Jordan Michael Smith | Longreads | September 2018 | 29 minutes (7,903 words)
“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
— Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness
* * *
Huw Williams is not a hermit. Not exactly. For one thing, he answers a telephone while I’m visiting him. The phone connects to a jack somewhere, although I don’t understand how it can function properly; it seems impossible that a cabin so rudimentary and run-down could support something as technologically advanced as a telephone.
The floors are covered with broken power tools, a machete, unmarked VHS tapes, decades-old newspapers and knocked-over litter boxes once filled by the three cats prowling around. Stenches of urine and filth are masked only by the rot on the stove, where the remains of long-ago meals are eating through the pans they were prepared in. And the cabin is so cold that when anyone speaks, breath becomes vapor.
Dried-out orange peels hang from the ceiling. “It’s a way of breaking up the straight lines,” the 76-year-old Williams tells me cryptically. “I’m averse to being inside a box, with all straight lines.” A radio plays environmental talk radio here in Edwall, a tiny community about 35 miles by car from Spokane, Washington. The radio is part of an ’80s-style dual cassette player, but the trays where the cassettes should go are broken off.
When I came upon Williams’ cabin on a wet afternoon last September, I assumed it was empty. My GPS couldn’t locate it, and neighbors were unsure if it was inhabited. Rusted-out trucks and cars surround the house, which is up on a slight hill atop a dirt road that bisects another dirt road that runs off a few other dirt roads.
But for all his isolation, Williams is not hiding. He grew up on this land, which his parents ran as a cattle and wheat farm. He moved back here in the 1970s after his first wife ran off with their friend and took the kids. He also lived here with his second wife, until she too left him for another man. Anybody could find him, if anybody cared to. Maybe that’s the hardest part.
Williams has prostate cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, melanomas, multiple sclerosis, and he thinks he might be bipolar. He speaks slowly and softly, as if he might run out of breath at any second. He looks the Unabomber part, with his long beard and ragged clothing. But then, he was idiosyncratic even when he used to get out more. He hitchhiked across the country to protest nuclear war, got arrested a time or two, and, after going through a brief celibate period, was a swinger who had sex with his wife’s boyfriend’s mother. Most spectacularly, in 1963 he founded a 240-acre farm nearby that is among the longest-lasting remnants of the ‘60s communes that Charles Manson gave a bad name to. And it was based on the teachings of Leo Tolstoy.
On the farm he got the nickname Piper, because he played flute for the kids. Piper thought he and his farm-mates would be the vanguard of a utopian movement that would sweep America. It didn’t turn out that way.
* * *
Tolstoy is arguably history’s greatest novelist, but not that arguably. In a 2007 Time poll of 125 authors, Anna Karenina was voted the greatest book ever written, with War and Peace finishing third. Dostoevsky and Nabokov both called Anna Karenina “flawless,” and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf acknowledged his brilliance. Isaac Babel summarized the consensus, referencing the unmatched realism in his books: “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”
The man who wrote like the world was born in 1828, the fourth of five children. His aristocratic parents died when he was young, leaving him raised largely by his extended family on their majestic 4,000-acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana. One hundred and twenty miles south of Moscow, it was filled with ponds, parks, landscaped gardens, fruit orchards, paths — and about 300 serfs working the land.
Tolstoy abandoned university after two years. At 19, he was living a debauched bachelor’s life in Moscow, acquiring gonorrhea and a gambling problem. After another perfunctory attempt at university in St. Petersburg and a brief stint at home, he joined the Russian military, fighting in the Caucasus and Sevastopol during the Crimean War in the early- and mid-1850s while writing fiction in his free time.
Tolstoy’s reputation was immediately made and never lost, even when he wanted to lose it.
He achieved immediate critical and commercial success with the publication of his first short novel, Childhood. Tolstoy also began writing groundbreaking dispatches of his war experiences, an early form of war reporting. The Tsar himself read his work and had it published in a government publication. Tolstoy’s reputation was immediately made and never lost, even when he wanted to lose it.
In 1865, War and Peace began appearing serialized in a journal (Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment appeared in the same publication in alternate months). The book was wildly popular: one Russian newspaper said virtually the entire country was waiting to see how it ended. Anna Karenina followed, as did short stories that rank alongside those by Chekhov, an admirer.
Tolstoy was so heralded that he was referred to by one peer as the second Tsar (and he inspired fewer assassins than the first). By the time he died, in 1910, Tolstoy had “produced the works of genius which caused him, during the last two decades, to be regarded as the most famous writer of the Occidental world,” the New York Times wrote in its obituary. “These books are already regarded as among the world’s classics.” This is the Tolstoy remembered today, the one who made Oprah’s book club in 2004 and whose works inspired dozens of films.
