The ultimate meaning of the Russian Revolution which took place in March, 1917, can be best understood through the pages of the Journal of Leo Tolstoy which is here printed. The spiritual qualities which make up the mind and personality of Tolstoy are the spiritual qualities which make up the new era among men which is being waged so painfully and so uncompromisingly at the present moment on the soil of Russia. One holds the key to the other, for no land but Russia could have produced a Tolstoy, and in no land but Russia could Tolstoy have been so embraced and so absorbed.
They are both flesh of each other’s flesh, and I place them equally in greatness against each other. Great and wonderful as is the Russian people, so Tolstoy was as great and wonderful as the Russian people. I say this knowing well the pain and impatience both felt for each other in the long eighty-two years of Tolstoy’s life here, but it was the pain and the impatience of great love and infinite understanding, of feeling and knowing each other’s pulse-beats, and not the misunderstanding of strangers. It was the wise father doubting the impatient methods of his children; it was the ardent children desiring and struggling to accomplish the wishes of the father and being lost in the maelstrom of an insistent reality.
The youth went faster than the father, and yet so infinite and universal were the words of the latter that when the last summings-up are made both stand together in total harmony and agreement. Tolstoy at thirty took no part in the great educational agrarian movement of the latter Fifties, and even had a fine scorn for their exponents which did not leave him in his later years — witness the phrase against Herzen and Chernishevsky, “raised to great men,” he said, “and who ought to be grateful to the government and the censorship, without which they would have been the most unnoticed of sketch-writers.” And yet it was Herzen and Chernishevsky and Dobrolubov, these “sketch-writers,” who kept up the fire of agrarian reform and who practically forced the issue upon Alexander II. Tolstoy ignored the whole revolutionary movement of that time; even more than ignored it; threw himself seemingly into the opposite camp, leading the life of a gay fêted hero returned from the Crimean War. But his Morning of a Landed Proprietor shows that he was thinking deeply even at that time of the social problems around him, only he was thinking more slowly than the rest. He was just waking up to the fact that the peasant conditions needed improvement, at the time when all around him the youth had passed to the idea that it was not an improvement that they needed, but an absolute change in the fundamental ideas of property. It took him forty years to say, that you might as well ask him how to make use of the ownership, or the labour or the rent of a bonded slave as to ask him for advice as to the problem of owning of land. Here was no reformer speaking, but one who was united with the revolutionary thought around him.
But when the men of the Sixties were making that answer for themselves, and had won the first great step toward the change — the abolition of serfdom — Tolstoy was away altogether from his native land writing that great epoch of the War of 1812 — War and Peace.It was because this great soul was undogmatic, and reached out into the world not by mass thinking, but marvellously enough entirely by himself, laying his roots far and deep, that he seemed so slow moving. Yet it was the direction and the end that counted, and the end finds him, like the race between the tortoise and the hare — that he is still ahead.
Even Russia will have far and long to travel to come to that kingdom of God on earth, to that conception of the manifestation of the will of God on earth, which is the spiritual ideal of Tolstoy, and toward which, express it in any materialistic or naturalistic terms it may, the Russian nation has with one mind been working with such marvellous self-consciousness.
Again, after the emancipation of the serfs, Tolstoy seemed to fail the New Russia, interesting himself only at this moment with the education of the youth and the need of reform — ever the need of reform, when already for over a decade the cry of Russia was for new forms entirely, new land arrangements, new relations between man and man, and man and his property. The time had come, they said, for the Will of the People to be made manifest.
But before Tolstoy could decide on that, he had to decide on a more fundamental problem of what his relation was to God, as well as what his relation was to man. In other words, what were the true spiritual relations between man and man, not only the economic, political and social ones. And it is this attempt to solve the real fundamental meaning to all relationship, the very reason for the youth’s outbursts against the economic, political and social injustices that existed, that kept him moving forward so slowly. For he moved whole worlds at a step.
The only reason for life, he said, is the universal desire for well being, which in man, whose reason has awakened, is expanded into a desire for universal welfare; in other words, for love. For he knows that he is not a separate being, but a part of a whole, and therefore it is meaningless to think that he can obtain anything for himself alone. It is only in struggling and attaining for the Whole that he can find his true life.
The Russian youth agreed with him entirely. To their logic, the struggle for universal welfare led to terrorism; to Tolstoy, to the absolute non-resistance to evil by violence. The youth said the will of God is being thwarted by a band of oppressors. If we do away with the oppressors we can get together in mutual love. Tolstoy said that he who thinks he can violate the will of God for an immediate good is only short-sighted. Never at any moment can the will of God be thwarted and the good attained.
For a while the Russian Government rather approved of the Tolstoyan attitude of non-resistance to evil. The one who used the greatest amount of violence and evil of all, was pleased to meet the philosophy which advised non-resistance to it. But Tolstoy grew and travelled in his long years and he had to change his conclusions, so that his logic led him to that most self-conscious and difficult of all revolutionary movements, passive-resistance. Take no part in violence, he said; therefore, pay no taxes that support a government which violates, and do not serve in the army which is an act of violence in itself. It was then that Tolstoy was looked upon with askance by the Russian authorities and formerly anathematised from the church. It was to his followers that the more drastic punishment of imprisonment and exile was meted out.
Toward the latter years of his life, his great human heart could not remain quite closed to the violence around him, and religious thinker that he was, he had to stop his meditations to cry out against the Kishineff massacres of the Jews and against the raising of the scaffolds and the tying of the “Stolypine’s neck-ties,” that most telling nick-name of the Russian people for the noose, which was tied even for school children on the crossroads of Russia after the bitter failure of the revolution of 1905.
It was only in What Is Art? that the Russian people and Tolstoy were unanimously at one. Art is to serve the people, to be of the people, to be something understandable by all people. There were to be no dogmas for art, no German metaphysics for art. It was merely the means of expressing to his neighbour the mysteries that went on in the soul of the artist. There was no quarrel here between his fellow countrymen and the great thinker. Everything was to be for the people; the spiritual manifestations of life as well as the material.
How to make clear that for all this seeming lack of harmony, there existed the greatest bond of all between this teacher and his children. Thousands in Russia took his life as an example and left the vainglories of the city with all its false standards and went to live among the people. They went not only to serve them but to be one of them, to live by the sweat of their brow as the masses did, because it was the only moral thing to do, and because the greatest happiness lay in the spiritual values of life, and because, as Tolstoy himself says, “It is good with them, but with us it is shameful.”