VII Международная студенческая научная конференция Студенческий научный форум - 2015


Селиванов А.О. 1, Матяр Т.И. 1
1Владимирский государственный университет
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This article gives the author’s own translation and analysis of the excerpts from Leo Tolstoy’s letter to the Russian Tsar Nicholas II of January 16, 1902. This letter is a sharp evidence of the writer's thoughts about the state, man and religion. The article introduces an English-speaking reader to the excerpts from Tolstoy’ open letter to the monarch.

The author of the article considers the internal policy and foreign policy of the country in the context of the letter, as well as the possible reasons which caused the world-famous writer to write a letter to the Russian autocrat and tells about the effect the letter produced on the addressee and the public at large. The excerpts cited below are selected by article’s author preferences.

Participants of the correspondence and their portraits

Leo Tolstoy, the author of the letter, was a Russian novelist, philosopher and playwright who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Tolstoy was a master of realistic fiction and is widely considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He is best known for two long novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In addition to novels and short stories, he also wrote plays and philosophical essays on Christianity, nonviolent resistance, art and pacifism.

Tolstoy is equally known for his complicated and paradoxical persona and for his moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker, social reformer, and adept of Georgism. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist:

«No matter how one may understand Christ’s personality or His teaching, which destroys the evil of the world, which so simply, easily, and indubitably gives the good to men, if only they shall not distort it – this teaching is all concealed and changed into a gross sorcery of bathing, smearing with oil, motions of the body, incantations, and swallowing of pieces of bread so that nothing is left of the teaching. And if any man tries to remind these people that Christ’s teaching is not in these sorceries, Te Deums, masses, tapers, or images, but in loving one another, not repaying evil with evil, not judging, and not killing one another, there arises the indignation of those to whom this deception is advantageous, and these men say in the churches in the hearing of all and print in books, newspapers, and catechisms with incredible boldness that Christ never forbade swearing (an oath of allegiance), never forbade murder (executions, wars), and that the doctrine of nonresistance to evil was invented by Christ’s foes with Satanic cunning». [4]

His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You and letters to Gandhi, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Bevel.

«That is, what one calls nonresistance, is in reality nothing else but the discipline of love undeformed by false interpretation. Love is the aspiration for communion and solidarity with other souls, and that aspiration always liberates the source of noble activities. That love is the supreme and unique law of human life which everyone feels in the depth of one's soul. We find it manifested most clearly in the soul of the infants. Man feels it so long as he is not blinded by the false doctrines of the world». [5]

A few words about the letter’s addressee, Nicholas II, his official short title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russians. Like other Russian Emperors he is commonly known by the monarchical title Tsar, despite the fact that Russia formally ended the Tsardom in 1721.

Nicholas II ruled from 1 November 1894 until his forced abdication on 15 March 1917. His reign saw Imperial Russia go from being one of the foremost great powers of the world to economic and military collapse. Enemies nicknamed him Nicholas the Bloody because of the Khodynka Tragedy, the anti-Semitic pogroms, Bloody Sunday, his violent suppression of the 1905 Revolution, his execution of political opponents, and his pursuit of military campaigns on an unprecedented scale.

Under his rule, Russia was humiliatingly defeated in the Russo-Japanese War, which saw the almost total annihilation of the Russian Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. The Anglo-Russian Entente, designed to counter German attempts to gain influence in the Middle East, ended the Great Game between Russia and the United Kingdom. As head of state, Nicholas approved the Russian mobilization of August 1914, which marked the beginning of Russia's involvement in the First World War, a war in which 3.3 million Russians were killed. The Imperial Army's severe losses and the High Command's incompetent handling of the war, along with other policies directed by Nicholas during his reign, are often cited as the leading causes of the fall of the Romanov dynasty.

Nicholas II abdicated following the February Revolution of 1917 during which he and his family were imprisoned first in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, then later in the Governor's Mansion in Tobolsk, and finally at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. In the spring of 1918, Nicholas was handed over to the local Ural soviet by commissar Vasili Yakovlev who was then presented with a written receipt as Nicholas was formally handed over like a parcel. Nicholas II; his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna; his children; his servants were executed in the same room by the Bolsheviks on the night of July 16/17, 1918.

