Written by Vladimir Moss



     During the last decades of his life, the famous novelist Lev Tolstoy had abandoned his profession of a writer, for which everyone admired him and which gave deep pleasure to millions of readers in many countries, 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 showed himself a disciple of the German philosopher Schopenhauer, whom he called “the greatest genius among men”, and came to believe with him and Solomon that all is vanity in the face of death. But the greatest influence on him was the rationalism of western civilization; believing that dogma was true only if it agreed with reason (he translated the beginning of St. John’s Gospel thus: “In the beginning was reasoning...”), he 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 Volga famine of 1891-92 was undoubtedly good, the use he made of the publicity he received from it was no less undoubtedly evil.


     It was during the Volga famine that Tolstoy became famed as an opponent of the government. The famine, which began in the 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 by the powerful hand of Tsar Alexander III, came back to life. Tolstoy, whom St. Ambrose had called “very proud”, now joined the relief campaign. “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] 

     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 [Local Councils], 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]

    One of Tolstoy’s most characteristic teachings was his doctrine of non-resistance to evil, which influenced Gandhi in his campaign of civil disobedience to the British authorities in India. Carried through to its logical conclusion, this teaching undermined the attempts of the Russian government – indeed, any government – to prevent terrorism and political assassination, a vast wave of which began to roll through the Russian land towards the end of the century. It also directly contradicted the teaching of St. Paul that the tsar or political ruler “is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13.14).

     Tolstoy’s theory was refuted by Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin, who was professor of law in Moscow University until his expulsion from Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1922. Nicholas Lossky summarises his argument as follows: “Ilyin says that Tolstoy calls all recourse to force in the struggle with evil ‘violence’ and regards it as an attempt ‘sacrilegiously’ to usurp God’s will by invading another person’s inner life which is in God’s hands. Ilyin thinks that Tolstoy’s doctrine contains the following absurdity: ‘When a villain injures an honest man or demoralizes a child, that, apparently, is God’s will; but when an honest man tries to hinder the villain, it is not God’s will.’

     “Ilyin begins the constructive part of his book by pointing out that not every application of force should be described as ‘violence’; for it is an opprobrious term and prejudges the issue. The name ‘violence’ should only be given to arbitrary, unreasonable compulsion proceeding from an evil mind or directed towards evil (29f.). In order to prevent the irremediable consequences of a blunder or of an evil passion a man who strives after the good must in the first instance seek mental and spiritual means to overcome evil by good. But if he has no such means at his disposal, he is bound to use mental or physical compulsion and prevention. ‘It is right to push away from the brink of a precipice an absent-minded wayfarer; to snatch the bottle of poison from an embittered suicide; to strike at the right moment the hand of a political assassin aiming at his victim; to knock down an incendiary in the nick of time; to drive out of a church shameless desecrators; to make an armed attack against a crowd of soldiers raping a child.’ (54). ‘Resistance to evil by force and by the sword is permissible not when it is possible, but when it is necessary because there are no other means available’: in that case it is not only a man’s right but his duty to enter that path (195f.) even though it may lead to the malefactor’s death.

     “Does this imply that the end justifies the means? No, certainly not. The evil of physical compulsion or prevention does not become good because it is used as the only means in our power for attaining a good end. In such cases, says Ilyin, the way of force and of the sword ‘is both obligatory and unrighteous’ (197). ‘Only the best of men can carry out that unrighteousness without being infected by it, can find and observe the proper limits in it, can remember that it is wrong and spiritually dangerous, and discover personal and social antidotes for it. By comparison with the rulers of the state happy are the monks, the scholars, the artists and thinkers: it is given to them to do clean work with clean hands. They must not, however, judge or condemn the soldiers and politicians, but be grateful to them and pray that they may be cleansed from their sin and made wise: their own hands are clean for doing clean work only because other people had clean hands for doing dirty work’ (209). ‘If the principle of state compulsion and prevention were expressed by the figure of a warrior, and the principle of religious purification, prayer and righteousness by the figure of a monk – the solution of the problem would consist in recognizing their necessity to each other’ (219).”[6]


     Tolstoy had a deep influence on many people at all levels of society. His teaching became very popular both at home and abroad (especially in England), both among the educated and the peasants. Soon his followers, although not organized into any “Church”, were rivalling other sects such as the Baptists, the Stundists, the Molokans and the Dukhobors in numbers and influence.

    It was the publishing of his novel Resurrection (1899) that was the last straw for the Church. The novel, which sold more copies than any of his earlier works,portrayed a society so rotten and oppressive that revolution was inevitable.It also subjected the teaching and sacraments of the Orthodox Church to ridicule. If the government felt that it could not censor Tolstoy and thereby make a political martyr out of him, then the Church, spurred on by the over-procurator, Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, felt otherwise…


     On February 24, 1901 the Holy Synod anathematised him, declaring: “Well known to the world as a writer, Russian by birth, Orthodox by baptism and education, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, seduced by intellectual pride, has arrogantly risen against the Lord and His Christ and His Holy heritage, and has plainly in the sight of all repudiated his Orthodox Mother Church which reared and educated him and has dedicated his literary activity and the talent given to him by God to disseminating among the people teachings opposed to Christ and the Church, and to destroying in the minds and hearts of people their national faith, that Orthodox faith which has been confirmed by the Universe and in which our forefathers lived and were saved, and to which Holy Russia until now has clung and in which it has been strong...


