Leo Tolstoy’s popular celebrity at his death in 1910 owed more to his political and ethical campaigning and his status as a visionary, reformer, moralist, and philosophical guru than to his talents as a writer of fiction. Vegetarian, pacifist, and enemy of private property, he was, over the last decades of his long life, a persistent critic of the Russian imperial regime and of the Russian Orthodox Church. He came to favour a primitive version of Christianity, rejecting the dogma of Orthodoxy (hence his excommunication by church authorities in 1901). Tolstoy was a vigorous supporter of the Russian poor and working class. He had launched welfare programs, including soup kitchens, and funded schools. In a gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, he renounced his aristocratic title (“Count” Leo Tolstoy) and took to wearing the characteristic dress of the peasants.
Tolstoy rejected the institutions of society; the church, marriage, militarism, law and aristocracy. Criticising the flaws of the ruling class, believing them to be an irrational, inefficient and unjust autocracy, out of touch with a deeply divided society. This small group of the wealthy elite discriminated against an overwhelming mass of impoverished agricultural peasants and an increasing industrial working class. Tolstoy saw value in the working class, finding a quiet power in their resilience, the simplicity of values and a purity of heart. In Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, it is only a young servant, who, imbued with the virtues Tolstoy celebrates in the peasantry, can look the processes of dying in the eye and care for his master with true humanity; he deals unashamedly with excrement and allows the dying man to lie in the one position in which he can find some comfort; with his legs raised, resting on Gerasim’s shoulders.