But there was another Tolstoy who’s been lost to history. For all his fame as a novelist, in Russia and elsewhere Tolstoy the fiction writer was secondary in fame and impact to Tolstoy the author of political, social and religious non-fiction. “His popular celebrity 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,” the classicist Mary Beard has observed. Though it’s remembered today only by a few literary critics, Tolstoy fashioned an entire coherent way of living centered around his unique understanding of Christianity. Its adherents came to be known as Tolstoyans, much to his annoyance. At one time, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of practicing Tolstoyans around the world, from India to Canada. They renounced cities, comforts, laws, pleasure, modernity. Now they’re all gone. Almost all.
* * *
Piper sits on a rotting couch in his cabin, his long, messy silver hair hanging down the back of his head. He wears an old green plaid jacket. His eyes are sagging and he moves slowly. But, like a Left Bank philosopher, he has ideas and he thinks he can save the world, if only the world would listen. It never has.
Piper is a sad man, even a broken one. He wasn’t always, though. “I had everything,” he once told an interviewer. “When I was 14, I had my own car, a half-dozen cows, and $600 in the bank.” But the next year, his house burned down, as did every inanimate object he loved: his stamps, his models, and his books. He was heartbroken, took to sleeping outdoors, and determined he would never again become attached to material possessions.
His mother had mental health problems — she was terrified America would be invaded by Japan at any time. “I was born hyper-vigilant,” he says. His mother “sometimes had to go away for a while,” he tells me. But when she was home, she instilled a moral seriousness in her son. The family routinely attended a nearby Methodist church. It was there he heard a pacifist preacher who had been a missionary in China. The preacher spoke of the famine in China in the 1950s, and of love being the answer to the world’s problems. The talk “inspired my consciousness,” he says. His first year of high school, he read some newsletters that talked about Mahatma Gandhi, and something the future Indian leader had established in South Africa called “Tolstoy Farm.”
* * *
When Tolstoy was a teenager, he began questioning the opulence he inherited. He tried depriving himself of amenities, jettisoning socks and donning a one-piece garment that looks like long underwear. Dressed shabbily, he was able to go undercover with the peasants who lived on Yasnaya Polyana, and he was shocked to hear their disdain for his family. Having been taught that serfdom was good for everyone — including the serfs — he was surprised that they despised the system.
This marked the beginning of Tolstoy’s decades-long evolution into a religious activist who abandoned all his wealth. The progression had stops along the way, including an 1855 diary entry he wrote while in the military that foreshadowed his later thinking:
Yesterday a conversation about divinity and faith led me to a great and stupendous idea, the realization of which I feel capable of devoting my whole life to. This idea is the foundation of a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind — the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but providing bliss on earth.
Christ, as revealed through the Gospels, preached love, forgiveness, nonviolence, and asceticism. Worshiping anything else, including liturgy, hierarchy, family and country, was superfluous at best and violating God’s intentions at worst. It was senseless to Tolstoy to live by anything other than Christ’s teachings and examples — why would you defy God’s instructions showing the best way to live? For Tolstoy, Jesus’s preaching of the supreme priority of love for fellow creatures gradually became a source of agony, a migraine that commanded his entire attention.
Tolstoy fashioned an entire coherent way of living centered around his unique understanding of Christianity. Its adherents came to be known as Tolstoyans, much to his annoyance.
After returning from abroad,Tolstoy had conversations with his serfs — fictionalized in Anna Karenina — in which he told them he wanted to free them. (They mistrusted his plan and rejected his suggestion of a contract.) He established 21 schools to educate peasant children and wrote best-selling primers on basic literacy, which angered his neighbors, who feared their own serfs might be infected with ideas of egalitarian freedom. And he battled with the Russian government about its poor education system, lust for war, and indifference to hunger.
The activist Tolstoy contested spiritually with the egocentric Tolstoy — the latter knew he was a genius and wanted time to create his art, while embodying the extravagance of the pre-Revolution Russian aristocracy. This Tolstoy married and had 14 children with his long-suffering wife, Sophia (who also endured several miscarriages). He spent years composing War and Peace and Anna Karenina while servants (and Sophia) did his bidding. He read, researched, hunted, and strolled around Yasnaya Polyana.
The link between these two Tolstoys was anguish. Frequent, recurring anguish. Just two years after finishing War and Peace, Tolstoy told a friend he harbored no desire to live. Death, with its inevitability and permanence, made life, with its transiency and impermanence, seem pointless. A few years later, he temporarily ceased writing Anna Karenina because of his depression. He told another friend that existence was an “empty and stupid joke” and went hunting without a gun lest he be tempted to follow Anna’s path and end his life.
He did finish Anna Karenina, of course, but only by abandoning fiction and immersing himself in the ideas that would coalesce as a new philosophy.
