Leo Tolstoy, best known for realist fiction like War and Peace, is also remembered as a passionate proponent of nonviolence. After experiencing a spiritual awakening, Tolstoy began to closely follow a pacifist doctrine. The letter reproduced here, sent to a Russian conscientious objector, reflects his pacifist beliefs.
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910), usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, was born to an aristocratic Russian family and went on to become one of the greatest writers of all time. Best known for realist fiction like War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), Tolstoy is also remembered as an influential proponent of pacifism and conscientious objection. His ideas on nonviolent resistance have had a profound effect on 20th-century political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a young man during the Crimean War, Tolstoy was an officer in the Russian Army – an experience that profoundly shaped his worldview. These wartime events informed much of his writing and eventually led to him experience a moral crisis in the 1870s. Moved to action, he began to closely follow a literal interpretation of Christian teachings, specifically Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, understanding the injunction to turn the other cheek as a “commandment of non-resistance to evil by force.” The manuscript reproduced here reflects his fervent pacifism. It is a letter, undated and written in Russian, to an unidentified conscientious objector who had refused military service and was asking for Tolstoy’s advice.
In 1882, Tolstoy publicly shared his spiritual awakening in the book A Confession. Renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle, he dedicated the rest of his life to these nonviolent views. It is said that Tolstoy spent his last hours preaching love and nonviolence to passengers at the Astapovo train station, before succumbing to pneumonia. After his death at age 82, thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects during his funeral procession.
Throughout his life, Tolstoy received multiple Nobel Prize nominations, both in Literature (every year from 1902–1906) and for the Peace Prize in 1901, 1902 and 1910. His never being awarded the prize at any time remains a controversial subject in Nobel history. Though we can’t correct that oversight, we hope to honour the literary and personal legacy of Leo Tolstoy with this Embellished Manuscript design.