Why Russian Novelist Leo Tolstoy Condemned American Violence in the Philippines
While it’s easy to assume that the Philippines is a peripheral country in the shadow of great Asian giants, history proves otherwise, particularly in the perspective of some of the greatest scholars and writers to ever live.
One such writer was Leo Tolstoy himself, one of the most prominent authors of our epoch. Similar to Mark Twain and W.E.B. du Bois's anti-imperialist reactions to the aftermath of the Philippine-American War, Russia-born Tolstoy empathized with the Philippines, a country facing the same struggle as his own.
An avid commentator on world events, Tolstoy’s attention had not escaped the Philippines. Writing to a certain Herbert Welsh in 1901, he enunciated his position on the matter in a private letter:
MR. HERBERT WELSH,
Dear Sir: I received your letter, book, and pamphlets. I cannot help to admire your activity, but the crimes which have been committed in the Philippines are special cases, which by my opinion will always occur in States governed by violence, or in which violence is admitted as necessary and lawful. Violence, which in itself is a crime, cannot be used to a certain extent. When it is admitted it will always transgress the limits which we would put to it. Deeds as those that have been done in the Philippines, in China, and are daily done in all pseudo-Christian States will continue, till humanity will not accept violence as a means to produce good results, and will accept the chief precepts of Christianity to act on our brethren, not as an animal by violence, but by 'sweet reasonableness' (as Matthew Arnold termed it), which is the only way to act thoroughly and durably on reasonable beings. Hoping that my bad English will not hinder you to understand what I mean to say, I remain, dear sir,
15 Dec., 1902
Famous for his epic novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karerina, Tolstoy’s motifs revolved on the social life of the Russian people across the 19th century, with emphasis put on realism, social critique, romanticism, and philosophical themes.
These formed Tolstoy’s political and social tendencies, which bordered on radicalism. Later in his life, he abandoned his wealthy background in favor of living closer to being a monk, embracing Christian mysticism and anarchism in the process.
Tolstoy detested all governments, believing them to be the oppressors of the people, and championed pacifism through the interpretation of Christ’s teachings as emancipatory in nature, that the Second Coming shall bring peace to all the peoples of the world—a belief that would prove to be influential to Mahatma Gandhi, Simone Weil, and Martin Luther King Jr.
It isn’t surprising that these views led Tolstoy to condemn imperialism. He took particular disgust at those who claimed that the West championed Christianity and progress, stating that these words were nothing but empty rhetoric.
Tolstoy against the hypocrisy of the West
Like the members of the Anti-Imperialist League, Tolstoy condemned the Philippine invasion with the same ferocity as the suppression of the Boxer nationalists in China and the invasion of the Boer republics by Britain. He noted that these actions only demonstrated the hypocrisy of the West and its so-called discourse on freedom. Opposing the argument of the imperialists, Tolstoy wondered how countless atrocities could be committed in the name of civilization.
Unsurprisingly, the remarks of Tolstoy fell on deaf ears. Even in the standard historiographies of the Philippines, the Philippine-American War was skipped in favor of highlighting the material improvements under American tutelage. This partially stems from historians such as Rafael Palma and collaborators such as Pardo de Tavera who viewed America as a force for the greater good.
The concentration camps, detaining of civilians, and burning of communities were muted. As such, the Philippine-American War’s impact was partly obscured, in similar fashion to the subsequent American wars on Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The historian Reynaldo Ileto estimated that as much as half a million Filipinos died and a select number of scholars even claimed that the American war in the Philippines could be considered genocide.
The views of Tolstoy stressed that the war was not a simple colonial affair or, as the Americans have put it, an insurrection. It was a struggle for freedom. As long as America retains its world empire to counter rivals like China and Russia, the narratives of Tolstoy and the stories of the masses will be consigned to the margins, out of the limelight.
Although a cliché at this point, it is partially correct that history in this case will continue to be written for the victors and the deeds of great people, with the smaller voices trampled underfoot.
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Foner, P. (1971). Correspondence: Count Leo Tolstoy and Violence in the Philippines.
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Guerrero, M. (2015). Luzon At War: Contradictions in Philippine Society, 1898-1902. Quezon City, Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Ileto, R. (2017). Knowledge and Pacification: On the U.S. Conquest and The Writing of Philippine History. Quezon City Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Winslow, E. (1908). The Anti-Imperialist League: Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Boston, United States of America. The Anti-Imperialist League.