There was a moment at the beginning of the invasion in Ukraine, when the population spontaneously resorted to numerous little-told actions of nonviolent civil resistance – talking to Russian soldiers, changing or removing road signs to confuse the military, demonstrating in front of occupied town halls…- such that it seemed possible to many, harking back to the traditions of nonviolence and in particular to Tolstoy’s thought, that nonviolent forms of resistance would spread and succeed in triggering a peace process. In Russia, it was mainly women’s groups that came up with surprising and creative nonviolent resistance actions. That resistance actually should have been prepared by educational paths and supported by training actions to prevent it from being stifled by compulsory conscription, repression, and calls for volunteers and arms. For more than a year, the texts that Bruna Bianchi, a historian and scholar of pacifist and feminist thought, has been sending to Commune are a valuable beacon that tells the story of that resistance, its reasons, its weaknesses, and the stubbornness of so many Ukrainians and Russians to reject the rule of war. Not Resisting Evil with Evil (Biblion editions) is the book in which Bruna Bianchi analyzes conscientious objection, the duty without exception of non-resistance, the origins of violence in social relations, and pacifism in the thought of Tolstoy, whose voice in the protests in Russia is still a cause for arrest today. [Here is] the book’s introduction, Rereading Tolstoy Today.
By Bruna Bianchi
“The people of our Christian world and of our time are similar to a man who has passed by the entrance of the right path and gone on, and the more he goes on, the more he becomes convinced that he is not going in the right direction. And the more he doubts that the direction is the right one, the more he quickens his pace, consoling himself with the thought that somewhere he has to arrive, sooner or later. But there comes a time when it becomes perfectly clear to him that the direction he follows will lead him nowhere except to an abyss that he is already beginning to glimpse before him. ” (1) So wrote Tolstoy in Believe! in 1904 at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, the war considered an anticipation of the global wars of the 20th century, and which has recently been compared to the current war in Ukraine.(2)
Even today, wrote Ani Kokobobo, a scholar of Russian literature, “one can hear the writer cry out to his countrymen: think again!” (3). After the brutal bombings in Mariupol, the horrors committed in Buča, Charchiv, Kiev and many other places, Kokobobo continued, it is necessary to approach the great authors of Russian literature with a question in mind, “How to stop the violence?”
Re-reading Tolstoy today, taking up his call to repent, to change the way we see and act in the world may perhaps bring us back from that abyss into which the traveler of Tolstoy’s metaphor is about to plunge.
At the beginning of the invasion, when the Ukrainian population spontaneously resorted to nonviolent civil resistance actions-talking with Russian soldiers to persuade or taunt, changing or removing road signs to confuse and stop, demonstrating in front of occupied town halls – many, drawing on the traditions of nonviolence and in particular Tolstoy’s thought, expressed confidence that the forms of nonviolent resistance extended would succeed in triggering a peace process. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, a Tolstoy scholar, wrote on March 5:
Tolstoy’s condemnation of violence was not very popular then, either among those who wanted to overthrow the tsar or among those who were fighting in other countries for national liberation. But with the experience and lessons about nonviolence that have accumulated since then and are behind us, some people in Ukraine, but also in Russia and elsewhere, have resisted with nonviolence even in the face of a superpower invasion. Their strategy could be taken seriously and give rise to more creative tactics, and these could prove at least as effective as resistance with violence.(4)
Such confidence at the beginning of the conflict was far from unfounded. In fact, by the end of September 2015, a nationwide survey conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) (5) had revealed that more than one-third of the people surveyed (a thousand in total, in different parts of Ukraine) considered nonviolent civil resistance to be a more effective strategy in the event of an invasion and occupation of the country, and 76 percent were ready to participate in at least one large-scale nonviolent action.(6) Translating this orientation of the population into action would have required the Ukrainian government and its Western allies to invest in preparation, education, and training; instead, it was stifled with compulsory conscription, repression, and calls for volunteers and weapons. In a world dominated by industry, technology and military ideology, i.e., the cult of force, the first enemy to be destroyed is the refusal to take up arms. Yet, the renunciation and desertion, the willingness to resist through nonviolence and the commitment to create the conditions and practices on which to build another defense, civilian and unarmed, have never completely failed (7). Thousands of young men have fled the country, at least 6,000 have been stopped at the borders (8). From abroad, objector Ilya Ovcharenko, addressing an appeal to Ukrainian men, urged them to read Tolstoy (9).
