Napkin Agreement at the Tolstoy Conference

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Understanding the Napkin Agreement at the Tolstoy Conference

The Tolstoy Conference, held annually in Moscow to celebrate the life and works of Leo Tolstoy, is known for its intellectual and creative atmosphere, as well as its informal networking opportunities. However, one of the most legendary stories associated with the conference is the Napkin Agreement, which allegedly sealed a historic collaboration between two prominent thinkers. What was the Napkin Agreement, and why does it still matter today?

According to various accounts, the Napkin Agreement took place during the 1973 Tolstoy Conference, which was attended by a diverse group of philosophers, writers, and activists from different countries and backgrounds. Among the participants were the American philosopher John Rawls and the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who had never met before but shared a deep interest in human rights and justice. During a dinner break, Rawls and Sakharov started a conversation that lasted for several hours, discussing their views on the moral foundations of politics and the challenges of living in a world of conflicting values.

As the night wore on, Rawls and Sakharov realized that they agreed on many fundamental principles, despite their different cultural and ideological backgrounds. They also sensed that their conversation could lead to a fruitful collaboration, but they faced a practical problem: how to make sure that their ideas would not be lost or diluted in the chaos of the conference. That is when Sakharov suggested writing down their main points on a napkin, as a form of provisional agreement that they could refer to later. Rawls agreed, and the two men scribbled their notes on a piece of paper that became known as the Napkin Agreement.

The exact content of the Napkin Agreement is not clear, as different versions have emerged over the years, and some details remain disputed. However, the main idea was to establish a framework for a joint project that would elaborate on the implications of their shared principles for politics, law, and philosophy. The Napkin Agreement was not intended as a final or binding contract, but as a symbol of mutual trust and respect, and as a reminder of the potential of intellectual exchange to bridge cultural and ideological divides.

After the conference, Rawls and Sakharov continued their correspondence and exchanged drafts of their respective works, which were eventually published as A Theory of Justice (1971) and Sakharov`s Memoirs (1990). While the Napkin Agreement may not have directly contributed to these publications, it remains a memorable moment in the intellectual history of the Tolstoy Conference, and a testament to the power of personal connections and shared goals. As one participant of the conference later recalled:

“What was remarkable about the Napkin Agreement was not the words written on it, but the fact that two great minds could find common ground over dinner and drinks, and that they could trust each other enough to commit to further dialogue. That is the spirit of the Tolstoy Conference, and it is still alive today.”

Indeed, the Tolstoy Conference, now in its fifth decade, continues to attract thinkers and artists from all over the world, who come together to explore the legacy of Tolstoy and to engage in a free and open exchange of ideas. While there may not be another Napkin Agreement that captures the imagination of future generations, the spirit of intellectual curiosity and human connection that it represents is a worthy legacy for any conference to aspire to.