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Dr Ruth Coates, Department of Russian, University of Bristol
13 December 2010 - Victor Suchar Memorial Lecture 2010
Tolstoy’s centenary: Why this Lecture is being given?
It is one hundred years since Lev Tolstoy died, and this lecture is my small contribution to the many hundreds of events that have been held to commemorate and honour him in his centenary year. Everybody knows what an extraordinary artist Tolstoy was. I would hazard a guess that in this country he is the best known, and probably the best loved, of Russian novelists, and that this reputation rests almost exclusively on the two great novels War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). Today, though, I am going to present Tolstoy to you as a thinker, or perhaps, in more contemporary parlance, an ideologist (though there will be abundant references to his fiction). This is partly because this side of Tolstoy is less well known in the West, and partly because as a Russian intellectual historian I am better qualified to approach him from this angle than from a strictly literary perspective. Tolstoy’s life (1828-1910) spanned practically the whole of what is known as the ‘long 19th century’ (stretching to the outbreak of war in 1914, and in Russia to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). He was born shortly after the birth of the revolutionary movement in the Decembrist rebellion of 1825, and he died shortly after the first revolution of 1905 (the revolution that forced the first experiment in Russian democracy, the Dumas), and was thus a witness to and participant in the most intense ideological conflict of that century, a conflict that was to have the most profound consequences for Russia and the world. And my question today is: what role did Tolstoy play in that conflict? Where did he stand with respect to the great issues of his era? And how representative is he of what I have called in the title to this lecture ‘the Russian Mind’?
What do I mean by the Russian mind?
‘The Russian mind.’ Does this phrase mean anything? Is it any less nebulous a concept than the infamous ‘Russian soul’? As it stands, perhaps not, but with some development I think it can be given meaningful content. It is quite common in my field to speak of ‘the Russian intellectual tradition’, and part of what I mean by ‘the Russian mind’ is that tradition. The Russian intellectual tradition is born at the point where a predominantly religious and medieval culture gives way to a new, secular and modern one, and thought becomes independent of theology. In Russia this happened extraordinarily late by Western standards, in the late 18th century (though the way towards it begins to be paved in the reign of Peter the Great, who died in 1725). It also involved a greater rupture with the medieval past than occurred in Western Europe, partly because pre-modern Russia had not developed an indigenous tradition of theological reflection on which a modern philosophical culture could build, thus forcing thinkers to borrow wholesale from Western models, and partly because those models had developed from a Western Christian (Catholic and Protestant) foundation, and as such represented a decisive rejection of Russia’s Eastern Christian (Orthodox) heritage. From the beginning then, secular Russian thought was embroiled in a question from which it has never truly emancipated itself: the question of Russia’s national and cultural identity, a question in which the act of developing a rational argument was itself under scrutiny. (As we shall see, the relationship between reason (abstract truth) and something that is felt to be prior to, and superior to it, is central to Tolstoy’s development.) And because the Russian intellectual tradition was born in the Enlightenment, during the latter, reactionary half of the reign of Catherine the Great, from the start it was engaged with questions of political and social organisation, and social justice. These were to dominate Tolstoy’s thinking in the last three decades of his life.
During the last (20th) century it was common to conceive of the Russian intellectual tradition as broadly split into two tendencies, conservative and progressive. The conservative tendency opposed the cosmopolitan, democratic, and secular values of the Enlightenment and drew upon German Romantic thought to defend the notion of the specificity of Russian culture, which rested on a triple foundation: autocratic government, the Orthodox faith, and the peasantry as the bedrock of an essentially feudal society. There was a tendency to resist modernity as a Western phenomenon that posed a threat to Russian national identity, whether through political and social culture or through technology. An aversion to Peter the Great and his Western-orientated capital, St Petersburg, is the litmus test for a Russian conservative. A catchall expression for most shades of conservatism in Russia is ‘Slavophile’, though Slavophilism narrowly conceived is a distinct phenomenon about which I will say some more later. The progressive tendency remained loyal to its Enlightenment roots and the ideology of progress that emerged from them and that was expressed in philosophical positivism and, later, Marxism. It believed Russian national culture to be backward and defective and looked to the West for the direction Russia should take: democracy (later, various forms of socialism) and a radical secularism. From about 1848 onwards the Russian socialist intelligentsia was fanatically atheistic. The progressives were called first ‘Westernisers’, then, as the tendency radicalised, ‘nihilists’: I will come back to some of its later developments in the second half of the lecture.
This basic typology of 19th century Russian thought works well for a variety of purposes, but it needs to be handled with caution. The best and most original representatives of the tradition cannot easily be assimilated to either tendency. The typology is most effective when applied to second-tier intellectuals. Particularly interesting to me, and relevant to today’s lecture, are those figures who are both progressive and religious: they include Piotr Chaadaev, Vladimir Soloviev, Sergei Bulgakov – and the late Tolstoy.
Overview of Tolstoy’s life and work
I do not propose to summarise for you now Tolstoy’s life and work. The hand-out gives you a list of his main writings in chronological order and some suggestions for further reading on the subject of this lecture. I shall present Tolstoy through his thought and literature. However, there are two salient biographical facts that I will mention: probably you are familiar with these. The first has to do with Tolstoy’s place in the Russian social hierarchy. As a Count, he belongs in the higher ranks of the Russian aristocracy. This gives him access to the corridors of power, a fabulous education, and enough money that he never has to earn a living. It also gives him his perspective on life, a certain aristocratic arrogance and condescension, contempt for and lack of comprehension of the tiny but, over the course of the 19th century, burgeoning middle class in Russia, and permission to be a radical, or a maverick, or both at the same time. The second biographical fact I see as pivotal to understanding Tolstoy as a thinker, and indeed as an artist: this is the mid-life crisis that he entered upon completing Anna Karenina in the late 1870s, around his 50th birthday, which resulted in his conversion to Christianity. I am going to organise what I have to say around this turning point in Tolstoy’s life.
