I hate to say it, but I’ve gotten Leo Tolstoy wrong for most of my adult life. I have legitimate
excuses, of course—I was simply adhering to the consensus view. I accepted the
conventional wisdom. I trusted what was said about Tolstoy over what he said himself, even
when the texts (not to mention his actions) should have made me suspicious of what I'd
been told. In short, I abdicated the most essential responsibilities of the reader, namely
critical thinking married to a healthy skepticism about received opinions.
I saw Tolstoy within a framework, as an exponent
of the nineteenth century realist novel. Indeed, he
stood at the pinnacle of this tradition. Tolstoy wasn’t
just a novelist, but perhaps the greatest novelist of
But that wasn’t how Tolstoy saw himself. Nor was
that how the world saw him during the final decades
of his life. People flocked to him as a guru, and
many changed their way of lives as a result of his intervention—distributing land to the
peasants, giving up meat, abstaining from sex. Communes were set up to put his teachings
into action (some still survive today). Schools implemented his pedagogical methods.
He corresponded with Gandhi, who set up the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa to put the
Russian’s cooperative principles into practice. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Tolstoy’s
impact could be felt everywhere, from politics to religion, even as his literary influence waned
in the face of more overtly experimental and modernist approaches.
Consider the following forgotten achievements of Tolstoy, the so-called novelist:
- Tolstoy’s educational primer the New ABC, released in 1875, did more to expand
literacy in Russia than any other book in the nation’s history. The work sold more than
a million copies and went through 28 editions in the author’s lifetime.
- Tolstoy communes were formed all over the world. In addition to the Gandhi-founded
cooperative in South Africa, outposts of followers could be found in United States,
England, Holland and throughout Russia.
- Tolstoy was the most influential pacifist of his era, promoting concepts of non-violence
that set a powerful example for later activists such as Martin Luther King, Dorothy
Day, and Cesar Chavez. It’s hardly a coincidence that his most famous book is
entitled War and Peace, a dichotomy that lay at the heart of the author’s priorities.
- Tolstoy laid the groundwork for modern humanitarian response efforts, mounting
complex famine relief projects that combined international fund-raising, carefully
managed media coverage (as we would call it nowadays) and on-the-ground
initiatives. His moral authority was so powerful in these movements that Chekhov, who
had grown impatient with Tolstoy’s literary postures, was forced to declare that the
author had become the most important person in all of Russia, “a giant, a Jupiter.”
- Tolstoy’s radical reinterpretation of Christianity, The Gospel in Brief (1902) shook the
foundations of the Orthodox Church, and inspired many fervent disciples. Ludwig
Wittgenstein carried this book with him as a guide and talisman during World War I,
and used it as a role model in structuring his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of
the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century.
- Tolstoy explicitly linked his advocacy of anti-violence with vegetarianism, and
anticipated many of the tenets of today’s animal rights movement.
- In an age where religious intolerance was endemic, Tolstoy laid the groundwork for
ecumenical dialogue, corresponding with everyone from Shakers to Quakers, seeking
out leaders of different sects, and incurring fierce reprisals from the government for
his advocacy of religious freedom and interfaith outreach.
Isn’t it puzzling that an activist who had such far-ranging influence should get labeled as a
novelist? Even as a writer, Tolstoy was closer to Rousseau—the dominant influence over
his life’s work—who may have written novels but will always be remembered primarily as a
philosopher and social thinker. And Rousseau, for all his many achievements, can hardly
match Tolstoy in inspiring fervent disciples committed to genuine change and concrete
When Russia turned to communism seven years after Tolstoy’s death, many saw him as the
root cause of the upheaval, perhaps even rivaling Karl Marx in setting it in motion. “Tolstoy
began it, and Lenin finished it off,” announced poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Even Lenin
called Tolstoy the “mirror of the Russian Revolution” despite his deep reservations about
the religious and pacifist aspects of Tolstoyan worldview.
Yet Marxist ideology is also the main reason
why Tolstoy is considered a novelist nowadays
rather than a social activist. The Soviet Union
couldn’t live without Tolstoy—he was, after all,
the single most prominent cultural icon in all of
Russian history—yet his followers posed a
major threat to the regime. Even though
Tolstoyans accepted the broad tenets of
collectivism, they held on to their Christian
beliefs and refused to serve in the military.
As early as 1919, the Bolsheviks were already
executing Tolstoyans who requested conscientious
objector status. Eventually more than one hundred
were killed by firing squad. The regime eventually
found a middle ground, a way to take advantage of
Tolstoy’s prestige without validating his dangerous
views: namely, focusing on his skills as a novelist
and storyteller while keeping his seditious works of
social criticism out of print.
From this point on, the final thirty years of Tolstoy’s
life were downplayed, eclipsed by his middle years
and his two most famous novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s last big
novel, Resurrection, had been a global phenomenon when published in 1899, and for a
time outsold it famous predecessors. But this book was an ardent manifesto for social
change, infused with spirituality and calls for judicial and prison reform. The Soviet Union
finally allowed a film version of Resurrection during the Khrushchev thaw, and the movie’s
director Mikhail Schweitzer complained of the compromises necessary to bring this story
to Soviet theaters. But even the sanitized version presented scenes that were “staggering”
for audiences, according to fellow director Alexander Mitta. “For the first time on the screen
the lack of people’s rights in Russia screams out candidly and fiercely.” This was the same
era that saw the release of Solzhenitsyn’s first works, and the authorities no doubt saw
both moves as ways of channeling anger at abuses of the Stalinist era. But it was clear that,
even more than a half-century after his death, Leo Tolstoy needed to be handled with
Yet there were other signs that Tolstoy’s social teachings still flourished in the underground,
despite decades of oppression and strict censorship. A handful of devoted followers still
held on to their core values, and in a milestone event a Tolstoyan named Dmitry Morgachev,
who had been exiled to Siberia back in 1936, applied for formal rehabilitation and received
it from the Soviet Supreme Court in 1976. In essence, the highest powers in the land were
admitting that they had lost their battle against a long-dead authority. With Gorbachev and
the rise of Glasnost, the return to a more accurate view of Tolstoy proved surprisingly rapid
and robust. Schools following the author’s pedagogical methods were launched in the
1990s, and in many instances used texts Tolstoy had created for students back in the
1870s. In 1991, a Tolstoy-inspired church known as Spiritual Unity gained approval from the
Russian government. In each of these instances, Tolstoy wasn’t gaining followers for his
literary powers or storytelling skills, but as a visionary and social thinker.
Many readers are surprised to learn that Tolstoy refused to consider War and Peace as a
novel—the storytelling was a vehicle for something far larger, a vision of human life and
historical evolution. When Tolstoy began work a few years later on Anna Karenina, he
claimed that this was, in fact, the first time he had ever tried to write a genuine novel. But
even here, his social concerns enter into the story. The character Levin in this novel is a
stand-in for the author, and concerned with all the same issues of land reform and human
rights. And when the novel was first published, a controversy resulted—not about the story
line, but over pacifist sentiments Tolstoy highlighted in the book’s closing pages, and which
would emerge as a major focus of his activism in the years ahead.
I should have seen the signs when I first read Tolstoy. Back in college, I plowed through all
1,300 pages of War and Peace during a whirlwind two-week period over winter break.
Even then I should have noticed the lopsided manner in which the narrative advanced—or,
rather, sometimes refused to advance, given how much Tolstoy insisted on offering his
distinctive philosophy of history and radical notions of leadership and military strategy. His
goal was nothing less than the debunking of Napoleon.
Around this same time, I read Tolstoy’s treatise What is Art?, and once again I should have
paid more attention to how strange this book really is. No novelist or literary critic would
ever construct a theory of art so hostile to aesthetic principles and prevailing cultural
practices. Tolstoy dismisses Shakespeare, Dante, Wagner and other masters with a
cavalier disregard that will remind you more of a cranky mystic than an esteemed novelist.
The same is true of my first encounters with The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer
Sonata, two short novels by Tolstoy that shook me deeply. I had some vague sense that
these made an impact on me in ways that went beyond their literary merits. They seemed to
possess a prickly, visionary quality that resisted the usual interpretative techniques I applied
to fiction. To this day, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the most powerful piece of writing I’ve ever
read about mortality and facing the end of our own existence. By any measure it is a work of
philosophy and ethical guidance. But I was reluctant to see it in that light until many years
It wasn’t until I tackled the least well-known Tolstoy novel, Resurrection, that I realized that I
needed to recalibrate my whole perspective on this canonic Russian author. I saw that this
book only made sense as meditation on the human condition and manifesto for social
change. On the surface level, it resembled a novel, but no perceptive reader could miss the
bigger issues at stake here, beyond any concern with plotting, character development or
At this late stage in my studies of Tolstoy I was forced not only to revisit the earlier
masterworks—but even more the life and times of their author. By gradually piecing
together the story of his posthumous reinterpretation as a literary figure, and grappling with
his prickly social views, I came to realize that this misinterpretation was not happenstance.
Tolstoy’s legacy had been deliberately twisted and distorted, and for the very reason that it
inspired people to take his views seriously and put them into practice.
And ask yourself, which of these two sides of Tolstoy do we need the most nowadays? Is
there a scarcity of big novels? Do we need his example to give a kick in the butt to lazy
MFA students or participants at writer workshops who should aspire to match his massive
page count? Or is there, rather, a more pressing need for a current-day counterforce to
operate against violence, intolerance, ignorance, the ravages of natural disaster, a culture
that celebrates brutality, and government oppression? Those issues have not disappeared,
far from it. The inescapable verdict is that Tolstoy not only dominated Russian life in the
nineteenth century, but he also—sad to say—grasped almost every tragic flaw in modern
sociopolitical stances that would ravage the world in the many decades following his death.
So admire the great storytelling and the literary style on display in War and Peace, Anna
Karenina, and other works by this seminal figure in nineteenth century culture. But don’t ever
think you can capture even a fraction of Leo Tolstoy’s legacy under the label of novelist. He
was, rather, a gadfly like Socrates, a living exemplar of moral principles in the mold of
Gandhi, and a philosopher in the tradition of Rousseau. From that perspective, even those
massive novels he left behind can merely be considered as brief introductions.
Ted Gioia is the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books).
Publication date: April 18, 2019
Is it Time to Stop Treating Leo Tolstoy as a Novelist?
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
|The author of War and Peace
was one of the great visionaries,
social thinkers, and activists in
human history. His reclassification
as a novelist was a calculated
strategy to sanitize his image and
marginalize his supporters in the
aftermath of the Russian
Revolution. It’s time to bring
Tolstoy outside the literary canon
and deal with his legacy as a seer
and radical reformer.
|Letter from Gandhi to Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s legacy had been
deliberately twisted and distorted,
and for the very reason that it
inspired people to take his views
seriously and put them into practice.