A Layman’s Tolstoy Journey: Maturity to Faith

Since my required reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment my senior year of high school, I have fallen in love with the Russian classics. Despite their density, I’ve enjoyed the deep dives into characters’ thoughts and the philosophies I’ve gleaned from the authors.

As I read through these classics the past several years, I realized I (unintentionally) read Tolstoy’s main works in reverse. This error, however, gave me the chance to perceive Tolstoy’s thoughts at very distinct points in his life, and in fact, gave me particular insight to his feelings on faith as he wrote these books

There are myriad blog posts and academic book reviews on Tolstoy’s faith journey throughout his writing career, so my intention here is not to be redundant. (See BioLogos, Pitzer, and LA Review of Books for some examples.) However, I’d love to share how I interpreted the different faith aspects in Tolstoy’s legendary works, as God often appears in places that you don’t expect Him.

War and Peace (1869)

One of Tolstoy’s longest and densest works, War and Peace shares a complex and intimate pseudo-history of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. If you manage to get through the lengthy chapters on theoretical thoughts on movement of armies based on physics, you’ll find a few fascinating characters that Tolstoy develops throughout the book.

The first character I’ll discuss is Pierre, an aloof fool who inherits a large sum of money near the start of the book. Pierre is easily pushed around – he becomes a Mason (a rather radical sect of Christianity) because of a short conversation, and he marries someone he doesn’t love because of a forceful father-in-law. In terms of faith, the character of Pierre seems to exemplify everything Tolstoy doesn’t like about faith – those that believe in it are gullible and dull in his eyes. Despite this, Pierre’s “coming-to-self” journey in this book was fascinating to read about, as he progressed in his love and care for the other characters.

However, I think the character that most exemplifies Tolstoy’s thoughts on faith is Prince Andrei, a wealthy soldier who comes from a very strict, traditional family. Andrei seems to have the ideal Russian life – a lovely wife, a prestigious military role, and prospects for a great future. It is soon revealed that Andrei’s thoughts are full of questions, uncertainties, and doubts. Andrei speaks one of my favorite Tolstoy quotes while facing death on the battlefield:

“Nothing, nothing is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important!”

Prince Andrei (War and Peace)

I believe Tolstoy used these brief moments of Andrei’s uncertainties to process his desire for something more, a life beyond the confines of this earth. Likewise, I often find myself questioning my surroundings, craving a deeper, more supernatural fulfillment that I know only comes from above. While Tolstoy is not explicit about the desire for faith in War and Peace, I believe moments like these show the young Tolstoy was hungry for the divine.

Anna Karenina (1877)

I see no reason to disagree with critics’ assessment that Anna Karenina is the greatest work of fiction in all of history. Tolstoy builds on themes from the essentiality of love to the beauty of agriculture as he writes about three couples and their interactions. The well-respected title character, Anna, begins an affair with the young ambitious Prince Vronsky. While the exhilaration of following their own desires is at first refreshing, we see how it eventually leads to a tragic demise for Anna.

The second couple, Stephen and Dolly, are actually mentioned on the opening page. Stephen’s covert affair was brought into the open, and a main chunk of the book discusses Dolly’s response. With significant consultation from Anna, Dolly chooses forgiveness, and the couple work throughout the story to mend their relationship for the sake of their family. This stands in direct contrast to Anna’s decisions, and Tolstoy seems to be preaching forgiveness and sacrifice for a family here.

My favorite part of this story was the beautiful love story between Levin and Kitty. Levin, a landowner who has interest in agricultural theory and hunting, proposes to Kitty early on in the book, to no avail – Kitty rejects him and goes abroad to heal an illness, finding out more about herself in the process. The two finally reconvene, and Kitty accepts Levin’s proposal and have a marriage so obviously full of love. Critics suggest Levin embodies Tolstoy more than any character in this book, so the last few paragraphs of the book are of particular interest.

Levin has an Andrei-like moment of uncertainty in the last chapter, and in spite of the temporary flash of fear, eventually feels nothing other than the presence of a higher being:

“This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.”

Levin (Anna Karenina)

Tolstoy seems to be warming to faith significantly through his character of Levin. Like Levin, as I matured in life, I warmed to faith more and more. I truly believe Paul’s words that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NIV).

Confession (1879)

Tolstoy’s nonfiction Confession is the closest thing to a spiritual memoir he produced. Having written two of the most seminal novels of his time (and of all time), Tolstoy uses this brief book to reflect upon his philosophies and his perception of faith.

Tolstoy begins by explaining his dilemma. His intelligence and literary prowess have granted him a certain status in Russian society, but he is continually unhappy. Tolstoy discusses two competing academic theories of providing meaning to life – in crude terms, the “hard sciences” like chemistry and physics and the “soft sciences” like history and philosophy. Humanity’s role in a world purely explained by hard sciences is merely a random collection of atoms that produces enough life to live for a finite amount of time, before returning to dust and becoming other atoms that remain on earth. The soft sciences, Tolstoy claims, approach the question of purpose but never quite reach it (very much a precursor of G.K. Chesterton’s “small circle” of human reason in Orthodoxy). With this, he comes to a rather stark conclusion:

“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.”

Tolstoy (Confession)

At the climax of this memoir, Tolstoy notes that the individuals who do find meaning of life are the meek, loving poor who have one thing Tolstoy doesn’t – faith. While Tolstoy doesn’t quite embrace biblical theology, Tolstoy concludes that faith can be the only deeply fulfilling part of life, so he decides to give it a try.

I resonate deeply with Tolstoy’s story here. This appears to be written at an inflection point in Tolstoy’s life, and while it wasn’t as sudden or depressing as Tolstoy’s seems to be, I remember my own turning point in faith. Maybe it was a close Christian friend, or perhaps the Spirit Himself, but something convinced me that living a life of faith brought more peace of mind than living the life the hard or soft sciences promised. Tolstoy’s words in Confession most directly confirm his spiritual maturity, but it isn’t until one of his final works where it becomes manifest in his writing.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a brief story of a dying man and his thoughts on family, his life, and reckoning with death. Much of the book portrays Ivan’s death as an inconvenience – it seems that his family simply wants him to get it over with. However, the kindness of the servant Pyotr stands out throughout the book and provides a unique contrast with the other characters.

In the concluding chapter, Ivan lies on his death bed, contemplating various thoughts during his final minutes. One of the final lines shows Ivan finally reaching peace:

“He sought his old habitual fear of death and could not find it. Where
was it? What death? There was no more fear because there was no more
death. Instead of death there was light.”

Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilyich)

While Christianity is so much more than a safety net in the afterlife, I think Tolstoy’s words in this short book confirm his comfortability with faith. It takes significant spiritual growth to discuss death as a fact of life (as in War and Peace) to viewing death as a moment of peace and “light.”

To me, The Death of Ivan Ilyich completes a wonderful, almost-20-year journey Tolstoy takes through his books and characters. Tolstoy is palpably bright – the applicability of his literary themes, the depth of his characters, and the unique writing style make these works rival some of the greatest philosophers. But, finally reaching terms with his intelligence, Tolstoy eventually seemed to realize that some form of faith fulfills – even completes – our very essence. Without it, we are nothing.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17a-19 (NIV)

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