Charlotte Alston: Tolstoy's Guiding Light

Roundup: Talking About History

[Charlotte Alston is Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University.

Leo Tolstoy, c.1905In October 1910 Leo Tolstoy left his home at Yasnaya Polyana, 120 miles south of Moscow, in a final attempt to separate himself from his wealth, possessions and family. Just over a week after his departure he died of pneumonia in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo railway station. While his journey lasted, the drama held the attention of the media in Russia and beyond and sparked a momentary revival of interest in Tolstoy’s religious and philosophical teachings, which had receded since the high tide of his influence in the last decades of the 19th century.

This year is the centenary of Tolstoy’s death. The anniversary was marked by the UK release of the film The Last Station, based on the novel of the same name by Jay Parini, which depicts the last months of Tolstoy’s life as the chronic tensions in his relationship with his wife Sophia came to a head. The hero of the film is the writer’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, who lives for a time at Teliatinki, a settlement where enthusiasts devote themselves to agricultural work and theorists discuss the tenets of Tolstoyism. Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s closest disciple and one of the leaders of the Russian movement, battles with Sophia Tolstoy for control of the writer’s legacy, while Tolstoy’s personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, furiously scribbles down everything that Tolstoy has to say.

The philosophy that became known as ‘Tolstoyism’ was outlined in the body of work the writer produced from the late 1870s onwards. It was essentially a form of Christian anarchism based on the doctrine of non-resistance. Tolstoy rejected the state (because it could only exist on the basis of physical force) and all institutions derived from it: the police, law courts, the army and the Russian Orthodox Church. He condemned private property and money and advocated living by one’s own physical labour. He also came to believe in vegetarianism, complete chastity and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Beginning with his Confession (1882), in which he described his own struggle with questions of life and faith, Tolstoy wrote and published a series of philosophical and spiritual tracts dealing with these questions, including What I Believe (1884), What Then Must We Do? (1886), On Life (1887) and The Kingdom of God is Within You (1893). While novelists and literary critics urged Tolstoy to return to literature, these later works had a profound impact on individuals disillusioned with industrial society and fin de siècle politics....

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