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«WRONG» MONEY OF STRANGE GENIUSES: why they rejected the Nobel Prize

«WRONG» MONEY OF STRANGE GENIUSES: why they rejected the Nobel Prize
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Knut Hamsun, Leo Tolstoy, Jean-Paul Sartre / Artwork: via Photoshop


The Nobel Prize is awarded to people who make a significant contribution to the development of our civilization. The prize — is glory, recognition, and, finally, money. In 2024, the size of the prize was about 9 million dollars. Who is able to refuse such a thing? It turns out that there are such people. And they deserve our attention, at least because, unlike many hundreds of Nobel laureates, these «refuseniks» can be counted on the fingers.




From the point of view of ordinary common sense, Tolstoy is traditionally regarded as a man «with strangeness». They spread to his attitude toward money. For example, Leo Nikolayevich refused ownership of his works and royalties from their publication.

His wife, Sofia Andreevna, absolutely disliked this. It was incredibly generous to be guided by the rule «nothing to yourself — all to the people!». But when you gave birth to a count of 13 children, of whom 5 died early, you think more about the well-being of the family, not about the happiness of humankind. An irresponsible attitude toward loved ones and money caused a severe disagreement among the Tolstoy family. But what can you do if the spontaneous count thought money was evil?

He was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times — in 1902, 1903, 1904 and 1905. Everything was going to the fact that in 1906, at the fifth attempt, he still would receive the prize. Tolstoy could not let the image of a «minimalist» go to waste. Formally, the writer did not refuse the prize because it was not awarded to him. However, he did everything not to get it.

Tolstoy appealed to his Finnish colleague Arvid Järnefelt with a request to influence the Nobel Committee that the prize would not be awarded to him in any case. Arvid fulfilled the request. After twisting their fingers at their head, the Swedes awarded the prize to the Italian Giosue Carducci — a Freemason, revolutionary poet-satirist, ruthlessly criticizing the Pope.

Despite his habit of slapping public morality, Carducci gladly accepted both money and the title of laureate. The only things he had in common with Tolstoy were his spade beard and his attitude to the church. Today, even in Italy, few people will tell you who Carducci is.

His name is most often mentioned in connection with the curiosity of Tolstoy’s rejection of the Nobel Prize. The writer was delighted by the non-awarding of the prize. After all, he got rid of «a great difficulty — to dispose of this money, which, like all money, can only bring evil». It is not difficult to guess what Sofia Andreevna thought of this Tolstoy’s «good fortune».




The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun got rid of Nobel money in a very specific way. Hamsun’s life was not easy. He was born in terrible poverty, in school almost never studied. He wandered across America and Norway, where he worked hard, owning a half-starved existence. His success brought him the novel «Hunger», where he described what he knew firsthand.

In personal communication Hamsun was a man unpleasant, and epathetized the public not worse than Tolstoy — Sofia Andreevna. For example, he spoke in the face of the Norwegian classics Ibsen and Bjornson, saying that they are hopelessly outdated and that it is time for them to leave literature. The classics turned out to be more sympathetic than Hamsun and supported him in spite of his vulgar behavior. Hamsun was never beaten up, although there were direct calls to do so even in the press.

In 1920, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel Growth of the Soil, about the life of Norwegian peasants. Hamsun himself was proud of his peasant origins and his closeness to «blood and soil». 


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Life is a fierce struggle for existence. When confronted with it, the husks of civilization are instantly stripped away. As a Nietzsche follower, Hamsun believed that war was useful — it would send a decrepit and deceitful Europe into oblivion. He tied his hopes for a new world to the Third Reich. Therefore, after receiving the prize, he went to Berlin and solemnly handed it over to the Minister of Propaganda Goebbels.

He also received a meeting with Hitler. But here, again, Hamsun’s habit of going against the tide took place. Hitler was furious with the writer’s manner of telling how the Fuhrer should behave in general and with Norway in particular. But this was not the last spit in the political trend.

When Hitler committed suicide, loved ones in vain dissuaded the writer from scandalous publication: in the necrology, Hamsun called the Fuhrer a fighter for the rights of the people. Germany lost the war, the Nobel Prize was wasted. Hamsun was tried but forgiven, although he did everything he could to prevent this from happening.

Out of pure stubbornness, Hamsun did not abandon his views and did not apologize to the victims of fascism. The end of his life he met in the poverty with which he began. The press, not for nothing, called him an old blind giant, who wanders through the dark forest in a direction known to him alone.

His name and work were tabooed and semi-forgotten. He finished his last book, «On Overgrown Paths», in a mental hospital and a nursing home. Surprisingly, it was published and received wide acclaim, and the writer himself is a world classic, although directors still avoid screen adaptations of it.




Strictly speaking, French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was the first to literally and voluntarily refuse the Nobel Prize awarded to him. He refused it on his own rather than being forced to do so by the state, as in the case of Pasternak, whose son Eugene received the prize 31 years later.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn temporarily refused the award in 1970 because he was afraid that he would not be allowed back to the USSR after the ceremony in Stockholm. But as soon as the writer was expelled from the Union, he gladly took his money. However, the German scientists Richard Kuhn (1938, chemistry), Adolf Butenandt, and Gerhard Domagk (1939, chemistry and physiology and medicine) did not get their money. But again, not of their own free will.

Hitler, angry at the Nobel Committee, forbade the Germans to cooperate with it. After the war, the scientists got their diplomas and medals but were not paid. The rock bard Bob Dylan almost refused the Nobel Prize in 2016. He did not react in any way to the award. After 10 days, the secretary of the Swedish Academy ran out of patience. He tried to contact the musician but still could not do it.

At the same time, Dylan gave concerts calmly and did not say a single word about his award. Moreover, even the message about it was removed from the singer’s website. Members of the Nobel Committee tensed up: will he refuse? Such antics have been observed for Dylan before — once he ignored the Oscars, and here is some Nobel Prize!

Academics publicly accused him of arrogance. However, after torturing their nerves, Dylan finally received the prize. But Sartre was different. In 1964, he gave it up voluntarily. Apparently, the reason is the same as that of Leo Tolstoy — the fear of destroying the image of the «ruler of thoughts».

De Gaulle called Sartre «our Voltaire». The philosopher felt himself to be a tribune who defended the people from the central government. He held left-wing views and opposed the bourgeoisie, one of the embodiments of which he considered the Nobel Prize. He saw it as an attack on independence. In addition, what is the value of the prize for literature if the practical value of literature itself is questionable?

After rejecting the prize, Sartre declared that he would cease his literary activity. From now on, he was interested in the real, not imaginary, transformation of the world. The intricacy of the argumentation proves once again that to refuse the prize, you have to be very «strange», even compared to the geniuses who are traditionally famous for unconventional behavior. Not surprisingly, Sartre has had only one follower so far.

In 1974, the Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho refused his part of the Peace Prize, which he was awarded together with Henry Kissinger. He was outraged that awards were already being handed out for resolving the conflict, even though the Vietnam War was still ongoing. Kissinger, on the other hand, was not perturbed. And he accepted the award two years before the war ended. No one else has been added to the company of Sartre and Tho in the last 50 years.


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