Leo Tolstoy: Original Ant Brother
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, or Leo Tolstoy, lived an enigmatic life. He had been born into privilege- as a member of of Russia’s aristocracy. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time, experienced a spiritual crisis, became what has been considered a Christian anarchist, and was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.
In late October, 1910, having just read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the first time, Tolstoy did what he had wanted to for years- he abandoned his family to become a wanderer in his old age. This was prompted by his unhappy, and tumultuous marriage, as well as his increasingly radical philosophy.
His marriage is widely considered to have been the unhappiest in all of literary history. For perspective, it is revealing to take note of his lifelong superstitious nature. He was born on August 8th, 1828, and he long considered the number 28 to be his lucky number. In 1863 he ordered his wife to “hold off” during labor until after midnight so that their first child would be born on the 28th of June (Bartlett, pg. 34).
Tolstoy had already written both War and Peace and Anna Karenina by the time of his spiritual crisis of the late 1870s. Following that crisis, he underwent a “conversion”, and his works became more religious, as well as more radical, before finally being excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church at the beginning of the twentieth century.
By 1910, when he abruptly departed for Optina Pustyn, or Optina Monastery, he had already been there several times. The monastery had been a spiritual center in Russia, attracting pilgrimages, and some of the greatest writers in history. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the character of the Elder Zosima was based on one of the well known Elders of the monastery- Father Ambrose. Zosima was also the representation of what Dostoevsky viewed as the greatest part of his greatest novel: a rebuke of late nineteenth century western nihilism and atheism.
Father Ambrosy had remarked about Tolstoy following the latter’s first visit to the monastery that “his heart seeks God, but there is muddle and a lack of belief in his thoughts” (Bartlett, pg. 256). In 1910, Father Ambrosy had passed away by the time of Tolstoy’s final visit, and the journey appears to have been fruitless. Most accounts state Tolstoy left relatively quickly, and was unable to find any spiritual guidance at the monastery. It is noteworthy that he left on the 28th of October at the age of 82. He passed away on November 10th, 1910, at a remote railway station in Astapovo, Russia.
Leo Tolstoy’s later works had influenced an entire movement, known as the Tolstoyans. They grew out of his interpretation of the Gospel, and his emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. They were pacifists, vegetarian, didn’t support any state, and tried to avoid handling money and sex. Apart from his radical “disciples”, his writings had a major impact of Mohandas Gandhi, and in turn, could be seen as an influence upon Martin Luther King Jr.
When Leo Tolstoy was just five years old, his older brother Nikolai created a mythology that would stick with Tolstoy for the rest of his life. Nikolai told his younger brother “that he had discovered the secret that would make all men happy, would abolish misery, disease and anger from the world (Green, pg. 25). This secret was written on a small green stick and hidden away in the middle of the families’ estate. The brothers incorporated this myth into their play time: they formed the “Ant Brothers.” When the secret was finally revealed all of mankind would become members of this Ant Brotherhood. “In his adulthood, Tolstoy would continue to believe fervently in the possibility of the ant brothers’ ideal…” wrote Tolstoy biographer Rosamund Bartlett. In fact, late in life, Tolstoy had requested to be buried at the very spot where the little green stick was said to be hidden away.
“The religious impulse which inspired Tolstoy in the 1880s was strangely not so distant from that which gave rise to the Moravian Brethren” (Bartlett, pg. 53). Tolstoy had also remarked later in life that his brother must have read something about the Moravian Brethren before coming up with the story.
The Moravian Brotherhood, or Unity of the Brethren, arose from the Hussite movement in the early 15th century. The Hussites were named after Jan Hus, who had preached against indulgences and other doctrines of the Catholic Church that would take center stage a century later during the Reformation and Martin Luther translating the New Testament into German. Jan Hus was labeled a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites organized into different sects, with the Unity of the Brethren, formed in 1457, having a lot of similarities to the Tolstoyan movement centuries later.
Bartlett, Rosamund. Tolstoy: a Russian life. London, Profile Books, 2013
Green, Martin. Tolstoy and Gandhi, men of peace: a biography. New York, Basic Books, 1983.