Most of us know Count Leo Tolstoy as the author of War and Peace, a big book that we haven't read. What is less well known about this remarkable individual is that he was a social reformer whose pacifist and anarchist ideas were to have huge influence in the 20th century and to this day. I say all this because Tolstoy has been popping up in my conversations recently: a Viennese journalist, flatteringly if absurdly, compared me to him the other day, and I have just started to read Anna Karenina.
As a student, Tolstoy led an idle and dissipated life. He later joined the army, and then made a failed attempt to improve the everyday life of the peasants on his family estate. He published his first novel at the age of 24. A letter to friends at that time reveals his Epicurean tendencies: "Happiness will consist in being with Nature, seeing her, communing with her," he wrote.
In the 1860s, he started what we would call a free school, where he tested his anti-authoritarian ideas: "Everything that savours of compulsion is harmful and proves either that the method is indifferent or the teaching bad." At Tolstoy's school, children learnt what they wanted and attended when they felt like it, rather like today's Summerhill School. The government inspectors tolerated his project but dismissed it as a fad: "The activity of Count Tolstoy deserves respect and should win co-operation from the educational department, although it cannot agree with all his ideas; ideas which he will in all probability abandon on due consideration." Sadly they were right, and the school closed after two years.
He was married to Sofia Behrs, a doctor's daughter, in 1862. They had 13 children, five of whom died when young. This was a pastoral existence: Tolstoy enjoyed mowing the lawns with a scythe and hoeing the beds at Yasnaya Polyana, his country estate. Here, he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina (which contains the most gripping first page of any novel I have read). But he could not leave off his social experiments. His friend Turgenev wished that he would stick to writing books and give up on the changing-the-world stuff: "If only Tolstoy would not philosophise, all might be well," he commented.
His marriage to Sofia reportedly began happily but soon degenerated. And his wife resented his guru-like status. She became consumed with jealousy and resentment: "My life is so mundane," she wrote in her diary. "But he has such a rich internal life."
In around 1880, Tolstoy tried to live like a peasant. He renounced alcohol and meat, and rose early to work in the fields every day. He even gave up his beloved hunting and tobacco. "What makes a man good is having few wants," he said.
He adhered to the doctrine of voluntary poverty, as followed by St Francis of Assisi and the Buddha. However, he would still return to his luxurious house in the evening. And while he publicly renounced sex, Sofia complained that he was only happy when they had made love.
In politics, he was what we might call a Christian anarchist. In his essay "The Kingdom of God is Within You", inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, he accused all governments of violence, and was praised for this view by another Russian reformer, Prince Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist, who himself was a huge influence on Oscar Wilde's politics.
In his 1900 essay, "On Anarchy", Tolstoy wrote: "The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power… There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man."
Tolstoy's doctrine of non-violence had a huge influence on Gandhi, who founded a commune in 1910 called Tolstoy Farm, and agreed with Tolstoy that non-violent protest was the key to Indian emancipation from British rule. Indeed, the two men corresponded during 1910, the last year of Tolstoy's life. That year, aged 82, he ran away from Sofia and died in the stationmaster's house at nearby Astapovo.
His social ideas influenced the foundation of various Tolstoyan communes in the 20th century in Europe and the US. Some thrive to this day: the Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds hosts 150 colonists and recently celebrated its 100th birthday. There is a group called Tolstoyans (UK) which espouses his values of pacifism and vegetarianism.
I see that AN Wilson has recently reissued his biography of Tolstoy, which I look forward to reading. Maybe it's time for a Tolstoy night at the Idler Academy?
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'Reuse content