Main thesis of the Lecture
In what follows I shall argue that Tolstoy’s mid-life conversion to Christianity represents a watershed in his basic philosophical and political-ideological orientation. Firstly I will present the view that the pre-crisis Tolstoy (the adjective is ugly, I know, but ‘pre-crisis’ and ‘post-crisis’ are indispensable shorthand terms for the two phases of Tolstoy’s thought) can be broadly seen as a Slavophile of the type of the 1840s and 1850s: anti-democratic, patriotic, anti-Western, romantic-conservative, a seeker after spiritual truth, with the important exception that his world view does not seriously accommodate, and indeed is partly hostile to, one of Slavophilism’s defining features – its advocacy of Russian Orthodoxy. I will then go on to argue that the post-crisis Tolstoy can be seen as a radical progressive with close similarities to Russian socialist revolutionaries, particularly the Populist anarchists, with the essential difference that this radicalism does not reject religion, but on the contrary is the direct consequence of Tolstoy’s religious faith. Finally, I shall argue that Tolstoy’s failure to comprehend the theological distinctiveness of the Orthodox faith more than anything else places him in the awkward position of an outsider with regard to the Russian mind conceived as something historically and culturally deeper than the relatively young, secular, intellectual tradition, if we incorporate into the idea of ‘the Russian mind’ the cultural consciousness that for 800 years before the dawn of the modern era in Russia developed within the framework of a way of life structured and informed by Orthodoxy.
2. The World View of the pre-crisis Tolstoy
The Slavophile movement arose in the context of the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment. One of Romanticism’s features is the rejection of the cosmopolitan outlook of Enlightenment thought, which followed from its emphasis on reason as a universal category, and the promotion of a notion of national ‘genius’, or the distinctiveness of the cultures of Europe’s ethnic populations. Romanticism also entailed a rejection of the Enlightenment principle of imitation of the classical genres in literature and the promotion of originality instead.
In the first quarter of the 19th century there was a reaction among some of the gentry against the culture of imitation of Western cultural codes that had prevailed at court and among the nobility in Russia throughout the 18th century. In the late 1820s a thinker called Chaadaev wrote a bitter critique of Russia as a culture based entirely on the superficial imitation of the West. Beneath the veneer of civilisation, he argued, there was – well, nothing at all. It was this critique that stung a small group of Moscow gentry to formulate what it believed to be original and valuable about Russian culture.
Making the case for Russian culture also entailed a polemical critique of ‘the West’. The crux of the critique was the allegation that Western culture had irrevocably lost two things that had been preserved in Russian culture: a living faith, and a society in which the principles of both freedom and unity had been preserved. The blame for this was assigned to the West’s alleged rationalism. According to the Slavophile view of Western cultural history, the medieval Catholic Church inherited from the Roman Empire the spirit of formalism that was embodied in Roman law. This formalism manifested itself in scholasticism as the rationalisation of faith, and in the institutional Church in a rigid hierarchy headed by the Pope. Members of the Catholic Church were unified, but they were not free. Protestantism represented a rebellion against this lack of freedom, but achieved only a reversal of the situation: believers were now free, but not unified. Meanwhile, the rationalistic bias of Catholic theology was merely passed on to Protestantism, which developed an individualistic rationalism. This laid the foundations for the Enlightenment, philosophical rationalism, and the apotheosis of reason found in the system of Hegel. The West was spiritually bankrupt: only Russia had the answer to its malaise.
For the Slavophiles the ‘genius’ of Russian culture derived from its religion, Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Falling under the Byzantine sphere of influence had protected Russia from Western formalism. The Orthodox Church was neither hierarchical nor individualistic, but organised according to the principle of ‘sobornost’, or conciliarity, in which matters of faith and doctrine were agreed upon by universal consent. Its members were both free and united, on the model of the Three-in-One of the Holy Trinity. The conciliar principle had been assimilated by the Russian people, which represented an egalitarian community with strong organic ties based on the primary unit of the peasant commune, in which the land was held in common, and the peasant mir, or council of village elders, at which decisions were arrived at according to the principle of unanimity.
Moreover, the Orthodox Church had not stifled spirituality by attempting rationally to demonstrate the existence of God, but had always succeeded in harmonising reason and faith on the pattern of the Greek Fathers. The rich theological heritage of the Fathers had been kept alive in the Russian monasteries, which were the ‘universities’ of the Orthodox Slavic world. Ivan Kireevsky drew on Greek patristics to formulate the principles for a native Russian philosophy that he thought should be developed to counter Western rationalism. He called his approach, in which truth is arrived at through the harmonious cooperation of reason, feeling, and intuition, ‘integral knowledge’.
Tolstoy as a Slavophile
As we shall now explore, Tolstoy’s work up to 1878 reveals a powerful Slavophile spirit, manifested in his critique of the Westernised cultural life of Russia’s ruling class, his presentation of the Russian people as inherently spiritual and wise, and his presentation of Western Europeans as formalistic and spiritually impoverished.
· War and Peace
In War and Peace Tolstoy discovers a powerfully emotive topic through which to explore his opposition to ‘the West’: the Napoleonic wars and in the invasion of Russia by Napoleon and his Grande Armee in 1812. Russians are portrayed defending their mother country from French imperial aggression and drawing on their unique ethnic-national qualities to bring about the defeat of the enemy. In this novel a link between military and cultural invasion is clearly established through a satirical portrait of the French-speaking salon society of St Petersburg, which is shown to have adopted the cultural trappings of the West long before the country’s physical invasion. At the same time, both military and cultural Westernism are associated with rationalism conceived as an empty and meaningless formalism and valorised as arrogant, blind, and aggressive, whilst authentic Russians are credited with a profound and wise spirituality.
Let us consider the representation of Napoleon, the symbolic representative of Western values. Napoleon is at first an inspirational figure for the twin heroes of the novel, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, but they must both be disinvested by their creator of their naive heroising. This is clearly demonstrated upon Andrei (and the reader’s) first encounter with Napoleon whilst lying wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz: Napoleon utters the words ‘a fine death’, but Andrei perceives these against the background of a spiritual epiphany he has just had whilst staring at the sky:
‘Now with his eyes fixed steadily on Napoleon he was silent... So trivial seemed to him at that moment all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so petty did his hero with his paltry vanity and delight in victory appear, compared to that lofty, righteous, and kindly sky which he had seen and comprehended, that he could not answer him.’ - War and Peace, Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 19
Napoleon is depicted as a pampered, plump, white-skinned, vain little man with an absolute confidence in his own military genius that Tolstoy takes evident delight in deflating during the course of the battle of Borodino before Moscow, in which the numerically superior French army failed to prevail. Similar pleasure is taken in showing Napoleon’s bewildered disappointment when the governor of Moscow fails to hand over the keys to the city, or indeed to show up, as the city has been deserted. Napoleon is shown to view war essentially as a game (‘The chess-board is set: tomorrow we begin the game’, he says on the eve of the battle) consisting of a set of formal manoeuvres and rules which must be followed (for example presenting the keys to the city to the victor). And the game for Tolstoy is a metaphor for the empty formalism that marks inauthentic living.
