This book presents writings which Tolstoy was never, in his lifetime, allowed to publish in his native Russia. He was a successful author by middle age; world famous for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But after a mid-life spiritual awakening, Tolstoy chose a different direction, and for the last 30 years of his life produced material that offended both Church and state. His religious writings set him at odds with the Orthodox Church and led eventually to his excommunication. His political and social writings set him in opposition to the government, and brought strict censorship and the threat of imprisonment.
But though doors closed on him in Russia, doors opened for him elsewhere; for when Tolstoy’s secretary and friend Vladimir Chertkov was exiled by the government in 1897, he travelled to England. Tolstoy was at first distressed at his departure. He missed the devotion of his most intimate disciple; and also worried for him: ‘I’m very much afraid you’ll be corrupted in England,’ he wrote to Chertkov. ‘I’ve just received the Review of Reviews and read it, and I caught such a sense of that astonishing English self-satisfied dullness that I put myself in your place and tried to think how you would get on with them.’
But Tolstoy need not have worried. It was said of Chertkov that he was even more Tolstoyan than Tolstoy, and his time in England was entirely spent in promoting his master’s cause. Chertkov put his money, energy and leadership skills into the remarkable Free Age Press, run by AC Fifield. Over the next few years, this small press produced 424 million pages of Tolstoy’s writing.
Seven of these short works are presented here, each with their own introduction, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death. He died on the railway station in Astapovo, in November 1910. By then, however, thanks to the Free Age Press, his writings were spilling out way beyond the borders of his Russian homeland. The censors could only reach so far.
About the author
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written. He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling, and losing, in St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the army in 1851.
He began writing while in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, Sevastopol Sketches, discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed this book he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work.
A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed Les Miserables, which had a marked influence on War and Peace, would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots.
War and Peace, published in 1869, and Anna Karenina, published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression.
He wrote A Confession in 1882, which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent novels, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and What Then Must We Do?, further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church.
The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was The Kingdom of God is Within You, which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy’s main point derived from Jesus’ teachings to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ’s message which can be found in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount in particular. This theory of ‘non-violence’ that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man while living in South Africa.
In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu, in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. The Kingdom of God is Within You and A Letter to a Hindu solidified Gandhi’s non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.
Letter to a Hindu – Introduction
Letter to a Hindu was written by Tolstoy on his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, on December 14th, 1908. It was in reply to Tarak Nath Das, the radical young editor of the newspaper Free Hindustan, who had written to Tolstoy with a question: did the Indian people now have the right to use force and terrorism to throw off the yoke of British rule?
In his reply, Tolstoy takes his well-known arguments for nonviolence onto a world stage, claiming that a constant throughout history and in all religions is a ‘spiritual element’ striving always for unity, and attaining its aims through love. It is this human instinct Tolstoy appeals to, when telling the Indian people that all attempts to restrain evil with violence are incompatible with love. Tolstoy asks how a commercial company – which is how the English started in India – could enslave a nation of two million souls? The answer lay in the Indian attitude: it is not the English who have enslaved Indians, he says, but the Indians themselves.
‘If they are enslaved by violence, it is only because they themselves live and have lived by violence, and do not recognize the eternal law of love.’ This letter is also significant for bringing together two great men. Referring to himself as ‘a humble follower of the great teacher, whom I have long looked upon as one of my guides,’ Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy in 1909 – his first personal contact with the writer. Gandhi was seeking permission – duly given – to publish and distribute 20,000 copies of Tolstoy’s letter in South Africa, where he was then working. He had been greatly influenced by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You – a work which led Gandhi to believe the core of Christianity to be no different to that of Hinduism. As the correspondence between the two men developed, in the final year of Tolstoy’s life, the respect became mutual with Tolstoy referring to Gandhi as ‘a person very close to us, to me.’
Introduction by M. K. Gandhi
The letter printed below is a translation of Tolstoy’s letter written in Russian in reply to one from the Editor of Free Hindustan. After having passed from hand to hand, this letter at last came into my possession through a friend who asked me, as one much interested in Tolstoy’s writings, whether I thought it worth publishing. I at once replied in the affirmative, and told him I should translate it myself into Gujarati and induce others’ to translate and publish it in various Indian vernaculars.
The letter as received by me was a type written copy. It was therefore referred to the author, who confirmed it as his and kindly granted me permission to print it.
To me, as a humble follower of that great teacher whom I have long looked upon as one of my guides, it is a matter of honour to be connected with the publication of his letter; such especially as the one which is now being given to the world.
It is a mere statement of fact to say that every Indian, whether he owns up to it or not, has national aspirations. But there are as many opinions as there are Indian nationalists as to the exact meaning of that aspiration; and more especially as to the methods to be used to attain the end.
One of the accepted and ‘time-honoured’ methods to attain the end is that of violence. The assassination of Sir Curzon Wylie was an illustration of that method in its worst and most detestable form. Tolstoy’s life has been devoted to replacing the method of violence for removing tyranny or securing reform, by the method of non-resistance to evil. He would meet hatred expressed in violence by love expressed in self-suffering. He admits of no exception to whittle down this great and divine law of love. He applies it to all the problems that trouble mankind.
When a man like Tolstoy, one of the clearest thinkers in the western world; one of the greatest writers – one who as a soldier has known what violence is and what it can do – condemns Japan for having blindly followed the law of modern science, falsely so-called, and fears for that country ‘the greatest calamities’, it is for us to pause and consider whether, in our impatience of English rule, we do not want to replace one evil by another and a worse. India, which is the nursery of the great faiths of the world, will cease to be nationalist India, whatever else she may become, when she goes through the process of civilization in the shape of reproduction on that sacred soil of gun factories and the hateful industrialism which has reduced the people of Europe to a state of slavery; and all but stifled among them the best instincts which are the heritage of the human family.
