5/2/12 - the zeal of leo tolstoy

In today's excerpt - Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian aristocrat who joined the army out of disillusionment with his life. He fought in the Crimean War, and the demeaning treatment of soldiers he observed led him to become a reformist, and he repudiated his lifestyle of gambling, whoring and feasting. He eventually adopted a simple peasant's lifestyle and became a zealous reformer. His novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina are viewed as two of the greatest written, and his ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, profoundly influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In March 1854 a young artillery officer by the name of Leo Tolstoy arrived at the headquarters of General Mikhail Gorchakov. He had joined the army in 1852, the year he had first come to the attention of he literary world with the publication of his memoir Childhood in the literary journal the Contemporary, the most important monthly periodical in Russia at that time. Dissatisfied with his frivolous way of life as an aristocrat in St. Petersburg and Moscow, he had decided to make a fresh start by following his brother Nikolai to the Caucasus when he returned from leave to his army unit there. Tolstoy was attached to an artillery brigade in the Cossack village of Starogladskaya in the northern Caucasus. ...

"Aristocratic connections went a long way in the Russian army staff. Tolstoy was quickly caught up in the social whirl of Bucharest, attending dinners at the Prince's house, games of cards and musical soirees in drawing rooms, evenings at the Italian opera and French theatre -- a world apart from the bloody battlefields of the Danubian front just a few miles away. 'While you are imagining me exposed to all the dangers of war, I have not yet smelt Turkish powder, but am very quietly at Bucharest, strolling about, making music, and eating ice-creams,' he wrote to his aunt at the start of May ...

"[Year's later after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War] one of the voices calling for reform belonged to Tolstoy, whose Sevastopol Sketches had catapulted him to literary fame. Tolstoy's experience of the Crimean War shaped his ideas on life and literature. He had witnessed at first hand the incompetence and corruption of many officers, and their often brutal treatment of the ordinary soldiers and sailors, whose courage and resilience had inspired him. It was in his diary of the campaign that he first developed his ideas for radical reform and vowed to fight injustice with his pen. On his way from Odessa to Sevastopol in November 1854, he was told by the pilot his boat about the transport of the soldiers: 'how a soldier lay down in the pouring rain on the wet bottom of the boat and fell asleep; how an officer beat a soldier for scratching himself; and how a soldier shot himself during the crossing for fear of having overstayed his leave by two days and how he was thrown overboard without burial.' The contrast with the way he thought the ordinary soldier was treated in the Western armies brought home the need for change. ...

"Tolstoy's experience in the Crimean War had led him to question more than just the military system. The poet Afanasy Fet, who first met Tolstoy in Turgenev's St. Petersburg apartment in the winter of 1855, was struck by the young man's 'automatic opposition to all generally accepted opinions'. Living side by side with the ordinary soldiers in the Crimea had opened Tolstoy's eyes to the simple virtues of the peasantry; it had set him on a restless search for a new truth, for a way to live morally as a Russian nobleman and landowner, given the injustices of serfdom. He had touched on these matters before A Landowner's Morning (1852), he wrote about a landowner (for which read: Tolstoy) who seeks a life of happiness and justice in the country and learns that it can only be found in constant labour for the good of others less happy than himself. At around the same time, he had proposed to reduce the dues of the serfs on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, but the serfs were suspicious of his intentions (they were not accustomed to such benevolence) and had turned his offer down. But it was only in the Crimea that Tolstoy began to feel a close attachment to the serfs in uniform -- those 'simple and kind men, whose goodness is apparent during a real war'. He was disgusted with his former life -- the gambling, the whoring, the excessive feasting and drinking, the embarrassment of riches, and the lack of any real work or purpose in his life. And after the war, he threw himself into the task of living with the peasants in 'a life of truth' with new determination."


Orlando Figes


The Crimean War: A History


Metropolitan Books, Henry Hold and Company, LLC


Copyright 2010 by Orlando Figes


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