Or let us consider the representation of the German generals in the Russian high command. Tolstoy blames these for the Russian army’s failure to come to grips with the French invasion in its early stages. Andrei’s perception of these Germans in the Imperial camp at Smolensk is as follows:
‘The first party consisted of Pfuhl and his adherents: military theorists who believed in a science of war having its immutable laws – laws for oblique movements, outflankings, and so forth. Pfuhl and his adherents demanded a retirement into the interior of the country, a withdrawal in accordance with precise principles defined by a pseudo-theory of war, and in every deviation from this theory saw only barbarism, ignorance or evil intention. To this party belonged the German princes Wolzogen, Wintzingerode and others, but chiefly the Germans.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 1, Chapter 9
Only when the Russian army is placed under a Russian Commander-in-chief, General Kutuzov, can Prince Andrei relax about the military effort to defend his country:
‘He will not introduce anything of his own. He will not scheme or start anything,’ thought Prince Andrei, ‘but he will listen, bear in mind all that he hears, put everything in its rightful place. He will not stand in the way of anything expedient or permit what might be injurious. He knows that there is something stronger and more important than his own will – the inevitable march of events, and he has the brains to see them and grasp their significance, and seeing that significance can abstain from meddling, from following his personal desires and aiming at something else.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 16
The old, ungainly, battle-scarred, sentimental Russian general is wise: he does not initiate, but responds, unencumbered by the illusion (entertained by Napoleon and the German generals) that he can control events. His motto is ‘Patience and Time’. His strategy during the battle of Borodino is to uphold the spirit of the army; afterwards, not to attempt a futile defence of Moscow, and from the moment Napoleon abandons the city and begins his retreat, to prevent his army from needlessly attacking the doomed French army. Tolstoy ties his representation of Napoleon and Kutuzov to his philosophy of history, which of course comprises a large part of War and Peace: history is governed by laws which are beyond our intellectual grasp; wisdom is to understand this; arrogance and folly is to set one’s own intellect and volition above it, to harbour the illusion that ‘great men’ direct events.
Whilst the Russian nation is fighting for its life, the peasant army engaged in a bloody battle in which half the Russian forces will perish, and the people of Moscow are abandoning their homes rather than be ruled by the enemy, St Petersburg salon society continues to function unaffected:
‘All the innumerable sub-divisions into which it is possible to classify the phenomena of life may be assembled into two categories: the one, where matter predominates; the other, where form is the prevailing factor. In the latter group – by contrast with life in the village, in the country, in the provincial town, or even in Moscow – may be placed the life of Petersburg, especially the life of its salons. The life of the fashionable drawing room continues unvarying.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 6
Here we see with particular clarity the Slavophile opposition between the Russian interior, represented by the medieval capital of Moscow, which lives its authentic life, and the modern capital, St Petersburg, completely detached from the rest of the country and unrepresentative of it, which lives a lie, having assumed the veneer, the formal conventions, of Western society. Later, in a similar passage, Tolstoy describes Petersburg’s daily round as ‘tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life’:
‘In Petersburg all this time an intricate battle was raging in the higher circles, with greater violence than ever, between the parties of Rumyantsev, the French, Maria Feodorovna, the Tsarevich and others, overlaid as usual by the buzzing of Court drones. But Petersburg’s daily round – tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life – continued as before, so that it was not easy, and needed a determined effort, to form any true idea of the peril and the difficulty in which the Russian nation was placed.’ - War and Peace, Book 4, Part 1, Chapter 1
As Napoleon embodies the French military invasion, so Helene Kuragin, later Countess Bezukhov, embodies a malign cultural Westernism. She is a member of the most superficial and morally corrupt family in the novel: the Kuragins, whose home, symbolically, is Petersburg. Dazzlingly beautiful, her epithets are her radiant smile and her statuesque shoulders, but her beauty is a shiny veneer, ‘covered with the hard polish left by the thousands of eyes that had scanned her person’ (2.3.16), her smile entirely superficial. Insatiably ambitious, she dupes the wealthy and highly placed Pierre into marrying her, and then rises to the top of salon society, running a successful salon of her own, where she gains the reputation of being ‘une femme aussi intelligente que belle’, although Tolstoy tells us she is in fact extremely stupid. Helene is also carnal: she is habitually unfaithful to Pierre, and at the height of the invasion commits bigamy by marrying a foreign prince, converting to Catholicism in the process. This is an almost comical betrayal of her country.
Natasha Rostov, on the other hand, daughter of Moscow, beloved by both Andrei and Pierre, embodies the values of Russianness that Tolstoy admires so much. Too thin to be beautiful, she enchants her admirers through the unfeigned joy and love of life that shines out through her large dark eyes. Natasha, to her credit, speaks French badly, and, as Pierre says of her, ‘does not deign to be clever’. She expresses herself through dance and song. The following passage, which Orlando Figes has made famous by allusion to it in the title of his book, Natasha’s Dance, describes how Natasha instinctively knows how to execute a peasant dance:
‘Where, how and when could this young countess, who had had a French emigree for governess, have imbibed from the Russian air she breathed the spirit of that dance? Where had she picked up that manner, which the pas de chale, one might have supposed, would have effaced long ago? But the spirit and the movements were the very ones – inimitable, unteachable, Russian – that ‘Uncle’ had expected of her...
Her performance was so perfect, so absolutely perfect, that Anisya Fiodorovna, who had at once handed her the kerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched the slender, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets, in another world than hers, who was yet able to understand all that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.’ - War and Peace, Book 2, Part 4, Chapter 7
Here Tolstoy posits a Russian ‘spirit’ that appears to be essential, not culturally determined, since even aristocrats with their Western education can be expressive of it. Natasha enthusiastically participates in the evacuation of Moscow, emptying the family carriages to make room for the wounded. The same Russian ‘spirit’ is shown to be present in the army that passively resists the onslaught of the French at Borodino and the citizens of Moscow, Russia’s ‘true’ capital, who abandon all they have to the flames rather than accept the French occupation:
‘They went because for Russians the question was not whether they would be comfortable or not under French rule in Moscow. To live under French administration was out of the question: it would be worse than anything... They drove away, each on his own account, and yet it was only in consequence of their departure that the illustrious event was accomplished which will forever remain the crowning glory of the Russian people. The lady who as early as June set off from Moscow with her Negroes and her buffoons for her Saratov estates, with a vague feeling that she was not going to be a subject of Bonaparte’s, and in fear of being stopped by Count Rostopchin’s orders, was simply and genuinely helping in the great work which saved Russia.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 3, Chapter 5
· Valorised contrasts in War and Peace linked to Russia and the West
Thus, in War and Peace Tolstoy masterfully pins to the basic opposition Russia/West the strongly valorised contrasts of instinct, or life, versus reason, or formalism, wisdom versus folly, humility versus arrogance, and defensive versus offensive action, and persuades his readers of the inherent superiority of Russia over the West: a superiority that is symbolically demonstrated by the ultimate humiliation of Napoleon and his army in the 1812 campaign.
