• NUUF-header2.jpg

Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

A Beacon of Light in the Northwoods


Buddha in St. Petersburg - By Betsy Schussler


Audio Recording Of Service


Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice for the light of truth

We light this chalice for the warmth of love

We light this chalice for the energy of action.


Buddha in St. Petersburg

In his autobiography, Mohandas Gandhi referenced a book which, “left a deep impress on my life…it overwhelmed me. I began to realize”, Gandhi wrote, “the infinite possibilities of universal love.” Who was the author that so deeply affected not only Gandhi, but other peacemakers, like Jane Addams, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King?

That author was Leo Tolstoy. Known worldwide for his remarkable Russian novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy would become, in his later years, a spokesman for a unique form of Christian humanity.

What were the factors that guided Tolstoy in creating an ethical message of non-violence that would influence other great peacekeepers?

What in his writings speak to us today?

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 in central Russia into a privileged family whose members had been titled since the early 1700’s. Though orphaned by age 6, Tolstoy grew up on his spacious ancestral estate under the care of his devoted aunts. Tolstoy inherited his estate at age 19, and then proceeded into a life of what he called, “debauchery”. He expended considerable money drinking, gambling and frequenting brothels.

He honed these behaviors during his 4-year, mandatory military experience. As a lieutenant of artillery, he served in the Crimean War, considered the first “modern” war. For the first time, troops and horses were transported by train. Telegraph was used to convey messages. The Crimean brought us Florence Nightingale, the Angel of the Battlefield, and also the first war correspondents. In a sense, Tolstoy became one of these. He maintained a journal during the 11-month signature battle known as the siege of Sevastopol, a city on the Black Sea. Published upon discharge, Sketches from Sevastapol was a, “strong attack on the romantic glorifications of military life”, according to Irving Howe. This book served as a catalyst for Russian reforms not only of the military, which had been handed a humiliating defeat, but of social structures as well. The system of serfdom in Russia was abolished, four years before the emancipation proclamation in the United States.

Tolstoy’s fame as an author was established through these sketches along with several elegant short stories. It seemed that Tolstoy was a natural writer.

After his discharge from the army in 1855, Tolstoy traveled and studied extensively in Europe. While in Paris, he witnessed a guillotine execution, an event which would prove crucial to his later thinking. It shaped his lifelong opposition to capital punishment which he regarded as, “more repulsive and contrary to human nature than war”, which he understood as a function of “patriotic herd hypnosis.”

His frivolous lifestyle began to lose its appeal and, with the death of two of his brothers, he returned to his ancestral home where he began, “living a peaceful, self-satisfied, and thoroughly egotistical life.” He married and began raising 13 children, 7 of whom would survive. He began writing War and Peace, an account of the early Napoleonic Wars in which his grandfather had served. This would become the longest Russian novel ever written and would bring him international literary status. As was customary at the time, this novel appeared in monthly magazine installments which allowed his work to be accessible to a wide audience. His wife Sonya was a great help keeping him on track meeting his publishing deadlines. Tolstoy, who had studied methods of conflict resolution while in Europe, developed a reputation for fairness. He was often called upon to arbitrate land and resource disputes between former serfs and wealthy land owners during Russia’s own Reconstruction period. He acted, “with such an impartial justice as to infuriate many of his fellow nobles,” according to biographer Edmund Wilson.

In 1866, at age 37, Tolstoy agreed to defend a soldier named Vasily Shabunin imprisoned and awaiting trial for striking his commanding officer. There was no question of Shabunin’s guilt. The event was witnessed, and a confession had been signed. Russian military law was clear. Such an act warranted the death penalty. There were extenuating circumstances however. These, coupled with recent military reforms designed to reduce brutal treatment of soldiers, suggested an opportunity for leniency in sentencing.

At the court martial, Tolstoy described the relationship between Shabunin, a scribe for 65th Moscow infantry regiment and his commanding officer as one of mutual hatred, based on ethnic tensions between a Russian soldier and a Polish captain. The captain, “took pleasure in always being dissatisfied with everything the scribe, Shabunin, did.” Shabunin, proud of his written work, was forced to revise reports again and again. He addressed his growing anger, frustration and depression through alcohol. On the fateful day, Shabunin’s latest report was crumpled up and thrown in his face by his chronically dissatisfied captain. He then ordered a punishment of 100 lashes with birch rods. The inebriated Shabunin punched the captain, bloodying his nose.

