Leo Tolstoy was not only one of the world’s literary giants — he was an ardent campaigner on behalf of persecuted minority groups, and this included the Jews. Born into an aristocratic family and brought up as an Orthodox Christian, he rebelled against the traditions of the Church and evolved his own idiosyncratic brand of Christianity. This involved, much to his wife’s chagrin, his intention to renounce his worldly possessions and lead an austere lifestyle in the manner of the peasants whom he idealised even as they laboured for him on his estate of Yasnaya Polyana.
Tolstoy has vexed his biographers and all who have had the temerity to try and unpick the contradictions in his nature. It is worth noting in passing that he was constantly wrestling with these contradictions himself, literally to his dying day and that he has left behind a mountain of writing as a testimony to his pursuit of the impossible.
It is not surprising that the activist spirit in him was mobilised by the plight of the Jews in the Russian Empire, just as it was by the persecution of dissident Christian sects. Two episodes in his life illustrate his commitment to the Jews: the first, less well-known, is his intervention in the case of a Jewish scholar whose appointment to an academic post at Moscow University was being held up because the relevant government minister was refusing to ratify it. The second is his outspoken condemnation of the Czarist regime in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom which occurred in 1903, during which 49 Jews were murdered, 500 injured and the Jewish Quarter destroyed.
The origins of Tolstoy’s first intervention can be traced to his desire to familiarise himself with the Hebrew language. In order to pursue his Hebrew studies, he placed himself under the tutorship of Rabbi Solomon Zalkind Minor, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, who guided him through passages in the Old Testament.
A friendship developed between the two men and it was this which was tested when a shadow fell over the career of the Rabbi’s son, Lazar Minor.
In a letter to his friend, the philosopher Nikolai Strakov, Tolstoy asks Strakov to intervene on behalf of “the son of my friend, the Jewish Rabbi, Solomon Zalkind Minor.” The letter speaks for itself:
“Overcoming all obstacles put in his way because of his Jewish origin, he [Lazar Minor] was at last on the point of being appointed lecturer at Moscow University when it was suddenly found that the appointment still had to be confirmed by the Minister. Would it not be possible for you to intervene on his behalf with the Minister or whoever it is who is responsible for the appointment? If it is possible, do so. I would make the journey myself and plead with the Minister, but I am afraid that I would only spoil things. This is a matter very close to my heart.”
The intervention apparently succeeded, because shortly afterwards the appointment was ratified.
The second example illustrates Tolstoy’s well-known tendency to put his money where his mouth was. Horrified by the massacre in Kishinev, Tolstoy put his name to a protest signed by distinguished scholars. And he went further, cabling a North American newspaper that “the fault is that of the government, in the first place for excluding the Hebrews, as a separate caste, from the common law, and in the second place for forcefully inspiring the Russian people to substitute idolatry for Christianity” [i.e. Tolstoy’s understanding of the Christian spirit].
Tolstoy was always sailing close to the wind and we may wonder that he was never imprisoned by the Czarist regime for his relentless assault on its reactionary foundations. However, it is easy to overlook the inefficiency of the government of the day by contrast with the ruthless efficiency of its Bolshevik successors when it came to the persecution and eradication of dissidents.
A second factor was the protection afforded to him by his high-born status and the fact that some of his relatives held important government posts or had the ear of the Czar. Thirdly, Tolstoy in his heyday was revered inside Russia and was a figure of renown on the world stage, so the government was anxious not to stir up further discontent within its borders or rock the diplomatic boat. He did not escape harassment, however. His premises were ransacked, his writings confiscated, his disciples incarcerated or exiled and his activities constantly scrutinised by the Czar’s secret agents.
The quintessential maverick, Tolstoy never identified with any of the revolutionary organisations which were proliferating throughout the Russian Empire. All these factors conferred on him a kind of immunity as he continued to pour out a torrent of fiery condemnation of Church and State alike.
As well as proclaiming publicly the guilt of the Russian government for the pogroms, Tolstoy drew on his considerable literary talents to give succour to the Jewish cause. When Sholem Aleichem asked him to contribute something to a literary collection to be published in aid of the pogrom sufferers, he immediately obliged with three short tales (‘The Assyrian King Esarhaddon’, ‘The Three Questions’ and ‘Work, Death and Disease’) which Sholem Aleichem translated into Yiddish and which was published in Warsaw in 1904.
For those wanting to throw light on the contradictory facets of Tolstoy’s nature, there is plenty of material to be sifted through. However, one consistent thread can be discerned, which guided him through the maze of his life, namely his identification with the oppressed and persecuted peoples of Russian society. For this reason alone, Jews among others have cause to remember him with gratitude.