October 23, 2018

Inside the Utopian Communes Based on Tolstoy’s Teachings

“Tolstoy is arguably history’s greatest novelist, but not that arguably. In a 2007 Time poll of 125 authors, Anna Karenina was voted the greatest book ever written, with War and Peace finishing third. Dostoevsky and Nabokov both called Anna Karenina “flawless,” and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf acknowledged his brilliance. Isaac Babel summarized the consensus, referencing the unmatched realism in his books: “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

The man who wrote like the world was born in 1828, the fourth of five children. His aristocratic parents died when he was young, leaving him raised largely by his extended family on their majestic 4,000-acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana. One hundred and twenty miles south of Moscow, it was filled with ponds, parks, landscaped gardens, fruit orchards, paths — and about 300 serfs working the land.

Tolstoy abandoned university after two years. At 19, he was living a debauched bachelor’s life in Moscow, acquiring gonorrhea and a gambling problem. After another perfunctory attempt at university in St. Petersburg and a brief stint at home, he joined the Russian military, fighting in the Caucasus and Sevastopol during the Crimean War in the early- and mid-1850s while writing fiction in his free time.

…But there was another Tolstoy who’s been lost to history. For all his fame as a novelist, in Russia and elsewhere Tolstoy the fiction writer was secondary in fame and impact to Tolstoy the author of political, social and religious non-fiction. “His popular celebrity in 1910 owed more to his political and ethical campaigning and his status as a visionary, reformer, moralist, and philosophical guru than to his talents as a writer of fiction,” the classicist Mary Beard has observed. Though it’s remembered today only by a few literary critics, Tolstoy fashioned an entire coherent way of living centered around his unique understanding of Christianity. Its adherents came to be known as Tolstoyans, much to his annoyance. At one time, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of practicing Tolstoyans around the world, from India to Canada. They renounced cities, comforts, laws, pleasure, modernity. Now they’re all gone. Almost all.”

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