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A Mass for a Heretic? The Controversy over Lev Tolstoi's Burial


When Lev Tolstoi emerged as a religious teacher in the 1880s, taking a sharply polemical stance against the Orthodox faith, the leadership of the Russian church groped for ways and means to stem the spread of the pernicious new heresy among the Russian public. The most ambitious but also the most disastrous attempt was made in 1901 when the synod promulgated an official pronouncement (poslanie) against him. This document, which created a worldwide scandal, was undertaken by the church itself and not, as has been widely assumed, at the instigation of the state authorities. In its poslanie the synod declared that Tolstoi could not receive an Orthodox burial unless he repented. This strategy badly backfired, since Tolstoi under no circumstances wanted such a burial and therefore made no move toward repentance. At the same time many Russians, including fervent believers, felt that the church itself with its requiem ban had sinned against the Christian injunction of all-embracing love. When Tolstoi died in 1910 and the burial issue became acute, the synod strenuously, but unsuccessfully, searched for a way out of its predicament.

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1. Amicus , “Otkrytiia pis'ma k drugu intelligentu uvlekaiushchemusia ucheniem L. N. Tolstogo,” Missionerskoe obozrenie, 1899, no. 2:209 ; “Po povodu poslaniia Sviateishago Sinoda o grafe L've Tolstom,” Tserkovnye vedomosti, 1901, no. 16:pribavlenie, 576; Father Ioann Solov'ev, “Poslanie Sviateishago Sinoda o grafe L've Tolstom (Opyt raskrytiia ego smysla i znacheniia),” Vera i tserkov', 1901, no. 4:557.

2. This literature stretched from high-pitched aggressive pamphlets to detailed, erudite theological dissertations. See Kolstø Pål, Sannhet i løgn: Lev Tolstoj og den ortodokse tro (Truth in falsehood: Lev Tolstoi and the Orthodox faith), Acta Humaniora, no. 14 (Oslo, 1997), 321432.

3. “Opredelenie Sv. Sinoda ot 20-22 fevralia 1901 goda, s poslaniem vernym chadam Pravoslavnyia Grekorossiiskiia Tserkvi o grafe L've Nikolaeviche Tolstom,” Tserkovnye vedomosti, 1901, no. 8:46-48 (emphasis mine).

4. Pominovenie is a short liturgy of intercession for one or more deceased that is read as part of a regular service, while a panikhida is a separate service. Strictly speaking, a panikhida is not a requiem since no Eucharist or other sacraments are celebrated. Although the term requiem admittedly has a Catholic ring, I will nevertheless use this word since all possible substitutes, such as “prayer for the departed” or “commemorative service“ are either long and cumbersome or have a Protestant ring that would be even more misleading. Even though otpevanie, panikhida, and pominovenie are three distinct services, they were often confused with each other in the requiem debate that followed Tolstoi's death. It is also quite clear that if one of them were to be permitted there would no longer be any reason to deny the performance of the other two. The Orthodox Church does not have any detailed teaching on purgatory but nevertheless prays for the dead. Panikhida is usually read on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after bereavement, and then every year on the day the soul departed. In addition, one may always come to church at any time and place and ask for a panikhida to be performed. Whether or not the supplicant is related to the deceased is immaterial.

5. It is true that Orthodoxy does not adhere to the Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic dictum of extra ecclesiam salus nulla. Even so, the eastern church also maintains that “membership in the church is the most important precondition for salvation.” See, for example, Father Konstantin Aggeev, Po povodu tolkov v sovremennom obrazovannom obshchestve, vozbuzhdennykhposlaniem Sv. Sinoda o grafe L. Tolstom (Kiev, 1901), 16. The Orthodox Church, moreover, rejects the Augustinian distinction between the visible and the invisible church, insisting that there is only one true church, itself.

6. On 11 February Metropolitan Antonii had written to Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the procurator to the Holy Synod, that the poslanie ought to be published “on 17 February, the day before the Feast of Orthodoxy.” Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi istoricheskii arkhiv (RGIA), f. 1574, op. 2, d. 133, 1. 2. On this feast day, which was instituted to celebrate the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm in the ninth century, the Orthodox Church condemned a long list of heretics of different hues. In the eighteenth century rebels like Emel'ian Pugachev were also added to the list. The week's delay, from 17 to 24 February, in promulgating the poslanie against Tolstoi may have been due to the synod members having second thoughts, to opposition from various corners, or to simple bureaucratic inertia. For a fuller discussion of this, see Kolstø, Sannhet i løgn, 262–319.

7. Wilson A. N., Tolstoy (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1989), 517.

8. Nikol'skii N. M., Istoriia russkoi tserkvi, 3d ed. (Moscow, 1983), 319435.

9. A Bolshevik expert on sects and sectarians, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, would, a decade later, claim that there was a considerable revolutionary potential among the sectarians. See, for example, his “Voina i sektanty,” Sovremennyi mir (December 1914): 102–15. His optimism, however, seems in large degree to be based on wishful thinking.

10. Palimpsestov Ivan, “Neskol'ko slov po povodu ‘Ispovedi’ grafa L. N. Tolstago,“ Strannik, 1886, no. 4:803 . Stundism was a new Protestant creed introduced into Russia by German pietists in the eighteenth century. Originally Stundism was limited to the German settlements, but in the mid-nineteenth century Russian peasants were organizing Stundism among their own people. The word Stundism derives from the German word die Stunde (hour), in this context an hour devoted to prayer and Bible study. See Blane Andrew, “Protestant Sects in Late Imperial Russia,” in Blane Andrew, ed., The Religious World of Russian Culture (The Hague, 1975), 2:267304, esp. 270–71.

11. Bogoslovskii Sergei, “Neskol'ko slov po povodu lzheucheniia gr. Tolstogo,” Moskovskie tserkovnye vedomosti, 1887, no. 3:4849.

12. “Tolstovstvo kak sekta,” Missionerskoe obozrenie, 1897, no. 9–10:831.

13. Ibid.

14. Petrov G. I., Otluchenie I.'va Tohtogo ot tserkvi (Moscow, 1978), 23.

15. Tikhomirov Lev, “Novye plody ucheniia grafa L. Tolstogo,” Missionerskoe obozrenie, 1897, no. 1:51.

16. Sreznevskii V. I., “L. N. Tolstoi v Peterburge v fevrale 1897 (po dannym Peterburgskogo Okhrannogo Otdeleniia),” in Sreznevskii V. I., ed., Tolstoi: Pamiatniki tvorchestva izhizni (Petrograd, 1923), 4:191.

17. RGIA, f. 796, op. 442, d. 1811.

18. Meilakh Boris, Ukhodismert'L'va Tolstogo, 2d ed. (Moscow, 1979,), 144 ; Pozoiskii Semen, Lev Tolstoi i tserkov’ (Tula, 1963), 2425 ; Petrov, Otluchenie, 34. The prevalent view among the Russian public at the time was that the poslanie was an act of vengeance from the procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, for the way he had been smeared in Resurrection (in the easily recognizable figure of Toporov). Most western commentators have accepted this popular explanation. See, for example, Henri Troyat, Tolstoy (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1980), 775; Wilson, Tolstoy, 458.

19. Lidiia Opul'skaia, “Predislovie,” in Petrov, Otluchmie, 6.

20. Petrov, Otluchmie, 33.

21. Skvortsov Vasilii, “So skrizhalei serdtsa”, Missionerskoe obozrenie, 1902, no. 3:243.

22. RGIA, f. 1574, op. 2, d. 133,1. 1.

23. Vasilii Skvortsov, as quoted in Petrov, Otluchenie, 32. If Metropolitan Antonii was perhaps as weak-willed as most sources claim, some of his senior officials were not. In particular, Privy Councillor Vasilii Mikhailovich Skvortsov (1859–1932) seems to have played a pivotal role. He was the organizer of the Missionary Congress of 1897 that had first defined Tolstoianism as a sect; he was Antonii's source for what Grigorii Petrov had said at the fateful meeting of the Petersburg Religious-Philosophical Society and was also commissioned by Pobedonostsev to write a confidential report outlining the main elements of Tolstoi's teaching. Petrov, Otluchenie, 32. After the event, Skvortsov wrote a number of articles justifying the synod's action and also edited a 600-page volume of documents and articles on the otluchenie, which ran through three editions. Skvortsov, ed., Po povodu otpadeniia ot pravoslavnoi tserkvi grafa L'va Nikolaevicha Tolstogo: Sbornik statei “Missionerskago obozrmiia,” 3d enl. ed. (St. Petersburg, 1905.) For more details on Skvortsov's biography, see Maevskii Vladislav I., Vnutrenniaia missiia i ee osnovopolozhnik (Buenos Aires, 1954).

24. RGIA, f. 796, op. 182, d. 2433.

25. Sinod mslit ToLstogo anafemoi: Popovodu otlucheniia (Garouge-Genève, 1900).

26. Weisbein Nicolas, I'Evolution religieuse de Tolstoi (Paris, 1960), 371.

27. RGIA, f. 1574, op. 2, d. 133,1. 2.

28. RGIA, f. 796, op. 182, d. 2433,1. 4.

29. Sofia Andreevna Tolstaia, “Pis'mo k mitropolitu Antoniiu,” reprinted in Skvortsov, ed., Popovodu otpadeniia, 67-69.

30. Publichnaia biblioteka imeni Saltykova-Shchedrina (PBSS), otdel rukopisei, St. Petersburg, Dukhovnaia akademiia, A I no. 289, letters to Metropolitan Antonii (Vadkovskii), letter no. 39.

31. Antonii (Vadkovskii), “Otvet na pis'mo grafini S. A. Tolstoi,” reprinted in Skvortsov, ed., Popovodu otpadeniia, 69–71.

32. Ibid., 69.

33. Pis'ma K. P. Pobedonostseva k redaktoru ‘Tserkovnykh vedomostei’ P. Smirnomu ob otluchenii Tolstogo ot tserkvi,” in Gusev N. N., ed., L. N. Tolstoi (Moscow, 1938), 209.

34. F. N., “Po prochtenii pis'ma grafini S. A. Tolstoi,” in Skvortsov, ed., Po povodu olpadeniia, 81.

35. Pravoslavnyi, “Otkrytoe pis'mo k grafini S. A.,” in Skvortsov, ed., Po povodu olpadeniia, 72–79.

36. PBSS, A I no. 289, letter no. 18.

37. Tolstoi Lev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 90 tomakh (iubileinoe izdanie) (Moscow, 1930–72), 53:1415.

38. Ibid., 34:248.

39. “O vneshnykh obriadakh Pravoslaviia (Po povodu lzheucheniia grafa Tolstogo),“ Kormchii, 1902, no. 4:55–57.

40. “Zasedanie Sinoda po povodu bolezni L. N. Tolstogo,” Russkoe slovo, 5 November 1910; Poslednie dni L'va Nikolaevicha Tolstogo (St. Petersburg, 1910), 95–96.

41. “Sredi gazet i zhurnalov,” Novoe vremia, 11 November 1910; “Tolstoi v Optinoi Pustyni i Shamardine,” Tserkovnye vedomosti, 1910, no. 46: (appendix), 2013–14. These ru mors were in fact later confirmed by Dushan Makovitskii, Tolstoi's doctor, who accompanied him on his last journey. See Dushan Makovitskii, U Tolstogo 1904–1910: lasnopolianskie zapiski I—FV, Literaturnoe nashdstvo, no. 90 (Moscow, 1979), 4:407–8.

42. “Iz materialov o L. N. Tolstom,” Krasnyi arkhiv, 1923, no. 4:338–64; Aleksandra L'vovna Tolstaia, “Ob ukhode i smerti L. N. Tolstogo,” in Sreznevskii, ed., Tolstoi: Patnialniki, 181–82.

43. “Ep. Parfenii o poezdke k L. N. Tolstomu,” Novoe vremia, 10 November 1910.

44. Smert’ Tolstogopo novym materialam (Moscow, 1929), 70.

45. “Zasedanie Sinoda po povodu bolezni L. N. Tolstogo,” Russkoe slovo, 5 November 1910 (emphasis in the original).

46. Lev Aleksandrovich Tikhomirov, “Iz dnevnika L. Tikhomirova,” Krasnyi arkhiv, 1936, no. 74:180.

47. Bishop Antonii later became metropolitan of Kiev, and finally, after the 1917 revolution, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in exile.

48. Antonii (Khrapovitskii), “V chem prodolzhalo otrazhat'sia vliianie pravoslaviia na posledniia proizvedeniia gr. L. N. Tolstogo?” lecture given on 22 November 1910. Quoted in Zhizneopisanie i tvoreniia blazhenneishago Antoniia, Mitropolita Kievskago i Galitskago v 17 tomakh (New York, 1978), 14:268. In all likelihood, Antonii himself was one of the priests in this group. See Kuznetsov Nikolai Dmitrievich, “Vopros o molitve za gr. L. N. Tolstogo,“ Otdykh khristianina, 1913, no. 5:891.

49. Kuznetsov, “Vopros o molitve,” 891.

50. Ibid., 892–93.

51. Poslednie dni L'va Nikolaevicha Tolstogo, 98.

52. Ibid., iv.

53. Antonii (Khrapovitskii), “V chem prodolzhalo,” 269.

54. Smert’ Tolstogo, 280.

55. Meilakh, Ukhod, 316.

56. “Iz materialov,” 353.

57. Tal'berg Nikolai Dmitrievich, “Smert'gr. L. N. Tolstogo po ofitsial'nym doneseniiam,“ Pravoslavnaia Rus’ 1956, no. 10:57.

58. Petrov, Otluchenie, 100.

59. “L. N. Tolstoi (iz nashego korrespondenta),” Novoe uremia, 10 November 1910. Other sources give a much lower estimate of the number of mourners, down to 3,000.

60. Wilson, Tolstoy, 517.

61. Varzhanskii N., “Po povodu ‘otpevaniia’ L. N. Tolstogo,” Missionerskoe obozrenie, 1913, no. 4:672 ; Bronzov Aleksandr, “Drug ili vrag Khristov—Tolstoi?Khristianskoe chte nie, 1912, no. 3:330–49 and no. 4:482; LevKatanskii (pseud.), Tolstovskii vopros (St. Petersburg, n.d.), 3.

62. Tolstaia Sofia Andreevna, Dnevniki, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1978), 2:355.

63. “Zmeia na mogile Tolstogo,” reprinted in Tul'skie eparkhial'nye vedomosli, 1911, no. 47–48:767–69; and in Tomskie eparkhial'nye vedomosli, 1911, no. 22:1196–97.

64. Varzhanskii, “Po povodu ‘otpevaniia,'” 672.

65. Glagolev Sergei, “Otsutstvie religioznago obrazovaniia v sovremennom obshchestve,“ Bogoslovskii vestnik, 1912, no. 10:273–96.

66. Sofia Andreevna Tolstaia, “Pravoslavnaia sluzhba na mogile Tolstogo (Pis'mo v redaktsiiu),” Russkoeslovo, 28 December 1912.

67. Tolstaia , Dnevniki, 2:383.

68. Bulgakov Valentin Fedorovich, “V osiroteloi Iasnoi Poliane,” Golos minuvshago na chuzhoi storone, 1926, no. 3:120.

69. Aleksandr Sawich Pankratov, “Na mogile Tolstogo,” Russkoe slovo, 21 December 1912.

70. Tolstaia, “Pravoslavnaia sluzhba.“

71. Kraniev P., Otpevanie grafa L. N. Tolstogo s evangel'skoi i Tserkovnoi tochki zreniia (Po povodu sovremennoi gazetnoi shumikhi) (Riazan', 1913), 7.

72. Varzhanskii, “Po povodu ‘otpevaniia,'” 672, where the priest's letter is reprinted in full.

73. B., “Po povodu otpevaniia, sovershennago na mogile L. N. Tolstogo,” Tserkmmoobshchestvennyi vestnik, 1913, no. 8:11–13.

74. Anton Vladimirovich Kartashev, “Molitva o Tolstom,” Russkoe shvo, 3 January 1913.

75. Nikol'skii, Istoriia russkoi tserkvi, 188–233, 404–35; Döpmann Hans-Dieter, Die Russische Orthodoxe Kirche in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin, 1981). Only during perestroika were some nuances added to this one-dimensional picture. Thus, for instance, a scholarly volume on Russian church history published in 1989 maintained that at the turn of the last century “the union of the autocratic state and the Orthodox Church was not devoid of inner contradictions.” Russkoepravoslavie: Vekhi istorii (Moscow, 1989), 393.

76. Pipes Richard, Russia under the Old Regime (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1979), 222.

77. Laqueur Walter, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (New York, 1993), 45.

78. Zernov Nicolas, The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century (London, 1963), 40.

79. Curtiss John Shelton, Church and State in Russia: The Last Years of the Empire, 1900–1917 (New York, 1940), 3839 . For a similar assessment, see Szeftel Marc, “Church and State in Imperial Russia,” in Nichols Robert L. and Stavrou Theofanis George, eds., Russian Orthodoxy under the Old Regime (Minneapolis, 1978), 127–41.

80. For a discussion of the church reforms between the two Russian revolutions, see Bogolepov A. A., Church Reforms in Russia 1905–1918 (Bridgeport, Conn., 1966), and John Meyendorff, “Russian Bishops and Church Reform in 1905,” in Nichols and Stavrou, Russian Orthodoxy, 170–82.

81. Romashkov Father D. I., O dukhovnoi smerti i dukhovnom voskre.senii grafa L. N. ‘iolstogo (Moscow, 1902), 5455.

82. The Spiritual Regulation of Peter the Great, trans, and ed. Muller Alexander V. (Seattle, 1972), 6.

83. Kartashev A. V., Ocherkipo istorii russkoi tserkvi (Paris, 1959), 2:353.

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