Tolstoy and the Russian Soldiers, September 29, 1917

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"The corn that makes the holy bread
"By which the soul of man is fed,
"The holy bread, the food unpriced
"Thy everlasting mercy, Christ."

In all the discussions concerning the recent refusal of the Russian soldiers to continue fighting, singularly little has been said of their own convictions in the matter. Making due allowances for the German propaganda which has doubtless been instituted among them, and for their natural inference that there is no longer any need to carry on the Czar's war and for their eagerness to get back to the land which they believe is at last to be given to those who actually till it, may not religious scruples also be a factor in their momentous decision?

Was Tolstoy the mouthpiece of a great moral change taking place in the life of the Russian peasants or did he speak merely for himself when he unequivocally stated that thousands of them were ready, upon religious grounds, to renounce warfare? I recall an evening years ago when I sat in the garden at Yasnaya Polyana that Tolstoy outlined a possible situation very similar to this one and begged us to remember that the Russian peasant did not change his nature when he shed his blouse and put on the Czar's coat.

Ten years ago I wrote the following sentences: "Tolstoy at least is ready to predict that in the affairs of national disarmament, it may easily be true that the Russian peasants will take the first step. Their armed rebellion may easily be overcome by armed troops, but what can be done with their permanent patience, their insatiable hunger for holiness! All idealism has its prudential aspects. . . . . . . In this day of Maxim guns and high explosives, the old method of revolt would be impossible to an agricultural people but the nonresistant strike against military services lies directly in line with the temperament and capacity of the Russian peasant. That 'the government cannot put the whole population in prison and if it could, it would still be without material for an army and without money for its support,' is an almost irrefutable argument. We see here at least the beginnings of a sentiment that shall, if sufficiently developed, make war impossible to an entire people, a conviction of sin manifesting itself throughout a nation."

During the decade that followed the writing of these words the Russian Duma was established as the immediate result of the universal strike, and the religious dogma of [nonresistance] gradually came to have its pragmatic sanction. It is hard to determine whether the Russian soldiers who are now refusing to fight, have merely become so discouraged by their three years of futile warfare and so cheered by the success of a bloodless revolution that they have dared once again to venture the same tactics, or whether these fighting men in Galicia find singing in their own hearts the same good news which the early revolutionists took to Tolstoy lying in his grave in the forest of Zakaz -- "Love to neighbors, nay the greatest love to enemies, is being accomplished." [page 2]

Certainly the Russian Revolution from the beginning overleaped all national boundaries and comprehended in its program peace and freedom for the entire world. It has been carried on by simple men who have had so little participation in national life that they are unconscious of the whole tenor of recent political history which has placed excessive emphasis upon the nation as the limit of sympathy and of friendly obligations on the part of the citizen and at the same time has magnified the opposing interests and rivalries between nations. On the other hand, because they possess the Russians' inveterate habit of abstract discussion they had long debated between themselves the teaching of a religion which ignores national boundaries and claims the world for its field.

The youngest revolution is inevitably so much more radical than any of the existing governments resulting from previous revolutions, that it is not surprising that the Russian demands should embody in their internal policy fundamental labor and agrarian reforms -- the latter so drastic as to change the entire system of land tenure -- and in their foreign policy such inclusive phrases as "International Democracy," and "Universal Peace." For the moment the Russians stand quite free from the rampant nationalism swaying the rest of the world. When the accredited representatives of the workmen and the soldiers, sitting in their council at Petrograd, grew suspicious of the provisional government because of its attitude toward the Stockholm Conference and accused them of attempting "secretly to destroy the work of drawing together the toiling masses of all countries in behalf of peace," they thus defiantly addressed them: "With those who do not understand the need of ending this slaughter and suffering of innocent victims, the Russian Revolution cannot walk in hand."

It is as if these Russians, as soon as the revolution was established, had instinctively abstained from warfare -- a violence to which they had formerly submitted but which they never regarded as Christian -- and had made a fresh approach to the tangled world situation; they also evince that endless desire of men, which torments them almost like an unappeased thirst, not to be kept apart but to come to terms with one another -- that spring of life which underlies all social combination and political association. These Russian soldiers would make room within their newly secured space of light and warmth for all men; they would include even their enemies.

