As part of the centenary of Lev Tolstoy’s death, I was been asked to reflect on Tolstoy and the Mennonites. Levi Miller wrote a fine article on the Tolstoy-Mennonite connection twelve years ago, reviewing those Mennonite leaders in Russia and America who interacted with Tolstoy’s work. My article will rather compare and contrast the roots and reasons of Mennonite and Tolstoyan communalism and nonviolence.
Mennonite and Tolstoyan Communalism
1. New Testament foundations: We necessarily begin by considering the New Testament teachings that inspired both movements. Both the early Anabaptists and the Tolstoyans looked to the New Testament for their communalism and nonviolence, but as we shall see, for quite different reasons.
The early Christians generally lived in homes, not in communes per se, but we do read that they had everything in common, sold their possession and goods, and shared them as anyone had need (Acts 2:44-47). They let go of their sense of ‘mine’ in favour of generous sharing, even selling off property and distributing the proceeds so that no one was impoverished (4:32-35). However, because of persecution and the confiscation of their homes (Heb. 10:32-35) these first disciples found themselves fleeing from town to town (Matt. 23:34) and would no doubt have shared accommodations out of practical necessity. As brothers and sisters of an extended spiritual family, it would not have been uncommon for communities to spontaneously grow according to need.
2. Communalism in the Radical Reformation: The NT confiscation of homes, flight from oppression, and consequent need to gather in communities was familiar to the first Anabaptists. As religious refugees from Catholic and Protestant persecution, they discovered that they could live more safely and efficiently together. In fact, the arrangement allowed them to send out that many more evangelists while those at home worked at providing for the needs of the community.
But the practical need to live as separate communities came not only because of their suffering. Their sectarian ideology also came into play. Historically, the progeny of the Swiss Anabaptists lived under a strong call to “come out from among the world and be separate” was a ideal that required distinct communal groupings.
3. Russian Mennonite Communities in the Tolstoy Era: In the late 1700’s, the Mennonites had already found a measure of peace in West Prussia for a century. But as land became more difficult to acquire they moved again, now as economic refugees in Catherine II’s Russia. In 1789, they struck a deal to become colonizing settlers in exchange for land, peace, exclusion from military service, and the right to establish schools in their own language. They created settlements of reproducing villages that existed through Tolstoy’s time that were largely self-governed by locally elected magistrates who governed by nonviolent authority. This lifestyle of cooperation led to prosperity that ultimately triggered another wave of persecution in the 20th century.
4. Tolstoy’s voluntary communities: Unlike the Mennonites, who experienced the Tsarist regime as a haven for peace and prosperity, Tolstoy’s commitment to communalism was rooted in a stricken conscience over the inequities of Russian feudalism. His choices came from a position of power and privilege. He renounced the advantages of nobility and hierarchy, attacked Tsarist and Orthodox hierarchy, and thus developed his Christian brand of political and religious anarchism.
Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You is sometimes called the first Christian anarchist manifesto. In any case, while the Anabaptists enjoyed their privileges under the Tsars, Tolstoy was intent on refuting that very system. Their common experience of communalism was thus rooted in almost opposite reasons.
Mennonite and Tolstoyan Nonviolence
1. New Testament foundations: Again, Tolstoy and the Mennonites root their theology and practice of nonviolence in the New Testament Scriptures—especially in the practicability of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Unlike so many theologians who have used loopholes to negate Christ’s commands to love one’s enemy, turn the other cheek, and resist not evil with evil, Tolstoy and the Mennonites maintained that this is the very Way of Jesus on which we’ve been called to take up the cross and follow Christ. But again, they came to these Scriptures for quite different reasons, while affirming each other for doing so.
2. The roots of Mennonite nonresistance: During the Radical Reformation, any group (however different) practicing ‘believers’ baptism’ (versus ‘infant baptism’) was labeled ‘Anabaptist’. Thus, even the nonviolent groups in Holland, Switzerland and Germany were persecuted along with violent insurrectionist groups like the Munsterites. But the major Anabaptist groups were nonviolent from the start. They declared, “There will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force - such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use (either) for friends or against one's enemies - by virtue of the Word of Christ. Resist not (him that is) evil.”
Menno Simons was a Catholic Priest who converted after his Anabaptist brother was martyred without defending himself. Many of these nonviolent Anabaptists were gathered up under his name and composed the original generations of those Mennonites who made their way to Russia.
As with communalism, Mennonite nonviolence answered a specific practical question: How to live through persecution? Do we defend ourselves? Do we mount a guerilla insurgence? How do we resist evil? Their question was not whether ‘just war’ is ethical, but rather, how to survive and respond to magisterial pogroms without escalating the bloodshed even further. Most of all, they asked how to be faithful witnesses of the Gospel as they faced the sword. They navigated the question by turning to the Sermon on the Mount as the Way for a Christian community to live and respond while under dominance and military occupation and oppression.
Tsarist Mennonites followed in that tradition for the most part. Having established their agreement to avoid military service with Catherine, they maintained their stance of rendering nonviolent alternative service to the government, though Tolstoy reminds us that they came under increasing backroom pressure during his day.
After WWI, there was a period of anarchy and civil war, such that some of the communities were targeted as Kulaks for their conspicuous wealth. In 1919, many of their villages were destroyed. Some developed self-defence forces but Rev. Peter Bartel tells me that the villages that activated these typically became experienced much more severe oppression.
When Stalin gained power, crops, then land, then men were confiscated. There was little choice but flight and thus began the Canadian migration. Again, any commitment to nonviolence was tied to the practical reality of being a persecuted minority.
3. Tolstoyan nonresistance: Tolstoy’s nonviolence, by contrast, begins with his firsthand traumatic experience of war and grows out of sensitivity to the slaughter of conscripted soldiers. He saw the mucky-mucks in Moscow expending innumerable peasants as fodder in conflicts that had nothing to do with them.
So Tolstoy turned to Christ’s sermon. On that foundation, he used all his literary gifts to call humanity to evolve beyond the insane destruction and wasted sacrifices of war. But Tolstoy’s nonviolence was not only a call for Christian’s to refrain from serving as magistrates or as soldiers—it was call for the dissolution of governments and armies themselves. Not only is there no just war, there is no just military, no just national government, no just national church. His communities would make central authority redundant, so much the better because then they could not create wars or demand the people to fight them.
In other words, Tolstoy taught that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount does not just teach us how to be good Christians apart from the world, but rather, how to be good humans who transform the world. He universalizes the Sermon as the Way for people to live together justly. It is not restricted as a local pattern for believing colonies, but as an alternative way for the nations.
Tolstoy and the Mennonites certainly knew of each other and shared some ideals around (i) Christ’s call to nonviolence and (ii) the early Church’s generous communalism. However, the roots and reasons for embracing these ideals are also quite different.
While their they sought answers to different questions, what we see in Tolstoy and the Mennonites is more than coincidental, because their very unique journeys lead both parties to one and the same source: the practicability of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, a challenge that twenty-first century Christians ought to heed once again.
Brad Jersak is an author living in Abbotsford, BC. He was grafted into the Mennonite world by marriage to Eden (Edith) Wiebe, by ministry through ordination with BC Conference of Mennonites, and by moral commitment to Christian nonviolence.
 Levi Miller, “Tolstoy and the Mennonites,” Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 16 1998.