If we do not want the English in India, we must pay the price. Tolstoy indicates it. ‘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’, passionately declares the sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Who can question the truth of what he says in the following: ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions.
Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand people, not athletes, but rather weak and ordinary people, have enslaved two hundred millions of vigorous, clever, capable, freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that not the English, but the Indians, have enslaved themselves?’ One need not accept all that Tolstoy says – some of his facts are not accurately stated – to realize the central truth of his indictment of the present system, which is to understand and act upon the irresistible power of the soul over the body, of love, which is an attribute of the soul, over the brute or body force generated by the stirring in us of evil passions.
There is no doubt that there is nothing new in what Tolstoy preaches. But his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all, he endeavours to practise what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.
19th November, 1909. M. K. Gandhi
“All that exists is One. People only call this One by different names”.
“God is love, and he that abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”.
I John iv. 16.
“God is one whole; we are the parts”.
Exposition of the teaching of the Vedas by Vivekananda
“Do not seek quiet and rest in those earthly realms where delusions and desires are engendered; for if you do, you will be dragged through the rough wilderness of life, which is far from Me.
“Whenever you feel that your feet are becoming entangled in the interlaced roots of life, know that you have strayed from the path to which I beckon you: for I have placed you in broad, smooth paths, which are strewn with flowers. I have put a light before you, which you can follow and thus run without stumbling”.
I have received your letter and two numbers of your periodical, both of which interest me extremely. The oppression of a majority by a minority, and the demoralization inevitably resulting from it, is a phenomenon that has always occupied me, and has done so most particularly of late. I will try to explain to you what I think about that subject in general, and particularly about the cause from which the dreadful evils of which you write in your letter – and in the Hindu periodical you have sent me – have arisen and continue to arise.
The reason for the astonishing fact that a majority of working people submit to a handful of idlers who control their labour and their very lives, is always and everywhere the same – whether the oppressors and oppressed are of one race; or whether, as in India and elsewhere, the oppressors are of a different nation.
This phenomenon seems particularly strange in India. There, more than two hundred million people – highly gifted both physically and mentally – find themselves in the power of a small group of people quite alien to them in thought; and immeasurably inferior to them in religious morality.
From your letter and the articles in Free Hindustan, as well as from the very interesting writings of the Hindu Swami Vivekananda and others, it appears that, as is the case in our time with the ills of all nations, the reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching. By explaining the meaning of life, such a thing would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct; and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science, with all the immoral conclusions deduced from them, which are commonly called ‘civilization’.
Your letter, as well as the articles in Free Hindustan and Indian political literature generally, shows that most of the leaders of public opinion among your people no longer attach any significance to the religious teachings that were and are professed by the peoples of India; and also recognize no possibility of freeing the people from the oppression they endure, except by adopting the irreligious and profoundly immoral social arrangements under which the English and other pseudo-Christian nations live today.
And yet the chief, if not the sole, cause of the enslavement of the Indian peoples by the English, lies in this very absence of a religious consciousness; and of the guidance for conduct which should flow from it. This is a lack common in our day to all nations East and West, from Japan to England and America alike.
“O you, who see perplexities over your heads, beneath your feet, and to the right and left of you! You will be an eternal enigma unto yourselves until you become humble and joyful as children.
“Then will you find Me, and having found Me in yourselves, you will rule over worlds, and looking out from the great world within to the little world without, you will bless everything that is, and find all is well with time and with you”.
To make my thoughts clear to you, I must go farther back. We do not, cannot, and I venture to say need not, know how men lived millions of years ago or even ten thousand years ago. But we do know positively that, as far back as we have any knowledge of mankind, it has always lived in special groups of families, tribes and nations in which the majority, in the conviction that it must be so, submissively and willingly bowed to the rule of one or more persons; that is, to a very small minority. Despite all varieties of circumstances a varieties of circumstances and personalities, these relations manifested themselves among the various peoples of whose origin we have any knowledge; and the farther back we go, the more necessary did this arrangement appear, both to the rulers and the ruled, to make it possible for people to live peacefully together.
So it was everywhere. But though this external form of life existed for centuries and still exists, very early – thousands of years before our time – amid this life based on coercion, one and the same thought constantly emerged among different nations.
Namely, that in every individual, a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists; and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love. This thought appeared in most various forms at different times and places, with varying completeness and clarity. It found expression in Brahmanism, Judaism, Mazdaism (the teachings of Zoroaster), in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and in the writings of the Greek and Roman sages, as well as in Christianity and Mohammedanism. The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times, indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others; and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society. Moreover, it was at first expressed only fragmentarily, and so obscurely that though people admitted its theoretic truth they could not entirely accept it as guidance for their conduct. Then, too, the dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion, was always hindered in one and the same manner; namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it; and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth – that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man – this truth, in order to force a way into man’s consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it; but also against deliberate violence – which by means of persecutions and punishments, sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth. Such a hindrance and misrepresentation of the truth – which had not yet achieved complete clarity – occurred everywhere: in Confucianism and Taoism, in Buddhism and in Christianity, in Mohammedanism and in your Brahmanism.
Extract from the chapter, “Letter to a Hindu” taken from Forbidden Words: On God, Alcohol, Vegetarianism and Violence by Leo Tolstoy, edited by Simon Parke.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published January 2010
Size: 5.5 x 8.5"