Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

Leo Tolstoy
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Leo Tolstoy; free education; humanistic pedagogy; three periods of educational activities; motivation based learning; Tolstoy’s notion of freedom.

SYNOPSIS: this article is practically a response of its author to the article of the American researchers published above. Though Dr. Boguslavsky does not only present his opinion and feelings about the American paper but he also elaborates on the topic itself, mostly describing Leo Tolstoy’s activities as the founder of the Yasnaya Polyana school for the village children. 

Leo Tolstoy

This name – Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy – comes proudly to us as children when we are introduced to Tolstoy’s wise parables, riddles, and the story of Philipok. As we grow, we set out to comprehend the writer’s classical masterpieces and in our imagination find ourselves twirling around the dance floor with Natasha Rostova, walking with Count Pierre Bezukhov along the blazing streets of Moscow, and suffering together with Anna Karenina.

However, Leo Tolstoy’s great contribution to the world and Russian culture should not be limited to his literary and philosophic legacy. In fact, throughout sixty years of his adult life, Leo Tolstoy was interested in a wide range of pedagogical problems and issues of family development. His pedagogical works are brilliantly shaped, full of profound and wise revelations, and sometimes ardent with their novelty and originality.

Now, in the early 21st century, the powerful influence of Leo Tolstoy’s personality on Russian culture and education has become increasingly clear and self-evident. His name is associated with the traditions of natural and free education, and the applied ideas of nature-based, non-violent, and humanistic pedagogy. Tolstoy’s Azbuka (ABC Book) is of primary interest to leading experts in elementary school teaching. Individual approach to a child; cognition motivation; students’ creative activity; as well as the grassroots spirit of pedagogy and school – all these principles were put into practice by the great writer and are still crucial in the development of the present-day Russian public education system. The fact that Leo Tolstoy is known in the West as a renowned Russian philosopher of education has a great symbolic meaning for us.

Affirmation of this view comes from this journals’ informative article Leo Tolstoy and the Yasnaya Polyana Pedagogical Institute by Richard D. Scheuerman and Arthur K. Ellis.It offers convincing arguments of how Tolstoy’s ideas and views mesh with the Western child-centered pedagogical paradigm. The article is right to point out that Tolstoy’s educational writings would anticipate the progressive twentieth century student-centered educational theories of Dewey, Nyesiyama, Montessori, and Steiner. The readers will be undoubtedly interested in reading the authors’ description of the creation of the pedagogical institutionin Yasnaya Polyana.

Yet Leo Tolstoy’s educational significance and accomplishments are much more grand and versatile. His pedagogical activity may be divided into three periods: 1) 1859-1862, 2) 1870-1876, and 3) late 1880s till the writer’s death. Tolstoy’s path through life and pedagogy was not smooth but rather contradictory and even dramatic. The writer would abandon many seemingly unshakeable truths. But one of them – individual freedom in the process of educational and personality growth – remained firm and intact, illuminating his entire pedagogical philosophy. It was that very credo of Tolstoy which caused strongest criticism and rejection in various public circles including educators.

At the age of 21 Leo Tolstoy began to teach village children. On his family estate “Yasnaya Polyana”, located in the Tula Region, Tolstoy established a school where he was the teacher. Classes were free of charge. The first school of 1849 was later described by the former students as too liberal. Leo Tolstoy spent a great deal of time with his students. The activities Tolstoy offered to his students between classes were fun, and far from the orthodox ideas of classical education and the paradigm of a teacher as mentor. One student, Ermil Bazykin, recalled, “There was no end to Tolstoy’s escapades! Once in autumn, he dragged children out on a hunting trip. Having set snares along the Voronka river, he made us bark like dogs. It’s impossible to remember all his pranks. Tolstoy was so easy-going with children! We always had a lot of fun when he was around. And he always forbid our teacher to treat us badly.”