Tolstoy and his wife Sonya
· Anna Karenina
In Anna Karenina the critique of the West is as dominant as it is in War and Peace, but with a shift in emphasis. Set in the 1870s, after the emancipation of the serfs and during a decade in which the feudal system was breaking down under the pressures of a delayed modernity, Anna Karenina seeks to establish in the reader’s mind a link between technological advance and moral retreat. It is primarily the moral, not the cultural, foundations of Russia that are under threat in Anna Karenina, and this time the perpetrator of this evil upon Russia is not France, but England. England: the origin of the industrial revolution and the inventor of that ubiquitous symbol of modernity in the novel, the railway. In the Slavophile analysis of Western religious history, Protestantism inherits from Catholicism its inherent rationalism, and adds to it individualism, a combination which, as it loses its bond with faith, engenders private enterprise, and industrial capitalism. Similarly, in Anna Karenina Tolstoy juxtaposes Anna’s descent into despair under the influence of modernity with Levin’s achievement of faith under the influence of the peasants who work his land.
Let us explore briefly how Anna’s plot entwines moral degeneration with symbols of English cultural and technological influence. Anna meets Vronsky, her future lover, at the railway station in Moscow where she has arrived on a visit to try and reconcile her sister-in-law to her philandering brother Stiva. At the railway station. She comes under his spell, but nothing happens. It is on the train journey back to St Petersburg that Anna fights and loses the battle for her soul and gives herself over to her physical desire for Vronsky. Anna reads an English novel on the train:
‘Anna read attentively, but there was no pleasure in reading, no pleasure in entering into other people’s lives and adventures. She was too eager to live herself. If she read how the heroine of the novel nursed a sick man, she wanted to be moving about a sick-room with noiseless tread herself; if she read of a member of Parliament making a speech, she wanted to be delivering that speech herself; if she read how Lady Mary rode to hounds and teased her sister-in-law and astonished everyone by her daring – she would have liked to do the same. But there was no possibility of doing anything, so she forced herself to read, while her little hands twisted the smooth paper-knife.’ - Anna Karenina, Part 1, Chapter 29
From the novel her mind strays to Vronsky:
‘She traced on the window with the paper-knife, then pressed its smooth cold surface to her cheek and nearly laughed aloud, suddenly and unaccountably overcome with joy. She felt her nerves being stretched more and more tightly, like strings round pegs. She felt her eyes opening wider and wider, her fingers and toes twitching nervously, felt something in her chest oppressing her breathing; and all the shapes and sounds in the wavering half-light struck her with unaccustomed vividness... What am I doing here? Am I myself or someone else? She was terrified of giving way to this nightmare state. But something seemed to draw her to it, and she was free to yield to it or to resist.’
Anna yields. Her yielding leads to death by suicide, by throwing herself under a train. Modernity kills Anna. Anna’s death is famously prefigured in the episode at the races, a quintessentially English phenomenon, in which Vronsky causes the death of his mare, Frou Frou, by not allowing her her head at a crucial moment. We are not told specifically that Frou Frou is an English mare, but her groom is an Englishman, and Vronsky and he converse in English before the race. The narration of this event is interspersed with tense conversations between Anna and Vronsky about how to take their affair further, thus establishing a clear link between Anna and Frou Frou. Later, when Anna and Vronsky are living openly as an unmarried couple on Vronsky’s estate, Dolly, Anna’s wronged sister-in-law, bravely comes to visit her. The reader sees the situation through Dolly’s eyes. We see Anna riding an English cob as Dolly arrives; we see the house, decorated to the standard ‘of the new European kind of luxury which she had only read about in English novels but had never seen in Russia and in the country before’ (6.19), the nursery with English baby equipment, toys, and a ‘tall, smart English nurse with a disagreeable, wanton face’ (ibid.), the tennis court and croquet lawn, and the new hospital for the peasants, equipped with all the latest technology. In this environment Dolly loses much of her sympathy for Anna. The last straw is when Anna tells her that she uses contraception in order to remain physically attractive to Vronsky: this Dolly finds simply immoral. And indeed, Tolstoy had a particular animus against Western medical advances, which he felt condoned and facilitated sexual immorality.
The reader is invited to set all this against the way of life pursued by the novel’s quasi-autobiographical hero, Levin, from whose estate Dolly travels to visit Anna. Levin shuns modernity in all its forms; he also builds a happy marriage with Dolly’s sister, Kitty. Levin loathes the idle and dissipated life of the city, where people of his class, including his brother-in-law, Stiva, occupy largely formal posts in the civil service hierarchy (Stiva works for the railways, note), and prefers to stay on his country estate, where he is actively engaged in its day-to-day management. Levin has studied agriculture extensively and come to the conclusion that cutting-edge farming machinery, the industrialisation of farming, is not appropriate for Russia. Rather, the secret of productive farming is to take account of the personality of the peasant labourer and work positively with it. Through Levin Tolstoy celebrates the agricultural year, the cyclical rhythm of life that contrasts so sharply with the linear march of progress, symbolised by the railway lines being laid across the Russian countryside. He celebrates too authentic, physical labour, which he implies is conducive to moral rectitude. In the country there are no temptations to vice, and Kitty is seen to flourish as a wife and young mother. Symbolically, Levin expels the Petersburg rake Veselovsky from his house when he flirts with Kitty, and from there, equally symbolically, Veselovsky goes to the Vronskys, where Dolly will encounter him on her visit.
Finally, the Russian rural hinterland is seen as a repository of a spirituality that ‘civilised’ Russia has lost contact with. Levin is an unbeliever, but he is also a seeker after truth. In a series of chapters that closely mirror Tolstoy’s account of his own conversion (in Confession, 1879) we see how Levin searches for the truth through science and philosophy, only to discover it by suspending rational enquiry and listening to the inner voice of conscience. Not theoretical reason, but moral reason, ‘the moral law within’, proves to be the gateway to faith, and the gate is opened for Levin in a chance conversation with the peasant Fiodor, who draws a contrast between the house-porter Kirilov, who ‘lives for his belly’, and the peasant Platon, who ‘thinks of his soul’, ‘does not forget God’, but ‘lives rightly, in God’s way’ (7.11). The peasantry, largely untouched by modernity in the 1870s, has not lost its moral compass, but retains an intuitive sense of right and wrong which is instinctively connected with faith.
