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  • The Elder at Iasnaia PolianaLev Tolstoi and the Orthodox Starets Tradition
  • Pål Kolstø (bio)

In his activity as religious teacher and counselor, Lev Tolstoi consciously stepped into the tradition of the Orthodox startsy or elders. We can see this both in the way he organized his “ministry”—publishing books of spiritual advice and receiving the faithful at Iasnaia Poliana—and in the way he was perceived and described by his contemporaries. On the one hand, this emulation is rather surprising, since Tolstoi on a number of occasions vehemently attacked the Russian Church and all it stood for. On the other, it may not be so incongruous after all: for Tolstoi, as for most Russians, Orthodoxy was the variety of Christianity they grew up with and knew, and its influence rubbed off also on its critics.

Tolstoi discussed Orthodox theology and spirituality directly or indirectly in several of his post-conversion writings. This is true both of fictional works like Father Sergii (1890–98) and Resurrection (1899), and of religious tracts like What I Believe (1884) and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1890–93). In his famous Reply to the Holy Synod, which in 1901 had promulgated a public warning against Tolstoi’s religious teaching, Tolstoi retaliated by calling the teaching of the Russian Church “in its theory, an insidious and dangerous lie, and in practical terms, a collection of the coarsest and most superstitious sorcery.”1

Indeed, Tolstoi often seemed to go out of his way to insult the religious sentiments of Russian believers, as in the famous communion scene in Resurrection. Another such case is The Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, in which he characterized the content of some of the most commonly used textbooks of Orthodox theology as “pure fantasy,” “blasphemous hallucinations,” [End Page 533] “outright lies,” and “pitiable and villainous distortions.”2 A modern commentator, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, concludes, not unreasonably, that in many respects The Investigation is “a huge anti-Orthodox pamphlet.”3

This is not, however, all that can be said about Tolstoi’s relationship to Orthodoxy. Rancour-Laferriere points out that in some later writings Tolstoi softens and even completely alters his stance on some of the issues addressed in The Investigation, and as I have demonstrated elsewhere, even the message of The Investigation itself is much more ambiguous than what meets the eye: in this book, Tolstoi attacks the official Orthodox teaching about the nature of God—the doctrine of His omnipresence, His omniscience, and so on—by arguing that the essence of God’s being is completely unknown to us: He is nepostizhim. As it turns out, Tolstoi’s argument on this point is closely akin to the so-called “negative” or apophatic theology in the Eastern tradition, a way of thinking about God that Tolstoi had in fact found in many of the Orthodox texts he had read and by which he was clearly influenced.4

Most Western monographs on Tolstoi’s religion ignore the possible influence of Orthodoxy, while some Tolstoi experts acknowledge—but in passing only—that traces of Orthodox thinking may be found in Tolstoi’s teaching.5 Thus, for instance, Robert Donahoo has remarked that Tolstoi’s theology “is a strange mixture of orthodox Christianity, nineteenth-century European humanism, and Tolstoy’s personal idiosyncracies,” while A. N. Wilson claims that “Tolstoy is in some ways oddly a Russian Orthodox.”6 [End Page 534]

The literary scholar who most consistently has studied Tolstoi’s system of thought against the background of Russian Orthodoxy is Richard F. Gustafson. In his celebrated study Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger (1986), Gustafson went further than most in downplaying the theological differences between Tolstoi and the Russian Orthodox Church. He claimed, for instance, that “Tolstoy’s God of Life and Love is an Eastern Christian God.”7 However, even if it can be demonstrated that Tolstoi was deeply imbued with and influenced by Orthodox thinking, this does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that he was less heterodox than he himself claimed and most of his contemporaries took for granted. Both his break with the Church and the continuity between Orthodoxy and Tolstoianism were strong and real. It is in...


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