* * *
Inspired by Gandhi, at age 17 Piper registered with the federal government as a conscientious objector and began organizing against the Vietnam War. He went to study agriculture at the University of Washington, determined to find an end to the world’s hunger problems. During his freshman literature class, he learned of the connection between Gandhi and Tolstoy. At a bookstore in Seattle, he bought a leather-bound complete works of Tolstoy, and he adopted radical politics. He protested racial segregation and organized students against nuclear weapons. He managed an off-campus home where residents shared food and drugs, eating dinner together and discussing politics. This was the early New Left, and the more clean-cut, respectable members attended folk concerts and then moved on with their lives.
But Piper, instead, joined a 700-mile march from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C., to protest nuclear testing, during which he decided to drop out of school. An Esquire reporter, unaware that the country would soon explode with protests of all kinds, for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, couldn’t help condescending to the group by dubbing them “Thirteen pacifists, who seemed to think that a peace march might help belay the arms race.” They didn’t belay the arms race, but they were arrested for “creating a public hazard” by marching around the White House. Piper’s charge was soon dropped, though, and he hitched home. That was when he took over his grandparents’ farm, in Davenport, 30 miles west of where he was born. He devised a plan for a commune based around the principles of Tolstoyism.
* * *
Defying the pleas of his wife, publishers and readers to continue writing fiction, Tolstoy began praying every morning, going to church, fasting, and visiting monasteries. He took communion and attended debates between Orthodox Christians and Christian dissidents. He walked alongside religious pilgrims going to their holy places. And he began ignoring his family and estate, disgusted at their greed and frivolity. How could any decent person harbor extravagant wealth while others lived in destitution — on the same property?
Rather than the novels that made him famous, he wrote dense religious and philosophical works with titles like Investigation of Dogmatic Theology. The book called the Holy Trinity a “vile, criminal, blasphemous lie” and rejected the idea that Christ redeemed humans by dying on the cross, because, after all, humans were “just the same” following the crucifixion. He published the Gospel in Brief, where he whittled down the Bible to what he felt were Christ’s true messages, devoid of any divinity or Resurrection. “Why do I need to know that he was resurrected?” he wrote. “Good for him if he was. For me what is important is knowing what to do, and how I should live.”
Ignoring warnings from authorities, Tolstoy disappeared into his insurrectionary works. The Kingdom of God is Within You proved the most influential book he wrote outside of his fiction, and the one that best encapsulated his thought. “The only meaning of man’s life consists in serving the world by cooperating in the establishments of the kingdom of God,” he wrote.
For Tolstoy, humans were meant to embody Christ as best they could, building a Kingdom of God on Earth in the process. All relations between humans should be voluntary, peaceful, cooperative and egalitarian. Tolstoy believed that the peasants he saw could “show to other peoples the way to a free and happy life lying outside of industrial and capitalistic exploitation and enslavement: this is the historic task of the Russian people.”
Hearing about his altruistic ideology, peasants showed up at his door constantly, and Tolstoy refused to send them away. He permanently wore shabby clothing and transferred the rights to his literary works and power of attorney to his wife. He determined that money was evil, as was the state itself — anything that depended on force rather than voluntary cooperation was anti-Christian. Sex, too, was revolting, an animalistic act that debased the people who did it (though he couldn’t help himself, as the 14 children and additional miscarriages attest).
The Russian police began monitoring Tolstoy, and a prominent lay head of the Russian Orthodox Church warned that “he has succumbed to religious mania….He preaches Christian morality in the rational sense, rejecting the teaching of a personal God and the divinity of Christ the savior.” The Orthodox Church finally excommunicated him in 1901. He was nearly exiled several times, and courts discussed even sending him to what was then called a lunatic asylum, but ultimately the Tsar refused to martyr Tolstoy, disgusted though he was with him.
Nearing the end of his life in the first decades of the 20th century, as many as 35 people a day visited Tolstoy, seeing him both as an object of veneration and one of fascination. As a British journalist wrote, he was “a man of genius who spends his time in planting potatoes and cobbling shoes, a great literary artist who has founded a propaganda of Christian anarchy, an aristocrat who spends his life as a peasant — such a man in any country would command attention. In Russia he monopolizes it.” Tolstoy had gone from being the best-known fictionist on the planet to being someone who not only abandoned writing fiction but was a vegetarian who didn’t smoke, drink, spend time with his family, hunt, eat meat, have sex, or really have any kind of fun at all.
Ignoring warnings from authorities, Tolstoy disappeared into his insurrectionary works.
