College of LAS « Illinois


The Unbroken Chain

Tolstoy’s legacy of nonviolence influenced many great leaders.


During 27 years in a South Africa prison, Nelson Mandela found solace in books. His favorite was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he singled out Martin Luther King Jr. for praise and mentioned Mohandas Gandhi’s work for civil rights in South Africa. Gandhi himself pointed to Tolstoy’s influence, especially letters Tolstoy wrote him.

Americans know Tolstoy as a novelist who wrote by the pound. But University of Illinois scholars know him as a spiritual pioneer whose thoughts on nonviolence are part of an unbroken chain.

Jonathan Ebel, a religious studies professor in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, says, “King knew of and quoted Tolstoy and was strongly influenced by many who were directly influenced by Tolstoy, most importantly Gandhi.” At the Urbana campus last year, thousands read and celebrated one of Tolstoy’s shortest works, The Death of Ivan Ilych, as part of a nationwide campaign, the Big Read.

Harriet Murav, who heads the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, calls the book about an ordinary man’s dying epiphanies a good example of Tolstoy’s later, mature spiritualism. “What is generally referred to as his spiritual crisis took place before the writing of The Death of Ivan Ilych,” she says. “Tolstoy describes his search for God in his work titled A Confession. I would not say that [The Death of Ivan Ilych] is a milestone on his path to spiritualism, because no word that ends in ‘ism’ can adequately characterize Tolstoy, who rejected all established doctrines and creeds.”

It’s easier to see the process of Tolstoy’s spiritual growth in his earlier books War and Peace and Anna Karenina, she says.

In Anna Karenina, Levin is Tolstoy’s stand-in. Levin says God guided him:

“I looked for an answer to my question. But reason could not give me an answer. Life itself had given me the answer, in my knowledge of what is good and bad. And that knowledge I did not acquire in any way; it was given to me as to everybody, given because I could not take it from anywhere.”

Murav says that even as a young man, the author chaffed at authority. He tried to treat his serfs as equals, and early in life risked his life by challenging the tsar in writing.

Tolstoy, a great landowner, railed against wealth, Murav says. In his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Tolstoy’s answer is “six feet,” enough to be buried in. Still, he maintained his beloved estate Yasnaya Polyana—4,000 acres at its peak—until the end.

Tolstoy was a man of contradictions and he was his own favorite subject, the professor notes. He kept copious diaries and tended to write autobiographical novels.

“You and I might have a doubt,” Murav says. “If he had a doubt, it was a major event. He had the leisure to study, the leisure to think, and a massive ego—‘If I have a problem, it must be a major problem.’”

The path to enlightenment was not as direct as it might seem in hindsight, says religious studies Professor Bruce Rosenstock.

“Tolstoy had a great struggle with his own Christian faith and grew to faith from a skeptical start, as did many philosophers and thinkers and writers in that century,” Rosenstock says. “He returned fully to his Christian faith by discovering in Jesus a complete love for one’s fellow human being. That meant for him never committing an act of violence against a fellow human.”

In his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy acknowledged his forerunners, including the Quakers. But Jesus was always the prime source.

Shortly before his death, Tolstoy would write a 413-page “Letter to a Hindu” as well as personal letters to Mohandas Gandhi that the Indian philosopher termed essential.

Gandhi initiated the exchange, writing to Tolstoy about his activism in South Africa: “If we hold out to the end, as I think we would, I entertain not the slightest doubt as to the ultimate success; and your encouragement in the way suggested by you can only strengthen us in our resolve.”

Rosenstock says Gandhi used Tolstoy’s ideas but adapted them.

“Gandhi employed nonviolent civil disobedience, or satyagraha, as a strategy to challenge political authority. Tolstoy had thought you needed to simply withdraw completely from society. But conditions were quite different for Gandhi, who was trying to free his native land from a foreign occupier,” he says. “I don’t think Tolstoy imagined a nonviolent rebellion.”

In South Africa, Gandhi led a movement of Indian miners to resist inequalities by striking and then accepting the resultant floggings and imprisonment. From there Gandhi moved to his greatest work, India’s independence from British rule.

The followers of Tolstoy did not always follow him to the precipice, Rosenstock notes. And Tolstoy and Gandhi diverged on resistance. Rosenstock makes this distinction: Tolstoy did not believe there was any legitimate use of force. Tolstoy advocated nonresistance to evil, while Gandhi favored accepting violence against one’s self to enact change.

“There was a powerful orthodox church in Russia whose head was the tsar, making a very powerful state-church combination,” Rosenstock says. “Tolstoy was in favor of sort of dissolving the state-church. One way, he thought, would be to make every Christian a pacifist, unwilling to serve in the tsar’s army and thus unwilling to serve the state-church. In this, he concurred with the anarchists of his time. He wasn’t against the Russian state; he was not in favor of any sort of state. Tolstoy was so skeptical of any society that he thought it was worthless to change one for another.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a TV interview, once described how he owed a debt to Tolstoy, but also differed in some ways with the Russian author’s radical purity:

“Now, some pacifists are anarchists, following Tolstoy. But I don’t go that far. I believe in the intelligent use of police force. I think one who believes in nonviolence must recognize the dimensions of evil within human nature, and there is the danger that one can indulge in a sort of superficial optimism, thinking man is all good.”

King also made this distinction between his beliefs and Gandhi’s: “I think it is just as bad to passively accept evil as it is to inflict it.”

Murav says even Tolstoy had trouble living the spiritual life he prescribed. He spent the last decades of his life trying to live like a Russian serf, says Murav. “At the end, Tolstoy ran away from his own life,” she adds. The great writer abandoned his estate and wife for a pilgrimage, only to die alone in a train station.

By Paul Wood
Spring 2009