Listen to The Thread Podcast: Love Letters Between Gandhi and Tolstoy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some ideas transcend backgrounds and borders.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s hit weekly podcast. In Season 3, The Thread charts how a revolutionary idea — nonviolent resistance — changed the course of history. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote tens of thousands of letters in his long, prolific life. And in one of the final ones he sent, written just two months before his death, in November 1910, the 82-year-old Tolstoy took up one of his favorite subjects with one of the men he most admired in the world. “The longer I live — especially now when I clearly feel the approach of death — the more I feel moved to express what I feel more strongly than anything else,” Tolstoy declared, “namely, what we call the renunciation of all opposition by force.”
Tolstoy’s moving missive on the virtues of nonviolent resistance was addressed to an Indian lawyer in Johannesburg, a man four decades Tolstoy’s junior whom he called his “friend and brother.” The recipient of that letter, and the man who would harness the power of Tolstoy’s insights to change the lives of millions of people in South Africa and his home of India: Mohandas Gandhi.
Do not resist the evil-doer … and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.
As a young man from an upper-class Russian background, Count Leo Tolstoy was accustomed to a life of privilege and indulgence. He inherited a vast estate with dozens of servants and lived the life of a young playboy, racking up enormous gambling debts along the way. But after some disturbing firsthand experiences with the trauma of battle as a soldier in the Crimean War, Tolstoy turned to writing. By the time he was 50 — and after penning works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina — he had transformed himself into one of the most famous novelists in the world, and a godlike figure among his fellow Russians. When Tolstoy stepped out of a carriage in Moscow, he would immediately be mobbed by hundreds of people.
Then, in the middle of his life, after writing two of history’s greatest novels, Tolstoy turned his back on his own background and accomplishments. He experienced a profound spiritual crisis — one that was followed by an equally profound awakening. As a result, Tolstoy penned several religious and philosophical texts, ones largely grounded in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. “Tolstoy was of the school of Christianity,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, “that believed that true Christianity was a nonviolent faith.”
The culminating work of Tolstoy’s personal religious renaissance was The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which he finished in 1893. In it, according to Tolstoy scholar Jay Parini, author of The Last Station, “Tolstoy gives his most complete theological and ethical summary of what it means to resist violence but to do so in a passive way.” The best way to resist violence and state coercion, according to Tolstoy, was to convert Jesus’ creed to love one’s enemies into political resistance. Tolstoy writes in The Kingdom of God: “The position of governments in the presence of men who profess Christianity is so precarious that very little is needed to shake their power to pieces.”
Such a nonviolent message was music to the ears of a young activist lawyer in South Africa, one who was not a Christian, but who was busy battling discrimination against the Indian community in the British-run country. Mohandas Gandhi devoured Tolstoy’s Kingdom of God and would later cite it as one of the three biggest influences on his public life, stating that the book “overwhelmed me.” Gandhi even named his farm near Johannesburg “Tolstoy Farm.”
Then, in 1908, Gandhi encountered another writing of Tolstoy’s, this one on a subject even nearer and dearer to his heart. The 80-year-old Tolstoy had written an essay about the British occupation of India. In it, he asked how millions of Indians could be subjugated by so few British soldiers. He argued: “Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?” The solution, said Tolstoy, was love and noncooperation. He advised the Indians: “Do not resist the evil-doer … and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.”
Gandhi saw an opportunity to reach out to someone who had inspired him, and so he struck up a correspondence with the revered Russian. In a series of letters, Gandhi shared with Tolstoy the details of his struggles with the British authorities in South Africa and sought advice. Tolstoy was thrilled to hear about the young activist who was trying to turn the principles of nonviolence to true political action, and he wrote the Indian lawyer several letters in return, advising him on his methods. Among them was the one Tolstoy sent just two months before his death, which praised Gandhi’s innovative work in nonviolent resistance. “Your work in the Transvaal [province],” Tolstoy opined, “supplies the most weighty practical proof, in which … not only the Christian but all the peoples of the world can participate.”
One can only imagine how Gandhi must have felt reading such praise from one of his idols and mentors. He would go on to take his message of nonviolence and noncooperation from South Africa to his homeland of India … which would eventually win its freedom from the British in 1947.