A Hippie Paradise?

I barely missed being a headband wearing hippie doing somersaults with the kids in the dim light of a forest commune. I would have given my right arm to wonder over spiders with Annie Dillard holed up in a Puget Sound writer’s bungalow. I’ve no doubt I would sidle up to a Tolstoyan community if I had the chance. The commitment to non-violence and communal living would have appealed to me once upon a time.  But the great man’s aversion to sex bothers me. I have seven children, and yes; I know where they come from. I keep bugging my wife for another, a Little Bobby after my father, and she’s having none of it. Pregnancy wasn’t a joy for her, and she’s glad to be on the other side of it.

TolstoyI saw this article in the New Yorker about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now, I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major works at least once, studied Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked, I’m happy to offer my humble opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s embarrassing, but I even started dressing like the Great Man. Nothing like wearing a bright green smock with a wide belt to get some stares while mowing the lawn. It’s a wonder my children are normal.

Inventing a Religion

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he invented his own religious sect based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He frequently corresponded with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. Though wealthy and privileged, he identified with the poor, setting up schools for poor children, eschewing a life of wealth and ease which he enjoyed by dint of heritage and writing. In theory, he rejected sex, but the evolutionary urge proved too powerful for him and he struggled deeply with his ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In reality, he lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult.

Wiki says there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government, considering the state a violent and corrupt means of artificial control. In many ways, they were similar to the British and American Shakers. Alas, like the Shakers, Tolstoyan Communities had a short history. Most were self-sustaining for a time but proved unable to support themselves. Neighbors were often suspicious of their non-violent neighbors, and governments made life difficult for them. Finally, it’s hard to keep a movement of simplicity growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was very highly regarded.

Tolstoyan Community

Tolstoyan Community cheery group photo.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed in his name. He was happy that people joined together to champion non-violence and simplicity but argued strongly that he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself. Sounds exactly like a man we should emulate.


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