How Leo Tolstoy helped inspire the formation of Peace Brigades International

Published by Brent Patterson on

More than 70 years after his death in Russia, Leo Tolstoy’s words reached out to a group of eleven people gathered in Canada developing the audacious idea of forming an organization “with the capability to mobilize and provide trained units of volunteers [who] may be assigned to areas of high tension to avert violent outbreaks.”

Daniel N. Clark writes about the founding of Peace Brigades International at the Canadian Friends Service Committee’s Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island (on unceded Algonquin territory south of Ottawa) in September 1981:

“At the end of the morning [on Tuesday September 1], I was asked to give the reading at the next session to begin just after lunch and was at a loss as to what read. Gandhi and King had already been given and are hard to equal.”

“A few minutes before the session was to begin, I went into the library and, not having found anything relevant, I finally just closed my eyes, put my hand out to a bookcase, and opened a book. What appeared was an amazingly appropriate passage by Tolstoy.”

“Just as at that point we were all feeling inadequate for such a demanding task, Tolstoy was admonishing his readers that while many would say that we had no business launching a major enterprise for peace and justice given our poverty of resources and the formidable nature of the challenge, we had no choice but to do so, and that destiny demanded it.”

As many readers will know, Tolstoy is the Russian novelist perhaps best known for writing War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877).

Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest, a former visiting professor at the London School of Economics, and past columnist with The Guardian, has commented, “[Tolstoy] believed non-violence the absolute core of the Gospel [of Matthew], directly influencing Gandhi (with whom he corresponded) and Martin Luther King.”

Giles adds, “And because Tolstoy believed the state to be an intrinsically violent institution, he concluded that the Gospel implies anarchism. Thus it becomes our duty at all times to undermine the moral standing of the state.”

It has also been noted that, “[Tolstoy] inspired Quakers in America, thousands of self-styled vegetarian ‘Tolstoyans’ all over the globe, and one especially important pacifist: Mahatma Gandhi, who corresponded with the author and even organized Tolstoy Farm, a cooperative colony near Johannesburg, South Africa.”

And A.N. Wilson, who wrote a comprehensive biography of Tolstoy, has commented, “The recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan do not suggest that war has ever been a solution to human problems. Tolstoy’s rejection not merely of war and violence, but of the very concept of government, still has a great deal of potential to change our world.”

Painting by Ilya Repin: Tolstoy and his wife Sofia in Yasnaya Polyana (their home located about 200 kilometres south of Moscow) in 1907. Below is the peace centre where Daniel N. Clark read the words of Tolstoy at PBI’s founding meeting in 1981.

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