Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XVII



His face had taken on definite lines; had become as it will remain in the memory of men: the large countenance, crossed by the arch of a double furrow; the white, bristling eyebrows; the patriarchal beard, recalling that of the Moses of Dijon. The aged face was gentler and softer; it bore the traces of illness, of sorrow, of disappointment, and of affectionate kindness. What a change from the almost animal brutality of the same face at twenty, and the heavy rigidity of the soldier of Sebastopol! But the eyes have always the same profound fixity, the same look of loyalty, which hides nothing and from which nothing is hidden.

Nine years before his death, in his reply to the Holy Synod (April 17, 1901) Tolstoy had said:

“I owe it to my faith to live in peace and gladness, and to be able also, in peace and gladness, to travel on towards death.”

Reading this I am reminded of the ancient saying: “that we should call no man happy until he is dead.”

Were they lasting, this peace and joy that he then boasted of possessing?

The hopes of the "great Revolution" of 1905 had vanished. The shadows had gathered more thickly; the expected light had never risen. To the upheavals of the revolutionaries exhaustion had succeeded. Nothing of the old injustice was altered, except that poverty had increased. Even in 1906 Tolstoy had lost a little of his confidence in the historic vocation of the Russian Slavs, and his obstinate faith sought abroad for other peoples whom he might invest with this mission. He thought of the "great and wise Chinese nation." He believed "that the peoples of the Orient were called to recover that liberty which the peoples of the Occident had lost almost without chance of recovery"; and that China, at the head of the Asiatic peoples, would accomplish the transformation of humanity in the way of Tao, the eternal Law.[1]

A hope quickly destroyed: the China of Lao-Tse and Confucius was decrying its bygone wisdom, as Japan had already done in order to imitate Europe.[2] The persecuted Doukhobors had migrated to Canada, and there, to the scandal of Tolstoy, they immediately reverted to the property system.[3] The Gourians were scarcely delivered from the yoke of the State when they began to destroy those who did not think as they did; and the Russian troops were called out to put matters in order. The very Jews, "whose native country had hitherto been the fairest a man could desire the Book,"[4] "were attacked by the malady of Zionism, that movement of false nationalism, "which is flesh of the flesh of contemporary Europanism, or rather its rickety child."[5]

Tolstoy was saddened, but not discouraged. He had faith in God and in the future.

"All would be perfect if one could grow a forest in the wink of an eye. Unhappily, this is impossible; we must wait until the seed germinates, until the shoots push up, the leaves come, and then the stem which finally becomes a tree."[6]

But many trees are needed to make a forest; and Tolstoy was alone; glorious, but alone. Men wrote to him from all parts of the world; from Mohamedan countries, from China and Japan, where Resurrection was translated, and where his ideas upon "the restitution of the land to the people" were being propagated.[7] The American papers interviewed him; the French consulted him on matters of art, or the separation of Church and State.[8]

But he had not three hundred disciples, and he knew it. Moreover, he did not take pains to make them. He repulsed the attempts of his friends to form groups of Tolstoyans.

"We must not go in search of one another, but we must all seek God. . . . You say: 'Together it is easier.'—What? To labour, to reap, yes. But to draw near to God—one can only do so in isolation. . . . I see the world as an enormous temple in which the light falls from on high and precisely in the middle. To become united we must all go towards the light. Then all of us, come together from all directions, will find ourselves in the company of men we did not look for; in that is the joy."[9]

How many have found themselves together under the ray which falls from the dome? What matter! It is enough to be one and alone if one is with God.

"As only a burning object can communicate fire to other objects, so only the true faith and life of a man can communicate themselves to other men and to spread the truth."[10]

Perhaps; but to what point was this isolated faith able to assure Tolstoy of happiness? How far he was, in his latter days, from the voluntary calm of a Goethe! One would almost say that he avoided it, fled from it, hated it.

