia’s language and history. At every stage of Tolstoy’s life we feel ourselves in a gigantic presence: when he planted an apple orchard at his Yasnaya Polyana estate it was the second largest in Europe. Although born to wealth, he came to despise his riches. When he undertook famine relief, he became a one-man Oxfam, galvanising a whole nation into action to save the starving.

It is difficult as a reader to take in the sheer scale and extent of Tolstoy’s interest and achievement. For the biographer to put all this into less than 500 pages is an achievement in itself. But Bartlett never seems hurried and she gives herself time to paint the scene for us, bringing the scent of Russian earth and grass to the nostrils.

In her pages, we know the difference between far-away, sophisticated St Petersburg and Moscow, where Tolstoy reluctantly bought a town house; just as she conveys his need not merely for the pastoral idyll of Yasnaya Polyana but also for the barren expanses of Samara, which he became increasingly fond of. He went there initially to drink koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) for his health but, with his obsessive, all-embracing character, he soon became enamoured of the people, the Bashkir, Turkic-speaking Muslims. He acquired 7,000 acres of Bashkir land and forced his family to spend far longer than they would have wished living in tents and drinking koumiss from leather churns while, with his Greek tutor, he read from Herodotus.

It is not a reverent biography: Bartlett admits that he was an impossible husband and that he was unattractively humourless. But she conveys a perfect balance between admiration for Tolstoy’s art and respect for his life as a prophet. The conventional wisdom is that, having written Anna Karenina, the novelist went off the boil, had a nervous breakdown, and reinvented himself as a crackpot prophet issuing moral clarion calls. Egging him on in his fads was the high priest of Tolstoyism, the writer Vladimir Chertkov, to whom almost all biographers give a bad press.

But Bartlett made me revise my ideas of Chertkov – adding the good gossipy detail that he was almost certainly the illegitimate half-brother of the tsar. He was a fanatic, perhaps, but he was also impressively courageous. One of the excellences of the Bartlett biography is that she sees the necessity of taking the story into modern times. She follows the fate of the Russian Tolstoyans into the Stalinist era.

Chertkov, who never wavered from his belief in the pacifist Christian anarchism that was a hallmark of Tolstoyism, bravely went on as editor-in-chief of Tolstoy’s Collected Works, petitioning Stalin in vain for more funds to finish the task and doing nothing to compromise his beliefs during the blood-curdling horrors of those times. When five Tolstoyans were arrested in 1929 and sentenced to hard labour, Chertkov petitioned on their behalf, just as he heroically but vainly tried to keep alive the L Tolstoy Moscow Vegetarian Society.

From the first reading of War and Peace, it becomes clear that Tolstoy writes with the breadth and scope of Homer. Nowhere outside the Iliad do we find such a prodigious combination of artistic detachment from joy and suffering and yet at the same time such passionate engagement and sympathy. It is a paradoxical truth in these two European masterpieces, and Bartlett’s book gives us the sense of how both these godlike qualities, of indifference and empathy, were constantly present in Tolstoy’s soul.

Anthony Briggs, a professor of Russian literature, published an excellent translation of War and Peace in 2005 for Penguin. It is a lively, readable version, in which he has translated the many passages of French into the same colloquial English into which he renders the Russian. Some readers disliked this, as they disliked him giving real expletives to General Kutuzov, rather than the asterisks which that (in actual historical fact, foul-mouthed) old general spoke. And Briggs undoubtedly lost something when he disguised from first-time English readers the fact that the Russian aristocracy did not speak Russian.

Briggs has written a very brief life of Tolstoy, published earlier this year (Hesperus Press), taking the view that, I suppose, has become an orthodoxy, that the later, prophetic Tolstoy was less important than the novelist who wrote the earlier work. Briggs quotes something I wrote at the end of my own biography of the great man: that “the more evidence we possess about Tolstoy, the less he makes sense”. I wrote those words more than 20 years ago, and the intervening years have changed my view. Tolstoy does now make very clear sense to me. The anniversary gives us the opportunity to realise that there are not two Tolstoys, the novelist and the sectarian anarchist. There was one. War and Peace is not just a great national and family saga, it is a novel about personal and national regeneration. He was one of history’s great truth-tellers, the first of the great dissidents, and their patron saint. In a world dominated by crooked rulers, unjust wars, malice and corruption, and, above all, lies, Tolstoy became what Dante called a “one-man party” and struck out to right and left.

True, Tolstoy’s embrace of Christian anarchism was inconsistent on many levels but when the enemies in his sights included the grossly selfish Russian royal family, and an Orthodox Church that supported one of the most unjust political regimes in European history (and blessed field guns in the name of Christ), it is hard not to cheer the old bearded prophet and overlook any unkindness he might have displayed towards his wife.

Is there a vanity, almost a frivolity in the anarchist-pacifist position? In view of the later excesses of Stalin and Hitler, the passing of Tolstoy in 1910 can seem like the sad death of a utopian dream. But the story of South Africa—to choose but one example—demonstrates the vigour and strength of the Tolstoyan idea. It was in South Africa that Gandhi first became enflamed by Tolstoy’s writings and began to put in practice the policy of passive resistance that would eventually defeat the British empire.

The recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan do not suggest that war has ever been a solution to human problems. Tolstoy’s rejection not merely of war and violence, but of the very concept of government, still has a great deal of potential to change our world. At least, I have come to hope so.

In following his journey from that remote provincial railway station at Astapovo to his ancestral estates at Yasnaya Polyana, once more I have been awe-struck by the genius that produced the Sevastopol Sketches, The Cossacks, War and Peace, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Anna Karenina and Resurrection – to name only a few of his masterpieces. But I have also, like the crowds in 1910, been overwhelmed with a sense that, if we could only live as he urged us to live in his later prophetic writings, we would find sanity in the midst of chaos.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.