… Tolstoy — in Anton Chekhov’s words a “giant, a Jupiter” — was possessed of superhuman energies that drew him into myriad interests and passions. According to his wife, Sofya,He developed enthusiasms for the most diverse things throughout his life: games, music, [ancient] Greek, schools, Japanese pigs, pedagogy, horses, hunting — too many in fact to count. And that’s not including his intellectual and literary interests: they were most extreme. He was madly passionate about everything at the height of his enthusiasm, and if he could not convince whomever he was talking to of the importance of the activity he was caught up in, he was capable of being even hostile to that person.
It was as early as 1855, when Tolstoy was still in his twenties, that he discovered his vocation as a religious proselytizer. At that time he recorded in his diary “a great and stupendous idea”: the “foundation of a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind — the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but providing bliss on earth.” His experiences as an officer in the Crimean War, where he stood for the first time beside common soldiers, had inspired these thoughts, though they were not to reach full fruition until a couple of decades later. Still, he began to put his new beliefs into practice. He opened a school for peasant children at Vasnaya Polyana. (Less than 6 percent of the Russian population was literate during the 1850s.) He liberated his serfs somewhat ahead of the official 1861 Emancipation of Serfdom Manifesto. He performed invaluable work in famine relief and in publicizing famines in little-known parts of the empire.
His genius as a writer was also pressed into service. Tolstoy spent years on a four-volume, 700-page ABC and reading primer, a work he regarded more highly than War and Peace. (Upon its publication in 1872 it received neither good reviews nor official approval, but with its republication thirteen years later it became a bestseller, thenceforth having a powerful influence on Russian primary education until the 1917 Revolution.) Eventually, in the 1880s, he fully assumed the mantle of prophet with a tetralogy he thought his most important life work: Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, Union and Translation of the Four Gospels, Confession, and What I Believe. He was the leading guru of vegetarianism, nonviolence, and anti-materialism. His moral authority seemed boundless: some called him Russia’s true tsar. Some went further: speaking of Tolstoy’s relationship with God, Maxim Gorky likened them to “two bears in one den.” When Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901, it was the Church’s prestige that declined, not his own.
Saint or crank? His fellow artists resented time taken away from what they considered his true vocation. From his deathbed, Ivan Turgenev harangued the errant novelist: “My friend, return to literary activity! This gift has come to you from where everything else comes from. Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! I am a finished man…. I can’t walk, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, but so what! It’s even boring to repeat all this! My friend, great writer of the Russian land — heed my request!” Chekhov sometimes felt considerable distaste for Tolstoy in his chosen role of priest. “To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals and as rude and insensitive as generals, because they are confident of their impunity.” In the role of artist, though, he believed the older author to be unsurpassed: “What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature…. [S]o long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and sniveling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished in outer darkness.”