On the Banks of the Tom

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans in Soviet Russia translated and edited by William Edgerton
    Indiana, 308 pp, £25.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 253 31911 0

Leo Tolstoy was not only a great writer but also a passionately outspoken public moralist in the Russian prophetic mode followed a century later by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A political presence because of his impact on public opinion, he steered clear of direct political involvement. He was above politics. ‘On the one hand,’ Lenin wrote of him in 1908, ‘we have a remarkably powerful, direct and sincere protest against social lies and falsehood, while on the other we have the Tolstoyan, i.e. the washed-out, hysterical cry-baby known as the Russian intellectual, who publicly beats his breast and cries: I am vile, I am wretched, but I am morally perfecting myself; I do not eat meat any more and now feed only on rice patties.’

It was not Tolstoy’s intention to found a movement. All the same, one emerged, in Russia as in other parts of the world, around the turn of the century, attracting those who shared Tolstoy’s asceticism, vegetarianism, pacifism, renunciation of privilege, communalism, and his sense of the special virtues of peasant life and labour. In Russia the prime movers were Tolstoy’s friend and disciple, V.G. Chertkov and I.I. Gorbunov-Posadov, editor of Posrednik (the Intermediary), to which before the Revolution Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, contributed articles on progressive education. The organisational centre, in so far as the Russian Tolstoyan movement ever had one, was the Moscow Vegetarian Society, founded in 1909 under the chairmanship of Gorbunov-Posadov. On impressionistic evidence, the experiences of the First World War won more converts to Tolstoyanism – or to a quasi-Tolstoyan disgust with the barbarism of war – among Russian soldiers. But then came revolution. In February 1917, the old regime fell. In October, the Bolsheviks seized power.

Bolshevism and Tolstoyanism were scarcely natural soulmates. But they were not necessarily antagonists either, or so it seemed in the first years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin’s wife was not the only Bolshevik intellectual to have cordial relations with some of the leading Tolstoyans. The same was true of V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, an expert on the history of Russian religious dissent who was both a close friend of the Tolstoyan Chertkov and a friend and sometime secretary of Lenin’s: indeed, it was true of almost all the ‘soft’ Bolshevik leaders of the Twenties – men like Lunacharsky, the first People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Kalinin, the formal head of the Soviet Government, and Smidovich, who ran the Government’s Office of Religious Affairs in the late Twenties and early Thirties.

As a result of discussions between Lenin and Chertkov during the Civil War, Chertkov’s United Council of Religious Communities and Groups was authorised to review requests for exemption from service in the Red Army on the basis of religious conviction. The principle of conscientious objection was endorsed by the Soviet Government in 1919 – which did not, of course, mean that local Soviet authorities necessarily respected it. (Exemption for conscientious objectors was regularly reaffirmed in laws and instructions up to 1933, but from the latter half of the Twenties such exemptions became increasingly rare, and the clause was dropped altogether in 1939.)

The Twenties were great years for anyone in search of ideas and precepts to live by. Such dreamers and truth-seekers might be either intellectuals or simple, uneducated people, and they might drift in the direction of the Tolstoyans or the Bolsheviks, or in each direction in turn. Young people who formed urban communes were as likely to be inspired by Tolstoy as by Marx (or by Marx as Tolstoy); and the enthusiasts who went to the countryside to form agricultural communes and collective farms included Tolstoyans and Bolsheviks.

To be sure, these Tolstoyan pioneers were a tiny minority, but they can be seen as part of a much broader trend of conversion to non-Orthodox religion confessions. These ‘sects’, as the Russians called them, made great headway in Russia in the first thirty years of this century. It was estimated that the membership of Western Protestant sects in particular quadrupled in little more than a decade between the Revolution and the end of the Twenties. For much of that time, the official Soviet attitude to Protestant sects – as distinct from the Orthodox Church under Patriarch Tikhon or, still worse, the Catholic Church – was generally positive. In 1924, on the initiative of Kalinin and Bonch-Bruevich, a national congress of the Communist Party even passed a resolution warning the Party’s militant atheists not to put undue pressure on sectarians, since they had a real cultural and economic contribution to make to Soviet society, and moreover had suffered great persecution under the Tsars.