Eventually, determined to live his ideals to a degree impossible on a private estate or with family responsibilities, he abandoned Yasnaya Polyana. At the age of 82, he left in the middle of the night, so as to escape undetected by Sophia. He had only the drab clothes he wore, facing the Russian winter that destroyed Napoleon’s army in War and Peace. He visited a monastery, then a convent, and finally boarded a train. He fell ill and died at a train station that was close to his home but far from the lofty circumstances into which he was born. Hundreds of people attended Tolstoy’s funeral, which has been called the first mass media event. Tolstoy died an eccentric, impossible, self-denying, hypocritical, despised, beloved, myopic visionary — the most famous writer in the world.
* * *
Piper once explained the genesis of his farm. “There was in fact a story written by Tolstoy about these early Christians who lived cooperatively,” he told a historian. It was called Walk in the Light While Ye Have Light, and it “seemed true to me.”
Published in 1893, the novella’s title is taken from John 12:35: “Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not.” Subtitled “Story Between a Christian and a Pagan,” Walk in the Light While Ye Have Light is a parable set in ancient Rome a century after Christ’s birth. Written in biblical language and style, it makes for difficult reading that biographers often overlook.
It tells the story of two men, one who follows Jesus’s teachings and the other, Julius, who suffers repeated disappointments living his secular, materialistic life before eventually accepting radical Christian teachings — before accepting Tolstoyism, basically. “And Julius found peace of mind, and he began to live and to work for the brethren according to his strength,” read the book’s last lines. “And he lived thus in joy twenty years longer, and he did not perceive how he died the physical death.”
Piper placed ads in peace newsletters and wrote letters to friends, inviting them to help create a new kind of community on his land. The farm was to offer shelter and succor to anyone demonstrating against the Vietnam War. A farm in Connecticut already did the same thing, but it lacked the other elements of Tolstoyism, like anti-industrialism and communalism, which Piper planned for his farm. “It seemed that the American way of life had war, violence, and oppression built into it,” Piper later explained. His farm would offer an alternative way.
Most of the approximately 10 founders of Tolstoy Farms were veterans of the peace march. There was Russ, who dropped out of college to join. And there was Penny, who wasn’t even 20 but had done time for civil disobedience at a woman’s jail in Greenwich Village — as soon as she was released, she picketed the place with a sign that said, “Jails are not the Answer.” But only Piper was a real Tolstoyan. Only he had read the writer in any depth and understood his Christian ethos. Others wanted to live off the land, or be in a communal setting, or escape industrialized society, or all three, but that didn’t mean they bought into Tolstoy’s philosophy — or Piper’s.
They eschewed comfort from the outset. They lived in voluntary poverty, in a single house without electricity or running water. And they used antiquated farm equipment. One contemporary visitor described the farm as “dotted with shacks and makeshift abodes, it is reminiscent of a Hooverville of the 1930s.” And there was to be nothing coercive: no police, no courts, no prison, no government (they lived on food stamps and government assistance, however — a contradiction that went unresolved).
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Everything was communally owned in the beginning, including basic necessities. Any new material item required a majority vote. But funds were scarce, so many members voted against toothpaste, soap and laundry detergent. “Why should we spend money for tampons?” one man asked a woman. “Women have done without tampons for years.”
The suffering was worth it to some people, because the farm could be hopeful and inspiring and safe. And anyway, everyone in the world would be living that way soon enough. “The residents had a sense that those who had learned to live outside of the dominant culture’s technological support systems would be better off for it when, as many believed, the time would come when world crisis would remove such systems,” historian Timothy Miller recalled in his 1999 book, The 60s Communes. Predicted Piper in the early years: “When the country is wiped out, electricity will stop coming through the wires, so you might as well do without it now.”
The folks in Davenport didn’t care for the weirdos. Tolstoyans were prohibited from eating in local restaurants after a drug bust at the farm. And because they knew the Tolstoyans had a safe spot they wouldn’t be ejected from, lawbreakers migrated to the farm. There was the guy who had gone AWOL, and the guy who had run guns to Cuba, and who told a journalist to leave his name anonymous because “there are a lot of people I don’t want to find me.” And there was the time two child molesters came to live there. “We didn’t even know the difference between perverts and non-perverts,” one member conceded.
It became easy for Davenport to conflate the Tolstoy farmers with the hippies. But the Tolstoyans didn’t care for rock n’ roll or slang or have disdain for their elders. They asked journalists not to publish the location of Tolstoy Farm because they didn’t want a flood of “psychedelic beggars.”
But they came anyway, the hippies, especially in the summers. And because Piper’s policy was never to turn anyone away, residents felt obliged to let the hippies stay. Free love and grass took over the place. The hippies grew marijuana on the farm and sold it in Spokane. It was so potent that it became known as “Tolstoy Gold,” marking perhaps the first time the Russian novelist crossed paths with the High Times set. And that led to the farm’s first marijuana bust, in 1965, where 16 people were arrested but the guys who actually grew the stuff got away.
