What Lev N. Tolstoy means to me and the Doukhobors

by Koozma J. Tarasoff
  © All rights reserved by Koozma J. Tarasoff, 2006.
Published in Andrew Donskov’s  Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors: an historic relationship
(Ottawa: Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa, 2005).  Pages 233-237.
The Russian version of the poem "Tolsoy and the Doukhobors" [bottom] was published separately.
See my Book Review of Donskov
Imagine what society would look like if the leaders of the world would have followed Tolstoy’s philosophy of love and non-resistance to evil. We would probably have avoided two devastating World Wars along with the atrocious atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean and Vietnam blood baths and the wars we have witnessed in the past decade. The ‘9/11’ attacks on America would not have happened and we would be living in a much safer world than we are now.

With co-operation and a caring attitude to our neighbours, with the rejection of imperialism and narrow patriotism in favour of world humanity, we would have made major inroads to solving through good governance the world’s problems of poverty, disease, adequate housing, education for all, cultural enrichment, clean air and water. We would have arrived at being a creative, non-killing society.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (both of whom were influenced by Tolstoy) would have not only have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but their actions would have been accepted as standard procedure in the annals of human behaviour. Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King were truly giant pioneers in human development.

For me, a person of Doukhobor background who has actively studied this society for the past fifty years, Lev Tolstoy as a moral and religious reformer has been a major influence on my life. It is not an exaggeration to say that he literally saved the Doukhobors whose philosophy and values in life he shared from outright extinction, and so he is respected  by them as a great teacher and an authority one who not only demonstrated better than anyone else the horror and cruelty of war but scathingly denounced it as a pre-meditated and legalized system of wholesale murder. As for these people who are slaying each other today, I think to myself: what great friends they could be if they only took this great man’s teachings to heart!

I feel truly honoured that my ancestors in Russia burnt their firearms in 1895 and gave credence to the moral dimension of opposing the institution of war. By supporting them at this time of dire need, Tolstoy made possible for my grandparents and many other Doukhobors to come to Canada and lead a pioneering life on the Canadian prairies.

I have always been impressed by both Tolstoy’s and the Doukhobors’ belief in the basic goodness of man. Tolstoy reminded us that by co-operating we can create a good life instead of hating and killing people. The purpose of life is to do good, he said. Tolstoy was sure that it was man’s business to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. If we want to live in an earthly paradise and avoid world catastrophe, it is up to us to pull ourselves together and act accordingly. 

While some people believe that Peter V. Verigin, leader in exile at the time of the arms burning, was the author of all the major ideas motivating the Doukhobors to action, I have come to realize how much Verigin owed to Tolstoy how much he adapted Tolstoy’s ideas to his own ends, to attract public attention to his cause and increase the Doukhobor’s prestige in the public’s eyes. In return, the Doukhobors a group of illiterate Russian peasants with practical, caring and imaginative minds provided proof Tolstoy required to show the actual existence of people who supported his ideas of universal love. 

In my researches I have read about Tolstoy’s continuing involvement with the Doukhobors and their friends during the first decade of the twentieth century as the Doukhobors were establishing themselves in Canada. He corresponded with Peter V. Verigin, he invited him along with other Doukhobor delegates to his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, and kept in active contact with his own followers outstanding intellectuals who had pledged their help to the Doukhobor cause. These included Vladimir D. Bonch-Bruevich, Pavel Biryukov, Vladimir Chertkov, Leopold A. Sulerzhitsky, Ivan Tregubov and others.
Top of next column ^ 
As a measure of their appreciation, Doukhobors bestowed upon Tolstoy the endearing name of Dedushka (Grandfather). They were delighted to be associated with a figure of such world renown. In 1987, Doukhobors erected two statues of Tolstoy, one in Saskatchewan and the other in British Columbia gifts from the Rodina Society of Russia.

One thing that has particularly impressed me is Tolstoy’s new concept of a universal religion, proclaiming that God is Spirit, God is Love, God is in every single individual (see especially his treatise The Kingdom of God is within you). This free-thinking and enquiring attitude brought him into conflict with the Orthodox Church and led to his excommunication in 1901, inasmuch as any concept that refused to accept the divinity of Christ, the sacraments, ritual worship and the Orthodox concept of Trinity, was considered too close to Protestantism and rationalism. ‘The Kingdom of God is within us’, Tolstoy wrote.

And I realised it was this same free-thinking spirit that back in the 1600s had brought Doukhoborism into being in the first place, and essentially formed its original philosophical base of God as Love and God as being within us. I was interested to note how Tolstoy criticized any attempt on the part of Doukhobor leaders toward self-aggrandisement and narrow sectarianism. He said as much to Peter V. Verigin during the latter’s visit to Yasanaya Polyana in December 1906, noting that any material excesses, as well as any pretence to divine authority, severely compromised the spirit of Doukhoborism. He criticized Verigin himself for his aristocratic style of dress and other violations of the principle of egalitarianism. Tolstoy’s influence seems to have had an effect, since Verigin, partially at least, changed his image and behaviour when he returned to Canada soon thereafter.