Tolstoy’s eloquent defense cited military law that provided for reduced punishment on the grounds of mental instability. Nevertheless, Shabunin was sentenced to death by the three person military tribunal. Tolstoy immediately wrote an appeal to Czar Alexander. He sent his petition through his cousin Alexandra, who served on the Czar’s court. Unbeknownst to Tolstoy, the Minister of War secretly interceded. Deciding that any show of leniency might encourage similar behavior from other common soldiers, the Minister of War intercepted, altered and withheld Tolstoy’s appeal. Simultaneously, Shabunin’s execution date was fast-tracked. Tolstoy’s appeal reached the Czar two days after Vasily Shabunin had been marched into a field, handed a shovel with which to dig his own grave, then shot by firing squad. The shocked villagers and railroad workers who observed Shabunin’s execution created a shrine at Shabunin’s grave site. All traces of this were quickly obliterated by military directive.

Tolstoy would never know the chilling intrigue occurring at the highest levels of the military and political establishments that derailed his attempts to save Vasily Shabunin. It was not until 1982, 60 years after Tolstoy’s death, when military historian Walter Kerr, unearthed the document trail from Moscow archives revealing this covert military interference. In his book entitled, The Shabunin Affair: an episode in the life of Leo Tolstoy, Kerr suggested that Tolstoy’s transformation from a novelist to an ethicist began with this experience. Just two years before his death in 1908, Tolstoy was finally able to speak and weep openly about his experience stating that the Shabunin affair,

“…had much more influence on my life than all the seemingly more important events of life: the loss of or recovery of wealth, successes or failures in literature, even the loss of people close to me.”

Following Shabunin’s execution, Tolstoy’s life appeared to proceed as usual. Subconsciously, however, he was deeply wounded. A process began within Tolstoy that the Buddha had described and cautioned against nearly 2000 years earlier. Known as the Sallatha or “second arrow” Sutra, the Buddha compared a physical or emotional injury to being shot with an arrow. If a second arrow were to strike in the same spot, the pain would multiply perhaps 10-fold. This second arrow, according to the Buddha, is one we ourselves inflict. It takes the form self-recriminations, regrets, judgments, guilt and fears.

Tolstoy began, covertly, to shoot a series of second arrows:

Why wasn’t my “feeble, miserable plea” more eloquent?

Why wasn’t my appeal to the czar more persuasive?

Why didn’t I follow up on this petition instead of leaving it solely in the hands of my cousin?

And so on.

This period of deep, painful introspection began to subtly infuse Tolstoy’s great, creative masterpieces. A concluding scene in War and Peace finds the aristocratic Pierre, now a prisoner of Napoleon’s army, brought before the French commander where a death sentence is likely to be handed down:

“For a moment they looked at each other, and this glance saved Pierre. This glance, which rose above all the circumstances of war and ordeals of life, forged a human link between the two men. In this one single instant they both vaguely experienced an infinite number of things and ideas: that they were both children of mankind, that each of them had, or used to have, a mother, that they had been loved and had loved, that they had been enthralled, and had done evil and good, and had been proud and boastful, and had repented.”

This intense, introspective examination continued for the ensuing 5 years as Tolstoy created his next, great masterpiece, Anna Karenina, completed in 1878. In this story, a compassionate woman is destroyed for behaving in such a way that, had she been a man, her behavior would have not only been accepted by her society, but would have been envied and even revered. Through the ruminations of his character Levin, Tolstoy began to critically examine the shortcomings of dogmatic beliefs particularly those of the Orthodox Russian Church:

“In place of each of the Church’s beliefs there could be put the belief in serving the good instead of one’s needs. {such belief} was indispensable for the accomplishment of that chief miracle, constantly manifested on earth, which consists in it being possible for each person, along with millions of the most diverse people, sages and holy fools, children and old men… beggars and kings—to understand one and the same thing…and to compose that life of the soul which alone makes life worth living.”

Tolstoy completed The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886. Here, he grappled with the most fundamental mystery of life, namely, death. In critiquing Tolstoy’s work, Irving Howe writes, “…we have submitted ourselves to the voice of a man who has reached the innermost depths of experience, who has purchased his wisdom at a heavy price in suffering, and who has thereby burned out of his writing all vanity and pretension.“

Tolstoy, while at the peak of his artistic expression, famous in Russia and abroad, with a stable economic foundation, surrounded by a loving family, arrived at an emotional crisis. In A Confession, he wrote about his struggle to comprehend life’s meaning which brought him to the brink of suicide, he wrote:

“My life came to a standstill. I could not breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things.”