A few permanent members despised the drugged-out transients so much they discussed torching the communal house. And, what do you know, in 1967 — the Summer of Love — one day the cabin on Tolstoy Farm burnt down. Then the hippies mostly stopped coming.
Those first years, they shared everything they had, including each other. Most couples who came split up. Polygamy and polyamory proved to be difficult, sometimes outright violent. “You were going through these psychological changes, and the reasons you were being with whoever you were with wasn’t necessarily there anymore,” Piper told me. He married one woman, Sylvia, who eventually moved in with someone else living on the farm. There was one brief six-way marriage between three women and three men. One man whose marriage crumbled called it “Tolstoy Fuck Farm.”
Parents made love in front of their children, since most cabins were comprised of one large room. Said one father about sex in front of his kids: “We don’t make a point of it, but if they happen to see it, and it’s done in love and with good vibrations, they won’t be afraid or embarrassed.” But the vibrations weren’t always good. One man was slashed in a dispute over a woman. Another angry lover once grabbed a gun and threatened to fire. “There’s room for people to really fall apart there and nobody pick up the pieces,” one longtime member said. “All their weak spots in their lives come real open when there’s nowhere to hide.” Piper got to know the mother of the man his wife left him for. She also lived nearby, and one night they smoked a joint and had sex. (Nothing like that happened in Anna Karenina.)
People asked Piper for wisdom, and he told them that everything they had been raised to believe was nonsense. He could be imperious, which made a mockery of his egalitarianism and alienated him from the others he wanted to lead. Piper didn’t think anybody should have to do anything they didn’t want to — including work. So work often didn’t get done. There was the time members bought a cow, then realized most people didn’t want to milk it. So they didn’t look after it, it got loose, and a neighbor caught it and sold it at an auction.
Predicted Piper in the early years: ‘When the country is wiped out, electricity will stop coming through the wires, so you might as well do without it now.’
Soon enough, the farm’s way of living proved too chaotic and they made adjustments. “Emotional crises, fights over everything” is how one resident described it. Food would be put on the table, and it was every man for himself. “If you stood back you got nothing. When people live that close together, they became less sensitive, and manners go right out the window.”
People eventually decided that they wanted to live separately and they split off into independent cabins. Soon, the only communal ritual was Thanksgiving at a schoolhouse Piper built, and something called the corn dance. That first year, Piper built a drum, and they gathered on the hillside, and drank, danced, and played musical instruments.
At some point it became clear that the rest of the world wasn’t following suit in de-industrializing or adopting non-violence. Most people who learned of Tolstoy Farm had reactions to it ranging from disgust to mockery. Even after abandoning the strict tenets of Tolstoyism, it proved barely possible to maintain the property in existence, let alone operate as some sort of model for the rest of humanity to emulate. Tolstoy Farm ceased being an example. Instead, it became a refuge. Losers, utopians, dropouts, deserters, neo-hippies, agrarians, the antisocial and the mentally ill — all are welcome at Tolstoy Farm.
In 1970, the journalist Sara Davidson wrote about the farm for Harper’s. One man explained his motivations for living there. “I liked the structure of this community,” he said. “Up there, I can get along with one out of a thousand people. Here I make it with one out of two.” Another woman said, “I’ve always been different from others. I think most of the people here are misfits — they have problems in communicating, relating to one another.”
Davidson astutely identified the types attracted to the place: “serious, straightforward people who, with calculated bluntness, say they are dropouts, social misfits, unable or unwilling to cope with the world ‘outside.’” People who had been hospitalized for mental illness found solace there. Some members wished for many communal activities, while others wanted solitude. Both could get what they wanted.
But Piper eventually moved back to his parents’ land near Edwall, where he lives now, and began a cooperative organic grain farm called Earth Cyclers. “Nobody would treat him like a leader and he wanted to be the leader,” one resident said. “So he started another place and hoped he would be treated like a leader there.” He lives in his cabin and hopes the world will someday listen to him. “He’s sort of a visionary without followers…a disappointed person,” one longtime Tolstoy Farm member said. “He got it started, he just never got what he wanted from it.”
As early as the 1880s, Tolstoy began hearing about the Tolstoyans. Usually they had conversion experiences — their term — after reading one of Tolstoy’s books, and they tried to live by the principles he espoused. Although some of Tolstoy’s nonfiction writings were banned in Russia, illegal copies circulated, particularly among the radical intelligentsia and in military circles. Conscientious objectors refused induction into the Russian military — in 1908, 32 soldiers and sailors wrote to Tolstoy saying he made them realize their service violated Christian ethics. Soon he had enough followers — although he didn’t believe he was leading anything — that Orthodox church authorities declared Tolstoyism a “fully-formed sect” that was “particularly dangerous to the Church and State.” People began showing up at Tolstoy’s farm hoping to either learn about Tolstoy’s philosophy or begin implementing his ideas alongside him. “What peculiar and disagreeable people they are,” Sophia Tolstoy confided to her diary. “And what a lot of them there are!”