The school might have remained something between a simple amusement and a proving ground for Tolstoy’s theories which had already found some shape by that time. But his first pedagogical experiments did not last long. The young count’s military service now took center stage. In November 1855, Leo Tolstoy retired, came to St. Petersburg, established ties with writers, published stories, the novella “The Cossacks” (“Kazaki”) and the autobiographical trilogy “Childhood. Boyhood. Youth” (“Detstvo. Otrochestvo. Yunost”) where the writer tried to penetrate into the inner world of a child, a youngster and an adolescent, in order to perceive their feelings, and to comprehend the foundations of their moral development and the role of purposeful education.

It was probably Tolstoy’s first trip abroad (during which he visited France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy) that strengthened the writer’s decision to resume his work on the school. He attended lectures at The Sorbonne University, revealing a vivid interest in other educational institutions, and even attended an official meeting of the French Academy. In Zurich, Tolstoy became acquainted with the work of the famous institution for the deaf and the blind, a true model of education for that time.

However, it should be noted that Leo Tolstoy’s second trip abroad also resulted in his formation of a rather critical attitude toward contemporary Western pedagogy. There the writer found the same disease, also mentioned by other Slavophils – the detachment of pedagogy from the life of people and their needs. Tolstoy wrote in his notebooks, “The main point is that now I am genuinely interested in trying my hand in various educational activities and setting up a school for children of the nearby villages.”

In 1859, the villagers of Yasnaya Polyana (‘Clear Glade’) learned about the intention of their count to open a free school for all local children. The former students remembered that Tolstoy’s affable and hospitable attitude managed to override suspicion of many parents. The atmosphere Tolstoy created in the school was so attractive that the number of students quickly increased from 20 to 70. Leo Tolstoy called that period of his life (1859-1862) “three-years of passionate devotion to pedagogy”.

The school itself was really unusual. Here is what Ernest Howard Crosby, an American pedagogue, wrote describing the school ethos at Yasnaya Polyana, “A little bell hung on the threshold rang at 8 o’clock every morning. After half an hour students would appear in school. There wasn’t a single time when a student was late or got reprimanded for being late. The students would come without any books or notebooks. There was no home assignment, and consequently nothing to submit to the teacher. The student does not have any fear of the coming lesson. He is just expected to show up along with his receptive mind and confidence that today there will be as much fun as it was yesterday.”

Such a school model conformed to Tolstoy’s views of that time. He would clearly differentiate between education and family development, theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge necessary for and acquired from life experiences. “Any learning must address the issues of life” – these are the words of Leo Tolstoy and his meaning is sought still today.

At that period of his life, Tolstoy believed that education implied free acquisition of knowledge by an individual whereas upbringing/character formation meant that knowledge was passed to a student without any force. The great writer and pedagogue encouraged teachers to look for various motivating teaching techniques that later resulted in the development of a new pedagogical method – motivation based learning. It was that very rod-free teaching process determined by a learner’s interest which Tolstoy called free education.

In 1850-60s, Lev Tolstoy found himself in the situation that was crucial for Russia, not only in social and political terms, but also in pedagogical aspects. It was a unique time when the coming abolition of serfdom turned millions of semi-slaves into free people. Consequently, along with the relevant social, economic and political issues, there was an increasingly urgent question: What should a school for millions of peasants’ children look like?

Such a type of public school had never existed in Russia before and that realization fostered a wide range of pedagogical theories and experiments. In this regard, it makes perfect sense why Tolstoy attempted to theorize and build his model of Russian national public schools for the children of peasants.

Along with the term “public”, another important word in Tolstoy’s educational philosophy was “free”. In fact, freedom was the essential part of Tolstoy’s personality. Beginning early in life, the power of church and society tried to bend and break Leo Tolstoy. Only his enormous potential for inner freedom and independence helped him to overcome that struggle.

The matter is not only in Tolstoy’s personal innovative position. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, social demands arose to develop a school that would be capable of educating free people – children of former serfs who had been emancipated, children who would become free citizens of a free country. In the first half of the 1860s, during the Great Reforms, such discussions were not considered to be some kind of utopian fantasy. Tolstoy’s universally recognized achievement as an educator was that he managed to realize his ideal school in practical terms, even though his Yasnaya Polyana was the only school of its kind ever developed, and that the school, in its core principles, was directly contrary to the peasants’ understanding of what it meant to be educated in Russia at that time.

