Leo Tolstoy knew plenty about the rank injustice, evil, and sheer brutishness that have dominated the world throughout history. He’d witnessed a public execution in Paris and had lived through the European revolutions of 1848, as well as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, followed by the ultra-repressive regime of Alexander III.
By the end of the century, Tolstoy was reading daily newspaper reports about workers’ riots, bloody bombings by revolutionary terrorists, religious persecution, and pogroms.
And what counts is this:
Having lived through all of that, he never lost his faith in the possibility of goodness, of human promise.
In his seventies, Tolstoy asked to be buried on the spot where, as a boy, he and his brother Nikolai had discovered a little green stick — a stick on which they believed was inscribed the secret to universal happiness.
“And just as I believed then, that there is a little green stick, on which is written the secret that will destroy all evil in people, and give them great blessings,”
Tolstoy wrote in his Recollections (1902),
“so now I believe that such a truth exists and that it will be revealed to people and will give them what it promises.”
In War and Peace, one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements, no character embodies the spirit of idealism more than Pierre Bezukhov, the big-hearted, bespectacled Russian count who at the beginning of the novel inherits the largest fortune in Russia. After that, he enters into a disastrous marriage, becomes a leading Freemason before growing disillusioned with its politics, botches his attempts to free the peasants on his estate, and eventually winds up as a French prisoner of war during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
Then, just when he thinks things can’t possibly get worse, Pierre is brought before a firing squad. Prepared to die, he discovers, miraculously, that he has been escorted there only as a witness. Still, the sight of the blindfolded factory worker being shot in the head (which Pierre well realizes might just as easily have been him) is enough to shatter his every illusion he’s ever had about his own power, every ounce of his faith in
“the world’s good order, in humanity’s and his own soul, and in God.”
Yet he survives, both physically and spiritually, and emerges from captivity neither cynical nor bitter, but with a redoubled commitment to the ideals he has always believed in.
“I don’t say we should oppose this or that. We may be mistaken,”
He tells his wife after the war, upon returning from St. Petersburg, where Pierre has been trying to unite conservatives and liberals, who are at each other’s throats over the future direction of the country.
“What I say is: let’s join hands with those who love the good, and let there be one banner — active virtue.”