Tolstoyan hubs sprouted in Britain, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Japan, South Africa and Chile. Journals took names like The Tolstoyan and Free Ideas. Some of his more devoted disciples founded communes and colonies based around the principles of communalism, agrarian, pacifism, and sometimes vegetarianism. By the time he died, there were more than a dozen Tolstoyan communes in operation.
Gandhi first read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You in 1893. “I was at that time a believer in violence,” he later remembered. “Reading it cured me of my skepticism and made a firm believer in [nonviolence].” He carried the book with him to court and from one prison to another. He visited a Tolstoy colony in England, and read Tolstoy’s “A Letter to a Hindu,” eventually having 20,000 copies printed. “A Letter” advised Hindus in India to resist Britain nonviolently, since using violence would mean employing the same methods as the very enemy they aimed to defeat. Gandhi opened a fruitful correspondence between the two, in which they recommended each other books they had written and read; the last long letter Tolstoy ever wrote was to Gandhi. In 1910, Gandhi helped found Tolstoy Farm, in South Africa, where he cultivated and taught his philosophy. When Tolstoy died later that year, Gandhi wrote an obituary in Indian Opinion: “He was for us more than one of the greatest men of his age. We have endeavored, as far as possible, and as far as we understood it, to follow his teaching.”
Tolstoy’s adherents were globally dispersed and influential on the nonviolent social movements that still bring people into the streets, but the movement itself disappeared within a generation. The Tolstoyans discovered what Piper did decades later. Tolstoy’s philosophy was too demanding, its devotees susceptible to the same foibles and flaws as all other humans. Even if people felt compelled to love each other above all else, they were cursed with other, equally powerful impulses: to luxuriate, to hate, to enjoy physical pleasures, to seek power and status. When recalled at all, by obscure historians, Tolstoyism is remembered merely as another one of humanity’s failed, fruitless experiments with utopia.
* * *
When I first called the farm, a woman named Diane helpfully explained its current status and connection to Piper. She agreed that I could visit and write about my experience. But when it came time to actually book my trip, she grew reticent and unsure. As one might expect from anarchists ostracizing themselves from modern life, they were initially suspicious of me. Diane told me I would have to speak with a man named Tim, who proved difficult to get ahold of. Finally I got him on the line, and Tim said my trip would have to be approved by consensus. And if I did come, I couldn’t stay overnight. But after getting the go-ahead from everyone on the farm and telling Tim I would sleep off-grounds, I never heard back from him about directions. Finally, after several more unsuccessful emails and phone calls, I just booked my trip and decided I would find my way to the farm.
The closest town nearby is Davenport, which, with a population fewer than 1,750, is one of those towns where people stop to ask where the nearest town is. In the mornings, a dozen grizzled men gather at a Subway restaurant for breakfast and exchange jokes and shared silence before the workday. On the city’s official website, the sixth question in the FAQ about the town is, “Why is my water bill so high?”
I had rented an SUV accidentally and felt guilty riding a gas-swallowing tank to a farm where residents used to eschew such basic comforts as tampons. But it proved fortuitous because, as with Piper’s place 20 miles away, traveling to Tolstoy Farm requires driving over roads that are only semi-paved. It turns out that finding the place is difficult, which is of course the point. “Nobody lives out here unless they don’t wanna be found,” as one of the residents put it to me.
And that’s why evaluating Tolstoy Farm by its own utopian criteria is unwise. If the farm didn’t become the Kingdom of God on Earth that Piper envisioned, it’s nonetheless turned into something else meaningful. Something less grandiose, yes, but something valuable nonetheless. It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found. The location’s remoteness was one of its senior appeals back when it sheltered outlaws and criminals. Now its remoteness appeals to those looking–needing–to escape the world’s complications, speed and ambiguities.
En route, long stretches of uninterrupted road are sandwiched between miles of desolate, long grass. The views are haunting in their barrenness. It’s difficult to imagine the wind blowing anything but loudly out here. Dotting the roads are farms where even the horses look lonely. After 20 minutes or so, I descend into a canyon. The road spirals down so much I felt like I was driving to the bottom of the Earth. Once I got to some flat land, a few old cars lined the road and I was pleased to finally see an actual human working in a field. About 50 years old, she was wearing a sweater, glasses and a multicolored wool hat that covered silver and brown hair. I introduced myself as a journalist writing about the farm. “I heard about you,” she says, in a tone that mixed curiosity and wariness, as if she were meeting a retired bank robber.
