Heretical Orthodoxy. Lev Tolstoi and the Russian Orthodox Church

Kolstø, Pål
Anzahl Seiten
306 S.
€ 93,40
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Regula M. Zwahlen, Departement für Glaubens- und Religionswissenschaft, Philosophie, Universität Freiburg / Schweiz

Pål Kolstø’s work on Lev Tolstoi’s relationship with the Orthodox Church in Russia is a most welcome contribution in the context of the so-called “Orthodox turn” in the study of Russian intellectual history: a sharpened focus on Russian Orthodoxy as frame of reference that informed intellectual discourse in the Russian Empire.1 Yet Kolstø’s study goes beyond a structural analysis of Tolstoi’s Orthodox background, because Tolstoi himself discussed Orthodox theology in a detailed manner. In this regard, Kolstø sheds new light on Tolstoi’s complex relationship with the Orthodox faith that hitherto remained understudied, despite numerous monographs on Tolstoi’s relation to other thinkers and cultures.2 Tolstoi’s harsh critique of the Orthodox Church both in his fiction and other writings, as well as the scandal of his excommunication from the Church in 1901, overshadowed the fact that he developed his moral thought not only in conscious opposition to the Orthodox faith but also by adopting and adapting certain aspects of Orthodox theology and spirituality (p. 3). The book is based on Kolstø’s doctoral thesis defended in 1995 in Norway, and since no one else had published on the specific topic in the meantime, the author thankfully returned to the project in 2019 to translate, update and publish its findings in English.3

The book, apart from an introduction and its conclusions, contains twelve chapters. Possibly, the reader would have benefited from further structuring; therefore, by presenting the content, I take the liberty of roughly grouping the chapters in three parts: One part focuses on Tolstoi’s own reading of Orthodox literature during his lifetime and presents the Orthodox themes and authors on which Tolstoi’s ideas and critique are based. These chapters (2 to 4, and 9) depict his intellectual journey and religious struggling as a reading and “Practicing Orthodox”, culminating in his desire to be consecrated as a deacon and the overt break with the prescriptions of the Church, both in 1879. Tolstoi’s serious examination of Orthodox doctrine is expressed in his own Examination of Dogmatic Theology, one of his most neglected works, which he wrote in 1879–80 as a follow-up to his famous Confession. It consists of a critique of Metropolitan Makarii (Bulgakov)’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology that was taught at all theological colleges in the country at the time. Chapter 4 presents Tolstoi’s positive evaluation of ascetical virtues in contrast to Orthodox “asceticism” in relation to his own views on the body, the passions, passionlessness (apatheia), theosis and agape; they inform his claim that ascetical ideas are not exclusive to monasticism but serve as a model for everyone (p. 88). A central element in Tolstoi’s religious thought is “God’s incomprehensibility” (p. 60) – reminiscent of negative or apophatic theology in the Eastern Church tradition. Interestingly, Tolstoi found “Makarii’s theology was not apophatic enough” (p. 270).

Chapter 9, on “Tolstoi and the Social Ideal of the Eastern Church”, engages with Tolstoi’s (eclectic) presentation of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Matthew as “an example of the Church’s falsification of Jesus’ message” (p. 147) in the Sermon on the Mount – the key biblical text, in Tolstoi’s view. At the same time, we learn that “progressive” Orthodox intellectuals like Vasilii Ekzempliarskii, professor of patristics at Kiev Theological Academy, even implied, with reference to Chrysostom, “that, fundamentally, Tolstoi’s social message coincided with the social teachings of true Orthodoxy” (p. 154).

A second part (chapters 5 to 8) focuses on certain Orthodox forms of spirituality and how they were integrated into Tolstoi’s thinking. Religious practices like eldership, the “wanderer tradition”, and the ideal of the “holy fool” (iurodstvo) are well-known features in Russian cultural history and literature. Kolstø discusses Tolstoi’s visitors’ identifying him as a “modern elder”, and describes his encounters with wanderers as well as his own desire to become one himself. All three practices especially informed the story of “Father Sergius”, only published after Tolstoi’s death (1911) and a harsh critique of a fourth form of Orthodox spirituality: monasticism, because, in Tolstoi’s view, “only the man who lives to serve God among men can find peace” (p. 145).4