All the warring world is aghast at the Russians' refusal to fight, but in spite of their scoffing it is nevertheless true that reflective men in all of the belligerent nations are gradually recognizing the necessity for a new approach to the problem of ending the world war.

This necessity has recently been set forth by M. Henri Lambert of Belgium as follows: "The characteristic feature and dominating fact of the present highly critical situation of the belligerent world is that the various military, political and economic consequences arising from a defeat have developed to such a point of gravity that it has become for either side impossible even to contemplate submission to the will and power of the enemy. However, it fortunately remains possible for both [page 3] sides to submit to a principle, to surrender to a truth. -- Out of the international struggle has arisen a moral problem and a spiritual necessity." Are the Russians attempting a solution along spiritual lines while the well-established governments fail to recognize the hidden remedial powers which a newer democracy is striving to utilize?

Certainly the Russians are the most promising agency for the great task of converting the Central Powers to generous peace terms as their trenchant statement has gradually been converting the Allies. A meeting held in Leeds June 3rd, 1917, addressed by three members of the British Parliament, demanded that England restate her terms in line with Russia's, and the most recent statement issued by President Wilson stamps their simple formula with the approval of the United States.

We are all learning to say that the end of this war will doubtless see profound political changes and democratic reconstruction, when the animalistic forces which are inevitably encouraged as a valuable asset in warfare, shall once more be relegated to a subordinate place. And yet when one of the greatest possible reconstructions is actually happening before our very eyes, we are too timid to trust the spiritual force which achieved so much and might conceivably achieve more. The war-weary world insists that the Russian soldier shall forego its use and shall continue to fight.

It is quite possible that the Russian peasant soldiers are telling the East Prussian peasant soldiers in the opposing trenches what Tolstoy told them: that the great task of this generation is to "free the land" as a former generation had already freed the serfs and slaves; that the future of the Russian peasant depends not upon garrisons and tax gatherers but upon his willingness to perform "bread labor" on his recovered soil, and upon his ability to extend good will and just dealing to all men.

The Russian propagandists add to the enormous advantage of ardent aspirations and a newly [consummated] good will, a youthful self-consciousness which makes their own emotional experience the center of the universe and assumes that others cannot be indifferent to their high aims. If the Allies are seriously trying to treat with the German people as distinct from the government, the spoken word will be found much more dependable as a vehicle of propaganda than the printed page, even if in our enthusiasm we attempt the naive device of dropping democratic literature into the German trenches from [airplanes]. If the Allies find it reasonable to recommend to Germany, through formal state documents, such political changes as a chancellor responsible to the parliament, a representative body with power to initiate taxation, and other devices of self-government endeared through long usage to democratic nations, why at the same time should we deplore the man-to-man propaganda that is being carried forward on the eastern front by newly liberated Russians who out of their own experiences are urging revolt against autocratic government and who are recommending those very reforms which the Social Democrats of Germany have long been advocating? Certainly the Russians who at this moment are freeing themselves from the oppression of the enormous landed estates might most readily appeal to those Germans who have long contended that the foundation of parliamentary reform must be a change in the status of the landholding Junkers. [page 4]

Inevitably the results of such a propaganda are absolutely disastrous from the military point of view; but if the Allies are striving to win an entire people from the tenets of militarism, what teachers could be more convincing than men so enthusiastic over a governmental theory based upon the voluntary [cooperation] of self-directed individuals that they are ready to face a court martial in order to act upon it themselves and insist upon extending it to the very men who are supposed to represent the military system in its perfection? They are at least treading the paths of martyrdom which Tolstoy believed to be the only way to peace.

It is certainly the wisdom of the humble, the very counsel of imperfection, which is exemplified by this army of tattered men who are walking so carefully in the dawning light. But they may be "the unhindered and adventuring sons of God," who are the bearers of the most precious aspirations of this generation. To insist that they continue in the old lines of warfare when they themselves believe that fraternal intercourse is more efficacious for their revolutionary purposes, will probably result in a failure of both methods. They will neither convert the German troops nor will they efficiently make war upon them. The outcome may easily afford another of those cruel examples, presented so often by history, in which the Good has been the greatest enemy of the Best.