Tolstoy Farm ceased being an example. Instead, it became a refuge.
Laura has been working in these fields for two decades. Just over 20 people live on the farm, and they come together for a potluck Sunday evening. Except for that, they don’t always have much to do with each other. They are all anarchists, opposed to the U.S. government — “there are no right-wingers,” she informs me — but they have called the police when neighbors misbehave, an ideological contradiction that’s explained away. It turns out that some people insisted on burning their garbage and the debris and fumes would fly across the farm. When they were confronted, they brandished a gun. That’s when the police were called. “We’re anarchists, right, but what else can we do?” Laura says.
They don’t even organize the farm around nonviolence, the sine qua non of Tolstoyism. “I do think people should have the right to defend themselves if they’re under attack,” she says. It’s a far cry from Piper’s fantasy of hosting an incubator for a society of Tolstoyans who will go forth and convert the world to peace. “We’re not really all that organized — we’re very much just a bunch of individuals who have our own places and live our own lives, and we interact if we want to, but there’s no requirement at all.”
All the current residents really share only one trait, Laura says. They are “all kinda out there.” While we’re talking, an older woman appears across the road and comes over. Laura tells her I’m a reporter and the woman scoots away, saying she doesn’t want to talk about “everything that happened.” She could be referring to the drug busts, or the fires, or the wild sex, or something else entirely. It’s been an eventful 50-plus years.
Regaining her hesitancy, Laura directs me to the main gates of the farm, near some mailboxes perched on a fence that has the words Tolstoy Farm branded on them. I walk through and come across a table where people are milling around, sorting vegetables. There I meet Tim, a tall, soft-spoken 50-year old man who is still somewhat skeptical about my intentions. But he walks me around the vegetable garden as a soft rain introduces itself.
The farm looks different than I imagined. It is vast, with cabins spread across many acres. It looks less like the commune in my head than like a tiny village. Only about one third of the people living here actually work as farmers. The rest of the 55-60 individuals do work online or in town or simply don’t work. The farmers gather the fruits of their labor and trade it at a Spokane market every few weeks. The small income they make is enough to keep the farm going. Tolstoy Farm is entirely off the grid, with several big solar panels generating power a few hours a day but otherwise the residents going without.
Tim has been here for 24 years, before which he was a squatter in abandoned buildings around Seattle. He had located to Washington state for school but laughs that he isn’t much of a scholar. He moved to this farm with a girlfriend but she “couldn’t cut it.” He enjoys the self-reliance of the farm, the way it reminds him how wasteful urban life is and how a different way of life is possible. “A lot is on the honor system,” he says. And love still does flourish here, though in less polyamorous terms than back in the day. Tim began dating an older woman here over two years ago, who turns out to be Diane. She is walking two dogs and is as friendly in person as she was non-committal over the phone. The farm, she tells me, “made my life complete.”
I walk back to Laura, who is digging a drain near her house — the rain doesn’t deter her — which she proudly says she constructed using only natural and found materials. In the winters, snow piles up and she has to shovel so her cellar doesn’t get wet. She put clay down to stop it from leaking into her home.
She is still suspicious. “Are you FBI?” she asks me. “How do we know you’re a real writer?” (Still working on an answer to that question.) But soon she warms up and she tells me about her life. She, too, found love on the farm, with a man named Mac, who has been living on and off on the farm since he was a teenager and is known as the best mechanic around. She is about to be a grandmother, which she’s looking forward to.
Laura loves working on the farm, she says, “because you need to use your body more than your brain.” She tells me forthrightly that she isn’t a “people person.” If she wants company, she goes to talk with Mac or with friends nearby on the farm. Otherwise, she spends most of her time working alone on her home.
One of the main attractions of this kind of life, I see, is that your work is so clearly important — you work on shelter, food, or other basic needs. The close connection between effort and result adds a layer of meaningfulness to work that is absent from most jobs elsewhere. Everyone here is useful and their labor is appreciated. The community is small enough that nobody’s individuality is lost to a sea of anonymity. Nobody’s past much matters, and even the future doesn’t seem so important. Nothing is extra, or seems pointless or unnatural. The impact of your life might be small, but it is tangible, and you can feel a kind of uncomplicated moral purity in your deliberately confined world. It feels lonely, but then so do urban and suburban life. At least here the loneliness feels normal, ancient and special.