After Kolstø’s “historical-genetic analysis” (p. 12), the last part (chapters 10–13) is devoted to Orthodox reactions to Tolstoi and contains a “reception analysis” full of insights into Orthodox intellectual culture during Tolstoi’s lifetime. Condemnation of the official Church had been an integral part of Tolstoi’s work, and his influence and the movement called “Tolstoianism” were widely discussed by Church officials, intellectuals and the laity. In this regard, Kolstø’s thorough study is one of a kind: It shows that many Orthodox commentators contradicted each other, and that the fault lines were rather political (or theological) ones with regard to moral questions than social ones between the “Church hierarchy” and “the popular Church”. Indeed, many lay believers “contributed massively in condemning the new heresy” of Tolstoianism (p. 168) and depicting Tolstoi as “the Antichrist”, while Orthodox intellectuals like Nikolai Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov 5 and even Bishop Antonii (Khrapovitskii) presented serious and self-critical approaches to Tolstoi (p. 197).
Thus, readers learn about the paradoxical situation of the Russian Church – “at the same time powerful and impotent” (p. 156) – by the end of the 19th century, when it was used by the tsarist authorities to fight the radical intelligentsia. On the one hand, these chapters tell the stories of the Church’s “counterattack”, “combat strategies” and censorship, and of the motives of Church officials like Vasilii Skvortsov, special advisor to the Holy Synod in sectarian matters. On the other hand, they present the reform-oriented “Russian Orthodox Radicals”, their journals and their mostly failed attempts to build a bridge with Orthodox clergy in the debates of “religious-philosophical associations”.

Finally, chapter 12 treats the question of Tolstoi’s “Excommunication” by a Circular Letter of the state Church in February 1901, and contains the debates about its initiators, most probably the priestly members of the Holy Synod (p. 221). Kolstø highlights the remaining unanswered questions caused by the Letter’s confusing ambiguity, and the highly mixed reactions to it. Ultimately, Tolstoi’s own reply “provided solid validation for the Church’s action against him” (p. 231). The scandal was followed by “the Requiem Debate” over Tolstoi’s funeral. The author presents evidence that despite most scholars’ claims to the contrary, “the Church went to extreme lengths to try to find a way to allow a requiem mass to be said for Tolstoi” (p. 247). Alas, Tolstoi did not repent and became the first public figure in the Russian Empire to be buried without the Church’s blessings.

All in all, Kolstø confirms that even if Tolstoi’s religious and moral teachings were inspired by Orthodox themes, all the main Christian denominations would still necessarily find them heretical (p. 230). With the focus mainly on Tolstoi and the debates around his person and writings, an assessment of the social movement of “Tolstoianism” remains in the background. Rather, the author claims that “Tolstoi was at least as little ‘Tolstoian’ as Marx was a Marxist” (p. 268). Instead, Kolstø reveals an impressive portrait of a prolific and serious moral thinker in the context of amazingly lively public debates among varying “Orthodoxies” in the final stage of the Russian Tsarist Empire. Kolstø’s approach to relate Tolstoi’s teachings with Orthodox practices and patristic teachings highlights that this influential modern “heretic” definitely deserves a critical assessment in a yet to be written history of modern Orthodox social and moral theology. Readers with a greater interest in philology, history and philosophy will gain new insights into the discursive patterns and ideological structures of literary culture and intellectual history in the Russian empire within its diverse Orthodox contexts.

1 Patrick Lally Michelson / Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (eds.), Introduction. Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia. Culture, History, Context. Madison, Wisconsin 2014, p. 4.
2 A first attempt in this direction was made by a Swiss research project and publication, including a chapter on “Orthodoxy” by Pål Kolstø. See Martin George et al. (eds.), Tolstoj als theologischer Denker und Kirchenkritiker, Göttingen 2014.
3 One new study was published in Russian by the Orthodox scholar and priest Georgii Orekhanov (1962–2020), who, in Kolstø’s view, was a thorough scholar and provided a lot of valuable information, but aimed “to vindicate the actions of the Russian Church” (p. 15). See Georgij Orechanov, Russkaja Pravoslavnaja Cerkov‘ i L.N. Tolstoj. Konflikt glazami sovremennikov, Mosсow 2010; Georgij Orechanov, Russische Orthodoxe Kirche, in: Martin George et al. (eds.), Tolstoj als theologischer Denker und Kirchenkritiker, Göttingen 2014, pp. 585–593.
4 Kolstø’s presentation would have profited from taking into account Christian Münch’s seminal work on the “holy foolishness” tradition: Christian Münch, In Christo närrisches Russland. Zur Deutung und Bedeutung des ‚jurodstvo‘ im kulturellen und sozialen Kontext des Zarenreiches, Göttingen 2017, pp. 393–415.
5 Cf. Regula Zwahlen, Russische Religionsphilosophie, in: Martin George et al. (eds.), Tolstoj als theologischer Denker und Kirchenkritiker, Göttingen 2014, S. 594–607; and Christian Münch, „Englischer Tolstoismus“. Zum Kapitel „Der soziale Moralismus. T. Carlyle“, in: Barbara Hallensleben / Regula M. Zwahlen (eds.), Sergij Bulgakovs „Die zwei Städte“ im interdisziplinären Gespräch, Münster 2014, pp. 44–57.