Leo Tolstoy: Russian Pacifist Thinker

Collaborators: Ani Kokobobo (University of Kansas) and Melissa Miller (Colby College)

About the Project

The unprecedented aggression on Ukraine by the Russian Federation in February 2022 has given rise to extraordinary, ongoing warfare in the region. The conflict has been characterized by substantial and broadly document battlefield losses, massive Ukrainian civilian casualties, and damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and cultural sites due to seemingly indiscriminatory Russian air strikes. Also associated with considerable displacement of individuals in both Ukraine and Russia, as well as new waves of political repression inside Russia proper, the war in Ukraine has significantly shaped public understanding of Russia. Disturbing violence has been reified by the Russian government as essential to securing Russia’s geopolitical position in the world, while also utilized at home to imprison dissidents and suppress disagreement with the actions of the Putin government. With civil society and open dialogue in Russia diminished and outright erased, the assessment of Ukrainian writer Serhei Zhadan in 2022 rings especially true: Russian humanist culture suffered a crushing defeat as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether this defeat is reversible, even as the few outspoken voices in Russia hold on to hope. Imprisoned him due to statements about the war, Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara Murza expressed hope in his essay for the Washington Post. “[O]ur society,” wrote Kara Murza, “will open its eyes and be horrified by what terrible crimes were committed on its behalf. From this realization, from this reflection, the long, difficult but vital path toward the recovery and restoration of Russia, its return to the community of civilized countries, will begin. Even today, even in the darkness surrounding us, even sitting in this cage, I love my country and believe in our people. I believe that we can walk this path.” Although Kara Murza’s faith is not universally shared, as we think about Russia’s future and imagine what it will take to bring peace to the region, Russian humanist culture plays an important role, both in restoring the structures of civil society and preventing systemic violence in the country and violence abroad.  

In this context, our proposed collection: Leo Tolstoy, Russian Pacifist Thinker, provides an important and much-needed cultural perspective. In producing a quality, scholarly, and accessible translation of Leo Tolstoy’s political writings on pacifism and anti-authoritarianism we seek to restore important portions of a Russian humanist culture that can contribute to the discourse of peace and democracy, in Russia and beyond. As one of Russia’s most famous authors and cultural figures, Tolstoy’s voice has already been closely connected with events in contemporary Russia. Notably, during his March 2022 public trial, just weeks after the Russian aggression in Ukraine began, Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, shared how Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other. What Navalny was likely referring to was a public letter that Tolstoy penned in 1904, denouncing the Russo-Japanese war, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Again war,” wrote Tolstoy in 1904, “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now. In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problems of today’s Russia and connected them with authoritarianism: “The misery of nations is caused not by particular individuals, but by the order of Society which binds together individuals consigning their fortunes in the power of a few individuals, or more often, in the power of one single individual: an individual inevitably corrupted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he ends up being in an unhealthy state, and suffers from a mania of self-aggrandizement.” As some of these snippets suggest, Navalny’s public comments bring to the forefront the voice of Tolstoy the pacifist and political thinker – a voice that has historically been neglected in Russia, as the country embarks on persistent violent geopolitical missions. We believe that this anti-authoritarian and pacifist perspective is badly needed in the conversation about Russia and its future, as well as in the context of other global violent conflicts.  


About the Collaborators

Ani Kokobobo (PhD, Columbia) is Professor and Chair at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. Kokobobo is a leading scholar of Tolstoy and has published four books and written over 30 academic articles with heavy emphasis on Tolstoy. Her latest books include Sex, Gender, and Tolstoy (under contract Northwestern University Press), Leo Tolstoy, The Power of Dissent, (Academic Studies Press, forthcoming 2024), and The Tolstoy Marriage – A Literary History (Bloomsbury Press, forthcoming 2024).

Melissa Miller (PhD, UW-Madison) is Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Miller has published numerous articles on intersections between women’s and gender studies and Russophone letters and culture, including on Tolstoy, as well as on uses of folklore in the contemporary Russian political imaginary.