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In 2016 Friends House Moscow supported a project to preserve the archive of documents belonging to Vladimir Chertkov, who was Tolstoy’s literary executor and the organiser of the Russian pacifist movement in the early 20th Century.

The following article was published in The Friend on 2 February 2017, and is reproduced here with permission. The photo shows Vladimir Chertkov with Leo Tolstoy in 1909 (Wikimedia Commons).

Daphne Sanders introduces an account, by academic Irina Gordeeva, of a project to conserve the history of the Tolstoyan peace movement

During 2016 the Quaker way once again converged with the life and work of Leo Tolstoy, when Friends House Moscow (FHM) provided a grant to assist Irina Gordeeva, of the Russian State University for the Humanities, to preserve in electronic form the deteriorating paper records of the Chertkov archives in the Lenin Library.

These archives are the lynchpin for contextualising and understanding Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism. They illustrate an active peace movement in Russia that is now almost entirely forgotten. Quakers at FHM share Irina Gordeeva’s view that this knowledge is important to Russian people today. As Friends we know that inspiration from the past can support modern peace movements.

Tolstoy had contact with both British and American Quakers and was influenced by his contact with them. In his book The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894) he writes: ‘The Quakers sent me books, from which I learnt how they had many years ago established beyond doubt the duty for a Christian of fulfilling the command of non-resistance to evil by force, and had exposed the error of the Church’s teaching in allowing war and capital punishment…’ An English couple, Aylmer Maude and his wife Louise, who had a Quaker background, visited Tolstoy at his estate in Russia and translated his books into English. Aylmer Maude was also authorised by Tolstoy to write his biography. Leo Tolstoy’s daughter-in-law, Olga Tolstaya-Voyekova (1858-1936), joined the Quakers in 1924.

A key figure in the story of Tolstoy’s pacifism was Vladimir Chertkov. He met Tolstoy in 1883 and became a devoted follower and his literary executor. From 1897 to 1908 Vladimir Chertkov was in exile in England. Irina Gordeeva, who is currently working on a book tentatively entitled All people – brothers: History of pacifism in Russia in the twentieth century, gave an illuminating presentation in English to Friends House Moscow in October 2016 on Chertkov, Tolstoy and the pacifist movement in Russia. An edited version of her talk follows.

Tolstoy, Chertkov and pacifism

The history of pacifist, antimilitarist and grassroots peace movements in Russia in the twentieth century includes the history of both the radical pacifist movement of Tolstoyans (free Christians) and sectarians in the first half of the twentieth century, and the independent peace movement during late socialism. Vladimir Chertkov’s archives serve as the pivotal information store for examination of the first part of the story.

It represents the organisational attempts of the Tolstoyans to create the pacifist movement both before and after the October Revolution of 1917: the history of their periodicals (including the letters of the readers); official, informal and underground groups; development of theoretical thought; leaflets, proclamations and correspondence with authorities; the records on the communication with sectarians and foreign pacifists; civil rights defence and other materials. For about fifty years these archives were closed for historians, as ‘pending cataloguing and indexing’. I think this harmed both historiography and Russian history: there are not any facts and ideas relating to the theme of nonviolence in Russian historical memory.

Emergence of pacifism

The Russian radical pacifist movement emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of a public identification of so-called ‘Tolstoyans’ – the disciples of Russian writer and thinker Leo Tolstoy. From the very beginning, the Tolstoyans’ public movement had a definite identity as a radical pacifist, Christian socialist and anarchist movement. Their main values were nonviolence, freedom of conscience and social justice. The pacifist leaders were Vladimir Chertkov, Pavel Birukov, Ivan Tregubov, Ivan Gorbunov-Posadov and Valentin Bulgakov. They were active in defence of conscientious objectors and the human rights of religious minorities and other oppressed people.

The final goal of the Russian pacifist movement was proclaimed to be the worldwide revolution of brotherhood, which had to be a nonviolent, moral, spiritual revolution. In the period of the first world war they were sure that a spiritual, inner revolution, a ‘revolution of brotherhood’, had begun with Jesus Christ, and now, during the war, it was continued by the common Russian people who refused military service.

Despite the fact that the leaders of the radical pacifist movement in Russia came mainly from privileged circles, the movement was geared towards ordinary people – namely the religious sectarians, peasants and workers. The aim of the Tolstoyans was to transform spontaneous practices of passive resistance and noncooperation (‘weapon of the weak’) into the modern, ethical and effective methods of social protest against the state, the official church and war.

In different time periods the solidarity with the pacifist movement was expressed (fully or partially, in individual or collective manner) by vegetarians, Esperantists, various sectarians, including, for example, Doukhobors, Molokans, Malevantsy, S’utaevtsy, Dobroliubovtsy, Baptists, Evangelical Christians, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovists (Il’in’s followers), New Israelites, spiritual monists, Teetotalers (Trezvenniki) and other ‘seekers of God’. In addition, the movement had been supported by the authority of Leo Tolstoy, who had a great influence both in Russia and around the world.

A broad movement

The Russian pacifist movement was a living part of the trans-national pacifist movement. In the early twentieth century Tolstoyans set up close connections with foreign pacifists, anarchists and socialists. They corresponded with their foreign adherents, and organised famine relief in Russia in collaboration with international organisations. Among their foreign counterparts were the War Resisters’ International, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Quakers, Mahatma Gandhi, Romain Rolland, and other pacifist organisations and activists of the peaceful movements worldwide.

Between 1909 and 1928 the main base of the Russian pacifists was at the Moscow Vegetarian Society (MVO). They reached the peak of their public success after the revolutions of 1917. At this time Tolstoyans created the Society of True Freedom in memory of Leo Tolstoy. Its numerous local branches arranged several central and regional periodicals, established the inter-confessional United Council of religious communities and groups for the defence of conscientious objectors, and succeeded in raising public sympathy among ordinary people. Furthermore, Russian pacifists paid principal attention to the pedagogical theories of so-called ‘free education’, aimed at developing the personality; this personality could be capable of rejecting all forms of external authority, relying only on his or her conscience – the voice of God.

In the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s they continued to exchange information with their foreign associates and tried to participate in international anti-war and pacifist congresses. The peak of the international activity of the Russian pacifists (including emigrants) was an attempt to organise the International Movement for Christian Communism (1926). This was an attempt to suggest an alternative to the Bolshevik revolution in the form of a revolutionary nonviolent religious movement. Hundreds of ordinary people in different countries supported the movement. Repressions against the movement started in the early 1920s, became stronger in the late 1920s, and totally destroyed it in the middle 1930s. Those few Tolstoyans who survived the repressions and the second world war did not participate in any public events but they managed to collect and keep the archives and write several memoirs.

Now the history of the Russian pacifist movement is totally forgotten for many reasons. It has to be written on the basis of the Tolstoyans’ archives and presented to a wide public in Russia, as well as integrated into the general framework of the world peace movement’s history. It requires scanning of the archival records, publishing primary sources, and writing books in popular and academic genres.

Daphne is on the board of Friends House Moscow. Irina is an academic with the Russian State University for the Humanities.