Context of the letter

As regards the internal and foreign policy, at the time of the letter writing, it touched upon several major problems:

First of all, the policy of Russification of Finland in1899–1905 and 1908–1917, was a governmental policy of the Russian Empire aimed at limiting the special status of the Grand Duchy of Finland and possibly the termination of its political autonomy and cultural uniqueness. It was a part of a larger policy of Russification pursued by late 19th–early 20th century Russian governments which tried to abolish cultural and administrative autonomy of non-Russian minorities within the empire. The two Russification campaigns evoked widespread Finnish resistance, starting with petitions and escalating to strikes, passive and eventually active resistance. Finnish opposition to Russification was one of the main factors that ultimately led to Finland's declaration of independence in 1917.

Secondly, the Boxer Uprising or Yihetuan Movement was an anti-imperialist uprising which took place in China towards the end of the Qing dynasty between 1898 and 1900. It was initiated by the Militia United in Righteousness (Yihetuan), known in English as the "Boxers," and was motivated by proto-nationalist sentiments and opposition to foreign imperialism and associated Christian missionary activity. The Great Powers intervened and defeated Chinese forces. The Eight-Nation Alliance of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, after being initially turned back, brought 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, and captured Beijing on August 14, lifting the siege of the Legations. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside ensued, along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers.

In third place, the agrarian problem. The land, known as “allotment land”, would not be owned by individual peasants, but would be owned by the community of peasants; individual peasants would have rights to strips of land that were assigned to them under the open field system. Unfortunately a peasant was unable to sell or mortgage his piece of land so in practice he could not renounce his rights to his land and thus he would be required to pay his share of redemption dues to the village commune. The government had created this plan to ensure the proletarization of the peasants would never happen, but the peasants were not given enough land to provide for their needs. "Their earnings were often so small that they could neither buy the food they needed nor keep up the payment of taxes and redemption dues they owed the government for their land allotments. By the tenth year of Nicholas II's reign, their total arrears in payments of taxes and dues were 118 million rubles."[1, p.20]As time went on, the situation grew worse. Masses of hungry peasants roamed the countryside looking for work and would sometimes walk hundreds of miles to find it. Desperate peasants proved capable of violence. "In the provinces of Kharkov and Poltava in 1902, thousands of them, ignoring restraints and authority, burst out in a rebellious fury that led to extensive destruction of property and looting of noble homes before troops could be brought to subdue and punish them."[1, p.20] Theseviolent outbreaks caught the attention of the government, so they created numerous committees to investigate the causes of these violent outbursts from the peasants.

The results of their investigation found that there was no part of the countryside that was prosperous; some parts, especially the fertile areas known as "black-soil region", were in a state of decline. Although cultivated acreage had increased in the last half century, the increase had not been proportionate to the growth of the peasant populations, which had doubled during that time. "There was general agreement at the turn of the century that Russia faced a grave and intensifying agrarian crisis due mainly to rural overpopulation with an annual excess of fifteen to eighteen live births over deaths per 1,000 inhabitants."[3, p. 8]. The investigations revealed many difficulties; however, they could not find remedies that were both sensible and "acceptable" to the government.

The prehistory of the relationship between Tolstoy and Nicholas II

According to Henri Troyat's biography of Lev Tolstoy, he wrote two letters to Nicholas II in 1897 protesting against the persecution of the Molokhans, religious sectarians whose children had been forcibly taken away by the state because they were not being brought up in the Orthodox Church. The first version of the first letter read as follows: «Majesty, for the love of God make an effort and, instead of avoiding the matter and referring it to commissions and committees, decide, without asking anyone's advice, you yourself, acting on your own initiative, that these religious persecutions, which are bringing shame upon Russia, must cease; the exiles must be sent back to their homes, the prisoners released, the children returned to their parents, and above all, the whole body of administrative laws and regulations abolished, as they are so complicated and obscure that they are just so many pretexts for illegality». [6, p. 27] Tolstoy submitted this letter to the Molokhans for their approval; they took fright at its tone; so he revised it at their request. This version (which unfortunately Troyat does not include) was the one given to Nicholas personally by a member of his military staff, Alexander Olsufeyev. Neither Tolstoy nor the Molokhans received a reply from the emperor.On September 27, 1897, according to Troyat, Tolstoy wrote a second letter to Nicholas II. Again he received no response. He then told his daughter Tatiana to seek an audience with the Procurator of the Holy Synod, Pobedonostsev. She was permitted to see him on January 27, 1898. After she had described the Molokhans' despair at losing their children, Pobedonostsev said, "Yes, yes. The bishop of Samara has gone too far. I shall write to the government right away." Apparently it was Pobedonostsev's intercession with the tsar that finally carried the day, and the Molokhan children were at long last reunited with their parents.

