On October 8, 1906, Leo Tolstoy, one of the world’s greatest writers, became the first and the only known figure to refuse the Nobel Prize before it was even awarded to him.
When the first Nobel laureate in 1901 was announced – the prize going to the French poet, Rene Sully-Prudhomme – such fact brought on a huge wave of discontent among Tolstoy’s admirers, notably in Swedish literary circles, as they all deemed Tolstoy to be the worthiest candidate. A month following the award ceremony, a large group of Swedish people of art addressed the Russian master, expressing their delight and regret, “In view of the first Nobel Prize award, we, Sweden’s writers, artists, and critics, would like to express our utter devotion to your art. Not only do we see you as the reverent patriarch of contemporary literature, but also as one of those mighty profound poets, who under such circumstances is the first top come to mind... As much as we have the urge to speak our mind to you, we do feel that the institution, which has been trusted with the distribution of this literary award, does not represent in its current state either the opinion of the artists and writers, or the public opinion.”
Criticisms came from various sources, as the Committee was called ill-willed amateurs, but had no result. As years went by, the new laureates emerged, but Tolstoy was never on the list. In 1906, the St. Petersburg academy of Sciences submitted an application for the writer to become a nominee.
When Tolstoy learnt from one of the writers the rumor about him allegedly having been picked as the Nobel laureate, he wrote a letter to Arvid Jarnefelt, the translator of his books into Finnish, asking him to talk the Committee out of this decision. “I have a great request for you, dear Arvid,” he wrote, “please keep all the information I will write discreet… There is a chance of the Nobel Prize going to me. Should it happen, I will be very uncomfortable refusing, therefore, I am asking you if you have any connections – as I suppose you do – in Sweden, to try and arrange it so that my candidacy is eliminated from the list of nominees… Certainly, I could have learnt the address and sent my appeal to the chairman himself, but I find it odd to refuse what might not end up being awarded to me...”
Jarnefelt did send the detailed translation of Tolstoy’s letter to the Nobel Prize Committee, and the 1906 Nobel Prize went to an Italian poet, Geosue Carducci, whose name was only known to literature specialists. It is still debatable, however, whether it was the letter that actually predetermined Tolstoy’s fate. Firstly, all the information on the nominees is strictly confidential, which questions the fact of anyone having reported the names of the laureates to Tolstoy before the actual award ceremony. Secondly, the chances that the letter was received by the Committee in time to be considered, are also slim. Sent from Russia to Finland on October 8, the letter had yet to travel further to Sweden, while the laureates are normally announced starting October.
Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the situation remained; no other figures as prominent as Tolstoy had ever discreetly asked to take their name off the list of the nominees and refused to accept the financial compensation worth a hundred thousand dollars, along with the most prestigious award on Earth.
Tolstoy didn’t account for his action, but, commenting on the public frenzy about his non-nomination a few years later, he did say that he was very happy to not have the burden of the Nobel award. “First of all,” he wrote, ”it spared me such a predicament as managing so much money, whereas all money, in my sincere opinion, may only bring evil; secondly, I was honored and greatly pleased to receive such sympathy on the part of so many people, whom I haven’t even met.”