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  • Tolstoi’s Response to Terror and Revolutionary Violence
  • Inessa Medzhibovskaya (bio)

Nonviolence and Terror: Introduction of the Problem for Tolstoi

Given Tolstoi’s firm reputation as a radical thinker, the scarcity of literature treating his involvement with radical ideologies other than his own, and with terrorism in particular, is striking and yet inevitable to a degree. Tolstoi never developed in the corpus of his works a strict theory of terrorism as distinct from the problems of historical and social violence. Clarification of interrelationships among these “furies” in Tolstoi’s thought is overdue.1 The burden of this article is to trace the development of Tolstoi’s views on the problem of political violence and terrorism, including his literary representations of terrorism and terrorists and his rhetorical strategies. The closing section historicizes Tolstoi’s views on terror in order to situate his position relative to those of his contemporaries and to more recent theories.

Due to its constant shifts between the tactics of retaliation and deterrence, which adjust endlessly to current political realities, the very possibility of a single exhaustive definition of terror remains a moot point, so where is Tolstoi’s place in it?2 Present-day interpreters argue that, since the sources of terrorism [End Page 505] are political and involve holding, seizing, or destroying power, the classic cases of terror involve premeditated destruction of individuals, governments, or whole nations within the sphere of power through various forms of “coercive intimidation.”3 Therefore, there are two primary varieties of terror: state (“legitimate” or “top-down”) terror and “illegitimate” or “bottom-up” terror directed against the state.4 At the end of the 19th century, Russian dictionaries were possibly the first to define terror in its two major forms. Florentii Pavlenkov’s Entsiklopedicheskii slovar′ (Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1899) achieved a debatable notoriety thanks to its recognition of terror as an inalienable part of Russian history since 1878, when Vera Zasulich attempted to kill St. Petersburg mayor Fedor Trepov in January and Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinskii assassinated the head of Russia’s secret police, Nikolai Mezentsev. Pavlenkov defined terrorists as those who “acknowledge the murder of government officials to be a means of political struggle.”5 In his article on the French revolutionary terror of 1793, written for the Brokgauz and Efron encyclopedic dictionary in 1901, the conservative historian Vladimir Ger′e did not acknowledge the Russian link to terror and stressed the panic of those engaged in its daily routines, panic about being a possible instrument of extreme violence (its subject and object).6

The contradictory definitions only attracted Tolstoi as a thinker and artist. A month and a half in the year prior to his death, from January through February 1909, illustrates Tolstoi’s profound intellectual and artistic involvement in the problem of radical politics. In that period, the authorities sent a warning deputation of officials and clerics to his estate after banning his essays against the government and revolutionary violence and in response to his endless intercessions on behalf of court-martialed revolutionaries.7 At the end of January, Tolstoi read the novel Andrei Kozhukhov by the late [End Page 506] writer-terrorist Stepniak-Kravchinskii and the serialized “Letters from the Schlisselburg Fortress” by Nikolai Morozov, the author of the seminal brochure “Terroristicheskaia bor′ba” (The Terrorist Struggle, 1880), who had been Tolstoi’s acquaintance since 1908.8 In February, Tolstoi read old issues of the banned revolutionary periodical Byloe, the first of its kind in Russia devoted to the study of revolutionary movements from the Decembrists to the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs) (57: 274).

Even more eloquent than the busy calendar above are drafts of Tolstoi’s last two fictional plots (1909), both exploring revolutionary terrorism and left unrealized at Tolstoi’s death. These are “Pavel Kudriash” and “Ieromonakh Iliodor” (The Hieromonk Iliodor). Although Tolstoi was dissatisfied with the progress of his plot about a working-class youth, Pavel, who joins the expropriation unit of an SR combat organization out of a desire to be near learned revolutionary activists, Tolstoi felt greatly inspired by his second plot. In it, the monk Iliodor loses faith during the Eucharist, leaves the Church, joins the revolution, takes the blame for a high...


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