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.)

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