As a researcher, I am grateful for Tolstoy’s exposure to narrow sectarianism as fundamentally inconsistent with Doukhobor philosophy. Tolstoy and his rationalistic spirit deserve our thanks for reminding us of our egalitarian and international perspective. In his  enduring novels and in his life, I see Tolstoy as becoming more and more cosmopolitan, seeking to understand the world as a whole, even though his masterful literary works were populated, by and large, with Russian heroes. He was a man who embraced the whole world as his own.

I see Doukhobors as now more confident than ever in looking critically at themselves, as a result of Tolstoy’s free-thinking legacy, rigorously rejecting mysticism in favour of a more rationalistic perspective on the world. The spirit within remains the fountain or well-spring of the spiritual basis of the Doukhobor movement. With the inspiration of The Kingdom of God is within you, Doukhobors can today bravely explore the significance of this revolutionary concept on their lives.  They can dispel the popular orthodox notion of God in the sky and search instead for this spirit in their hearts and minds as well as in their deeds. While Tolstoy was not the sole author of this concept, I feel he wrote about it perhaps in greater detail than any other thinker, and devoted  the greatest effort to outlining a universal religion of love, manifest in moral behaviour, more relevant to the wider world. Indeed, Tolstoy and the Doukhobors may be seen as real reformers of Christendom and spirituality.

In searching for the essence of life, Lev Tolstoy discovered one law as being supreme the Law of Love, which he saw as capable of bringing the highest degree of happiness to all humankind and each individual in particular. Like my fellow-Doukhobors, like Gandhi’s followers and other seekers for truth in all ages and in all parts of the world, I too am most grateful to this giant of a man as a writer, statesman, philosopher, moralist and reformer.

Perhaps what Lev Tolstoy has meant and still means to me can be summed up best in verse, so I shall put my concluding remarks in poetic form:


Also see: Tolstoy and the Doukhobors, a paper presented at the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Hawaii, November 1-4, 2007.

Tolstoy and the Doukhobors
(Dedicated to a great Russian writer)

Our Dear Lev Nikolaevich:

Almost one century has gone by since you died.
Yet your image and aura of the spark of the inner God lives on
in the hearts and minds of many around the world.
The central thread of Love
ties us together,
gives us Spirit,
and serves
as a beacon to all that is decent in life.
Your ideas urge us
to condemn the slaughter of humans,
the torture,
the suffering –
all that is wrong in our civilization.
We are the ringing bells of peace, justice, equality,
and the pursuit of happiness.
We are the mothers and fathers who raise our sons and daughters
not to go to war.

‘Stop that nonsense,’ we say.
We are the veterans who know the meaning of war:
Away with guns, soldiers, and the military,
away with generals and
politicians who have a vociferous capacity
to send our youth for cannon fodder. 
We are the multitudes –
the people of the world who deserve
Life, Liberty, and Universal Humanity.
Yes, we are seekers of the new life
just like you have done
in your search for the Green Stick.

As Spirit Wrestlers, we embrace you,
thank you, and
celebrate your wisdom
for reminding us
that life is not worth living
if we do not stretch ourselves
towards the building of a
Better,
Safer,
Creative,
Caring, and
a Non-killing Society.

Ottawa, Canada – 28 December 2004
Толстой и Духоборцы*
(Посвящается великому русскому писателю)
 
Наш дорогой Лев Николаевич,

почти столетие прошло, как Вы ушли.
Но ваш образ и сияние от искры внутренного Бога живёт
в сердцах и умах человечества.
Основная нить- Любовь
связывает нас,
дает нам Дух
и указывает путь, как маяк
на всё, что справедливо.
Ваши идеи настраивают нас
на осуждение кровопролития,
пыток,
страданий–
всю жестокость на Земле.
Мы- колокола  мира, равенства и братства
и искатели счастья. 
Мы - матери и отцы, которые воспитывают своих детей
в духе неприятия Войны.

‘Прекратите это безумие’ , мы говорим...
Мы- ветераны, которые  пережили последствия Войны.
Долой оружие и службу в армии,
долой генералов и
политиканов, которые демагогическими речами
призывают молодёжь быть пушечным мясом.
Нас множество–
людей, которые хотят
жить в мире Добра, Свободы, Гуманизма.
Да, мы искатели Новой жизни
так же, как Вы искали
Зеленою Палочку.

Как Духоборцы, мы преклоняемся перед Вами,
благодарим и
прославляем Вашу мудрость, которая
напоминает нам,
что жизнь не стоит жить,
если мы не стремимся
к созданию
Лучшего,
Безопасного,
Социально справедливого
Общества без Убийства!

*This Russian version was published separately from the English.

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