The Soviet regime’s tolerance of Tolstoyans, as of so much else, started to erode in the late Twenties, and by the late Thirties had disappeared entirely. It was collectivisation, ironically, that destroyed almost all the sectarian agricultural communes that had developed in the Twenties, including some of the most prosperous and efficient collective farms in the country. The Tolstoyan communes were not among the economic exemplars, but all the same one of them, the Life and Labour commune at Shestakovka, led by Boris Mazurin, was among the few survivors: a deal worked out by Chertkov and Smidovich in 1931 allowed its members to move from Central Russia to Western Siberia, on the banks of the Tom River, and re-establish their commune there. Tolstoyans and some other sectarian communards were allowed to join the Shestakovka group in Siberia, and the new commune flourished until the beginning of the Great Purges in 1936, when Mazurin and most of its leading spirits were arrested, and the commune was forced to merge with an ordinary kolkhoz.

Tolstoyans remained a proscribed and intermittently persecuted group, along with other religious sects, in the post-war period. But the Tom River commune had a brief and evidently serendipitous revival as a collective farm in the late Forties, when Mazurin’s release from labour camp coincided with the need to rebuild the kolkhoz on a new location following a decision to start mining coal on the old site. That lasted until 1957, when the kolkhoz was turned into a state farm. There were fresh arrests of Tolstoyan ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in Moscow at the beginning of the Fifties.

Later that decade, other Tolstoyans, survivors of the arrests of the late Thirties, began to return from the labour camps, living quietly far from the capitals and generally isolated from fellow Tolstoyans. Of course, Tolstoy the novelist continued to be admired by generations of Russians, but the vast majority heard virtually nothing of Tolstoy the moralist, though in classes on Leninism and Party history schoolchildren would probably get to know what Lenin had said.

It was not until the Eighties that the first signs of a revival of interest in the Tolstoyan heritage emerged. A dissident journalist, Mark Popovsky, who had gathered a collection of Tolstoyan letters, diaries and memoirs, emigrated to the West and published (in Russian) a volume entitled Russian Peasants Tell Their Story in London in 1983. Then Arseny Roginsky entered the picture. Currently a leader of the Memorial society in the former Soviet Union, and for some years in the Eighties a prisoner in Soviet labour camps for the crime of publishing Soviet archival documents abroad, Roginsky compiled and annotated the first edition of Tolstoyan memoirs to appear legally in Russia: Memoirs of Peasant Tolstoyans (1989).

The present volume is a scaled-down English version of Roginsky’s book. Professor Edgerton’s introduction, drawing on Roginsky’s more detailed end-notes, serves the purpose adequately, but leaves the reader eager to learn more about the strange history of the Tolstoyan movement in Russia in the first third of this century. For the time being, however, this desire is likely to be frustrated. Despite the fact that the former Soviet archives are now open, there are as yet no good scholarly studies in Russian or English of the Tolstoyan movement in the Soviet period or, more broadly, of Russian sectarianism since the Revolution.

It is only half-accurate to describe the memoirs in this volume as memoirs of ‘peasant’ Tolstoyans. Like the Tolstoyan movement as a whole, the memoirists represented here are a mixture of intellectuals who wanted to work as peasants and peasants who, with the help of Tolstoy’s writings, had become autodidacts, ‘intellectuals from the people’. In the first category come Boris Mazurin, the son of a Tolstoyan intellectual, trained as an engineer whose memoir in this edition deals with the Shestakovka and Tom River communes but not (as in the Russian edition) his labour camp experiences; and Yelena Shershenova, the daughter of a friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and an alumna of the New Jerusalem and Shestakovka communes of the Twenties. In the second category come Dmitry Morgachev and Yakov Dragunovsky, born in 1892 and 1886 respectively, along with Dragunovsky’s son Ivan, who in 1931 came with his father from a Stavropol commune to join the Siberian group.

There are memorable moments in all the memoirs. In Shershenova’s account of the New Jerusalem commune, questions involving the upbringing of children loom large. Was a mother justified in devoting herself to her child, or did that necessarily detract from her commitment to the commune? Should the children live with their parents or in a separate children’s house in the commune?