· The non-Orthodox spirituality of the pre-crisis Tolstoy
It is very striking in Anna Karenina how a system of values that is in all other respects so akin to Slavophilism neglects to take account of the Orthodox Church as the cultural vehicle through which the Russian peasant has received and understood his faith. Before I leave the pre-crisis Tolstoy, I should like to consider more closely the nature of spirituality as the novelist understood it before his conversion. What is his attitude to Orthodox Christianity in this period, and what does he offer by way of an alternative?
· Representation of Orthodoxy in the fiction
What I observe about the representation of Orthodox liturgy and piety, or lived practice, in the great novels, is that these are shown in a positive light by contrast to Western rationalism and formalism, but in a negative light by contrast to what is represented as a higher spirituality sought and achieved by Tolstoy’s male heroes.
Let us take two examples from War and Peace, and a third from Anna Karenina. On the eve of the battle of Borodino Pierre, who has come to see the preparations for the battle, witnesses the traditional Orthodox practice of processing along the ranks with an icon held to have special protective powers:
‘“They are bringing her, our Holy Mother, our Protectress!... The Iberian icon of the Mother of God!”
“The Holy Mother of Smolensk!...” someone corrected.
Behind the battalion which came marching along the dusty road walked the priests in their vestments – one little old man in a hood – with attendant deacons and choristers. Behind them soldiers and officers bore a huge icon with a blackened face and silver mountings. This was the icon that had been brought away from Smolensk and had since accompanied the army. Behind, before, and all around walked or ran crowds of soldiers with bared heads, making obeisances to the very ground.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 21
Pierre’s personal scepticism about this ritual is betrayed by his observation that the soldier didn’t get the name of the icon right and even assumed a foreign origin for it. Nevertheless, the episode is sympathetically narrated, with a clear emphasis on the spirituality of the Russian forces (as opposed to the German general who looks on). Moreover, Kutuzov is seen to approach the icon, cross himself, and, fat and ungainly though he is, to fall to his knees and touch the ground with his forehead (he gets to his feet with difficulty). This powerful image perfectly illustrates Kutuzov’s humility, his patriotism, and his unity of spirit with the forces under his command.
My second example from War and Peace is how Moscow, the city of a thousand churches, is seen by Napoleon and the French as they prepare to descend from their vantage point to occupy it:
‘The early light was magical. Moscow, seen from the Poklonny hill, stretched far and wide with her river, her gardens, and her churches, and seemed to be living a life of her own, her cupolas twinkling like stars in the sunlight.’ - War and Peace, Book 3, Part 3, Chapter 19
This text, representing the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator, is in stark contrast to the arrogant musings of Napoleon, who objectifies ‘that great and beautiful being’ with his observation that ‘a town occupied by an enemy is like a maid who has lost her honour’. In the golden domes and crosses, flashing in the sun, Napoleon sees ‘ancient monuments of barbarism and despotism’ upon which he will ‘inscribe great words of justice and mercy’. In the context of the French invasion, Tolstoy defends the spiritual dignity of Orthodox Moscow against the ignorance and vainglory of a supposedly enlightened West.
My third example is from Anna Karenina, in which the sceptical and unbelieving Levin is obliged to confess and receive communion before he may marry. We see him squirming through the procedure, unwilling to be a hypocrite, and, by dint of the familiar Tolstoian device of alienation, we observe through his uncomprehending eyes some of the absurdities of the priest’s performance of the liturgy. Yet Levin acknowledges the validity of the questions put to him by the priest. The wedding ceremony is described in full Orthodox detail, and the atmosphere is joyous, with Levin moved by the sacrament in spite of himself. But the full authorial endorsement of the scene comes by contrast with the immediately succeeding chapters, in which Anna and Vronsky are shown to be living in sin on holiday in Italy, home both of Catholicism and the humanist Renaissance.
· Romantic Pantheism
And yet, as I have said, Levin’s conversion explicitly excludes the Church. In terms of the personal quests of Tolstoy’s male heroes, I would argue that right up until Levin’s conversion, that is, in the fiction up to Anna Karenina and for some part of Anna Karenina itself, any spiritual epiphany that is received resembles nothing so much as Romantic pantheism, the loss of the self in the all, the merging of subject and object. I will again offer three examples.
· The Cossacks: in the Stag’s Lair
In The Cossacks (1863) the hero, Olenin, joins the army in the Northern Caucasus to escape his life of moral turpitude in Moscow. He admires the life of the Cossack community in which he is billeted, more primitive and therefore more in harmony with nature than the life of the urbanised Russian. But he is unable to unmake his Western education and habits of thinking and join the community. He remains an observer, alienated from what he observes. At one point only does he achieve what he seeks, whilst deep in the forest, lying in the lair of a stag that he had come across during the previous day’s hunting with his friend, the Cossack huntsman Yeroshka. Olenin means ‘deer’, and it is plain that a kind of identification is going on:
‘He felt cool and comfortable. He was not thinking about anything in particular, or wishing for anything. Suddenly there came over him such a strange feeling of overwhelming happiness and universal love that he began to cross himself as he did when a child, and murmur words of gratitude...
And it was clear to him that he was not a Russian nobleman at all, a member of Moscow society, friend and relation of this person and that, but simply another mosquito or pheasant or stag like the mosquitoes, pheasants, and stags having their haunts in the woods around him. ‘Just like them, just like Yeroshka, I shall live my little life and then die. And as he quite truly said: Grass will grow over me, and that will be all.’ - The Cossacks, Chapter 20
Despite the fact that he crosses himself, this is not a Christian epiphany, but a Romantic one, when thought and desire are suspended and a sense of oneness with nature is achieved. Furthermore, his insight is not moral in nature (though Olenin, typically, will draw a moral conclusion from his experience), but ontological: it is a joyful acceptance of being as something that surpasses personal existence and an assent to one’s own mortality.
· War and Peace: Pierre’s Globe
We find a very similar epiphany in War and Peace: it comes to Pierre during his life-changing period of captivity to the French after the occupation of Moscow. Throughout the novel, Pierre has been seeking truth, and has pursued it mainly through Freemasonry, and latterly, through numerology. But he finds it by observing the intuitive wisdom of the unreflective peasant soldier Platon Karataev. One night Pierre has a dream containing an insight and an image:
‘Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves to and fro, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in the consciousness of the Godhead. To love life is to love God...
