22 April 2010

Two Takes on Tolstoy's Excommunication

Much of the drama of the story told in my last two posts (here and here) hinges on the fact that Tolstoy had been very publicly excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. The situation is almost humourously referenced in the great writer’s words to the Optina guestmaster, Fr Michael, ‘Perhaps it’s not possible for me [to enter the monastery]; I’m Tolstoy.’ [1]

The story of the excommunication has been told in a ridiculously over-the-top, Dan Brown-fashion by W. Bruce Lincoln in his survey of Russian artistic life, Between Heaven & Hell. First, Lincoln indulges in a dramatic build-up, describing Tolstoy’s ‘prophetic’ denunciations of Church and state and suggesting, ‘Only his immense public stature at home and abroad restrained the authorities from acting against him, but, as the 1880s shaded into the 1890s, no one knew how long Russia’s high churchmen and statesmen could be held in check.’ [2] Then, he portrays the serial publication of Resurrection as a titillating call to rebellion heard with enthusiasm by the entire world, who sensed ‘the stirrings of a titanic confrontation between prophet and Emperor.’ Despite being thoroughly censored, Lincoln tells us, ‘Resurrection remained an intensely powerful work—and one that stirred bitter feelings among the men who led the government and Church it criticized.’ [3] Finally, Lincoln suggests, the sword of Damocles came crashing down on Tolstoy’s head:

On February 24, 1901, the Holy Synod, which had governed the Russian Orthodox Church since the days of Peter the Great, ordered an edict to be posted in every church in the Empire. ‘God has permitted a new false teacher to appear [in the person of] Count Lev Tolstoi,’ the document began. Amonger his many sins, it explained, Tolstoi had tried to destroy the true faith in the minds and hearts of the faithful. He had preached the overthrow of Orthodox dogmas, denied the Holy Trinity, and questioned the virginity of Mary. He had rejected all the sacraments and derided the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, the document concluded, ‘the Church does not beckon [sic] him as its member and cannot so reckon him until he repents and resumes his communion with her.’ In St Petersburg Ilia Repin’s famous portrait of the barefoot ‘Tolstoi at Prayer’ became a national icon and the focus of large demonstrations as the telegraph flashed the news around the world. Most of all, as repressive acts of Church and State so often do, Tolstoi’s excommunication enlarged the forum from which he spoke. The eyes of the world were on Russia, and the seventy-two-year-old author of Resurrection had every intention of rising to the occasion. [4]

Lincoln then quotes Tolstoy’s reply, which despite its high-flown rhetoric and hubristic attempt at fashioning a personal ‘creed’, amounts to no more than a defiant affirmation that the Holy Synod had done the right thing. Lincoln cannot deny that all of the things Tolstoy was excommunicated for were true. Furthermore, it is hard to take Tolstoy seriously, as Lincoln tacitly appears to do, when he says he had ‘escaped’ the Church with much ‘suffering’. [5] The earlier Confession makes his escape sound rather painless, in my opinion.

By way of contrast, consider the evaluation of the same events in Prince Dmitri S. Mirsky’s classic, A History of Russian Literature. After detailing Tolstoy’s activities in attracting disciples, encouraging the shirking of military duty, and agitating on behalf of ‘certain sects of Christian communists and anarchists’, [6] Mirsky concludes:

But Tolstoy himself was unmolested by the government. Only in 1901 the Synod excommunicated him. This act, widely but very unjudiciously resented both at home and abroad, merely registered a matter of common knowledge—that Tolstoy had ceased to be an Orthodox Churchman. [7]

Prince Mirsky is the voice of reason here. [8] Is it an act of ‘repression’ to deny Holy Communion to a man who has denounced and mocked the practice of Holy Communion, or to declare outside the Church a man who applauds himself for having escaped the Church?

[1] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), p. 78.

[2] W. Bruce Lincoln, Between Heaven & Hell: The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia (NY: Viking, 1998), p. 184.

[3] Ibid., p. 184.

[4] Ibid., pp. 184-5.

[5] Ibid., p. 185.

[6] Prince Dmitri Svyatopolk Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900, ed. Francis J. Whitfield (NY: Vintage, 1958), pp. 323-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 324.

[8] Incidentally, a reading of Prince Mirsky also places in a comic light Lincoln’s portrayal of the composition of Resurrection as a heroic literary event. Prince Mirsky points out that the novel ‘was written, strange to say, for money’ to fund the Dukhobors, that its ‘moral idea . . . is not organically infused into the fabric’, that its greatest strengths are ‘the minor realistic details he condemned so severely in What is Art?’, and that it contains a ‘gratuitous and [aesthetically] unnecessary’ satire of an Orthodox Church service which ‘can scarcely be qualified otherwise than as a grave lapse from good taste’ (ibid., pp. 319-20). Prince Mirsky concludes that it is ‘Tolstoy at his worst’ (p. 320).


River Cocytus said...


Chesterton has a funny chapter on the Tolstoians in that book I linked. He seems to really love people, but they get it pretty hard on the chin.

(Esp. love his remark about the horrid use of the world 'spirit world'!)

aaronandbrighid said...

Okay, I really have to take a look at that!