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Leo Tolstoy and The Free Age Press

There were a number of books that Tolstoy wrote that were never, in his lifetime, allowed to be published 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 midlife 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 A. C. Fifield. Over the next few years, this small press produced 424 million pages of Tolstoy’s writing. Its propagating work was then carried on by the publisher C. W. Daniel, also a fan of Tolstoy, and who acquired the rights of the Free Age Press around 1906. (Daniel was to visit Tolstoy himself in 1909.)

The mission statement of the Free Age Press reveals it to have been an organ for moral self-improvement; and built around the works of one man:

The Free Age Press is an earnest effort to spread those deep convictions in which the noblest spirits of every age and race have believed – that mans true aim and happiness is “Unity in reason and love”; the realization of the brotherhood of all men: that we must all strive to eradicate, each from himself, those false ideas, false feelings, and false desires, – personal, social, religious, economic – which alienate us from one another and produce nine tenths of all human suffering.

Of these truly Christian and universal religious aspirations, the writings of Leo Tolstoy are today perhaps the most definite expression, and it is to the production of very cheap editions of his most extant religious, social and ethical works, together with much unpublished matter and his new writings, to which we have special access (being in close touch with Tolstoy), that we are at present confining ourselves. We earnestly trust that all who sympathize will continue to assist us by every means in their power, and help to make publications more widely known. It is Tolstoy’s desire that his books shall not be copyrighted, and as we share this view all Free Age Press translations and editions (with one as yet unavoidable exception), are and will be issued free of copyright and maybe reprinted by anyone.

“We have already commenced to collect all Tolstoy’s essays into more permanent cloth bound volumes.” This was signed by Chertkov as ‘editor’, but he was a good deal more than that. The company started in Purleigh, Essex, but Chertkov soon moved it to Tuckton House, in Bournemouth, on the south coast. This became the centre of operations, whilst a former water works nearby became the publishing house. A picture of Tolstoy hung on the wall at Tuckton, and Chertkov created a special strong room in which to preserve all the manuscripts and papers. And it was a strong room, lined with steel and fire proof bricks. Indeed, as A. N. Wilson records in his excellent biography of Tolstoy, when the room had to be demolished in 1965, it took two workmen a whole week to make a tiny hole in the wall of this Tolstoyan sanctuary. During his time there, no one but Chertkov was allowed access to the room.

It was in Tuckton House that Chertkov both gathered and copied all the material that was eventually to become the 90-volume edition of Tolstoy’s works published in Russia; and it was in the publishing house down the road – in the Ilford water works in Southbourne – that numerous tracts by Tolstoy were produced by the Free Age Press; tracts banned in Russia at the time. Some of the works are presented here, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death and in an attempt to pay homage to the Free Age Press.

Leo Tolstoy died on the railway station in Astapovo, in November, 1910. By then, however, thanks to the Free Age Press, his writings and message were spilling out way beyond the borders of his Russian homeland. The censors could only reach so far…

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