And suddenly there rose before him, as vivid as though alive, the image of a long-forgotten, gentle old man who had given him geography lessons in Switzerland. ‘Wait,’ said the little old man, and he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing – a quivering ball of no fixed dimensions. Its whole surface consisted of drops closely squeezed together. And all these drops were shifting about, changing places, sometimes several coalescing into one, or one dividing into many. Each drop tried to expand and occupy as much space as possible, but others, striving to do the same, crushed it, sometimes absorbed it, at others melted into it. ‘That is life,’ said the old teacher.’ - War and Peace, Book 4, Part 3, Chapter 15
This is a pantheistic vision, I would suggest. God is defined as life; life is conceived as the living, organic unity of the physical universe, and personal existence, symbolised by the drops that emerge, expand, and disappear, is conceived as a temporary expression of the divine. The individual is absorbed into the all, which is eternal. This vision allows Pierre, temporarily at least, to let go of his anxious questing and simply live.
· Anna Karenina: Levin at the Mowing
My third example is Levin at the mowing. Levin joins his peasants with a scythe during the harvest and experiences pure happiness in the process of his labour:
Swath followed swath. They mowed long rows and short rows, good grass and poor grass. Levin lost all count of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change began to come over his work which gave him intense satisfaction. There were moments when he forgot what he was doing, he mowed without effort and his line was almost as good and smooth as Titus’s. But as soon as he began thinking what he was doing and trying to do better, he was at once conscious how hard the task was, and would mow badly:
‘The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when it was not his arms that swung the scythe but the scythe seemed to mow of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without a thought being given to it, the work did itself regularly and carefully. These were the most blessed moments.’ - Anna Karenina, Part 3, Chapters 4 and 5
Here we see the same forgetfulness of self, the suspension of ratiocination, that we observed in the previous two examples. Levin’s identity is merged with that of his scythe in an impersonal and blessed union: ‘the work did itself’. Time itself is suspended, and Levin temporarily experiences the eternity of ‘now’. As in the other two examples, the moral dimension here is entirely absent.
· From Life to Conscience
But a decisive shift occurs when Levin comes to faith. Yes, he suspends the process of abstract reasoning, governed by the law of cause and effect, realising, as other Tolstoian heroes before him had realised, that it had no answer to the question of ultimate meaning, but what floods in instead is an awareness of the primacy not of life, of being, but of another kind of law: the moral law:
‘When Levin puzzled over what he was and what he was living for, he could find no answer and fell into despair; but when he left off worrying about the problem of his existence he seemed to know both what he was and for what he was living, for he acted and lived resolutely and unfalteringly...
Deliberation led to doubts and prevented him from seeing what he ought and ought not to do. But when he did not think, but just lived, he never ceased to be aware of the presence in his soul of an infallible judge who decided which of two possible courses of action was the better and which the worse, and instantly let him know if he did what he should not.’ - Anna Karenina, Part 7, Chapter 10
This shift will have profound consequences for the world view of the late Tolstoy.
3. The world view of the post-crisis Tolstoy
The progressive stream of 19th-century Russian thought is ideologically diverse and, to a greater extent than conservatism, develops as the century progresses.
· Common Features shared by all Progressives
Common features shared by all progressives include: opposition to the autocratic system of government; a basic orientation westwards for inspiration concerning alternative forms of political organisation; the championing of the oppressed Russian ‘people’ (narod) and the principle of social justice; the rejection of the Russian Orthodox Church on both philosophical and political grounds (because of its historical connection with autocracy and its underpinning of the ‘mystique’ of the Tsar as God’s representative on earth); and, finally, the embrace of the Enlightenment ideal of rationalism as the sole means to progress.
· Liberals and Radicals
Progressives in Russia, as everywhere, can be divided into liberals and radicals. However, as can be observed today, liberalism does not sit well with the Russian political consciousness. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most progressive thinkers eschewed or even despised the liberal middle ground, evincing an antipathy to gradualism and a tendency instead to utopianism and the related aspiration to revolution: a sudden and decisive transformation of affairs. One can discern an antipathy also to democracy based on the majority vote as a compromise; instead, universal consent is demanded, this being interpreted as the will of the people (though in practice it disclosed a latent despotism). Finally, one finds an almost universal contempt for the values of the bourgeoisie, whether this be the product of the aristocratic provenance of many of Russia’s intellectual radicals, or of the idealisation of the ‘people’, or both. Since liberalism represents the interests of the middle class, it hardly stood a chance. Liberalism manifests itself as a minority tendency twice over the course of the long 19th century: in the 1840s and 50s, and again in the first two decades of the 20th century. Both times its voice is drowned out by radicalism.
· Socialists and Anarchists
Among the radicals in Russia were both socialists and anarchists. Russian socialism evolved through several stages. It began in the 1840s with a youthful enthusiasm for the French utopian socialism of Fourier, Saint-Simon and ??, which was quickly supplemented with the philosophy of Left Hegelianism, particularly Feuerbach, whose work The Essence of Christianity, with its proposition that God is a projection that disempowers humanity, is the cornerstone of the principled atheism of the Russian intelligentsia. In the later 1850s and early 1860s the positivism of Auguste Conte was taken up, as were the English utilitarians, though the commune remained the ideal social model. The 1870s witnessed the rise of Populism, a uniquely Russian form of socialism, which championed an agrarian socialism based on the still-functioning, though already threatened, peasant commune and sought to by-pass the industrial-bourgeois stage of development in Russia. This movement descended into terrorism as the prospect of bringing about a revolution through either education or agitation of the peasantry was defeated. As state-sponsored capitalism established itself in the 1880s and 1890s the Populist agenda began to look anachronistic and the stage was set for the rise of Marxism, which itself, as you all know, split into a faction favouring bottom-up revolution, and a faction favouring an organised coup.
All Russian socialists subscribed to the notion of the State. As early as the late 1840s, however, anarchism – which opposed the principle of the state as an intrinsically oppressive construct – established itself on the ideological spectrum in the person of Bakunin, who later headed one tendency within Populism (the belief that the peasantry should be encouraged to revolt without first being educated as to the causes of their oppression). Bakuninite anarchism vigorously attacked the Orthodox Church and religious belief in the conviction that it was above all the peasant’s religious devotion to the little father Tsar that prevented him from throwing off his chains. Indeed, the pronounced atheism of the Russian radical intelligentsia is most certainly a function of the close ideological bond between the autocratic regime and the Russian Orthodox Church.
