Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Tsarist government’s lack of support at the local level was glaringly revealed during the Volga famine of summer, 1891, which was caused by severe frosts in the winter followed by drought in the spring, and “exacerbated by the policy to finance industrialization by borrowing, which in turn had to be paid for by selling grain abroad.”[1] Covering an area twice the size of France, the famine together with the consequent cholera and typhus had killed half a million people by the end of 1892. On November 17, the government appointed the Tsarevich Nicholas as president of a special commission to provide help to the suffering, and was forced to appeal to the public to form voluntary organizations.


     At the height of the crisis, in October, 1891, Elder Ambrose of Optina died; and with his passing it seemed as if the revolutionary forces, which had been restrained for a decade, came back to life. They were led now by a privileged noble, the writer Count Lev Tolstoy, whom St. Ambrose had called “very proud” and who now joined the relief campaign. Under his influence the lawful expression of compassion for the poor in response to the state’s appeal was turned into an unlawful attack on the very foundations of that state.


     “With his two eldest daughters,” writes Oliver Figes, “he organized hundreds of canteens in the famine region, while Sonya, his wife, raised money from abroad. ‘I cannot describe in simple words the utter destitution and suffering of these people,’ he wrote to her at the end of October 1891. According to the peasant Sergei Semenov, who was a follower of Tolstoy and who joined him in his relief campaign, the great writer was so overcome by the experience of the peasants’ sufferings that his beard went grey, his hair became thinner and he lost a great deal of weight. The guilt-ridden Count blamed the famine crisis on the social order, the Orthodox Church and the government. ‘Everything has happened because of our own sin,’ he wrote to a friend in December. ‘We have cut ourselves off from our own brothers, and there is only one remedy – by repentance, by changing our lives, and by destroying the walls between us and the people.’ Tolstoy broadened his condemnation of social inequality in his essay ‘The Kingdom of God’ (1892) and in the press. His message struck a deep chord in the moral conscience of the liberal public, plagued as they were by feelings of guilt on account of their privilege and alienation from the peasantry. Semenov captured this sense of shame when he wrote of the relief campaign: ‘With every day the need and misery of the peasants grew. The scenes of starvation were deeply distressing, and it was all the more disturbing to see that amidst all this suffering and death there were sprawling estates, beautiful and well-furnished manors, and that the grand old life of the squires, with its jolly hunts and balls, its banquets and its concerts, carried on as usual.’ For the guilt-ridden liberal public, serving ‘the people’ through the relief campaign was a means of paying off their ‘debt’ to them. And they now turned to Tolstoy as their moral leader and their champion against the sins of the old regime. His condemnation of the government turned him into a public hero, a man of integrity whose word could be trusted as the truth on a subject which the regime had tried so hard to conceal.”[2]


     Already for over a decade, Tolstoy had abandoned his profession of a writer, for which everyone admired him and which gave him and millions of readers in many countries deep pleasure, for that of a false prophet who undermined the faith of millions in the true meaning of the Gospel. In a series of publications, Tolstoy denied all the dogmas of the Christian Faith, including the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, and every miraculous element in the Bible. The only part of the Gospel that he clung to was the Sermon on the Mount – but interpreted in a perverse way that led him to denounce property as theft, sexual activity as evil even in marriage, and all governments, armies and penal systems as unnecessary evils that only engendered further evils. While preaching poverty and love, he failed to practice what he preached in his own life, to the great distress of his wife and family; and while his work in relieving the effects of the famine was undoubtedly good, the use he made of the publicity he received from it was no less undoubtedly evil.


     Exploiting his fame and aristocratic birth, Tolstoy denounced the government, not only for the Samaran famine, but for almost everything else. As A.N. Wilson writes, he “defied his own Government’s censorship by printing appeals in The Daily Telegraph [of London]. Rumours began to reach the Tolstoys that the Government was thinking of taking action against him… The Minister for the Interior told the Emperor that Tolstoy’s letter to the English press ‘must be considered tantamount to a most shocking revolutionary proclamation’: not a judgement that can often have been made of a letter to The Daily Telegraph. Alexander III began to believe that it was all part of an English plot and the Moscow Gazette, which was fed from the Government, denounced Tolstoy’s letters as ‘frank propaganda for the overthrow of the whole social and economic structure of the world’.”[3] If such a characterization may seem absurdly exaggerated when made of the apostle of non-violence, it must be remembered that Tolstoy’s words could well have been interpreted as a call for world revolution, and that he did more for the revolutionary cause than a thousand professional conspirators.