Tolstoy’s Voice in the Protests in Russia
In Russia, Tolstoy’s message is more alive than ever in the protests since February 24 [,2022]. On March 22 [,2022], well-known opponent of the Putin regime Aleksej Naval’nyj – who has on many occasions urged people to openly voice their dissent – declared, at the conclusion of the trial that sentenced him to nine years in a maximum-security prison:
“Act decisively, like Lev Tolstoy, one of our great writers, whom I quoted at the end of my speech: ‘War is the product of despotism. Whoever wants to fight war must only fight despotism.” (10)
Indeed, the writer, through his condemnation of militarism and war, had condemned without appeal all forms of despotism, as in his 1900 writing Do Not Kill, to which Naval’nyj perhaps alluded:
“The misfortunes of nations are caused not by particular people, but by that particular social system in which people are so bound to each other that they find themselves at the mercy of a few people, or more often, of one person: a person so depraved by his or her unnatural condition as arbiter of the destiny and lives of millions of people that he/she is always in an unhealthy condition, and always suffers, more or less, from a mania for greatness. ” (11)
In collective and individual manifestations, opposition to despotism and war was sometimes expressed in Tolstoy’s words. This is revealed in daily reports by OVD-info, “an independent human rights media project” established in 2011 with the aim of monitoring cases of persecution of the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly and other political rights.(12)
Such was the case of a man arrested on March 24  in Moscow near the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the largest of the Orthodox cathedrals, while displaying a sign on which he had transcribed a sentence from the work Patriotism and Government: “Patriotism is the renunciation of human dignity, reason and conscience, it is a slave-like submission to those in power.” In Pskov, a man was arrested on June 21 [2022?] for a poster with a long quote from Tolstoy from the writing Reckon!
And hundreds, thousands of men in uniforms and with various instruments of death – cannon fodder – stunned by prayers, sermons, appeals, processions, pictures, newspapers, with anguish in their hearts, in apparent courage, leave relatives, wives, children and go there where, risking their lives, they commit the most terrible act: the slaughter of men they do not know and who have done them no harm.(13)
To quote Tolstoy, to hold in one’s hands in the central places of cities a copy of War and Peace, were grounds for arrest. That the Russian writer is still considered a threat to the regime is confirmed by an April 2 Moscow police report:
Lev Nikolaević Tolstoy, according to the historical truth, was considered the “mirror of the revolution.” He is known to have sharply criticized the regime of his time in his writings, particularly for the use of violence in social uprisings. Accordingly, [the arrestee’s] actions should be interpreted as a call to overthrow the current government and follow Tolstoy’s ideas.
The strength of the Tolstoyan message that still seeps out of the anti-war testimonies despite censorship and repression, the courage of those who oppose the brutality of the conflict in the words of the writer have led me to return to the studies published since 2004 on Tolstoy’s thought, and which I repropose in this volume. In reviewing them and, as far as I was able, updating them, I wanted to highlight the theme of the resonance of Tolstoy’s writings internationally (among conscientious objectors in Russia and Europe, in the American reform movement and in the pacifist movement in all the countries involved in the Great War), an influence that extended beyond the narrow circles of disciples and religious dissidents and that is still largely to be reconstructed.