     In his writings Count Lev Tolstoy has blasphemed against the holy sacraments, denying their grace-filled character, has not venerated the Orthodox Church as his Church, has spoken evil of the clergy, has said that he considers that to venerate Christ and worship Him as God is blasphemy, while saying of himself, by contrast: ‘I am in God, and God in me’. It is not the Church that has rejected him, casting him off from herself, but he himself has rejected the Church: Lev himself has of his own will fallen away from the Church and is no longer a son of the Church, but is hostile to her. All attempts of the clergy to admonish the prodigal have failed to produce the desired fruits: in his pride he has considered himself cleverer than all, less fallible than all and the judge of all, and the Church has made a declaration about the falling away of Count Lev Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church.”

     Educated Russians, who were liberals almost to a man, rushed to the defence of Tolstoy. Among them was a young bishop with leftist tendencies, Sergius (Stragorodsky), who later welcomed the revolution and was appointed first patriarch of the Sovietized Moscow Patriarchate. “Sergius,” writes G.M. Soldatov, “was popular in circles waiting for the introduction of ‘democratic’ reforms in the State. In his sermons and speeches he criticized the relationship between the ecclesiastical and state authorities in the Russian Empire.”[7] This would have been a risky subject to raise only ten years earlier; but times were changing rapidly, and Sergius, as his future career proved, was always sensitive to how the times were changing, and accommodated himself to them accordingly… 

     However, the Church found a true champion against Tolstoy and the liberals in the person of the extraordinary wonder-working priest St. John of Kronstadt, who wrote of Tolstoy that he had “made himself into a complete savage with regards to the faith and the Church.” He called him not only a heretic, but also an antichrist, and refused to receive honorary membership of Yuriev university if Tolstoy was to receive the same honour.[8] St. John lamented that “the Church of God on earth, the beloved bride, is impoverished, she suffers from the savage attacks on her from the atheist Leo Tolstoy…”

     For Tolstoy, wrote St. John, “there is no supreme spiritual perfection in the sense of the achievements of Christian virtues – simplicity, humility, purity of heart, chastity, repentance, faith, hope, love in the Christian sense; he does not recognize Christian endeavours; he laughs at holiness and sacred things – it is himself he adores, and he bows down before himself, like an idol, like a superman; I, and no one else but me, muses Tolstoy. You are all wrong; I have revealed the truth and am teaching everyone the truth! The Gospel according to Tolstoy is an invention and a fairy tale. So, Orthodox people, who is Lev Tolstoy? He is a lion roaring [lev rykayushchy], looking for someone to devour [I Peter 5.8]. And how many he has devoured with his flattering pages! Watch out for him.”[9]


     St. John was opposed not only to Tolstoy, but also to the whole “proto-renovationist” current in the Church led by Bishop Sergius. “These people,” he wrote, “are rejecting the Church, the sacraments, the authority of the clergy and they have even thought up a journal The New Way [which published published reports on the religio-philosophical meetings in St. Petersburg]. This journal has undertaken to search for God, as if the Lord had not appeared to people and had not revealed the true way. They will find no other way than in Christ Jesus, our Lord. […] It is Satan who reveals all of these new ways and stupid people who don’t understand what they are doing and are driving themselves and their nation to ruin by spreading their satanic ideas among the nation.”[10]


     St. John especially bemoaned Tolstoy’s influence on youth: “Our intelligenty youths have subverted the social and educational order, they have taken politics and the law-courts upon themselves without being called to do so by anyone; they have taken to judging their masters, their teachers, the government and all but kings themselves; together with their head, Leo Tolstoy, they have judged and condemned the universal and fearful Judge Himself… Verily, the day of the dread Judgement is near, for the deviation from God which was foretold has already occurred and the forerunner of the antichrist has already revealed himself, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped.”[11]


     Fr. John was supported by the better clergy, such as the future metropolitan and hieromartyr Metropolitan of Petrograd, Fr. Joseph (Petrovykh), who wrote: “Lack of faith, impiety and all kinds of harmful tendencies are now pouring over Holy Rus’ in a still more swollen river. They were restrained by this powerful personality [Fr. John], who was put forward by the Providence of God to oppose the heretic Tolstoy.”[12]