     In this connection it is ironic that “while Lev Lvovich Tolstoy organized famine relief in the Samara district in 1891-92, there was one very conspicuous absentee from his band of helpers: Lenin, who was at that time in ‘internal exile’ there. According to a witness, Vladimir Ulyanov (as he still was) and a friend were the only two political exiles in Samara who refused to belong to any relief committee or to help in the soup kitchens. He was said to welcome the famine ‘as a factor in breaking down the peasantry and creating an industrial proletariat’. Trotsky, too, took the line that it was improper to do anything to improve the lot of the people while the autocracy remained in power. When they themselves seized power, the chaos and desolation were immeasurably worse. One thinks of the crop failure on the Volga in 1921 when somewhere between one and three million died, in spite of the fact that they allowed in foreign aid. By the time of the 1932-33 famine in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union was enjoying the munificent protection of Comrade Stalin. His policy was to allow no foreign aid, and no Government intervention. At least five million died…”[4] 

     “Russian society,” continues Figes, “had been activated and politicized by the famine crisis, its social conscience had been stung, and the old bureaucratic system had been discredited. Public mistrust of the government did not diminish once the crisis had passed, but strengthened as the representatives of civil society continued to press for a greater role in the administration of the nation’s affairs. The famine, it was said, had proved the culpability and incompetence of the old regime, and there was now a growing expectation that wider circles of society would have to be drawn into its work if another catastrophe was to be avoided. The zemstvos, which had spent the past decade battling to expand their activities in the face of growing bureaucratic opposition, were now strengthened by widespread support from the liberal public for their work in agronomy, public health and education. The liberal Moscow merchants and industrialists, who had rallied behind the relief campaign, now began to question the government’s policies of industrialization, which seemed so ruinous for the peasantry, the main buyers of their manufactures. From the middle of the 1890s they too supported the various projects of the zemstvos and municipal bodies to revive the rural economy. Physicians, teachers and engineers, who had all been forced to organize themselves as a result of their involvement in the relief campaign, now began to demand more professional autonomy and influence over public policy; and when they failed to make any advances they began to campaign for political reforms. In the press, in the ‘thick journals’, in the universities, and in learned and philanthropic societies, the debates on the causes of the famine – and on reforms needed to prevent its recurrence – continued to rage throughout the 1890s, long after the immediate crisis had passed. 

     “The socialist opposition, which had been largely dormant in the 1880s, sprang back into life with a renewed vigour as a result of these debates. There was a revival of the Populist movement (later rechristened Neo-Populism), culminating in 1901 with the establishment of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Under the leadership of Viktor Chernov (1873-1952), a law graduate from Moscow University who had been imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for his role in the student movement, it embraced the new Marxist sociology whilst still adhering to the Populist belief that all the workers and peasants alike - what it called the ‘labouring people’ – were united by their poverty and their opposition to the regime. Briefly, then, in the wake of the famine, there was growing unity between the Marxists and the Neo-Populists as they put aside their differences about the development of capitalism (which the SRs now accepted as a fact) and concentrated on the democratic struggle…

     “Marxism as a social science was fast becoming the national creed: it alone seemed to explain the causes of the famine. Universities and learned societies were swept along by the new intellectual fashion. Even such well-established institutions as the Free Economic Society fell under the influence of the Marxists, who produced libraries of social statistics, dressed up as studies of the causes of the great starvation, to prove the truth of Marx’s economic laws. Socialists who had previously wavered in their Marxism were now completely converted in the wake of the famine crisis, when, it seemed to them, there was no more hope in the Populist faith in the peasantry. Petr Struve (1870-1944), who had previously thought of himself as a political liberal, found his Marxist passions stirred by the crisis: it ‘made much more of a Marxist out of me than the reading of Marx’s Capital’. Martov also recalled how the crisis had turned him into a Marxist: ‘It suddenly became clear to me how superficial and groundless the whole of my revolutionism had been until then, and how my subjective political romanticism was dwarfed before the philosophical and sociological heights of Marxism.’ Even the young Lenin only became converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis.

