The Tolstoy Centenary

This Saturday 20 November marks the centenary of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s death at a railway station hundreds of miles away from home, deep in the belly of Russia. It is a moment at which it is worth reflecting on a full life and a unique talent, for Tolstoy is without doubt the greatest novelist of all time and one of the most powerful philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

When we say that no one betters Tolstoy’s two great novels, we we almost instinctively take them as a byword for bookishness, for comprehensiveness and for ambition. These are all very applicable to War and Peace and Anna Kareinina, but what is as significant as their scope is the history that they represent.

How can men live?

War and Peace is the culmination of one hundred and fifty years of Russian history. Since Peter the Great dragged Muscovy in a westward direction, Russian intellectuals felt torn between the west and the east, between progress and seemingly irreconcilable Russian liberty. These conflicts were fought out in the 1825 Decemberist rebellion, which itself ended in defeat for liberals.

Tolstoy began War and Peace by asking a simple question, but one that is not often asked; “how can one live in Russia.” He was intending to write the story of Russia after the Decemberists had so decidedly rejected the status quo, in the same way that one might try to explain society after the Great War or Thatcherism. His answer lay further in the past than he initially realised. For Tolstoy it was Napoleon’s 1812 campaign against Russia that explained Russian Nationalism, its emotional impact, its solidarity and its social and political consequences.

What makes artists and critics rapture over War and Peace is Tolstoy’s unique attention to individuals and their thought processes. At the time he was writing, Tolstoy was besotted with his relatively new in-laws and he poured the excitement of his wife and her sisters into the young characters of War and Peace. One critic declared that War and Peace contained the whole of human life.

Anna Kareinina is, out of personal preference, the superior novel. By the time Tolstoy came to write it he was frustrated with the anticlimactic completion of the greatest novel the world had ever seen and with life in general. He still loved family life, and reveres it greatly throughout. The opening sentence, perhaps the best in world literature, goes thus; “all happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy it it’s own way.” The following 800 pages more than cover that brilliant philosophical insight.

Anna Kareinina is a married woman who gives up her family out of vanity and boredom and is destroyed by that decision. Meanwhile, Tolstoy writes himself into the book as Levin, an aristocrat who prefers his estate to society and who tries to build a life out of familial love.

Tolstoy himself was always searching for the meaning of life, or as it is more perceptively translated, how can men live. In this, he was unusual for an intellectual in not proceeding abstractly along the path of how should men live and he was unusual amongst all other people in that he was a man of such feeling, intelligence and knowledge that he was never able to answer the question to his satisfaction.

Tolstoy was in many ways a sensualist, if not a hedonist. He wrote about his youth as a period of delinquency in which he slept with his peasants and gambled away the large part of his hereditary estate. In time this was replaced with an obsession with family life but that was not enough.

Enlightened but Romantic

Tolstoy was an incessant reader of philosophy for much of his life. His library held 22,000 books and it is fair to say that not only did Tolstoy read most of them, but he absorbed much of their content. Indeed, Tolstoy was representative of the conflicts between the Enlightenment rationalists and the German Romantics.

The Romantics (on whom Isaiah Berlin’s Political Ideas in the Romantic Age is a useful book) exploded the idea that a person could rationally plan their lives. Although they did not discount the possibility that man could be free, they characterised that freedom as the fulfillment of a purpose. Man could be swept along by national forces or by more prosaic movements but ought to recognise and submit to those greater currents.

This is War and Peace, with its two epilogues on Tolstoy’s theory of history and diatribes against men who were supposed to have ‘made’ history like Napoleon or Kutuzov. On the contrary, history made them.

It is also pure Rousseau, with his notion of the General Will. Tolstoy admired Rousseau greatly and adopted the same cynical view of sophistication. Rousseau and Tolstoy were both unhappy and ultimately tyrannical men, who much abused their wives, but they shared a reverence of virtue that Tolstoy took with him into his formulation of a Christian philosophy of non-violence.

It was less Rousseau than the Germans who influenced Tolstoy in this. Around the time he was completing Anna Kareinina, the death of Tolstoy’s beloved aunt, who raised him after the death of his mother in childhood, caused Tolstoy to become depressed. Some years later the depression and the spectre of death returned and never quite left Tolstoy.

How should men live? Tolstoy thought that he had answered this question twice over. He could live in tune with history – had to, in fact – or he could live as a family man. Neither satisfied him for long, for neither conquered death.

What is to be done?

Tolstoy believed that to live a moral life, to eradicate the great social evils of modern times was the only satisfactory way to live. His system of morality itself is a curious mixture of conscience and the immutable rules of the New Testament, for he took Christ to be the greatest teacher who ever lived.

In this, he was similar to many of the Germans he read, but he differed particularly from Kant, who took the golden rule as his categorical imperative. For Tolstoy, the central insight of Christ was non-violent resistance to evil. Man must not be coerced, but must be able of his own volition to choose the moral path.

Tolstoy experimented in applying this theology until the end of his life. He in turn renounced property, sexual intercourse and government. Much of this was an emotional reaction to his past, but he was also influenced by his own times; the brutality of Russia’s legal system, the Boer War and the famines endemic to Russia. He was proclaimed the thirteenth apostle in America and widely read in Britain, The Spectator calling him the foremost revolutionary in the world.

Lenin, who came to power just seven years after his death, regarded Tolstoy as an iconoclastic figure who destroyed the last supports of Tsarism in Russia but provided nothing to build on. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior cited Tolstoy as an influence in their non-violent protests and there is no doubt that nuclear disarmament campaigns would not exist in their modern form without Tolstoy’s denunciation of the iniquitous balance of the powerful over the powerless.

There are therefore significant reasons for valuing Tolstoy – even if, or perhaps because, the world has changed so much since 1910. The same nationalism, brought about by pride or self-pity, that informs War and Peace bubbles away in Russia as in all countries. In Burma, as elsewhere, oppression appears so much more futile without violent resistance. People still choose to live lives without considering whether they are living well.

It is a rare power that Tolstoy possessed, that he came to loathe when it intruded on his determination to reform himself completely and at once – the ability to empathise and to read others. We can only enjoy that privilege through reading Tolstoy himself. And while there is no need to reach for the complete collection – some ninety volumes – there is a good deal to be gained from interacting with so powerful a writer.

Useful Links

In Our Time

The Essay on BBC Radio 3



  1. Mike Vickers

    Thanks Josh
    Always good as with In Our Time to find something short but thought provoking and stimulating, wanting me to search further. One phrase I particularly like is ‘men who were supposed to have ‘made’ history like Napoleon or Kutuzov. On the contrary, history made them’

  2. Pingback: Michael Sandel’s Justice and Victor Hugo’s Morality « Out of the Black

  3. I have just published, in Dutch, the memories of one of Tolstoys pupils in his school at Jasnaja Poljana from 1859-1862. Vasili Morozov wrote his memories of Lev Tolstoy when he was nearly 60, whereas he entered Tolstoys school at 10. His lively written and detailed report was published in Russia by the Posrednik publishing house in 1917. It was never published again. Only an old and very incomplete German translation exist, none in English or French. Tolstoy took two of his pupils, Vasili and a friend, on a two-month trip to the Samara region where Tolstoy used to go for a cure against tuberculosis by drinking sour milk from mares kept by Bashkiri nomads. Apart from the life in the school Morozov describes this trip in detail. Someone interested in translating the Russian original into English can ask me for a copy of the original that I obtained from the National State Library in St. Petersburg

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