The essays collected in the volume
The volume opens with the essay Tolstoy and Conscientious Objection. From the year of his so-called conversion, 1878, to the year of his death, 1910, the Russian writer devoted the most scathing pages of condemnation ever written to militarism and war, and there is no work from those years that does not address the themes of objection and the irreconcilability of Christianity and war. These writings were instrumental in the decision of individual soldiers and officers to refuse or abandon military service and in strengthening the pacifist tendencies of some dissident communities. In order to highlight the originality and radicality of Tolstoy’s analysis of militarism, the first part of the chapter reconstructs the debate that developed in the pacifist and socialist world between the end of the Franco-Prussian War to the 1990s, when compulsory conscription was extended to most European countries. The second part looks at the writer’s influence in Russia and Europe and focuses on his reflections on the nature of the state and obedience as the foundation of power.
The belief that it is possible to transfer to others the responsibility for one’s actions and that it allows one to exercise violence without feeling guilty about it is the focus of a short 1891 writing in the Documents section titled Nikolai Palkin, a dialogue with an old soldier who, in his long service had punished and tortured to death many soldiers for breaking military discipline.
Influenced by Étienne de la Boétie and his treatise on Voluntary Servitude (1548), Tolstoy is considered one of the earliest theorists of totalitarianism. The idea that absolutely normal people, devoid of malice and hostile feelings, can become agents of an atrocious destructive process by simply following orders or tasks given to them, will be developed only after World War II with the works of Hannah Arendt (The Banality of Evil), Stanley Milgram (Obedience to Authority) and Zigmund Baumann (Modernity and the Holocaust).
The second chapter on the duty of nonresistance begins with a letter Tolstoy sent in January 1896 to the American jurist Ernest Howard Crosby, his ardent follower. The letter, a short treatise on nonresistance that appeared on April 5, 1896 in the New York Tribune, made the writer’s thinking known to a wider audience and marked a new phase in Crosby’s reformist and anti-militarist efforts.
In the writing, reported in the Documents section, all the most important themes of Tolstoyan religious reflection recur: the place of human beings in the world, the unknowability of the outcomes of human action, the roots of violence, the need to submit to the law of love, the supreme law of existence that does not admit exceptions and therefore excludes the right to defense by violence, whether personal or national.
Reflecting on the origins of violence in social relations and the rift between manual and intellectual labor is the chapter Labor and Land Ownership, accompanied by a long letter to
Romain Rolland on the unjust division of humanity between those who produce the goods necessary for life and those who consume them. The chapter devotes ample space to the spiritual conception of labor in the writer’s works and his critique of contemporary political and economic thought, particularly on the issue of the division of labor, the cruelest form of slavery. Compared with Marxist and socialist interpretations, Tolstoy’s interpretation of worker exploitation, close to that of John Ruskin, is far more radical. In capitalist relations of production, the worker is dispossessed not only of the value of his labor, the creative act and the use of his product but above all of the moral judgment of the objects of his labor, forced to produce useless and harmful goods.
In his writings on labor and property Tolstoy constantly refers to the U.S. economist Henry George with whom he shared the conviction that land, an indispensable condition of human life, should not be owned by anyone and his proposal for the abolition of land ownership through a nationalization measure and tax reform that, by discouraging land ownership, would make [land] available for subsistence labor. Although such a solution, implying state intervention, appeared to him from a theoretical point of view to be a contradiction, a “weakness,” in the last years of his life, his horror at the industrialization advancing in Russia, the concerns raised by a land reform that threatened to permanently destroy the ancient communal structure in the countryside, prompted the writer to submit George’s project to the representatives of the Duma (translator’s note: The State Duma is probably meant here, that is the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia), to send them his works, and to write to Minister Stolypin and the tsar. From these writings emerges an image of the “last Tolstoy” quite different from that of the man rigorous to excess, the one who admitted only “clear, complete, absolute” solutions.
Subsistence work, “bread work,” the source of moral life and the true antithesis of war, brought Jane Addams closer to Tolstoy. Unlike Ernest Crosby, the founder of the most prominent social settlement in the United States, more inclined to pragmatism, never became a “disciple” of the writer, but was deeply influenced by him, spread his thought in her lectures, and in her reform and pacifist activities constantly drew inspiration from his “genius.”