     “In short, the whole of society had been politicized and radicalized as a result of the famine crisis. The conflict between the population and the regime had been set in motion…”[5]

     Was Lenin a real Marxist? Certainly - although he owed almost as much to Bakuninist anarchism as to Marxism. “There is no doubt that Lenin saw himself as a true follower of Marx—and he had every reason to. By the end of the 19th century, socialist thought was dividing. Marx's laws of motion were failing. Capitalism still flourished: no sign of the falling rate of profit that would signal its end. The working class was getting the vote. The welfare state was taking shape. Factory conditions were improving and wages were rising well above the floor of subsistence. All this was contrary to Marx's laws.

     “In response, the left was splitting. On one side were reformers and social democrats who saw that capitalism could be given a human face. On the other were those who believed that Marx's system could be developed and restated, always true to its underlying logic—and, crucially, with its revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary character brought to the fore.

     “Whose side in this would Marx have been on? Revolution or reform? Would he have continued to insist that the vampire be destroyed? Or would he have turned reformer, asking it nicely to suck a bit less blood? The latter seems unlikely. Marx was a scholar, but he was also a fanatic and a revolutionary. His incapacity for compromise (with comrades, let alone opponents) was pathological. And in the preface to the 1882 Russian edition of the Manifesto, his last published writing, Marx hoped that a revolution in Russia might become ‘the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other’; if so, Russia, despite its pre-capitalist characteristics, ‘may serve as the starting-point for a communist development.’ Lenin was surely right to believe that he, not those soft-headed bourgeois accommodationists, was true to the master's thought.”[6]

    The fruits of the radicalization of society resulting from the Volga famine were not slow to reveal themselves. In 1897 the “Universal Jewish Workers’ Union in Russia, Poland and Lithuania”, otherwise known as the Bund, was founded. In the spring of the next year the Russian Social-Democratic Party was founded.

     It was from the Russian S-Ds that both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks came. The party was founded with the active participation of the Bund.[7] The Russian-Jewish revolutionary underground had received its first organizational impulse…

     Lenin said that Tolstoy was “the mirror of the Russian revolution”. However, this is only part of the truth: to a significant degree, Tolstoy was also the father of the revolution.[8]His first (unrealised) literary project was to write a novel on the Decembrists, the failed revolutionaries of 1825, one of whom, Sergei Volkonsky, had been his relative. His last, Resurrection, published in 1899, was a sustained attack on the existing order and the Orthodox Church; it inspired the failed revolution of 1905. No wonder that throughout the Soviet period, while other authors were banned and their works destroyed, the Jubilee edition of Tolstoy’s Complete Works (1928) continued to sell in vast numbers…

October 29 / November 11, 2017.



[1] Sebastian Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs, London: Vintage, 2016, p. 471.

[2] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 160.

[3] Wilson, Tolstoy, London: Atlantic Books, 2012, p. 402.

[4] Wilson, op. cit., p. 403.

[5] Figes, op. cit., pp. 160-162.

[6] “Marx after Communism”, The Economist, December 19, 2002.

[7] V.F. Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo ot Petra I do nashikh dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia from Peter I to our days), Moscow, 1997. p. 363.

[8] Lenin also said of Tolstoy, on the one hand, that he was a “spirited man” who “unmasked everyone and everything,” but on the other hand, he was also a “worn-out, hysterical slave to power,” preaching non-resistance to evil. As for Dostoyevsky’s works, he called them “vomit-inducing moralization,” “penitential hysteria” (on Crime and Punishment), “malodorous” (on The Brothers Karamazov and The Devils), “clearly reactionary filth… I read it and threw it at the wall” (on The Devils)."

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