The Tolstoyan Movement

The term Tolstoyan is somewhat contradictory. It is used to describe those who promoted Tolstoy’s ideas and/or attempted to put them into practice, becoming vegetarians, pacifists, celebates, or spiritual seekers. Some of them organized themselves in communes in Russia and abroad (most notably in Bulgaria, India, Japan, and the United States).

Tolstoy himself did not champion the movement, and distanced himself from his followers when identified by his name. He did not approve of their formation of communes, feeling that it should not be necessary to set oneself apart from society to live the moral life. At the same time, he often acknowledged that he felt ashamed that others followed his ideas more closely than he himself.

An important event that helped to organize the movement was the famine relief program set up by Tolstoy in the Ryazan region in 1891-1892. A group of young people who shared Tolstoy’s views volunteered to assist these efforts, and a number of them subsequently joined together to form communal farms. Khristo Dosev travelled from Bulgaria to participate, and would become one of the leading Tolstoyans in Bulgaria. Others became disenchanted with the Tolstoy’s paficism, however, and wished to take a more direct route to reform. Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich and his future wife, Vera Velichkina, both participated in the famine relief and went on to become Bolsheviks deeply involved in the revolution of 1917.

In the photograph below Tolstoy examines a list of peasants to receive aid with his daughter Tatiana and a group of Tolstoyans.


Tolstoy reads his article “On Madness” to friends and followers: F. A. Strakhov, V. F. Bulgakov, A. S. Buterlin, A. Ya. Grigorev, V. G. Chertkov, M. P. Balakin, D. P. Makovitskii, A. K. Chertkova, L. P. Sergeenko and P. N. Orlenev. Buterlin was a doctor, and Grigorev was a member of the Skoptsy sect that practiced castration.


Publications by The Intermediary. At the top are a number of Tolstoy’s later works: “What Men Live By”, “Where There is Love, there is God”, “Why Do Men Stupify Themselves?”, translations of Lao Tse, his devotional “Sayings for Everyday Day”. There are also works by Pushkin and Gogol, and a translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, children’s books, a guide to small farming (the sort that would be done for self-sustenance in a Tolstoyan lifestyle), and a guide to quitting smoking. These works are representative of Tolstoy’s later view of literature: that it should be instructive, useful, and morally uplifting.


The Intermediary’s book shop in Moscow.


A Tolstoyan book stall on the streets called Narodnaia knizhka, which could be roughly translated as something like Paperbacks for the People.


The group accompanying Vladimir Chertkov and Pavel Biriukov when they were exiled for their participation in aiding the expatriation of the Dukhobors in 1897. Tolstoy funded this endeavor through proceeds from the sale of his novel Resurrection, but he was left untouched for the time being, as the Tsarist authorities were afraid to punish him directly due to his immense popularity. It is believed that Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Orthodox Church in 1901 was in part a delayed response to the caricature of Konstantin Pobedonostev in the novel.


The practice of punishing those around Tolstoy continued to the end of Tolstoy’s life. Nikolai Gusev, Tolstoy’s personal secretary, was arrested in 1909 for distributing revolutionary (Tolstoyan) literature.


Gusev departing Yasnaya Polyana after his arrest.


Tolstoy’s biographer Pavel Biryukov, sister Maria, and daughter Aleksandra (from left) visiting with Anna and Vladimir Chertkov.

Aleksander Goldenweizer, seated at right below, was a noted pianist and friend of the family who frequented Yasnaya Polyana. He often performed on the family piano, but he also left a series of valuable memoirs of his visits. Like others in the house, he began keeping a detailed diary of everything that transpired during his visits. In the background is Pavel Sergeenko, another key figure in the Tolstoyan enterprise; he and his father produced a series of works propagating Tolstoy’s ideas, but also promoting his cult.