The chapter Bread and Peace.Jane Addams reader of Tolstoy traces Jane Addams’ feminist analysis of economic justice, food security and peace and highlights her references to Tolstoy. After the tragedy of the Great War, in the face of the failure of the League of Nations to counter aggressive nationalism and in its unwillingness to address the problem of world hunger, what brought Jane Addams closer than ever to Tolstoy was the idea of shame and repentance as necessary preludes to a spiritual renewal that would also have to run through the peace movement so that a new world order could be built. The chapter is accompanied by a 1927 writing, A Book that Changed My Life, an introduction to the new English-language edition of Tolstoy’s work What to Do? in which Addams recalls the work’s influence on American reformers and reforming women.
The Great War years were a watershed moment for pacifism and for Tolstoy’s dissemination and influence. This is the theme of the chapter that closes the volume, The Father of a New Movement. Tolstoy and the Radicalization of Pacifism (1914-1928). On the basis of diaries,
memoirs, pamphlets, poetic and literary works, and articles published in the pacifist journals that sprang up in Switzerland with the collaboration of Romain Rolland – the one who felt himself to be the heir of the Russian writer – the essay captures the birth of a new movement, more radical than the pre-war movement that, inspired by Tolstoy’s writings, made the refusal to participate in any war the cornerstone of its program. Conscientious objection, long perceived as an issue of religious tolerance, became a crucial aspect of civil rights.
Re-reading the essays dedicated to the Russian writer, I have many times turned my grateful thoughts to Emilia Magnanini and Antonella Salomoni for sharing ideas and reflections on Tolstoyan thought in the course of the elaboration of the volume Cultures of Disobedience. Tolstoy and the Doukhobors (2004).
I would like to thank Isabella Adinolfi in memory of our collaboration in organizing the conference at Ca’ Foscari University on the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, “Do What You Must, Happen What You Can. Art, Thought, Influence of Lev Tolstoy.
Special thanks to Emilia Magnanini who did the proofreading on the Russian language originals for my translations of Tolstoy’s writings from English. Finally, thanks to the publishers and journal editors who authorized the republication of the essays.
1 Lev Tolstoy, Think again! (1904), in Tolstoy, Why Do People Take Drugs? And other essays on society, politics, religion, edited by Igor Sibaldi, Mondadori, Milan 1988, p. 439. The paper was recently republished by Edizioni Gruppo Abele, Turin 2022.
2 Chris Wilkinson, Echoes of the Past – Ukraine & The Russo-Japanese War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #21).
3 Ani Kokobobo, How Should Dostoevski and Tolstoy Be Read during Russia’s War against Ukraine?, «The Conversation», April 6, 2022.
4 Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Ukraine: Nonviolent Resistance is a Brave and Often Effective Response to Aggression «The Conversation».
5 Macieij Bartowski-Alina Polyakova, To Kill or not to Kill: Ukrainians Opt for Nonviolent Civil Resistance October 12, 2015. Bartowski re-proposed the analysis of the results of the investigation in a second article that appeared on December 27, 2021, a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Ukranians vs. Putin:Potentials for Nonviolent Civilian-based Defense.
6 Reference to the article for the numerous accompanying graphs.
7 Statement of the Ukrainian peace movement against the perpetuation of war, April 27, 2022.
8 Conscientious objection in the war in Ukraine. The moral imperative: not to kill, «Nonviolent action», 59, 2002, 652, p. 42.
9 Declaration of the pacifist movement, cit. 10 Twitter
11 Tolstoj, You Shall not Kill, The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy, translated by Leo Weiner and Aylmer Maude, vol. 12, University of California, Los Angeles 1904, p. 170.
12 Reports appear on the OVD website.Акции в поддержку народа Украины и против войны, et la version en anglais:Russian Protest against the War with Ukraine. A Chronicle of Events (last consulted: 1 September 2022). The Russian-language site is updated daily, the English-language site, weekly. As a reference to the protest episodes, I have indicated the day and place.
13 I quote from the Italian translation recently republished by Gruppo Abele Edizioni, Turin 2022, p. 25.