A Confession was followed by 6 other books exploring life’s meaning including the one that so touched M.K. Gandhi, The Kingdom of God is Within You, which laid out a new structure for society based on the universal love of Christianity. Later, Tolstoy would write, A Letter to a Hindu, in 1908 which would become the blueprint for non-violently severing Great Britain’s colonial control over India. Gandhi would refer to himself as Tolstoy’s, “humble follower”, and would name the place in which he practiced his experiments in living, Tolstoy Farm.

In 1899, Tolstoy would return to the novel in his book, aptly titled, Resurrection. Perhaps the Buddha might say that with this book, Tolstoy shot a 3rd arrow, an arrow of awakening. The story surrounds an aristocratic prince called to jury duty during a murder trial who is stunned when one of the defendants turns out to be a woman that he knew and loved when both of them were children. Later, as a soldier, he had cavalierly forced himself on her then abandoned her, an event which irrevocably altered the future course of her life. The prince takes responsibility for his past actions, humbly abandoning his privileged station and attempting restitution for his crime. Through this novel, Tolstoy reformulated the events of the Shabunin trial. His protagonist acted in all the ways Tolstoy regretted not having performed himself during the Shabunin affair.

Ultimately, Tolstoy would come to believe that he had defended Shabunin using the WRONG code of conduct. Instead of being measured against military or human laws, individuals should strive to live by the laws of Christian ethics. For this, Tolstoy acknowledged the supremacy of the teachings of the great prophet, Jesus, specifically, his Sermon on the Mount. The list of those “blessed” in this sermon included the poor, merciful, meek, persecuted, pure, hungry and thirsty, those who mourn, and the peacemakers. Nothing was said about blessing the czar, the generals, high ranking church officials, or others in positions of authority based on money and influence.

Not surprisingly, his view found little favor among the Russian elite and powerful. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901. He was hounded by secret service and police agents for the remainder of his life. His voice of non-violence spoke to the masses. His fame protected him from being silenced directly. “A Russian who did not know Tolstoy was like a citizen of Switzerland who had never seen the Alps”, went the adage. The same could not be said for his biographers, secretaries, assistants and the many people who flocked to his estate to follow what became his pacifist, Christian Anarchist beliefs. They were severely persecuted, banished, imprisoned and killed. Conflict grew between Tolstoy and his wife, Sonya, who feared for her financial stability. Tolstoy gave money and the rights to some of his later works to religious sects persecuted in Russia so that they could emigrate to freedom.

Then, in 1905, Russia’s Bloody Sunday occurred, an event that was likely the touchstone for the eventual Russian Revolution in 1917. As many as 50,000 unarmed factory workers, let by a cleric, marched to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition asking the “little father”, their title of endearment for Czar Nicolas II, to reform brutal working conditions. They were requesting reductions in the 15-hour work day, child labor, and abusive practices on the part of factory management. The Czar and his family were not at the palace but the Cossack guards were. They opened fire on the crowd killing or injuring perhaps 1000 individuals including men, women and children who were not even part of the march but were simply enjoying a Sunday in the park. With this event, according to Jane Kentish:

“Tolstoy’s commanding influence over a substantial section of the Russian people fell into decline. Many ‘Tolstoyans’ gave up the idea of countering bayonets and bullets with passive, non-violent resistance…Both the radicals and the liberals, enraged by what they regarded as Tolstoy’s archaic stand at a time of intense revolutionary crisis, spouted embittered irritation at the man who had, nonetheless, more effectively than any other leader of the time, exposed the evils of the government, the Church, and capitalism and unwittingly prepared the way for the violent upheavals of the future.”

With tension growing, Leo Tolstoy fled his family home with his daughter in November, 1910, causing a media sensation. He died of pneumonia at age 82 in a rural railway station outpost. Thousands lined the streets for his funeral.

So, here we sit, spring 2020, watching our great cities burn in the heat of racial and economic conflict in the midst of a global health pandemic. There is something eerily familiar about the scenes we witness and the language we hear. We recall other voices from martyrs who have offered words of direction, solace and hope. People like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Leo Tolstoy was premier among these voices. Walter Kerr summarizes Tolstoy’s contribution in this way:

“I see him as a human being with human weaknesses, who tried to overcome them in the only way he knew how or was capable of; an artist, horrified by violence, who foresaw disaster more clearly than most of his contemporaries and sought to warn them. One may be convinced his vision was impractical. It probably was, and yet there is something glorious about a fight to the finish for a losing cause. One of the greatest novelists who ever lived, he failed in the great crusade he embarked upon but he tried.”


Extinguishing The Chalice

We extinguish this chalice but not the light of truth, the warmth of love, or the energy of action.

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

Archived Services