Later, political and educational publications would gradually develop the public concept of the “two Tolstoys”. The first Tolstoy emerges during the 1860-70s (during his actual time at the Yasnaya Polyana school) when he strongly believes that the only task of a pedagogue is to teach students according to a nature-based principal and taking into account the interests and gifts of any particular child. For Tolstoy, the key words of that time were “experience” and “freedom”. Here, the writer rejected the idea of a teacher’s intentional influence on his students. According to Tolstoy, there is no absolute truth, period. A teacher may not impose his relative knowledge on students. Another explanation could be found in Tolstoy’s conviction that children are more moral than adults because children have not yet been spoiled by life. Consequently, Tolstoy reasoned that character formation by adults was ridiculous in its nature because the immoral adults can not raise moral children.

Beginning in the late 1880s, Tolstoy’s outlook underwent a second, and dramatic transformation, which could not but affect the writer’s pedagogical views. The philosopher focused on developing his ethical and religious teaching as well as exposing numerous drawbacks of life. In this respect, Leo Tolstoy denounced his previous concepts – even coming to the merciless conclusion that at Yasnaya Polyana he practiced “depravity and corruption of children’s morals”. Tolstoy convinced himself, as opposed to his previous beliefs, that a teacher’s mission was first and foremost the moral development of children and only afterwards to proceed on with their educational development.

This conclusion was prompted by Leo Tolstoy’s conviction that there exists Absolute Knowledge – God — the kind of knowledge the teacher was expected to pass over to students. Such an attitude was caused by Tolstoy’s sharp criticism of the current vices of civilization that would lead to society’s dehumanization. The thinker partly justified that belief by pointing to the predominance of rationalism over moral and emotional development of the human character.  

Such polyphony of Tolstoy’s views as well as the intricate evolution of his pedagogical philosophy may shed light on the present-day diverse and even controversial educational concepts related to the name of the great humanist.

However, there is virtually no need to differentiate between the “two Tolstoys”. This was rather some natural, though very complicated and controversial development of his great personality. It becomes more obvious when we try to interpret Tolstoy’s key notion of “freedom”. If in the late 1850s and early 1860s Tolstoy promulgated the widest and most flexible range of a child’s choice and behavior, the concluding period of Tolstoy’s creative work is associated with more rationalism in interpreting the meaning of freedom. Now, freedom of choice and action, in Tolstoy’s opinion, must be measured and selected by means of external restrictions according to pedagogical appropriateness. Therefore Tolstoy permitted direct external adult control and influence on the child for the sake of both of the child (as the growing individuality) and society.

Undoubtedly, the evolution of Tolstoy’s outlook was strongly affected by the dramatic atmosphere of early 20th-century Russia. Due to his outstanding intuition, the genius of Tolstoy anticipated the coming crucial social events and, by addressing absolute truth, did his utmost to influence public opinion and prevent disaster. He was ringing the bells and warning Russia against the dangers of liberal temptation.

On the whole, Tolstoy’s pedagogical genius has not lost its significance. Just like those rich crowns of the mighty centuries-old oaks offering their inexhaustible energy to travelers, as glorified by Tolstoy with so much love in his works, the creative legacy of this great man may serve as a powerful impetus for further educational and research activities in the whole world. And it is especially important to remember during times of dramatic reforms in education and culture; searching for the truth and eternal values.


1 Boguslavsky, Mikhail Victorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], Ph. D., an associate member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, chief research fellow, Institute of Theory and History of Pedagogics, RAE.

Melinda R. Pierson, Ph.D. (Apr. 22, 2011)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this comprehensive manuscript describing the impact of Leo Tolstoy on Russian education. What an inspiration he was and one that has affected millions of people for the better. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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