· The late Tolstoy’s Kinship with Russian Radicals
The late Tolstoy shares many of the views of the progressive tendency, none of which, I think, is really anticipated in his work up to Anna Karenina: opposition to the autocracy; a passionate concern for the oppressed peasantry as the victim of consistent State violence – not least through the system of compulsory military service; and the rejection of the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of the State. I also want to argue that he, like the progressives, espouses the Enlightenment ideal of rationalism, though in quite a different way to them.
Aspects of the late Tolstoy’s ideology have much in common with the views of the radical intelligentsia. Firstly, he shared its hostility towards liberalism. Take, for example, his sarcastic characterisation of proponents of the majority vote:
‘When among one hundred men, one rules over ninety nine, it is unjust, it is a despotism; when ten rule over ninety it is equally unjust, it is an oligarchy; but when fifty one rule over forty nine (and this is only theoretical, for in reality it is always ten or eleven of these fifty one), it is entirely just, it is freedom!
Could there be anything funnier, in its manifest absurdity, than such reasoning? And yet it is this very reasoning that serves as the basis for all reformers of the political structure.’ - The Law of Love and the Law of Violence, Chapter 4
Secondly, he shared the intelligentsia’s radical egalitarianism, though the basis for it is quite different in his ideology than it is in that of the radicals, as we shall see. Thirdly, Tolstoy had quite a lot in common with the Populists (and this is already evident in the pre-crisis fiction): like them, he opposed urbanisation and industrialisation, and idealised the peasant way of life, though his individualism prevented him from advocating the peasant commune as the basic unit of organisation for the future society. Fourthly, the late Tolstoy was an anarchist in the very precise sense that he desired the dissolution of the State, seeing in it a vehicle for the protection of the interests of the ruling class and an instrument of oppression. How strangely this sits with the patriotism of War and Peace!
Features of the late Tolstoy’s ideology distinguishing him from the radical intelligentsia
Despite all of these points of contact of the post-crisis Tolstoy with the progressive tendency in Russian thought, there are still more points of difference.
· Religion/Faith as the most Fundamental Phenomenon of Life
The decisive distinguishing feature is of course that Tolstoy’s mature world view was founded on religion, or faith, as the most fundamental phenomenon of life, a phenomenon that had structural significance for all other phenomena. Never an enthusiast for scientific progress, after his conversion Tolstoy vociferously opposed the basic premise of the Enlightenment: that science has rendered religion obsolete. This was impossible, because religion was an instinct inherent to human nature: the vast majority of the world’s population continued to live by it, whilst only a tiny minority posited its obsolescence. Science and religion belong to quite different spheres. Tolstoy notes the etymology of the term ‘religion’ (the Latin for ‘to bind’) when he defines it as ‘that relationship, in accordance with reason and knowledge, which man establishes with the infinite world around him, and which binds his life to that infinity and guides his actions’ (What is Religion, Of What Does Its Essence Consist?, Chapter 3).
· Religious Rationalism
A telling phrase in this definition is ‘in accordance with reason and knowledge’. Far from faith being irrational, as the advocates of scientific positivism would have Tolstoy’s contemporaries believe, it is precisely our higher, rational faculty that requires God. Rational life requires religion because it is in the nature of reason to seek meaning. Both unbelief (which Tolstoy attributes to the Russian ruling class) and superstitious forms of belief (which he attributes to the peasantry, whom he now calls ‘the hypnotised majority’) are irrational. They are obfuscations of the rationality of true faith. That Tolstoy believes not just in the harmony of reason and faith, but in their essential identity, is summed up in the following extraordinary statement: ‘Complete unity with the highest and most perfect reason and, thereby, perfect well-being is the ideal towards which humanity strives’ (What is Religion, Chapter 9). There is something akin to neo-Platonism here: the divine is conceived as a rational entity with which human reason, understood as nous, the highest spiritual faculty, strives. But doesn’t this conflict with the rejection of discursive reason that we saw in the account of Levin’s conversion (and, in Confession, of Tolstoy’s own conversion)?
· Moral Reason
Well, yes, there is a conflict here, one which Tolstoy never properly deals with. Instead of confronting his own ambivalence about discursive reason (Kant’s ‘pure reason’), for rhetorical purposes he tends to conflate it with moral reason (Kant’s ‘practical reason’). This is evident in the statement: ‘A rational being cannot live without religion because it is only this that gives him the essential guidance as to what to do first and what follows.’ The burning question for Tolstoy and his literary heroes is always not epistemological but moral: ‘What must I do?’, ‘How should I live?’ For the late Tolstoy, as we have seen, the existence of God cannot be proved by means of discursive reason, and cannot be experienced mystically, but it is demonstrated beyond doubt by the existence of ‘the moral law within’: the conscience. Thus, for the late Tolstoy, the religious life is a life led in strictest obedience to the conscience. Here I think we can detect a powerful influence from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: ‘Two things fill me with wonder,’ he wrote, ‘the starry sky above and the moral law within.’ Tolstoy might have written that. The existence of what Kant called ‘the categorical imperative’, the ‘ought’ wired into the human intelligence, is for him the best indicator we have of the metaphysical existence of God. Kant’s moral rationalism has its roots in his Protestant heritage, and for me Tolstoy’s moral rationalism makes him closest in religious temperament to Protestantism.
· Moral Individualism
Another thing that sets Tolstoy at odds with the radical intelligentsia is that he lacks its penchant for collectivism, and is, I believe, essentially an individualist, despite his talk of ‘the brother hood of man’. This manifests itself in two ways: his views on the source of evil, and his views on the ideal society. In 1909 the radical intelligentsia was famously criticised by a symposium of Kantian liberals for blaming the ills of society on the mode of its organisation. Tolstoy also believed that injustice was structurally embedded in Russian society, but unlike the radicals he traced its source to the individual human heart, not omitting his own heart. ‘Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks about changing himself’ Tolstoy famously declared. No social change is possible without personal change. The late novel Resurrection (1899) was written to illustrate this principle. Its hero, Nekhliudov, a wealthy aristocrat, whilst carrying out jury service, finds himself sitting in judgement on a prostitute accused of murdering one of her clients. Nekhliudov recognises her as Katiusha, a girl whom he had casually seduced and abandoned in his youth. He undergoes a shift in consciousness as he realises his responsibility for Katiusha’s fate, and devotes himself to helping the woman, first by petitioning for her release, then by following her to Siberia in order to try to alleviate her suffering. Through his eyes we see how the evils of the system are perpetuated by corrupt or simply ‘unenlightened’ individuals, people who are unconscious of their role and, in Tolstoy’s eyes, spiritually dead. The novel is an appeal to Tolstoy’s readers to ‘rise from the dead’, as it were, and join Nekhliudov in his journey of resurrection.
