"100 Years After Excommunication, Church Cannot Look Kindly Upon Tolstoy"
Vladimir Tolstoy, director of Leo Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate museum, told ENI this week that he had written to the church's leader, Patriarch Alexei, in January asking him to review Tolstoy's teaching—the reason for his rejection by the church—on the grounds that the excommunication was a hindrance to national reconciliation.
He told ENI the media had misinterpreted his letter as a plea to lift the excommunication. "I was simply inviting the church to hold a dialogue on this painful subject," Tolstoy said in an interview. "In my letter, there was no request to lift the excommunication or to forgive Tolstoy."
In his letter to the patriarch, the writer's descendant stated that the decision on February 22, 1901, by the Russian Orthodox Church synod to excommunicate Tolstoy had had a "painful effect on all the following course of Russia's history."
The church's act had forced "every Russian Christian" to make a difficult "moral choice." "An Orthodox Christian cannot reject God, but it is also difficult to reject the national genius and prophet, who to this day constitutes the pride and glory of our national culture," Vladimir Tolstoy wrote.
Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is known worldwide for his novels, in particular for War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
In the late 1870s, after completing the two novels, Tolstoy underwent a profound spiritual crisis and began a search for the meaning of life. He found little solace in the writings of philosophers, theologians and scientists, but, as he declares in A Confession, published in 1884, he found insights in the daily life of Russian peasants who told him that everyone must serve God rather than living for themselves.
He emerged from his spiritual crisis as what some have described as a Christian anarchist, attached to the Gospel, but without any belief in immortality and seeing Christ as simply a man. At the same time, Tolstoy rejected the authority of the church and the government.
Tolstoy then gathered a big following as he dedicated most of the second part of his life to writing essays, pamphlets, didactic short stories and plays. His novel Resurrection, published in 1899, includes strong criticism of church ritual. Apparently this was one of the reasons for his excommunication. Tolstoy's views influenced European humanists and India's champion of peace, Mahatma Gandhi.
Vladimir Tolstoy told ENI that the patriarch had not replied to his letter.
But church officials have made it clear in recent statements that they stand by the church's 1901 decision and do not wish to review Tolstoy's writings.
At a press conference on March 4, Patriarch Alexei acknowledged Tolstoy as "a literary genius," but said that the writer's religious views were a different matter. "I do not think we have the right to force a man, who died [almost] 100 years ago, to return to the bosom of the church that he rejected," the patriarch said.
Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Moscow Patriarchate official, told ENI. "I think everyone in our country, including believers, have respect for Tolstoy as a writer. When he expressed views that contradict its teaching and its spirit, the church, naturally, had the right to say that such views could not be considered Orthodox."
Father Chaplin pointed out that after the 1901 excommunication Tolstoy did not publicly repent for his views. Although there were various stories about the writer receiving absolution and communion before his death, there was strong indication that he had not, Chaplin said.