UK/Russia Year of Culture: Talk: Russian and British Tolstoyans: from Fin de Siècle to War and Revolution

In 1898, a certain Percy Redfern, a low-level activist in the socialist movement, wrote ‘Tolstoy was my university and my church’. These sentiments were somewhat typical of the breadth of enthusiasm for Tolstoy’s moral philosophy at this time in Great Britain and in many other countries of the world, where Tolstoy’s ideas and influence spread far beyond the narrow confines of Yasnaya Polyana and his own country.

Tolstoy’s philosophy, outlined in the body of work he produced from the late 1870s onwards, was essentially a form of Christian anarchism, based on the doctrine of non-violent resistance to evil. Tolstoy rejected the state (because it could only exist on the basis of physical force) and all institutions derived from it – the police, law courts, the army and the Russian Orthodox Church. He condemned private property and money, and advocated living by one’s own physical labour. He also came to believe in vegetarianism, complete chastity and abstincence from tobacco and alcohol. In Russia, a vigorous Tolstoyan movement emerged during the 1880s, and in Europe and the United States Tolstoyanism gained dramatically in influence a decade later, in the 1890s. The remarkable increase in overseas engagement with Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism is apparent in the volume and content of letters received by Tolstoy from correspondents across Europe and the United States from this decade onwards. British correspondents were amply represented, and in the 1890s and 1900s, Britain became a major centre for Tolstoyan activity, facilitating publication of texts censored elsewhere, and hosting a community of Russian Tolstoyans in exile. Home-grown British Tolstoyans fostered close links with Tolstoy and with his Russian followers. Dr Alston’s talk will explore the impact of Tolstoy’s philosophy in Russia and in Britain, and will trace connections between the British and Russian Tolstoyan movements from their high point in the 1890s, to the years of war and revolution.

Charlotte Alston is Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University. She is the author of 'Tolstoy and his Disciples: the history of a radical international movement' (I B Tauris, 2013), as well as books and articles on Russia’s relations (both cultural and diplomatic) with the West, the history of the Russian revolution and the Russian civil war, and the post-WWI peace settlements.

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