After a while, the rain becomes a pour, and I tell Laura I’m going to leave for my car. She suggests instead that I stand on her sheltered porch while she continues digging. She tells me about her past. She, too, was a squatter, “an outcast,” as she describes it. Then she decided she wanted to live on an organic farm and this one was cheap. She retains her suspicions of the outside world. She is skeptical of the medical industry and has been avoiding a trip to the doctor’s for years. “Being healthy and living in a healthy environment is probably your best medicine,” she says. She dislikes our impulse to extend life even at the expense of independence and self-reliance. “When you’re dying and it’s your time to die, you just go ahead and die.”
That’s around when she tells me about Alex Sukop.
* * *
Alex Sukop grew up mostly in various parts of Pennsylvania and fell in love with agricultural life while attending a Quaker high school. His parents were immigrants from Central Europe and he spent summers on farms in Hungary and Germany. Instead of going to college immediately, he he went to intern at Tolstoy Farm in 1998. It offered agricultural experience, along with an appealing ideological component.
Alex was a spiritual young man, and while working here he would ask the universe what his place should be. He took the answer to be that he should be a farmer. He planned to spend substantial time at Tolstoy Farm, but he also spoke about building his own farm and starting a family.
But in the spring of 2000, after beginning college at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Alex began having serious digestive pain. He was into natural healing, contemptuous of modern medicine, so he didn’t see a professional. But eventually he was in so much pain that in May, he went to an emergency room. At age 19, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, highly rare among someone so young.
His cancer was at Stage 3 or Stage 4, but he resisted the chemotherapy treatments oncologists suggested. He was told they would likely prolong his life for only a couple of months, at the expense of the existing months.
So, rather than capitulate to the medical-industrial complex, Alex decided he wanted to return to Tolstoy Farm, without electricity or running water but with the world he had always imagined for himself. He opted against returning to Pennsylvania, or moving in with one of his seven siblings scattered around the country, any of whom would have taken him in. The farm was his home now.
Alex had lived at Tolstoy Farm in a shelter he’d built in the trees, a platform without even walls or a proper roof — he’d always liked sleeping on floors — but now that would leave him too exposed to the elements. He moved in with a friend in her 50s, a longtime Tolstoy Farm member whose home lacked plumbing and electricity, as they all did, but who had a wood-burning stove and a spare bedroom and sizable reservoirs of generosity. Alex’s older sister Sylvia, a writer, moved in for days and helped care for him. Soon he could no longer drive himself, and then he lost the ability to bathe.
Alex didn’t panic. He kept planning for things like digging an underground root cellar that were completely impossible for someone in his condition. He didn’t even hate the cancer. He didn’t view it as alien to his body, or to his existence. Instead, cancer was part of him, as surely as his arms or his red blood cells were part of him, and he thought of the cancer sharing his body with the other parts of him that likewise needed nourishment.
It wasn’t that he wanted to die. On the contrary. But he didn’t want to live without living, either. To embrace life, with all its suffering and injustice, and to do so with integrity and purpose–those imperatives outweighed any bitterness he might have had.
Soon Alex’s tumors grew beyond his colon into his liver. Doctors told him he had just three weeks to live. A hospice nurse visited him on the farm, and he began accepting his food intravenously.
On December 14, 2000, Alex was tired. In the early morning hours, Sylvia (who is writing a memoir about Alex) sensed that he was nearing the end as dawn broke. She held him close in those last minutes, feeling him take his final breaths and depart the world, on the land that understood him.
* * *
Laura’s cabin is surprisingly normal, apart from the wood stove. It has art and books and rugs and a couch and guitars. It feels damp but otherwise completely comfortable. In extreme heat or cold, of course, that calculation might change. She offers me her homemade wine, which I am surprised to discover is delicious. We drink it on her porch, and all seems restful, if not eternally well, with the rain massaging the land and promising to always return.
Tolstoy Farm has become a refuge for people like Laura — people who want to opt out of mass civilization for one reason or another and speak of the place as a kind of holy land. Some members are troubled. Others are just desperate for a different way of life. Both impulses were familiar to Tolstoy, who is mostly unknown to residents here. As far back as the mid-90s, one longtime resident told an interviewer that, “I think everybody used to ask, ‘Who the hell is Tolstoy?’ And got some standard answer that he was some Russian author that Piper admired because of his Christian pacifism, and he gave his land away. That’s all most people understand about it.”
But that limited understanding suffices. A land where lost people find solace in working the land, protecting the environment and living alongside each other harmoniously might fall short of impossible standards Tolstoy set for himself and the world. But it justifies Piper’s outsized ambitions 60 years ago. The farm is where someone like Laura can find peace in her life, where where someone like Alex can find peace for eternity. It’s a home for people who can’t have or don’t want regular homes. “That’s why we’re here — because we don’t fit in out there,” Laura tells me, gesturing to the rest of the world. And that seems enough.
* * *
Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single, Humanity. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and many other publications. His pieces on Tolstoy have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and the American Interest.
Editor: Dana Snitzky