     In a way, Russian society around the turn of the century could be divided into those who believed in Tolstoy and those who believed in John of Kronstadt. Some believed, first in one, and then in the other. The latter included the future hieromartyr-bishop and organizer of the Catacomb Church, Michael Alexandrovich Novoselov. In 1886 he graduated from the historical-philological faculty of Moscow Imperial University. During this period he got to know Tolstoy, who often visited his father when he lived in Tula, and became a close friend and disciple of his. There exists a copious correspondence between them from the period 1886-1901. Michael Alexandrovich was arrested on December 27, 1887, together with some young friends who had been infected with the ideas of the "People's Will" movement, for possessing some literature of this movement as well as Tolstoy's brochure "Nicholas Palkin", and might well have been sent to Siberia if it had not been for the intervention of Tolstoy himself. In February, 1888, Michael Alexandrovich was released but forbidden to live in the capitals. Abandoning any thought of a career in teaching, Michael Alexandrovich bought some land in the village of Dugino, Tver province, and created one of the first Tolstoyan land communes in Russia. However, the peasants' refusal to accept the commune, and their patient endurance of their hard life, gradually led Michael Alexandrovich to question his own beliefs and pay more attention to the world-view of the peasants - Orthodoxy. Moreover, on one point he could never agree with Tolstoy - his rejection of the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the element of mystery in human life. Finally, he broke with him, and spoke against his teachings for the rest of his life, while acknowledging the very significant influence he had had on him. Tolstoy’s last letter, written in Optina Desert, was addressed to M.A. Novoselov. Michael Alexandrovich did not succeed in replying to it, but much later said that if he had been able, he probably would not have replied. After the break with Tolstoy, he became very close to St. John of Kronstadt and the Optina and Zosima Desert elders…



     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.[13]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, 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…

     In 1910, still clinging to his false reasoning and having abandoned the Orthodox faith, Tolstoy died, still unreconciled with God and the Church…

     To his sister, who was a nun, his voluntary rejection of the truth was revealed in a vision: “When I returned from the burial of my brother Sergius to my home in the monastery, I had some kind of dream or vision which shook me to the depths of my soul. After I had completed my usual cell rule, I began to doze off, or fell into some kind of special condition between sleep and waking, which we monastics call a light sleep. I dropped off, and beheld... It was night. There was the study of Lev Nikolayevich. On the writing desk stood a lamp with a dark lampshade. Behind the desk, and leaning with his elbows on it, sat Lev Nikolayevich, andon his face there was the mark of such serious thought, and such despair, as I had never seen in him before... The room was filled with a thick, impenetrable darkness; the only illumination was of that place on the table and on the face of Lev Nikolayevich on which the light of the lamp was falling. The darkness in the room was so thick, so impenetrable, that it even seemed as if it were filled, saturated with some materialisation... And suddenly I saw the ceiling of the study open, and from somewhere in the heights there began to pour such a blindingly wonderful light, the like of which cannot be seen on earth; and in this light there appeared the Lord Jesus Christ, in that form in which He is portrayed in Rome, in the picture of the holy Martyr and Archdeacon Laurence: the all-pure hands of the Saviour were spread out in the air above Lev Nikolayevich, as if removing from invisible executioners the instruments of torture. It looks just like that in the picture. And this ineffable light poured and poured onto Lev Nikolayevich. But it was as if he didn't see it... And I wanted to shout to my brother: Levushka, look, look up!... And suddenly, behind Lev Nikolayevich, - I saw it with terror, - from the very thickness of the darkness I began to make out another figure, a terrifying, cruel figure that made me tremble: and this figure, placing both its hands from behind over the eyes of Lev Nikolayevich, shut out that wonderful light from him. And I saw that my Levushka was making despairing efforts to push away those cruel, merciless hands...

     “At this point I came to, and, as I came to, I heard a voice speaking as it were inside me: 'The Light of Christ enlightens everyone!’”[14]


January 10/23, 2019.


[1] Montefiore, The Romanovs, London, 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] Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy, London: Allen & Unwin, 1952, pp. 388-389.

[7] Soldatov, “Tolstoj i Sergij: Iude Podobnie” (Tolstoy and Sergius: Images of Judas), Nasha Strana (Our Country),N 2786; Vernost’ (Fidelity),N 32, January 1/14, 2006.

[8] 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. 379.

[9] St. John, in Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy. A Russian Life, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, p. 397.

[10] Robert Bird, “Metropolitan Philaret and the Secular Culture of His Age”, in Vladimir Tsurikov (ed.), Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow 1782-1867, The Variable Press, USA, 2003, p. 25.

[11] Soldatov, op. cit.; Nadieszda Kizenko, A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000, p. 249.

[12] St. Joseph of Petrograd, In the Father’s Bosom: A Monk’s Diary, 3864; in M.S. Sakharov and L.E. Sikorskaia, Sviaschennomuchenik Iosif Mitropolit Petrogradskij (Hieromartyr Joseph, Metropolitan of Petrograd), St. Petersburg, 2006, p. 254.

[13] 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)."

[14] I.M. Kontzevich, Optina Pustyn' i ee Vremia (Optina Desert and its Era), Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1970, pp. 372-73.

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