Queer Tolstoy and anti-authoritarian struggle today

A guest post by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO, author of Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, just published by Routledge Mental Health

By the end of his long life, in 1910, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy had become the greatest public critic of the Russian Tsarist empire. By destabilising the Romanov autocracy through his writings, which amounted to more than eighty volumes, Lev Nikolaevich became Tsar Nicholas II’s most significant rival.

As a result, the Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, a status he retains to this day. Alexei Suvorin, the editor of New Times [the late 19th century Russian journal]afterwards observed that Russia effectively had two Tsars: namely, Nicholas II and Tolstoy.[1]

Indeed, the Imperial state had raided Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s family estate, in 1862; surveilled him for the last twenty-five years of his life; censored, banned, and burned his writings; and come close to executing him in 1891, after the translation of an explicitly anarchist essay of his came out in England. It was only thanks to the intervention of his cousin Alexandrine Tolstaya that Lev Nikolaevich survived this last episode.[2]

It is therefore highly disconcerting to see photographs on social media that show Tolstoy’s face plastered—alongside those of fellow artists Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, who were Russian and Ukrainian, respectively—on a high fence surrounding the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theatre in occupied southeastern Ukraine.

The Drama Theatre is the site of a horrific massacre perpetrated by Russian forces in March 2022. An estimated 300 Ukrainian civilians died there while seeking shelter from the ruthless invasion. In parallel, the new documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, provides grisly and heartbreaking evidence of the widespread war crimes, and crimes against humanity, committed by the Russian military as it stormed the city.

In this light, the decision by Vladimir Putin’s regime to cover up one of the worst of these atrocities using Tolstoy and Gogol’s faces amounts to little more than cynical trolling. Such “bourgeois coldness” is consistent with the far-right’s attempt to rationalise ultra-violent barbarism across the globe. Given Tolstoy’s artistic critiques of violence and militarism, the scene is simply absurd.

Yet, confronted with Russia’s genocidal attack, Ukrainians are now engaged in a debate about how, or even whether, to engage with Russian artists and intellectuals. Last year, a Ukrainian Education Ministry working group recommended excluding several Russian and Soviet writers, including Tolstoy, from school curricula – but Ukraine’s proposed bans on literature published in Russia and Belarus appear to provide exceptions for Pushkin and Tolstoy’s works. Last month, citizens of Kyiv voted to rename Tolstoy Square the Square of Ukrainian Heroes, and Tolstoy Street in Lviv was renamed after the Archbishop Liubomyr Huzar in mid-2022.

Even so, in light of his Christian anarchism and anti-imperialist, anti-militarist views, I believe that Tolstoy may be considered a partial exception to the chauvinistic attitudes promoted by many Great-Russian artists. His writings on the Caucasus—including “The Raid” (1853), The Cossacks (1863), and the posthumously released Hadji Murat (1912)—are humanistic and critical of Russian expansionism in the region. The “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), which brought the writer great fame in his youth for his critical coverage of the Crimean War (1853–1856), centre the dehumanisation and trauma inherent to combat.

As delineated in War and Peace (1869)and beyond, Tolstoy’s anti-Tsarist, anti-Bonapartist views would translate today to a strong repudiation of Putin’s Russian fascism, otherwise known as Ruscism. The writer’s egalitarian, anarcho-Populist critique of the role of “great men” in history has important strategic implications not only for Ukraine’s self-defense against Russia, but also for many other kinds of collective action and radical organising.

My book Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography (2023), just published, presents a new interpretation of Tolstoy’s life and art. It highlights Tolstoy’s underappreciated queerness, and the connections between LGBTQ+ struggle and radical politics. (NoteQueer Tolstoy is available for 20% off, using the code AFL01 at checkout on the Routledge website until June 30, 2023.)

The book is perhaps the first to frame Tolstoy’s biography and work through a queer, psychoanalytical, and historico-political lens. It uniquely blends literary theory, LGBTQ+ studies, sexology, ethics, and theology to link the artist’s erotic dissidence with his anarchist politics and anti-militarist ideal.

