A Letter to a Hindu by Leo Tolstoy
(translator unknown)

A slightly unusual item here on the Ramblings today, in the form of a little hand-bound pamphlet released by the lovely Renard Press. It’s entitled “A Letter to a Hindu” and is by none other than Leo Tolstoy; and it comes with an introduction by Mahatma Gandhi! I confess it’s not a work of Tolstoy’s that I’d come across before, and so it was a real treat to get this as part of my Renard subscription (I know they like to bring out more neglected works by great authors) – and it did indeed make fascinating reading.

As the excellent supporting material explains, Tolstoy’s letter was written in 1908 to Tarak Nath Das, a Bengali scholar and revolutionary who was campaiging to free India from British Colonial rule and approached Tolstoy for support. However, that towering figure of Russian literature provided a response that perhaps was not what was wanted; although if you know anything about Tolstoy you might not be surprised…

At the point of writing the letter, the Russian author had less than two years left to live; and by then had become an intense Christian activist and pacificist. Therefore, his response to was to counsel against violence, instead suggesting that the Indian people should undertake peaceful protests and strikes. His teaching had a profound effect on Ghandi, who would go on to follow this advice to great effect. As I mentioned in my review of “A Philosophy of Walking“, learning of the vile behaviour of the British colonialists was a real shock, and so it was fascinating to see the chain of influence back to Tolstoy and to think that the latter had had a part in ending the British Empire (thank goodness…)

Tolstoy’s strong moral and religious beliefs shine through in his letter; and interestingly he is of the opinion that the Indian people (and indeed all enslaved peoples) almost collude in their condition by fighting violence with violence. If you respond in this way you are no better than those oppressing you, and therefore the pacifist approach is one he espouses. Does this work in real terms? I’m not enough of a historian (or even a psychologist!) to know; but certainly history is littered with examples of passive, non-violent resistance. I think, however, that if the oppressor is evil enough, pacifism will not really be effective. One element that did fascinate me here, though, was that in 1908 Tolstoy was referring to various indigenous peoples struggling against subjection and refers to “a Negro defending himself against the North Americans” – which seems to place him remarkably ahead of his time…

As you might have guessed, this little booklet really does provide a lot of food for thought. It’s a beautifully produced item in its own right, printed on quality paper and hand-bound; and as I said, it has excellent notes and extra material to support the main text. I *have* had occasional issues with Tolstoy and his views over recent years, but there’s no denying his power as a writer; and this is an excellent addition to your Russian classics shelf (you *do* all have one of those, don’t you???) 😀