The Mahatma Gandhi / Vladimir Tchertkov Public Correspondence On Peace and War

Tolstoy family gathering, 1905; Tchertkov to Tolstoy’s right; photographer unknown.

My article, “My Attitude Towards War”, published in Young India, 13th September 1928, has given rise to much correspondence with me and in the European press that is interested in war against war. In the personal correspondence there is a letter from Tolstoy’s friend and follower, V. Tchertkov, which, coming as it does from one who commands great respect among lovers of peace, the reader will like me to share with him. Here is the letter:

Personal Letter from Vladimir Tchertkov

Your Russian friends send you their warmest greetings and best wishes for the further success of your devoted service for God and men. With the liveliest interest do we follow your life, the work of your mind, and your activity, and we rejoice at each of your successes. We realize that all that you attain in your own country is at the same time also our attainment, for, although under different circumstances, we are serving the one and the same cause. We feel a great gratitude to you for all that you have given and are giving us by your person, the example of your life, and your fruitful social work. We feel the deepest and most joyous spiritual union with you.

But the truer and deeper the union, the more acutely one feels the least difference or misunderstanding. And it is just such a misunderstanding between us that has elicited my present letter to you.

Your article, “My Attitude Towards War”, printed in Young India of the 13th September of this year, has grieved many of your admirers and friends. And I have felt the need of expressing that which I feel and think on this subject. I hope that you will accept my words with the same feeling of goodwill with which they issue from me.

You justify your past participation in three wars waged by the British Government. Alluding to the same subject some years ago, in another article, you expressed yourself, if I remember rightly, in another spirit. Then you did not justify yourself, but recognized your former inconsistency. And I remember that this readiness of yours to recognize your past mistake greatly touched and consoled me and your other friends here. Whereas now, on the contrary, you justify yourself, referring to the usual arguments put forward in defence of war. You say: “Life is governed by a multitude of forces. It would be smooth sailing if one could determine the course of one’s actions only by one general principle whose application at a given moment was too obvious to need even a moment’s reflection.” This is quite correct with regard to all cases, which admit of considerations of practical expediency. But there is a category of actions, which owing to their character do not admit of such considerations. They are such actions, which for us clearly violate a definitely recognized moral or divine law. To this category of actions belongs the willful killing of man. In this instance the case should be stated categorically, and one should not allow any consideration of expediency to interfere.

Neither may one solve this question according to whether one sympathizes or not with a given Government. And yet you do so when you say: “If there was a national Government, I can conceive occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it.” In this way you justify others who also vote for the preparation for war because they sympathize with another Government. And what sort of trap is laid by a man who on the one hand denies war and refuses to serve in the army, and on the other votes for military training?

Further you say that, “all its (the Government’s) members do not believe in non-violence”, and that “it is not possible to make a person or a society non-violent by compulsion.” But by abstaining from voting for military training I compel no one to do anything, just as by refraining from voting for training pickpockets I do no violence to pickpockets.

You refer to the example of a harvest eaten by monkeys. But by transferring the case from men to monkeys you obscure it. If men and not beasts were to attack your harvest would you not deem it your duty to sacrifice the harvest rather than destroy the men?

You say that it would be madness for you to sever your connection with the society to which you belong, and that as long as you lived under a system of government based on force, and voluntarily partook of the many facilities and privileges it created for you, you were bound to help it to the extent of your ability when it was engaged in war.

Firstly, by abstaining from approving those evil deeds which men are engaged in around me I not only do not “sever my connection with the society to which I belong”, but exactly the opposite. I utilize this connection for the best possible way of serving this society.

Secondly, if living as I live I am obliged to assist the State in waging war, then I ought at all costs to cease to live as I live, even if I had in doing so to sacrifice my life, and in no wise to help people in the slaughter of their brothers. Besides, it is quite possible to make use of certain facilities afforded by the State, which could be obtained without violence, and at the same time to abstain from supporting the evil deeds of the State.

Perhaps the misunderstanding partly arises from your not having sufficiently rigidly drawn the line between violence and killing. There are cases when it is indeed difficult, without careful consideration, to make clear whether definite violence is being committed. But in the question of war there is no room for doubt as to its being founded on the killing of man. In this we probably agree.