Given the multidimensional crisis we currently confront, just how do I think that reflecting on Tolstoy’s art, thought, and life might help us today? In this article, I will focus on three ways: Tolstoyan anti-war realism against pseudo-anti-imperialism; non-cooperation with capitalism and climate destruction; and queer anarchism and sexual revolution.

Tolstoyan anti-war realism against pseudo-anti-imperialism

Prominently in the “Sevastopol Sketches”, his early anti-war correspondence, Tolstoy employs narrative realism to defamiliarise, estrange, and challenge the suffering and exploitation demanded by militarism and statecraft. These “Sketches” represent a youthful expression of Tolstoy’s budding Christian anarchism. After all, they were the product of an anti-clerical, anti-militarist epiphany experienced by the then-artillery officer during the siege of Sevastopol in 1855.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the protagonists of War and Peace, and one of Tolstoy’s alters ego,will undergo a similar trance as he lies injured at the battle of Austerlitz (1805). While contemplating the sky, Bolkonsky spontaneously intuits his own queerness and “flies into another world, freed of nationalism and material wealth.”[3]

Tolstoy typically uses a tragic-humanist lens to depict warfare. Despite arguably expressing Russian patriotism at certain points of War and Peace, Lev Nikolaevich as a rule presents violence in a critical light throughout his oeuvre—from “The Raid” to Hadji Murat. Late in life, indeed, he became a pacifist and advocate of non-resistance. These doctrines resonated in turn with Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. In this sense, Tolstoy’s realistic attitude toward violence and the State informed his humanistic, anti-militarist, and anti-authoritarian principles.

Such principles are of pressing concern in our own world and time, especially in light of ongoing Russian atrocities in Ukraine and Syria. Against the nationalist and conspiracist hacks at Fox News, the GrayZone, and Code Pink—who typify the toxic phenomenon of pseudo-anti-imperialism in their dichotomous support for Putin and Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and their profound opposition to Western support for Ukraine on the other—a realistic, evidence-based approach to State violence must inform left-wing internationalism.

Tolstoy’s own dual rejection of Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, as elaborated in War and Peace, recalls Mercutio’s piercing death-cry in Romeo and Juliet (1597): “A plague o’ both their houses!” This critical spirit can inspire us to resist authoritarianism and neo-fascism in cosmopolitan fashion, whether emanating from Putin, Assad, Xi Jinping, or Donald Trump, while supporting the transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine. We must do this to avoid repetition of the tragic fate of the besieged Spanish Republic, which succumbed to Francisco Franco’s fascist insurgency after being cut off by Western democracies during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

Non-cooperation with capitalism and climate destruction

Tolstoy’s concept of non-cooperation with evil, outlined most clearly in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), is primarily based on his interpretation of Jesus the Nazarene as Liberator of humanity, but it is also influenced by his engagement with Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and his reading of German Idealists. After all, Buddha recognized that liberation from the cycle of suffering, or samsara, begins from within, by means of mindfulness and consciousness. Likewise, Immanuel Kant declared: “God is not a substance existing outside me, but merely a moral relation within me.”[4] Moved by Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, together with Buddhist and Enlightenment principles, Tolstoy championed the autonomous, rationalist critique of oppression, absurdity, and despotism.

In fact, when self-governing and anti-Tsarist peasants seized lands en masse and declared the Gurian Republic in western Georgia from 1902–1906, Tolstoy welcomed this promising development. He declared that “[w]hat should be done is exactly what the Gurians are doing, viz., to organize life in such a manner that there should be no need for authority.”[5] He furthermore supported sectarian communities in their struggles against the Imperial State, and even donated the profits from Resurrection (1899) to finance the relocation of the persecuted Dukhobor, or “Spirit-Wrestler,” community from Russia to Canada. Tolstoy, his wife Sofia Andreevna, and their daughters Tanya and Masha established over 200 plant-based field kitchens to alleviate the famine conditions faced by peasants between 1891 and 1892.

In line with anarcho-syndicalism and anti-oppression theory, Tolstoy in War and Peace celebrates mass-popular resistance to Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, from the battlefields to behind enemy lines, as he fantasizes about homoerotic bonding and the leveling of Tsarist hierarchies.

Tolstoyan theory, which combines anarchism with the Russian radical tradition of Populism (narodnichestvo), proposes direct collective action to remedy existing social ills. Just as it helped to animate the Russian revolution over a century ago, Tolstoyism also has important implications for today’s struggles for unionisation and climate justice.

We know that bosses and politicians will not deliver either fair working conditions or a healthy biosphere, given their enthrallment to the capitalist treadmill of production. Instead, they normalise the exploitation of labour and endless growth, thus perpetuating the destruction of the global ecosystem and threatening collective suicide—even as humanity could create a post-capitalist cooperative commonwealth based on wind, water, and solar power.

Queer anarchism and sexual revolution

Finally, as Queer Tolstoy emphasizes, the artist’s anarchism is not only syndicalist, Populist, and agrarian, but also queer. In several of Tolstoy’s works, the author links the arousal of LGBTQ+ desire—criminalized in Imperial Russia—with socio-political awakening and collective liberation. This can be seen in the experiences of Andrei Bolkonsky, Marya Bolkonskaya, Pierre Bezukhov, and Sonya Rostova in War and Peace; Olenin’s adventures in The Cossacks;the basic plot of “Master and Man” (1895); and the conclusions of Resurrection and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886).

Despite the man’s proclamation late in life of highly sex-negative, ascetic, and Puritanical views, a Dionysian appreciation for the erotic dimensions of anti-authoritarian struggle and social revolution permeates Tolstoy’s art. His vision thus anticipates bell hooks’s concept of the “anarchism of love,” whereby mutual attraction and attachment undermine social domination, while sharing a great deal with classical Greek conceptions that associate the nurturing of same-sex bonds with resistance to tyranny.

That being said, Tolstoy does not essentialise LGBTQ+ desire as necessarily liberatory. In War and Peace, he zeroes in critically on how sublimated gay bonding within the Russian military can serve to re-entrench the power of Tsarism, and he does not overlook same-sex pedophilic abuse in Resurrection. Such warnings about the intersections of sexuality and authoritarianism are consistent with an anarchist concern for the reproduction of sadomasochism and domination, even among queers and other minorities.

This analysis of so-called “bad gays” could be extended to the phenomenon of male bonding among Nazis, neo-fascists, and the Taliban; resurgent toxic masculinity and rank anti-feminism, as crystallized in the mass-identification of many young men with an accused sex-trafficker like Andrew Tate; and even study of the close historical relationship between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

While Tolstoy’s LGBTQ+ characters do not usually experience happy endings—thus foreshadowing the author’s own sad fate when he abandoned Yasnaya Polyana in 1910—queer anarchism features as an important recurrent theme in much Tolstoyan art. In reality, this approach’s twin focus on sexual dissidence and social revolution illuminates the allegorical struggle of the life-forces of Eros against the death-drive, known in Freudian theory as Thanatos.


In closing, as though via a trans-historical dialogue, I hope that this article has illustrated some critical ways that Lev Tolstoy’s ideas and example might help promote positive socio-political change today. The artist’s anti-war realism, strategic avowal of non-cooperation, and queer-anarchist spirit undoubtedly contributed to the coming of the world-historical Russian revolution over a century ago. Hopefully, these same elements can also help animate much-needed anti-authoritarian confrontations with capitalism, militarism, imperialism, neo-fascism, ultra-violence, and heterosexism, as well as radical socio-ecological transformation, in our own troubled times. 13 February 2023


[1]    Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), p. 391

[2]    Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: Later Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 314–17.

[3]    Javier Sethness Castro, Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography. (London: Routledge, 2023), p. 138

[4]    Quoted in: Charles Reitz, The Revolutionary Ecological Legacy of Herbert Marcuse (Wakefield, Québec: Daraja Press, 2022), p. 98

[5]    Eric Lee, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-1921 (London: Zed Books, 2017), p. 29