Romans used to say: None shall be crowned who has not fought well. The warrior Tolstoy was crowned the king of modern intellectuals still during his lifetime. But he was a king hating kings. He hated his upper-class background, tried to run away from it, he was ashamed of it and even so, he did not reject the social privileges till his final days when dying in the small train depot at Astapovo.
Apparently no other man has personified Russia´s eternal dilemma better than Tolstoy – Europe versus Asia, Western materialism versus Eastern spirituality. And no other Russian has come as close to solving this dilemma as he has. A nobleman educated to admire the values of Western culture, and still turning his spiritual face towards the East his whole life long.
He was born the fourth of five children at Yasnaya Polyana on September 28th, 1828, and grew up in the countryside which had a great impact on his life´s future orientation. His mother, Countess Maria Volkonskaya-Tolstaya, died after giving birth to his sister Maria, when he was two years old. When he was nine, his father died and his aunt Alexandra Osten-Saken took care of the children. Four years later, she died as well. And when the last deeply beloved person left, his grandmother Princess Gorchakova-Tolstaya, the young Tolstoy conceived hatred for the world.
In 1844, he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University, but did not finish the studies. He fell for women, alcohol, gambling games. Interestingly enough, he was fully aware of his moral stumbles, which he even wrote down in his diaries while searching for ways out. He was plagued by inner conflicts ever since he had met the wounded Buddhist monk with whom he spent a few weeks in the Kazan hospital in 1847 at the age of 19. In those days, Russia was open to Eastern teachings, universities offered classes in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, students learned Ayurvedic medicine, East Asian languages, thus making the presence of Buddhist monks in Russia self-evident during the reign of Alexander II. And ever since this encounter, Tolstoy surely thought more intensely about charity. Christ said: Love your neighbour as yourself; Buddha added: Love your neighbour more than yourself.
After his cure, he decided to return to Yasnaya Polyana and continued educating himself independently. He read Descartes, Rousseau – a self-educated man as well. He joined the army and fought in the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856. Thereafter, Tolstoy left the service as a lieutenant, slowly becoming a pacifist. In 1857, he travelled to Western Europe, visited France, Spain and Germany; the ferocity and ruthlessness of the evolving capitalism did not fire his enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the travels through Europe opened his eyes and he became aware of the poverty in which Russian people lived and he started looking for ways how to help better the living conditions of serfs. By that time, Russia was the only country left where serfdom still existed.
In 1862, aged 34, he married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was the daughter of a court physician. They had 13 children. One week after his proposal, the wedding took place. His fast decision to get married could be ascribed to the remorse he felt; the new life as a married man was to draw a clear line between his previous Bohemian and immoral life and the life he wanted to live. Tolstoy expressed his determination in an unusual act when, on the eve of their marriage, he gave the 18-year-old Sophia his diaries detailing his extensive sexual past. The sexual desire was destroying him; he could not control his instincts and was reproaching himself for this weakness. However, he made the women responsible for his repeated failures. He blamed them for their seductiveness which appeared to be the reason for his lapses. He did not understand women and did not even try to. At the same time, he considered prostitution to be an honourable profession; according to him, prostitutes were necessary for the sake of a family life. He did not regard sex with prostitutes as adultery. But the innocent and maiden Sophia was shocked by Tolstoy´s diaries. As a sexually experienced man, but unskilled in love, he could not understand his virgin wife. The sixteen-year-old Sophia – a talented writer herself, who had no chance to assert her talents next to the dominating Tolstoy, wrote in her essay “The Question of Shame”, that for men physical love was paramount, while for women love was an ideal. Tolstoy subconsciously envied his wife´s education who had graduated in Literature, French and Russian with excellent results at the Moscow University. Sophia had her ambitions and notably, talents as well. She was unlucky though. Lev was more talented than her. He even played the piano better than her. He justified his lack of love for Sophia with his love for humankind. It was very likely that his earlier sexual adventures lacking love for the woman had led him to see Sophia rather as an object for satisfying his sexual needs than a being longing for love and appreciation. He compensated the lack of love for Sophia, as many other men of genius did, with love for humanity. The love for a wife was to be shown quietly and in private, while the love for humankind could be flaunted with audience present. Perhaps that was also one of the reasons, why he, a nobleman, started dressing himself like an ordinary muzhik. It attracted attention.
After the marriage he calmed down for a while and devoted himself to writing. Pen and paper literally magnetized him. Laying down his thoughts on paper became a passion. The time spent with writing was the happiest. Childhood, The Cossacks, Sevastopol Sketches – his early works already clearly showed that a great writer was emerging. He was a brilliant observer, noticing details in people and nature which others did not see. He loved talking, and even more listening thus acquiring further knowledge. And he spent a lot of time reading. He taught himself French, English, German and by the age of 20, he had already read 20 volumes of Rousseau´s writings in French. Tolstoy had the greatest respect for Rousseau, wearing even a locket with his portrait, when he had been young.
He wrote with euphoria, while at times of depression he could not push himself to write longer pieces; he was only able to put down his utmost feelings in a diary. For the majority of his life, however, he did not write, as he was involved in activities which he regarded morally more important. The first decade of his marriage brought Tolstoy the greatest happiness and gave him the freedom to write his best and most popular novel War and Peace. His wife acted as his secretary and proofreader which she enjoyed for one reason at least – while writing, Lev Nikolayevich was more endurable and kind. Although his wife was a wonderful teacher, he did the teaching at schools which he had founded for the children of local peasants. Not for long though; he gave up, admitting that he did not know what to teach. On one hand, Tolstoy´s social engagement and effort to get near and understand the common man was admirable, on the other hand, he was not at least interested in understanding his own wife who became pregnant even at the age of 46. She lost the child and Tolstoy could not hide his relief. He was 62 years old at that time and preached almost fanatically the virtues of sexual abstinence – except his own, naturally. He gave up, saying that he was possessed by the devil. He continued acting irresponsibly even though the doctors had warned Tolstoy against his wife´s further pregnancies after her fifth highly risky delivery. When Sophia reminded him of the doctors´ warnings he threatened to leave her. She came to the bitter realization that for him she was the means for satisfying his sexual needs, a child-bearing machine, a piece of furniture. Sophia was resigning slowly, becoming her husband´s obedient tool. Tolstoy considered marriage a necessity producing heirs to the property. In The Kreutzer Sonata, he confessed that the marriage did not make him happy, but burdened him. Wife and husband resembled two prisoners sharing the same chains. Looking around, he concluded that most married couples were alike – the same prison as his. In marriage, he felt enslaved, oppressed; he condemned marriage as an institution and called it unchristian, advising even his daughters against marriage. Tolstoy dubbed himself almost a saint and compared his wife to Socrates´ Xanthippe who totally misunderstood her husband. Sophia insisted that the money Tolstoy earned by writing should go to his family. He resisted though, seeing that his sons were spending sums in playing cards and buying horses. He was growing away from his own children. “Look at my Andrei! He lives at the expense of the people, from my money which I took from the people!” Sophia wanted to live a quiet life of a countess and landlady, but Tolstoy had constantly interfered with her vision. Despite that she was helping him, devoutly copying out the complete 1,600 pages of War and Peace seven times. She was preparing the handouts for printing, proofreading texts, communicating with publishers, editors, censors. For Tolstoy the saying “Behind every successful man is a woman” definitely applies. And still he had never praised his wife, never thanked her, nor encouraged her. She was losing her vitality. Paradoxically, Tolstoy deeply believed that Sophia did not really need his love. He was convinced she only needed the awareness of the fact that she was loved by the people surrounding her. Despite Sophia´s many sacrifices, husband and wife were growing apart, especially since Tolstoy started pursuing religious questions and radically changed his life´s concept. He proclaimed that the non-marital status and perfect purity were Christian ideals.
He began changing his ideas and attitudes markedly after having finished the novel Anna Karenina. In 1882, he participated in the population census as a census taker in Moscow, visiting many dwellings of the poor. This experience triggered a deep existential crisis and it depressed him to such an extent, that he doubted life had a meaning at all. Human existence seemed absurd and he was thinking of suicide. Surprisingly, it was the poorest of all, who gave him optimism – the muzhiks. Tolstoy wanted to know why these men, who lived in such tragic conditions, did not commit suicide. He realized that the source of their inner strength was their faith. He studied many different religious systems, was influenced by Eastern philosophies and at later age, also by the medieval Czech spiritual leader Peter Chelcicky – which is a little known fact. Peter Chelcicky had introduced quite radical theological and social ideas thus outrunning common views of his days. For example, he had criticized the feudal system and Church´s doctrines, had opposed religious justification of war, publicly disagreed with the death penalty etc. Alike Tolstoy, he had supported the idea that man could lead a good Christian life only when farming. Chelcicky himself had been strongly influenced by the teachings of Jan Hus.
Tolstoy grew more and more involved in the studies of Buddha, Confucius, Krishna, Laozi. Following the path of Buddha, he was also searching for answers to the meaning of life in the womb of nature. Buddha, though, had realized that the meaning of life could be found in detaching oneself from lust and desire and he himself had stepped into the world of humbleness and asceticism by putting an end to his life as royal Prince. Tolstoy was not able to part from the pleasures of a nobleman´s life. For this reason, many of his beautiful thoughts and to a certain extent his deeds as well were not convincing. He had always returned to his upper-class status and establishment which felt safe and convenient. One must note, however, that he was responsible for a large family. His endeavours constantly seemed to revolve around the quest for answers to existential questions. And as he was not able to break the vicious circle, he suffered from even deeper depression. He was outraged and hurt by the misery of the poor which he saw and defined clearly (“We sit here and take ten course meals while beggars are walking around.”), criticizing his aristocratic “accomplices”. At the same time, he reacted to this misery no differently – he ignored it, admitting cynically, that property was evil, but very convenient.
Establishing schools, actively supporting the abolishment of serfdom, working hard in the fields or woods together with his serfs were only episodes partly quieting his bad conscience, but did not change the lives of the poor in any way. The noble background, wealth and customs he was surrounded by were in sharp contrast to his spiritual and moral world, compassion and humbleness. Tolstoy lived the contrast of spirit and matter daily. He tried so hard to renounce his origin, the noble title, to give up comfort; he wanted to live a simple life close to God, nature, the poor man. He was tortured by the eternal dilemma of the great – the inner conflict between the joys of the material world and the joys of spirituality. Confusing longing with lust, crossing the fragile line between these two virtues, returning on safe grounds of matter and stepping out onto the slippery ice of spirituality became his destiny. He was blaming himself for just talking about the hardships of peasants, but not living them. He was constantly aware of Ovid´s warning finger – Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor – I see and approve of the better, but I follow the worse. Tolstoy was rejecting Western materialism and in 1906, four years before dying, he wrote: “Everything that the Western peoples do can and ought to be an example for the peoples of the East not of what should be done but of what ought not to be done in any circumstances. To pursue the path of the Western nations is to pursue the direct path to destruction.” He was aware of his inner conflicts. Gorky, who spent long hours debating with Tolstoy, once said that “the great personalities were terribly contradictory.” Inadaptable, defiant, he never was satisfied with anything. He was a man from the countryside and did not feel comfortable during his stays in Moscow where he was always longing for nature. Early in the mornings, the noise of factory buzzers rushed in his ears instead of a bird´s chant. He left Moscow three times and returned to Yasnaya Polyana on foot.
Tolstoy abstained from alcohol and did not eat any meat, but smoked heavily. When reproached for this bad habit, he countered with the weak argument, that smoking did not hurt his neighbours.
In his youth, he witnessed a public execution by guillotine in Paris which crushed his ideals about Christian rationality. The picture of a man kissing the cross and being beheaded a second later was haunting him lifelong. At that time, his critical attitude towards the hypocrisy of the Church developed. In Jesus he saw the motivating man who had set the perfect example for self-improvement. He knew that happiness could be reached only by venturing the journey to oneself, by loving one´s next, by following the laws of nature, i.e. God. This way he would not get lost. He did not need any Church´s doctrines.
According to Tolstoy the different religious rituals only caused tensions among people. Those sharing the same desires, loves, joys and pains would kill each other with their crosses, crescents, yarmulkes or other symbols in the name of one merciful God.
As an intellectual examining the world through scepticism he soon understood that the Church´s dogmas did not offer any satisfying and clear answers to basic questions about the meaning of life. On the contrary they enslaved and deceived people. Tolstoy was convinced that the ritual of liturgy, the worship of icons and other relics contradicted Christ. He literally became allergic to the hypocrisy of the Church. He strived to bring Jesus Christ´s teachings to the people in a plain and clear way. In 1880, he wrote his Critique of Dogmatic Theology which gave rise to a wave of protests from the Church as well as from representatives of the political and social world. This was only natural in Russia of those days, as every person´s activity was determined by teachings of the Orthodox Church. He refused to accept Jesus Christ´s divine essence; Tolstoy regarded him a prophet similar to Confucius, Socrates, Buddha or Muhammad whose task it was to lead people, to uncover life´s secrets to them.
He did not need any mediatory Church for salvation. He showed this attitude publicly by openly criticizing the Church as an institution, which according to Tolstoy manipulated and controlled people. He blamed it for co-operating with the state and pointed out mainly the acquisitive reasons of this collaboration. As for him, Christianity was the imperative of ethics and thus irreconcilable with the immoral behaviour of the Church representatives, who suppressed and exploited the muzhiks, supporting the political elite. He condemned the Church for creating rules that were in direct opposition to Jesus Christ´s words; these rules applied by the Church as well as the state administration, jurisdiction and the army. In 1899, he wrote: “We have become so accustomed to the religious lie that surrounds us that we do not notice the atrocity, stupidity and cruelty with which the teaching of the Christian Church is permeated. And we call this lie the Law of God. And we raise our children in these lies. We deny common sense.”
As his philosophical and religious works were prohibited in Russia, in his homeland he was known as a writer, in Europe more a thinker and philosopher. He communicated a lot with priests, monks and the more he recognized the discrepancies between Jesus Christ´s and the Church´s acts, the more he turned away from the Church. He assumed that an individual´s path to mastery would be easier when directed by a kind of practical religion which he attempted to create. The core idea of his religion claimed that a journey to God was very personal and did not need any Church authority. In his eyes, Christianity was not a mystical journey to Eden, but the key to a good life alike Buddhism. He encouraged Slavs to unite and lead a liberating social-religious movement. He wanted the Slavs to be the driving force of fraternization among good-willed people. He was almost obsessed with the idea of creating a new religion that would match the present level of human evolution. A religion based on Jesus Christ´s teachings cleaned of the dogmas of the Church, a religion that did not promise bliss after death but here on Earth. He emphasized humbleness and compassion. He quoted Paul who had warned the Galatians: “The Church is upsetting your faith with a travesty of the Gospel of Christ.” He sought the truth, thus becoming a thorn in the Church´s flesh. They were afraid of him, they hated him. He was solaced by Christ´s words: “You will be hated by all nations because of me”. Tolstoy was excommunicated on February 25th, 1901. The Church literally pursued him naming him antichrist and wishing him death in hell. After his excommunication, the respect for Tolstoy grew especially among young people. When his beloved daughter Maria died in 1906, he followed the funeral procession to the cathedral, stopped in front of the entrance and returned home. Later, the Church let him know that in case he would repent, it was willing to welcome him back. He turned the offer down with the words – what is the Church anyway?
The powerful of the Church were repelled by him, as well those endowed with worldly powers. In his letter to the Tsar Alexander III., Tolstoy said: “Repression could not stamp out the radical´s activities. There is only one ideal that can be opposed to them. And that is the one which they began with, not understanding it and blaspheming against it – the one which includes their ideal, the ideal of love, forgiveness and the repayment of good for evil. Like wax before the face of fire, every revolutionary struggle will melt away before the Tsar-man who carries out the law of Christ.” Tolstoy did not believe in violent coups, he knew that violence resulted in even more violence. He was opposed to revolution. “The only thing a revolution can change is the character of despotism. Capitalists are ruling now, then, the working class will take over.” He feared violence; his lifelong motto was not to counter violence and evil. He did not want a social revolution; according to him, the ideal form of social organization was a non-governmental form without a hierarchy, without classes, without private property – a very utopian as well as scandalous, courageous and provocative idea. Though he was not a revolutionary, alike Rousseau igniting the French revolution, the pacifist Tolstoy was adding fuel to the Russian revolution. He supported civil disobedience in Russia and other countries as well as – in India, for example: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil – in the violent deeds of the administration of the law courts, the collection of taxes and, what is more important, of the soldiers, and no one in the world will enslave you“. If he were not a member of one of the richest and oldest Russian families, he certainly would have been executed by a firing squad, or maybe ended up in Siberia. The government feared Tolstoy´s influence, persecuted his followers, but did not have the courage to punish him. His worldly fame and popularity were the biggest obstacles which made it impossible for the government to intervene. Tolstoy encouraged young men to refuse military service and praised those who did so.
“Nothing in the world will change an individual as long as the world around him does not change. But the world can be transformed only by an altered individual. Where to begin? The egg or the hen?” Not seeing a meaning in life he attempted suicide a few times. When suffering from depression, he described life as meaningless and devilish. He asked himself – why should I live? What was the role of an artist, a writer in an unjust world? He sought refuge with his muzhiks, even dressing in the same manner as them. But at the same time he continued living in luxury while outside of his palace, peasants were struggling with poverty, diseases and filth. He loved hunting which was in sharp contrast to his vegetarianism and pacifism, thus denying his own wonderful thought: “As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields.”
Tolstoy had the feeling he was not living his life but observing it. He turned to Epicurus who had claimed that a man´s highest pleasure was a life without pain and suffering. As he could not find a meaning to his life, he was plagued by the question: Why live a meaningless life? He read the chapter on Socrates´ death attentively. He often had moments of deep depression, calling himself a coward not being able to put an end to his own life. Unlike him, the muzhiks were suffering with dignity. He came to the realization that the human mind, intellect, was limited, saying: “I shall not seek the explanation of everything. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain a secret of eternity.” Thus reaching a kind of conciliation between his longing for knowledge and the doubts that knowledge created. He was trying to appease his soul filled with faith and doubts. He turned away from the ambition to change the society and embraced the only possible ambition – to change himself. The great men had always wanted to change the world when they were young, and with growing age, they wanted to change themselves. As long as they had the strength to do so. They felt their earthly existence was getting to an end and by turning to their inner worlds they approached eternity.
Tolstoy emphasized the duty of each man, the more of an educated man, to participate in the moral improvement of the whole, the humanity, the existence. Laws prevail that regulate the further development of man in order to ensure that he be beneficial to the whole. Those who are not of benefit to the whole, cannot be beneficial to themselves neither. In this context, the man´s duty is to give – exactly according to Buddha and Christ. “Life is possible only if we know what we are and why we are here. The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity”. Tolstoy experienced the same process as all other great geniuses did; he replaced the battle for personal mastery by a battle for a perfect society, realizing in the end that the improvement of society was only possible through the improvement of oneself. “If we want to live a decent life we have to fight, err, question, make mistakes, begin a quest and rest, then start anew and let go again, to struggle internally and fail. Because peace is a meanness of the soul!”
Tolstoy´s life motivates, guides, inspires thoughts. He was not perfect though he tried very hard, fell and rose again, but he never lost hope and faith in the possibility of his own improvement. The quest for life´s meaning could become inspiring, fascinating and meaningful with Tolstoy. He was the first to say that the truth died in the world. Thomas Mann declared that if Tolstoy was still alive, perhaps the First World War would have never broken out. Tolstoy compared war to a trade with murder. He foretold that due to new technologies 90 per cent of the world´s population could be killed in wars and even that would not bring the rich to terms. Let us believe that his prediction would turn out to be false.
His whole life, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was searching for an anchor place. He was not able to leave Yasnaya Polyana, remaining a hostage to wealth and family; he did not have the strength like Buddha to leave the riches. Only a few days before his death, he found the courage to fulfil his lifelong wish – to leave and find inner peace. In the night of October 27th, 1910, he caught Sophia browsing his documents in search for a secret testament. That was the crucial moment. He decided to leave. Where? He did not know. The only thing he wanted was to abandon the house, inside which he was suffocating. Due to bronchial pneumonia, he had to get off the train running from Ryazan to Ural. High fever forced him to bed offered in the home of the stationmaster of the small depot at Astapovo. He died on November 20th, 1910. To Tolstoy, life was a journey and his death in a train station was more than symbolic. He died reaching the destination – on the journey.