Tolstoy and Gandhi: Letters about Peace

At the time when young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi was struggling with injustice in South Africa he learnt about Leo Tolstoy’s doctrine of non-violent resistance to evil, and it had an impact in shaping his philosophy of satyagraha.

This concept of not responding to evil by evil became Gandhi's peaceful weapon in the fight againt the British rule. As an interesting twist of history, Tolstoy in his turn was inspired to develop his non-violence doctrine after closer acquaintance with the Indian culture during his student years at the faculty of Eastern Philology at Kazan University. 

Achala Moulik, Indian researcher and author of the book “A Hundred Years of Leo Tolstoy & The Indian Connection”, writes about Leo Tolstoy: “All his life, he sought inspiration in ancient civilizations to vivify the future of mankind”. And this is how the Russian writer and philosopher played a crucial role not only in his time but also left a lasting legacy for the future epochs.

Tolstoy’s correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi is an inalienable part of the precious cultural and spiritual heritage that Russians and Indians can admire and appreciate today. Tolstoy and Gandhi’s ideas followers undoubtedly will take interest in the exhibition “Mahatma Gandhi – Leo Tolstoy: unique legacy” presented to Russia by the Indian Memorial Gandhi Foundation. It was launched on October 5 and will take place till November 8 visiting a number of Russian cities. The exhibition is timed to the International Day of Non-Violence, which is celebrated on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday – October 2. Leo Tolstoy, possibly the most well known Russian writer abroad, and one of the most esteemed Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi have been in a continuous correspondence discussing non-violence, love and peace.  

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy and Gandhi’s long-year communication began after in 1908 Tarakuatta Das, editor of magazine  “The Free Hindustan”, addressed Tolstoy as an influential writer asking him to “express his opinion on he difficult situation in India”. Tolstoy answered to this request by his famous “Letter to a Hindu”. Gandhi became interested by his article and wrote him back. At that time Gandhi was still an unknown lawyer working in South Africa and Tolstoy already became an eminent writer and philosopher. Despite this Tolstoy and Gandhi felt spiritually close from the very first letters. 

According to Gandhi, when he read the first literary work by Tolstoy it overwhelmed him so much that all other books seemed to him “insignificant in comparison to the independence of thought, profound morality and sincerity of Leo Tolstoy”. 

When Gandhi sent his book “Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule” to Tolstoy, the Russian writer was impressed by the ideas expressed in it, and felt an ardent desire to remain in correspondence and share his thoughts and opinions with his Indian pen friend. 

Tolstoy wrote about Mahatma Gandhi in his diary: “He is a very close person to me, to us. He thinks that the strongest resistance is passive resistance”. Probably Tolstoy said this having in mind Gandhi’s ideas of gentleness and humbleness that are an inseparable part of Russian Orthodox adherents’ mentality.

It’s all the more amazing that a person of a completely different cultural and religious background expressed these very concepts so deeply rooted in the Russian culture. But it may be so that this intertwining of ideas is one of the proofs that the cultures are much closer than they seem to be, and the basic moral values are the same despite all the social and political infringements.

Young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi

If we go down the history lane to the epochs of Tolstoy and Gandhi we find that those were tough times for both of the countries. Russia had been devastated by the 1st world war and the civil war. India in its turn suffered greatly under the British rule, and the Indian people reached the end of its tether. In brief, for both countries it was a time of anger and protest against the government, against the opression. And rightly so. 

But any protest action is ambivalent. Like the medal, it can have its reverse side: apart from the glory of victory and independence, there are violence, destruction, deaths of innnocent people. Gandhi and Tolstoy belonged to the few people who've chosen the pathway of bloodless fight. At that time there were not so many people who were able to suppress the natural urge for aggression and opt for quiet resilience instead. And there are not so many now. 

Coming back to our days, with a host of military conflicts, which often arise from rather dubious grounds, with orders for weapons in abundancy and kindness in severe shortage, maybe it's the time to remember Gandhi and Tolstoy's unique legacy: love, peace and non-violence, and to try to turn from brothers-in-arms to just brothers.             

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