Among the films screened at the first edition of the BRICS film festival, which recently concluded in Delhi, was Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi: A Double Portrait in the Interior of the Age, product of a year-long research by directors Anna Evtushenko and Galina Evtushenko on the correspondence between one of Russia’s greatest literary giants and India’s Mahatma. This was the third in the series of Tolstoy films that these Russian directors from Rose Film Studio have made, besides Leo Tolstoy and Ilya Gintsburg and Leo Toslstoy and Dziga Vertov.
“Taking up the task to document the lives of two great historical figures was a great responsibility for us. As for materials on Tolstoy, his estate Yasnaya Polyana is a storehouse of information, also the state literary museum of Leo Tolstoy had provided us with original texts or letters which Tolstoy and Gandhi exchanged. For materials on Gandhi, we are indebted to the Indian embassy in Russian Federation. They also provided us with relevant pictures. Gosfilmofond [Cinematheque of the Russian Federation] helped us with their unique materials which helped us to develop the Satyagraha footage, as you saw in the documentary, and the footage of early 20th century Varanasi which happens to be the opening shot of the film,” Anna Evtushenko tells Guardian 20.
The film opens with Tolstoy’s years in Yasnaya Polyana, surrounded by beautiful apple orchards from which the Russian writer-philosopher drew immense inspiration. It is narrated in the documentary how, as his home tutor would impart lessons on geography, young Tolstoy’s mind would mostly wander off to faraway places like the Ganges ghats in Varanasi. The next shot in the film is the temples and ghats of Benaras.
“For the world community, Tolstoy is a literary genius. Everyone forgets that he is a philosopher, a thinker and what the Russian propaganda after the revolution was trying to do was conceal the philosophical inheritance as it did not suit the Soviet agenda,” adds Galina.
The film is a fascinating vista to this philosophical bent of mind that Tolstoy had and which quite fascinatingly brought two men, a young Indian lawyer and an aged Russian writer, so far apart in geography, culture and age, together on common intellectual ground.
Tolstoy’s fight against the military excesses of the Tsarist regime, in which Pyotr Stolypin served as a prime minister was something that inspired Gandhi too. The film showcases how post the Russian revolution, from 1906-1911, mass executions during Stolypin’s reign were paving the way for Bolshevik terror—something that miles apart was inspiring a promising young lawyer named MK Gandhi shape his passive resistance experiments in 1908 in a racist-hostile land in South Africa.
Tolstoy wrote A Letter To A Hindu. A Letter To A Hindu was a reply to C.R. Das, a revolutionary representative of Indians in Europe, who had challenged Tolstoy’s philosophy of non-resistance. Gandhi read A Letter To A Hindu and was so intrigued by it that he sought Tolstoy’s permission to publish the letter in South Africa. Tolstoy wholeheartedly approved the project.
In fact, Gandhi went on to set up a monastic ashram near Johannesburg, named Tolstoy Farm, to experiment with putting the latter’s beliefs into practice. He also coined the word Satyagraha at around this time. In fact, in one of his letters to Tolstoy, he explains to Tolstoy how this ashram was “a centre of spiritual purification and penance for the final campaign for communal living and economic self-sufficiency cutting across communities, religious backgrounds, classes, so forth.”
It is this accidental meeting through the printed word that was to change Gandhi’s life. He enthusiastically became a disciple of Leo Tolstoy and inherited the “search for Truth”, an idea that had preoccupied Tolstoy for much of his life. Gandhi was particularly interested in Tolstoy’s writings on non-resistance and principles of “bread labour” and universal brotherhood.
“For the world community, Tolstoy is a literary genius. Everyone forgets that he is a philosopher, a thinker and what the Russian propaganda after the revolution was trying to do was conceal the philosophical inheritance as it did not suit the Soviet agenda.”
For Gandhi, as we all by now know, principles of non-resistance got crystallized into Ahimsa , an idea that attained a political colour, as it was being used to drive away the British from the Indian colony, a fight for justice and truth.
Tolstoy, who popularised the concept of “bread labour’, which advocated that only when the wealthy renounce their riches and cease to exploit the poor would economic equality be established, was being used to passionately and sympathetically defend the peasants, who has lost all voice in Russian society under the autocratic Tsar regime. The film, particularly highlights, how different this fight for the working class was for Tolstoy as against the radicals or the communists—while Tolstoy strongly advocated improving the conditions of the working men and consequent emancipation by refusing to take part in the army, as the army was directed against the working people, and also by abstaining from working on the proprietor’s lands and from renting them, under Lenin, Russian radicals advocated the abolition of private property, with the State taking over proprietorship. This concept of “bread labour” was interpreted as one of “non-possession” by Gandhi, the ideals of which he continued to practice in his Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, asceticism that became a dynamic political force in freedom struggle.
What was amiss in the film was Tolstoy’s non-conformist attitude towards the church. On being questioned whether Gandhi, who has often been perceived in India as a conservative Hindu, shared Tolstoy’s views on religion, this is what the directors had to tell Guardian 20: “Yes, Tolstoy had a complicated relationship with the Russian orthodox church. He understood Christianity not as a religion of miracles but as a religion of moral good. And, this is what influenced Gandhi. We explored Tolstoy’s relationship with the church in the other two films in the series, not in this one.”
While showcasing how Gandhi thoroughly opposed the Russian revolution because of its basis on bloodshed; the film ends on a note of how the Mahatma tried to advocate Tolstoy’s idea of personal moral transformation and commitment to truth and justice throughout the revolution post-partition in India; where the creation of a separate country on religious lines was something that Gandhi called a “disaster” and how after 1947, he kept fighting for the fundamental unity of all religions and human brotherhood; albeit cut short after his assassination in 1948.
“One year of correspondence between these two personalities influenced the whole world, and even today the teachings live in the hearts of the people. Mahatma Gandhi believed that he was a tree and the teachings of Leo Tolstoy were the fruits for the world to consume. Russia and India don’t have the common land or sea border. But ways of life of both these spiritual teachers can bring these nations together,” said Anna Evtushenko.