The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 15

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London: Cassell, pages 131–135



During the night of July 10th, 1895, at three different places in Trans-Caucasia, the Dukhobors piled up their arms, poured oil upon them, and then burned them amid the singing of psalms. When we Tolstoyans learned the motives of this remarkable act, we were struck by the spiritual affinity between us and the leaders of the Dukhobor movement. This affinity led the authorities, as well as independent investigators, to ascribe the Dukhobor movement to the propagation amongst them of Tolstoy's ideas. In reality, the Dukhobor movement was much more complicated. The Dukhobor teaching had existed for over a century, and its main principles—condemnation of violence, of taking life, and of all church ritual—came very near to Tolstoy's conception of Christianity. The positive side of their teaching—productive communities, brotherhood, and solidarity—is certainly very similar to that of Tolstoy. Therefore the Dukhobor leaders, although but slightly acquainted with his works, were delighted, and recognised in him a great spiritual authority. Certainly, by this affinity and his genius, Tolstoy, even against his will, became a leader of the movement. In sympathy with their true Christian conduct, their humble, patient endurance of hardships and tortures at the hands of the military authorities, their gentle answers to their persecutors, their habit of mutual aid, Tolstoy tried in every way to assist them—morally and materially. He used his influence in high quarters; he urged his friends to do the same, and to give personal help to these poor sufferers when expelled from their homes and distributed among the villages of the non-Russian mountain population. He forwarded to them donations which he had received on their behalf, and his letters to them were in the most touching and kindly terms. When the condition of the exiled Dukhobors began to be very critical, some of their friends addressed an appeal to the Russian public in order to put an end to the terrible persecution by the Government. Tolstoy joined in the appeal, and wrote a strong and powerful afterword to it. The signatories to the document, as well as some of those who had helped the Dukhobors, were exiled to the Baltic provinces, and others were banished to foreign countries. The weight of the whole organisation of assistance and protection then fell upon Tolstoy's shoulders. At last the permission of the Government was obtained for the Dukhobors to emigrate. They began their preparations, but, ruined as they were, and dispersed in exile, they had no means to make a start or to charter a steamer to carry them to Canada, where the authorities had promised them land. A large sum of money was needed, and to collect it in Russia was extremely difficult. Then Tolstoy came to the rescue. He put the finishing touches to a novel begun long before, and offered it to the well-known publisher, Marx, on condition that all author's fees should be devoted to Dukhobor emigration. In response to an appeal to the English Quakers for help, and to other friends of the Dukhobors, further funds were collected, and the emigration took place. In this way Tolstoy's magnanimous aid to the Dukhobors gave the whole intellectual world the moral benefit of his great novel, "Resurrection."

It is not necessary to dwell on the contents of this well-known work, but only to point out that the fall and regeneration of a human soul are depicted in it with the deepest insight and utmost veracity. Throughout the novel the State, the Church, and the existing social order are criticised, as well as human relations. Owing to this critical side the novel was never published in full in Russia. The complete text was brought out in England by Tchertkoff who, owing to the Dukhobor movement, was banished from Russia. He started "The Free Age Press" publications in England, and for eight years issued all the first editions of Tolstoy's work of that period.

The connection between Tolstoy and the Dukhobors was maintained, and they regularly informed him as to the condition of their life in their communities.

The Dukhobor movement had a world-wide importance, and Tolstoy's participation in it raised it yet higher in public estimation. News of it was published in all civilised countries, and the example of Christian self-denial found imitators in France, England, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, where more or less numerous groups were formed with the aim of realising in life the true teachings of Jesus. In many countries military service was refused, in spite of severe punishment. Communities were organised and agricultural colonies were started; a series of periodicals was published devoted to the investigation of Christian questions; and the vegetarian movement also increased.

At that time Tolstoy wrote quite a number of articles, of which mention shall be made only of the more important. The first to be noted was an essay, "What is Art?" in which he severely examined contemporary art, and gave the basis for a new Christian art, accessible to the people, sincere, serious in subject, and, if possible, perfect in technique. He allowed "The Free Age Press" to publish his unfinished "Christian Teaching." Another series dealt with contemporary problems of Russian and foreign life.