Tolstoy is also an individualist so far as his vision of the ideal society is concerned: not the dictatorship of the proletariat but the dissolution of the State. He believed that in the stateless society each individual will act according to his conscience, by the law of love. Or rather, that when each individual began to act in this way, the State would wither away of its own accord. He did believe that by implementing the rule ‘do as you would be done by’ a ‘brotherhood of man’ would naturally arise, and this is how he conceived the Kingdom of God, as an earthly, not a heavenly, state of being.
· Non-resistance to Evil
A consequence of living by the precept ‘do as you would be done by’ is a prohibition on violence. Indeed Tolstoy proposes the existence of two mutally exclusive laws: the law of violence and the law of love (1908). He came to see the conscientious life as a life that fulfils the law of love. It follows from this that one may not take up arms against one’s oppressors, and one must not collude in the oppression of others. Therefore Tolstoy does not advocate violent revolution, as all the radicals do (he does not adhere to the principle that the end justifies the means), and proposes instead a gradual moral revolution initiated in the individual. The main weapon against the State open to such individuals is civil disobedience, notably: the refusal to do military service (compulsory in Russia). Tolstoy championed conscientious objectors, the majority of whom belonged to sectarian communities with a history of rejecting the Orthodox Tsarist State. He wrote Resurrection to raise money for the sect of the Spirit Wrestlers (Dukhobors) to facilitate their emigration to North America.
· Religious Egalitarianism
Tolstoy’s fundamental conviction that all people are equal derives not from the Enlightenment belief in human rights nor from a demand for material equality, but from the religious precept that all people are ‘equally insignificant before the infinite’. (I find this use of the negative – insignificant – rather telling. An Orthodox would express human equality before God in terms of the absolute significance and worth of each person to Him.) Tolstoy’s belief in religious equality drives his political radicalism, which is based on the conviction that the rich and powerful have always deliberately obfuscated recurring religious perceptions of human equality in order to safeguard their wealth and power. But the claim that all are equal is not specific to Christianity, according to Tolstoy, who writes:
‘The acceptance of equality between all men is a necessary and fundamental characteristic of all religions.’ - What is Religion? Chapter 4
· Religious progress
This brings me to the final distinction that I would like to draw between the radical intelligentsia and the late Tolstoy: Tolstoy shares with the socialists a belief in progress, but gives this a positive interpretation only in respect to religion. In a Hegelian spirit, he maintains that cultures reach ever higher levels of development by a process of birth, maturation, decay, and eventual regeneration. Consequently, the religions professed by these cultures grow more sophisticated with each cycle of development. Tolstoy’s criterion for religious progress is rationality: the regeneration of a religion leads to, quote, ‘a formulation of doctrine that is more rational and lucid than before’. (Russian Orthodoxy, according to him, is a primitive expression of Christianity based on superstitious ritual and, in Tolstoy’s view, irrational beliefs, such as in the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, and life after death.) This tendency of Tolstoy’s to rationalise religion by stripping out everything in it that does not satisfy the reason (rewriting of the Gospels) again resonates with Protestantism, which in the West during Tolstoy’s lifetime was occupied with recasting Christ as a great moral teacher (and essentially, this is how Tolstoy conceives of him). In fact, the outcome of this line of reasoning is to reduce all religions to a common denominator, for example the law of love, and it is quite possible to argue that Tolstoy in the end is not really so much a Christian as he is, simply, a theist.
4. Tolstoy and Orthodoxy: the Example of Christmas
So: we have seen how Tolstoy’s philosophical orientation shifts perceptibly after his fiftieth birthday from a Romantic conservatism with a distinct Slavophile bias to an individualistic moral radicalism that, ironically – given Tolstoy’s aversion to so-called ‘Western’ modes of perception – draws heavily on Enlightenment values, particularly the moral philosophy of Kant. We have also seen how an aversion to Orthodox practice hardens into a principled rejection of the Church both as an institution and as a dogmatic authority.
One can understand and sympathise with Tolstoy’s critique of the political role played in Imperial Russia by the Russian Orthodox Church. But on the question of dogma, I think Tolstoy was guilty of a profound failure to grasp the spiritual core of the Orthodox faith. And for this reason I would argue that, as a religious thinker, Tolstoy is highly unrepresentative of the Russian mind.
And since we are in Advent, and I have the privilege of giving you the Victor Suchar Christmas lecture, I should like to end by illustrating this last point on the example of Christmas.
The feast of the Nativity is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. It celebrates one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith, the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity. The Christmas canon opens with the following hymn:
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,
For He has been exalted!
Christmas canon, 1st song, Irmos
‘Christ descends from the heavens’: Orthodoxy to a greater extent than the Western denominations, especially Protestant ones, has preserved a vision of Christ as God, and for this reason its liturgy reflects a keen awareness of the paradox of God becoming human:
Today the Virgin brings forth the Supersubstantial One
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.
St Romanos Melodus, Kontakion for Christmas
The significance of the Incarnation for the Orthodox is no less than the reconciliation of heaven and earth. This means not only the humanisation of the divine, if I may put it that way, but as a direct consequence of this the possibility and promise of the divinisation of humanity. This is well expressed in the following verse:
Heaven and earth now are united through Christ's Birth!
Now is God come down to earth
And man arisen to the heaven.
Stichera on the Litiya
In the Orthodox vision, it is the destiny of human beings and the material universe, the cosmos; to be united with God through divinisation (deification, or theosis in Greek), and it is the Incarnation that makes this possible as Christ sanctifies the body:
Glory and praise to the One born on earth Who hath divinised earthly human nature.
Christmas matins, Sedalen
Tolstoy’s intellectual temperament could tolerate neither paradox nor extra-rational sources of truth like Revelation, and therefore the entire edifice of Orthodox belief was inaccessible to him. He did not believe in the divinity of Christ, and therefore could not embrace the vision of a divinised humanity. In fact, as is well known, Tolstoy, not believing in the sanctification of the body, came to fear and despise the body and its passions, and to preach a non-Orthodox kind of asceticism. In the postlude to ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, his infamous story about the murderous nature of the sex instinct, Tolstoy counters the objection that, if all were chaste, the human race would die out, with the assertion that this was to be welcomed once humanity had reached its spiritual goal. Such pessimism about the material world is why Tolstoy could never accept the Incarnation and thus, why he could not celebrate Christmas.
Dr Ruth Coates