Several memoirists recall the problem of ‘strippers’, those communards whose Tolstoyan principles led them to repudiate even clothing. (This was not only a Tolstoyan problem: other memoirs of Russia in the Twenties mention strippers who seemed above all interested in shocking the bourgeoisie – and the Communists.) The issue of hand-farming – that is, farming without the use of draught animals so as not to participate in animal exploitation – is also recalled by some of the memoirists, with varying degrees of approval.

Boris Mazurin, the dominant figure in both the Shestakovka and Tom River communes, comes across as a highly practical man, more pragmatic and less inclined to anguished self-examination than many of the Tolstoyans. Hand-farming, for example, went a bit too far for Mazurin. His practical qualities kept the two communes afloat and no doubt had something to do with his survival after 1936. Yet even Mazurin had his spiritual side. It was with great pain, he writes, that he heard himself described in the labour camp as a man with a ‘crafty look’ (almost certainly intended as a compliment). Perhaps he had acquired that look, he conceded, but it was a mark of how much he had lost when he was dragged out of the peaceful isolation of the commune and into Soviet reality. ‘This was the principal content of our life in the commune – life with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of God’s world, living life to the fullest, without any crafty look.’

In the two long peasant memoirs, Margachev’s and Yakov Dragunovsky’s, the acquiring of Tolstoyan illumination is inextricably linked with the First World War and the authors’ experiences on the battlefield. Particularly vivid is Dragunovsky’s juxtaposition of a horrifying battle – ‘death ... flying, roaring and exploding all around me’, men buried alive in the trenches, heads and limbs shattered – with a moment away from the human world: ‘Here beside us, above a little stream in the forest, a nightingale poured forth its silvery notes and trills all night long. In the backwaters of the stream, the frogs were croaking away, and they too appeared to be undisturbed by the senselessness of men.’

Morgachev’s memoir includes a fascinating account of the unusual childhood and youth of a peasant orphan who, with his brother, received a substantial inheritance – 32 acres of land – from his grandfather; and both he and Yakov Dragunovsky provide descriptions of courtship and marriage that will be of considerable interest to students of the peasantry. Indeed, the subject of women, particularly wives, is a real preoccupation in Morgachev’s writing. The problem, in his experience, was that women were incapable of rising above individual and family interests to appreciate communal principles, and as a result, the commune kept being pulled down to their level. ‘I don’t know whether I am right, but all that has left within me a feeling of bitterness and lack of respect toward women, even though I know they are not all like that: there were some who could be considered equal comrades in our work.’ Alas, Morgachev’s own wife was not one of these. Though they lived together for almost sixty years, much of the time in communes, she never shared his principles and Morgachev, for his part, ‘felt cramped’ by the narrowness of family life.

Like Mazurin, Morgachev was arrested in 1936 and spent ten years in labour camps. Perhaps the most eloquent statement in the book about the Tolstoyan experiments of the Twenties and Thirties is his appeal (or demand) for rehabilitation, sent to the Prosecutor of the USSR in 1976.

We created a large agricultural communist economy, without any ‘mine’ but with everything in common, ours, without putting it off like the Communist Party till some time in the future. We did it right then, at that time, and we paid very dear for it with the lives of commune members. Very few friends and followers of Tolstoy are still alive. We were cruelly beaten for that peaceful, human ideal. Such an unparalleled commune in the Soviet Union ought to have been taken under the protection of the law as a model communist farm. But only a few rare animals and birds are under the protection of the law. I am a fortunate man! I am still alive after being arrested in 1936 ... I never admitted any guilt, since I had committed no crime, and I never signed the protocol of accusations. I accepted the teachings of Leo Tolstoy in 1915 during the First World War, and I have adhered to that ideal doctrine for sixty years. All men are brothers. I will take this teaching with me to Eternity ... Now I am 84 years old. Forty years have passed since my arrest, and thirty years since I served my sentence in the camps. I request that you rehabilitate me before I leave for Eternity.

Dmitry Morgachev was officially rehabilitated, along with Mazurin, in January 1977. He died the following year.