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Tolstoy Was Actually Your Anarchist Boyfriend

The most aristocratic of Russian authors had a revolutionary side

Every year from 1902 to 1906, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In explaining their motivations, his nominators cited his best-known works, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, or the last of his realist novels, Resurrection. But despite the deluge of praise these books had received, Tolstoy nevertheless believed another title was both his greatest achievement and the one for which he would be remembered — his ABC, a primer for teaching Russian children how to read. 

Not only did Tolstoy fail to receive a Nobel for ABC, the committee repeatedly refused to award him the prize for any of his other work. In response to his first snubbing, dozens of critics, artists and authors (including August Strindberg) sent Tolstoy a letter expressing their outrage that he was cheated. Tolstoy, however, didn’t care. Even when he was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he openly said that he’d reject it.

The gulf between the literary community’s view of Tolstoy’s work and his own, as well as the reason he was boxed out of the highest recognition in letters, are one and the same: His politics. From at least 1880 until his death on November 20, 1910, Tolstoy was an outspoken, unrepentant anarchist.

In some ways, Tolstoy’s politics are surprising. As biographer Rosamund Bartlett details in Tolstoy: A Russian Live, the famed-author-to-be was born in 1828 to an aristocratic family who had served the tsar going as far back as Peter the Great, founder of the Russian Empire. Tolstoy himself was raised in the fashion typical of Russian nobility: If he wasn’t on the family’s ancestral country estate, he was in the cities of Saint Petersburg or Moscow; if he wasn’t studying at university, he was serving in the Imperial Russian Army or paying respects to the Russian Orthodox Church. But regardless of where he was, he was supported — if not immediately waited upon — by serfs, who were forced to both farm his family’s land and act as servants. 

And so, that Tolstoy would eventually rail against the tsar, the nobility, the army, the church and especially serfdom would seem unexpected.

 Yet, Tolstoy’s conversion from aristocrat to anarchist also had precedent. Since the 1600s, the Romanov family had ruled Imperial Russia as an autocracy with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church and, of course, the Imperial Russian Army. The most brutal aspect of the Romanov dynasty was the institution of serfdom, which rendered millions of peasants destitute, illiterate and subject to the whims of their feudal lords. That conditions in Russia needed to change became especially obvious to liberal-minded nobility who traveled abroad in the course of their military service or “Grand Tours” of Europe. One of Tolstoy’s own distant relatives participated in the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825, in which army officers and soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars demanded constitutional (rather than autocratic) rule and received execution or exile to Siberia instead. 

Such uncompromising repression radicalized future generations of would-be reformers into revolutionaries. Like Tolstoy, both Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin were born into the Russian aristocracy but went on to become prominent anarchists, too.

 Tolstoy’s anarchism, though, was unique. To begin with, whereas Russian anarchists generally accepted violence as an unfortunate but necessary tool (revolutionaries famously assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881), Tolstoy was a committed pacifist. His “anarcho-pacifism” extended from another characteristic that distinguished his politics: his religiosity. Most anarchists dispensed with religion in the same breath as they dispensed with government, but Tolstoy had found his anarchism through his religion. After writing War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), the novelist suffered an existential crisis and turned to Russian Orthodoxy for guidance. 

When all the clergy could offer was superstition, he chose instead to dive into Christianity’s “source material.” Plumbing the Gospels, he discovered that he’d been led astray: If Jesus Christ preached peace, how could the church support the Imperial Russian Army’s wars abroad and the tsardom’s violent repression at home? If Christ commanded universal brotherhood, how could the church embrace serfdom — going so far as to have its own serfs? 

As Tolstoy chipped away at the integrity of the Russian Orthodox Church, he exposed the rotten foundations of the Russian Empire, including the state, military and caste system. In the process, he also gave voice to “Christian anarchism,” describing his revelations in a series of philosophical texts like Confession (1880), What I Believe (1882) and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893).

The cornerstone of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism was the belief that, rather than indulge in ritualistic practices as prescribed by the church, Christians should live as Christ lived. They should eschew power, wealth and violence — including everything from eating meat to being conscripted — and instead live the simple, agrarian lives of peasants committed to good deeds. And Tolstoy definitely practiced what he preached. Even prior to his religious conversion, he’d begun educating his serfs himself in 1859 and published his ABC in 1872. Next, he took to giving away his property, renouncing the copyright to his writings, and working alongside the peasantry in the fields. If he wrote, it was to lend his popularity to the defense of reformers, revolutionaries and religious minorities targeted by the state or to compose morally compelling fiction with his trademark realism, as in Resurrection (1899).

That said, his politics weren’t without their obvious failures. As a young man who came of age in a feudal society where it was common for noblemen to take advantage of their female serfs, he’d never fully overcome some of his deepest patriarchal beliefs. He thought contraception to be evil, and thus, he subjected his wife to 13 pregnancies, many of which threatened her life. And despite the unfaithful marriage his sister was forced to endure, he still insisted on a prohibition on divorce when reinterpreting Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Ultimately, the best that his philosophy could do in reconciling the relationship between men and women was to suggest chastity — a far cry from the free love advocated by other contemporary anarchists, such as Emma Goldman.

Still, for all its flaws, the “Tolstoyan movement,” as it came to be known, spread throughout the Russian Empire and beyond. Tolstoy had achieved acclaim at home with the publication of his first novel, Childhood (1852), and abroad with War and Peace, which Anna Karenina then cemented. His brazen public attacks on the Russian Orthodox Church, the Imperial Russian Army and Tsar Nicholas II would have already elevated him to the foremost member of the intelligentsia, but his sincere religiosity raised him to the status of a living saint. Everyone from local peasants to foreign journalists were coming to visit him on a daily basis to ask for his advice or hear his thoughts on the world. 

As quickly as the state and the church were losing legitimacy, Tolstoy was winning adherents to his Christian anarchism — and not just Russians. Famously, Mahatma Gandhi began a correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and helped found a cooperative farm in his name in South Africa, where the future leader of the Indian independence movement was living at the time. Although Tolstoy trained his sights on the Russian Empire, he believed his philosophy was universal: Because all governments were predicated on the violence of the police and the military — and were thus incompatible with virtue — they must all be resisted. This was the specter that kept the Swedish Academy from awarding Tolstoy a Nobel Prize.

The Russian Empire and the Romanov dynasty would both finally come to an end in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. Tolstoy, however, didn’t live to see it. In early November 1910, he set off from his ancestral estate. He visited a local monastery, then boarded a train for the Caucasus, perhaps the closest thing to a desert through which to wander. He made it only 50 miles before he had to disembark. He was 82 years old and had come down with pneumonia. Tolstoy spent seven days at the local station master’s house before passing away. 

The Russian state and church both conspired to prevent mourners from participating in any observances, but thousands paid their respects anyway. Seven years later, Russia and the world would change irrevocably, but not in a fashion that Tolstoy would have been able to condone. Not only would the Bolsheviks ensure Tsar Nicholas II was the last tsar by way of a firing squad, they’d also repress the Tolstoyan movement just as ruthlessly. 

Because the Bolsheviks understood: Although Soviet Russia was the first socialist state in history, it was still a state, and Tolstoy, well, he was an anarchist.