We hope, dear and greatly esteemed friend that you will recognize the justice of the considerations I have expressed, and that you will give us an explanation that will quiet our misgivings. At all events believe me that I would not have written this letter, had not the passages indicated in your article indeed called forth misgivings among many of your sincere and earnest friends.

In conclusion, I may only reiterate the expression of my deepest regard for you and my warmest good wishes for yourself and your good work.

(Signed) V. Tchertkov

[Dated and sent to Gandhi 20 October, 1928]

Gandhi’s Published Reply

I need hardly assure M. Tchertkov that not only do I not resent his letter but I welcome it for its warmth of affection and for its transparent sincerity.

I do not propose to enter into a detailed reply to the points raised in the letter. For me the matter does not admit of reasoning beyond a point. It is one of deep conviction that war is an unmixed evil. I would not yield to anyone in the detestation of war. But conviction is one thing, correct practice is another. The very thing that one war resister may do in the interest of his mission may repel another war resister who may do the exact opposite, and yet both may hold the same view about war. This contradiction arises because of the bewildering complexity of human nature. I can only, therefore, plead for mutual toleration even among professors of the same creed.

Now for some points in the letter: I do not recall the writing or speech in which I expressed repentance for my participation in Britain’s wars. What I am likely to have said is that I was not sorry that I aided Britain though her policy was afterwards discovered by me to have been one fraught with harm to India and danger to humanity. If I had felt remorse for having taken part in the three wars as wars, I should have remembered it and repeated it unless I had changed my opinion about my participation.

Whatever I have done was not done from expedience, as we understand the term. I claim to have done every act described by me for the purpose of advancing the cause of peace. That does not mean that those acts really advanced the cause of peace. I am merely stating the fact that my motive was peace.

What is possible, however, is that I was then weak and am still too weak to perceive my error even as a blind man is unable to see what his neighbours are able to see. I observe daily how capable we are of utmost self-deception.

For the time being, however, I am not aware of my self-deception. What I feel is that I am looking at peace through a medium to which my European friends are strangers. I belong to a country, which is compulsorily disarmed and has been held under subjection for centuries. My way of looking at peace may be necessarily different from theirs.

Let me take an illustration. Supposing that both cats and mice sincerely desire peace. Now cats will have to adjure war against mice. But how will mice promote peace? What will they abjure? Is their vote even necessary? Suppose further that some cats do not observe that pact arrived at by the assembly of cats and continue preying upon mice, what will mice do? There may be some wise heads among them, and they may say, “We will offer ourselves a willing sacrifice till the cats are over-satisfied and find no fun in preying.” These will do well to propagate their cult. But what should be their attitude, peace-lovers though they are, towards those mice who would decide, instead of running away from their oppressors, to arm themselves and give battle to the enemy? The effort may be vain, but the wise mice I have imagined will, I apprehend, be bound to assist the mice in their desire to become bold and strong even whilst maintaining their attitude of peace. They will do so not out of policy but from the highest of motives. That is exactly my attitude.

Non-violence is not an easy thing to understand, still less to practice, weak as we are. We must all act prayerfully and humbly and continually ask God to open the eyes of our understanding, being ever ready to act according to the light as we receive it. My task as a lover and promoter of peace, therefore, today consists in unflinching devotion to non-violence in the prosecution of the campaign for regaining our liberty. And if India succeeds in so regaining it, it will be the greatest contribution to the world’s peace. European war resisters, therefore, may well formulate public opinion in Europe that will compel Britain to retrace her steps and stop the continuing spoliation of India.

[Both letters published in: Young India, February, 1929]

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: We are posting here the version of the text in, Christian Bartolf (ed.) The Breath of Life: The Correspondence of Mahatma Gandhi (India) and Bart de Ligt (Holland) on War and Peace. Berlin: Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum, 2000; pp. 34-38; courtesy of Christian Bartolf and the board of Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum. Our text makes minor grammatical corrections.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vladimir Tchertkov  (sometimes spelled Chertkov) was the general editor of the Collected Works of Leo Tolstoy, and one of Tolstoy’s most prominent followers. After the 1917 Revolution Tchertkov founded the United Council of Religious Communities and Groups, which administered the Russian conscientious objection program. His Wikipedia page provides further biographical detail, and valuable links for further research.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi