By Andrei Conovaloff
What did Lev Tolstoy mean in 1898 when he wrote Doukhobors were “people of the 25th century”? And, in 1899 he wrote that in “500 years ... the majority of Christian[s]” will adopt Doukhobor beliefs. Was this a compliment, or a prophesy? Both?
I have seen the quote about Doukhobors being “people of the 25th century” by Lev Tolstoy several times in the past. Though it appears odd, I never bothered to question its source until this week.
The “25th century” phrase got my attention because it appeared 4 times on one page, in the promotion for this week’s USCC conference (May 18-19, 2018): “Spirit Wrestlers 2050: Call for Proposals” (link from: Iskra, issue 2125, April 2018, page 7):
- At the end of the 19th century, author Lev Tolstoy called the Doukhobors “people of the 25th century”.
- Today, more than ever, the world needs this 25th century thinking and action.
- What are your ideas for action today that exemplify 25th century thinking?
- … proposals are expected to be in alignment of the ideals and values that prompted Lev Tolstoy to call the Doukhobors “people of the 25th century”.
A Google search finds more than a dozen requotes, but only one book cites the source — Andrew Donskov, Leo Tolstoy And the Canadian Doukhobors: An Historic Relationship, CRCRR, Jan 1, 2005, pages 30 and 168.
1898 December 5, letter from Lev N. Tolstoy to 2 of his daughters (Tat'yana and Mariya), Polnoe sobranie sochinenie (Complete collected works) volume 71, page 497.I am glad that in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the death of Tolstoy in 2010, thousands volunteered from 49 countries to digitize most of Tolstoy’s work now online, with annotations, and page number anchor tags. 90 volumes of his complete works can be searched in Russian, and linked to by page number.
Here is a translated excerpt from that 1898 December 5 letter in context.
|* 331. Т. Л. Толстой и М. Л. Оболенской.|
1898 г. Декабря 5. Москва.
|* 331. T. L. Tolstoy and M. L. Obolenskaya.|
1898 December 5. Moscow.
|Милые Таня и Маша.||Dear Tanya and Masha.|
|... Нынче приехал Чернов (духобор). Вы, верно, мало говорили с ним. Я его очень люблю: такой же твердый, ясный, кроткий, как и все они, эти люди 25 столетия.||… Today Chernov (a Doukhobor) came. You, of course, did not talk to him much. I love him very much. He is as solid, clear, and meek as all of them, these people of the 25th century.|
|В сравнении с ними особенно тяжелы те люди 15 столетия, среди которых живешь.||In comparison with them, the people of the 15th century, among whom you live, are especially difficult.|
|Ужасно был дорогой спутник 11-го столетия. (7: Толстой, вероятно, имеет в виду какого-нибудь спутника по пути из Ясной Поляны в Москву.)||My 11th-century travel companion was an awful person. (Note 7: Tolstoy probably had in mind some traveler en route from Yasnaya Polyana to Moscow.)|
|Миша ни то, ни се, всё в пьянстве эгоизма, но дурного пока ничего нет. ...|
|Misha is neither here nor there, all in a drunken egoism, but there is nothing bad yet.|
L. T. (Lev Tolstoy)
To paraphrase Uncle Lev in my words, he is saying that Doukhobors in December 1898 are “people of the future,” different from the backward (medieval) people of Russia, and especially ancient is Misha the drunk.
It appears to me that Tolstoy was having fun with words, antics with semantics, and “25th century” is used as a hyperbole, an exaggeration, along with the other numbered centuries.
- 25th century = progressive, advanced — Doukhobors
- 15th century = backward, medieval — Typical Russian peasants
- 11th century = very undeveloped — Drunks
From Hyperbole to Metaphor to Slogan to Prophesy
BUT, for Canadian Doukhobors who commented on drafts of this article, Tolstoy's original hyperbole “people of the 25th century” has been expanded and transformed into a Doukhobor metaphor for people “ahead of their time,” embracing all the compliments and praise Tolstoy wrote and said about their ancestors and more. The phrase is now repeated like a slogan which combines and includes all their nonkilling legacies, and some interpret it as a prophesy to be fulfilled.
- 1895 — Doukhobors burning their guns as a manifestation against militarism and wars, and obeying the 6th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’ — a brave historic action expressed by no other group.
- 1897 — Tolstoy suggested giving Nobel Peace Prize money to "suffering and deserving" Doukhobors.
- 1899 — Tolstoy wrote: "The Doukhobors’ faith approaches most closely the moral stature of people seeking God. Around 500 years from now the beliefs which made it necessary for the Doukhobors to resettle in [Canada, North] America will prevail among the majority of Christian peoples.” (Translation by Jack MacIntosh)
- 1909 — In contrast: "Doukhobors ... are actually some seven hundred years behind the times. Their customs, their mode of thought, their whole spirit is that of the thirteenth century rather than the twentieth." (Woodsworth, James Shaver. Strangers Within our Gates : or, Coming Canadians, Toronto : F.C. Stephenson , 1909, page 116.)
- 2005 — Tolstoy "... indeed saw the Doukhobors as "people of the 25th century" — far ahead of their time." (Donskov 2005, page 168)
- 2007 — "... the Doukhobor people were the people of the 25th century. That means it will be a long time before the rest of civilization catches up. When the first airplanes were invented many people thought they were evil ... against the spirit of God — he would have given us wings if he wanted us to fly ... You never hear them say if God had wanted us to be peaceful he would have made us that way ..." (Stenson 2007, page 150)
- Much more .... Tolstoy and Doukhobors: A list of many online references.
The task of defining and expanding “25th century thinking and action” around the world will be discussed this week at “Spirit Wrestlers 2050.” And, participants will submit “ideas for the future.”
Lucky, Tolstoy literally gave Doukhobors 4 more centuries to become “people of the 25th century.”
I hope the USCC will post videos of the 2 meetings.
Enter your comment below.