Book Review:
A Molokan's Search for Truth:
The Correspondence of Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Zheltov

by Dr. Joyce Story Canadian Slavonic Papers, Jun-Sep 2001
Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Zheltov. A Molokan's Search for Truth: The Correspondence of Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Zheltov. Translator John Woodsworth. Editor of English edition Ethel Dunn. Original editor Andrew Donskov. Correspondence compiled by Liudmila Gladkova. Berkeley, CA: Highgate Road Social Science Research Station, 2001. Illustrations. 155 pp.

This volume is a translation of L.N. Tolstoy and F.A. Zheltov, Perepiska (Correspondence), published in 1999 by the Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa. In addition to Ethel Dunn's preface, it makes available to the reader of English all the contents of the original Russian edition:
  1. the thirty-seven letters, known to date, that were written by the Molokan sectarian Fedor Zheltov to Leo Tolstoy and are published for the first time;

  2. the fourteen extant letters from Tolstoy to Zheltov first published in the Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy's Polnoe sobranie sochinenii and re-published in Perepiska;

  3. Andrew Donskov's introduction "L.N. Tolstoy and the Peasant Writer F.A. Zheltov" and

  4. a reprint of V. Bashkirov's article "He Used to Meet with Tolstoy" ("On vstrechalsia s Tolstym") that first appeared in Russia in 1997 in the Bogorodskaia gazeta, the local newspaper in the city where Zheltov-factory owner, writer, and social activist-made his home. The translated edition also contains the illustrations from the original, including reproductions of portions of handwritten letters by both correspondents.
This volume provides important material for the field of Slavic studies. Donskov's introduction helps to situate the Molokans in the development of Russian literary, social and religious thought: besides tracing Tolstoy's interest in Russian peasant sectarians and their importance for his "post-crisis" moral thought and literary output, Donskov also details Tolstoy's meetings with Molokans and his characterization of their manner of living and religious beliefs. The biographical details about Zheltov include a previously unpublished biographical questionnaire he completed in 1929 in preparation for an edition of Tolstoy's Complete Collected Works. Bashkirov's article provides additional information about Zheltov's activities before 1917 and his life in Soviet Russia, where his correspondence with Baptists from a number of countries led to his arrest for counterrevolutionary activity and his execution in 1938. The annotated correspondence covers the years 1887-1909.
The letter writers exchange opinions on a number of topics, both social (marriage, child-raising, drunkenness, famine, and the "true tasks of literature," for example) and spiritual (prayer, the nature of evil, and the Christian life).  Zheltov's letters and his manuscript "On Life as Faith in Christ," (in Letter 8), shed significant light on his own religious thought and on Molokanism in general.

As Zheltov probes such questions as how to live the true "life of light," gain salvation, or understand the significance of Christ, he reveals an intense faith that is imbued with both rationalism and mystical tendencies. His searching study of the Scriptures testifies to the Molokans' acknowedgement of the Bible as a source of knowledge of the truth.

The Molokans have much in common with the Doukhobors and other Russian sectarians who originated some three hundred years ago when a group of peasants broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. Persecuted for their pacifism and other beliefs, approximately 5,000 [actually about 2500, mostly Pryguny] [Many Spiritual Christians, including] Molokans chose to follow the Doukhobor example and leave Russia. In 1905-07, they emigrated to the United States, settling primarily [first] in Los Angeles[.] site of [T]he largest community of American Molokans today [is in the San Francisco Bay Area].

As Ethel Dunn notes in her preface, many American Molokans cannot read Russian; for those among them who wish to explore their Molokan heritage the translated volume is of undoubted use. The translator John Woodsworth also notes the interest that the volume will hold for students of the "religious, philosophical, or literary history of Russia" who are not familiar with Russian. The original text is characterized by many highly complex passages, however, and although the translator is to be commended on the whole for his rendering of them, there will be numerous instances when only by referring back to the original Russian will the reader be confident of grasping the writer's intent.

This volume is another welcome example of the scholarly cooperation that the Canadian Slavic Research Group has developed in recent years with various Russian institutions, and the American publisher, the Highgate Road Social Science Research Station, deserves recognition for making it available in translation. [The Station closed about 2000.]

Joyce Story, PhD, Russian language
Glendale Community College,
Glendale, Arizona
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