The excerpts from the letter

“As for the autocracy, it was inherent of the Russian people, when they believed that the tsar was the infallible god on the earth, and could rule his people single-handedly, but now it is quite uncharacteristic for the people get more or less educate, who learn that the good tsar is «un heureux hazard» *, and that the tsars can be monsters or madmen, as Ivan IV or Paul I, secondly, and whatever good he is, he alone can’t control 130 million people by himself and they would ruled by the confidents who care most about their situation, rather than the prosperity of the people. You say: the king can choose unselfish and good people for assisting. Unfortunately, the king can’t do it because he knows only a few dozen people, accidentally or by the various intrigues approached him, who diligently obstruct all those who might replace themselves. So the king chooses no one of those thousands lively, energetic, truly enlightened, honest people who aspire to public matter, and only one of those Beaumarchais said about: "Mediocre et rampant et on parvient a tout" **. While many Russian people are willing to obey the king, can’t obey the people of the same term as themselves without a sense of insult, the people they despise, and which is so often run the nation by the name of the king.”

* a stroke of luck (fr.)

** " Be commonplace and creeping, and you attain all things " (fr.).

“You probably be put in misleading by the people who allegedly love an autocracy and its representative - the king, so that everywhere at meetings in Moscow and in other cities crowds run for you shouting "hurray". Don’t believe in such expression of devotion to you – it’s just a crowd of curious people, which will run in the same way for all sorts of unusual spectacle. Often these people, whose behavior you take for an expression of the people's love for you, are nothing more then a crowd collected and rigged by the police, forced to portray your faithful people, how it were, for example, with your grandfather in Kharkiv, when the cathedral was full of people but all the people consisted of plainclothes policemen.”

“Autocracy is an obsolete form of government, which is able to meet the requirements of people somewhere in central Africa, separated from the other world, but does not meet the requirements of the Russian people, which is more and more enlightened like the rest of the world. Therefore supporting this form of government accompanying with Orthodoxy church, as it is now, possible only by any act of violence: security increase, administrative exile, executions, religious persecution, banning books, newspapers, perversion of education and all kinds of evil and cruel things.”

“No matter how great your responsibility for the years of your reign, during which time you can do a lot of good and a lot of evil, but even more greater your responsibility before God for your life here, which would determine your eternal life, and which God gave to you, not in order to prescribe all kinds of evil deeds, or participate in them and allow them, but in order to fulfill his will. Yet his will is to do people good but not evil.”


Thus, Tolstoy wrote a third letter to Nicholas II in 1902 asking that the Tsar heed the cry of his people. However, Nicholas continued to ignore the worsening conditions of his country, refusing to meet the grievances of his people. On Sunday, January 22, 1905, over one hundred thousand demonstrators marched peacefully to the Winter Palace to present the Tsar with a list of complaints concerning working conditions in the factories. When the Tsar failed to appear, tension mounted. In a moment of panic, soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Hundreds were killed or injured in what would become known as «the massacre of Bloody Sunday». To the peasants, the «Batiushka Tsar» – benevolent Father of the Russian people – had become a cruelly indifferent ruler. His hand forced by the resulting outrage, Nicholas reluctantly consented to a constitutional monarchy, though he continued to believe he was responsible only to God:

«I have the firm and absolute faith that the destiny of Russia, my own fate and that of my family are in the hands of Almighty God, who has placed me where I am. Whatever may happen, I shall bow to His will, conscious that I have never had any other thought but that of serving the country He has entrusted to me». [2, p. 427]

Reference list:

  1. Harcave, Sidney: The Russian revolution of 1905 Paperback. 1970, p. 307

  2. MacMillan, Margaret: The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. 2013, p. 940

  3. Pipes, Richard: A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage. 1982, p. 324

  4. Tolstoy, Leo: The letter «To the Decree of the Synod of February 20-22and to Letters Received by Me on That Occasion» in a public domain

  5. Tolstoy, Leo: The letter «To M. K. Gandhi, 7th September, 1910» in a public domain

  6. Troyat, Henri: Biography of Lev Tolstoy. 2001, p. 538

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