"One must thank God for being discontented with oneself. If one could always be so! The discord of life with what ought to be is precisely the sign of life itself, the movement upwards from the lesser to the greater, from worse to better. And this discord is the condition of good. It is an evil when a man is calm and satisfied with himself."[11]

He imagines the following subject for a novel—showing that the persistent discontent of a Levine or a Besoukhov was not yet extinct in him:

"I often picture to myself a man brought up in revolutionary circles, and at first a revolutionist, then a populist, then a socialist, then orthodox, then a monk at Afone, then an atheist, a good paterfamilias, and finally a Doukhobor. He takes up everything and is always forsaking everything; men deride him, for he has performed nothing, and dies, forgotten, in a hospital. Dying, he thinks he has wasted his life. And yet he is a saint."[12] Had he still doubts—he, so full of faith? Who knows? In a man who has remained robust in body and mind even into old age life cannot come to a halt at a definite stage of thought. Life goes onwards.

"Movement is life."[13]

Many things must have changed within him during the last few years. Did he not modify his opinion of revolutionaries? Who can even say that his faith in non-resistance to evil was not at length a little shaken? Even in Resurrection the relations of Nekhludov with the condemned "politicals" completely change his ideas as to the Russian revolutionary party.

"Up till that time he had felt an aversion for their cruelty, their criminal dissimulation, their attempts upon life, their sufficiency, their self-contentment, their insupportable vanity. But when he saw them more closely, when he saw how they were treated by the authorities, he understood that they could not be otherwise."

And he admires their high ideal of duty, which implies total self-sacrifice.

Since 1900, however, the revolutionary tide had risen; starting from the "intellectuals," it had gained the people, and was obscurely moving amidst the thousands of the poor. The advance-guard of their threatening army defiled below Tolstoy's window at Yasnaya Polyana. Three tales, published by the Mercure de France,[14] which were among the last pages written by Tolstoy, give us a glimpse of the sorrow and the perplexity which this spectacle caused him. The years were indeed remote when the pilgrims wandered through the countryside of Toula, pious and simple of heart. Now he saw the invasion of starving wanderers. They came to him every day. Tolstoy, who chatted with them, was struck by the hatred that animated them; they no longer, as before, saw the rich as "people who save their souls by distributing alms, but as bandits, brigands, who drink the blood of the labouring people." Many were educated men, ruined, on the brink of that despair which makes a man capable of anything.

"It is not in the deserts and the forests, but in slums of cities and on the great highways that the barbarians are reared who will do to modern civilisation what the Huns and Vandals did to the ancient civilisation."

So said Henry George. And Tolstoy adds:

"The Vandals are already here in Russia, and they will be particularly terrible among our profoundly religious people, because we know nothing of the curbs, the convenances and public opinion, which are so strongly developed among European peoples."

Tolstoy often received letters from these rebels, protesting against his doctrine of non-resistance to evil, and saying that the evil that the rulers and the wealthy do to the people can only be replied to by cries of "Vengeance! Vengeance! Vengeance!" Did Tolstoy still condemn them? We do not know. But when, a few days later, he saw in his own village the villagers weeping while their sheep and their samovars were seized and taken from them by callous authorities, he also cried vengeance in vain against these thieves, "these ministers and their acolytes, who are engaged in the brandy traffic, or in teaching men to murder, or condemning men to deportation, prison, or the gallows—these men, all perfectly convinced that the samovars, sheep, calves, and linen which they took from the miserable peasants would find their highest use in furthering the distillation of brandy which poisons the drinker, in the manufacture of murderous weapons, in the construction of jails and convict prisons, and above all in the distribution of appointments to their assistants and themselves."

It is sad, after a whole life lived in the expectation and the proclamation of the reign of love, to be forced to close ones eye's in the midst of these threatening visions, and to feel one's whole position crumbling. It is still sadder for one with the impeccably truthful conscience of a Tolstoy to be forced to confess to oneself that one's life has not been lived entirely in accordance with one's principles.

Here we touch upon the most pitiful point of these latter years—should we say of the last thirty years?—and we can only touch upon it with a pious and tentative hand, for this sorrow, of which Tolstoy endeavoured to keep the secret, belongs not only to him who is dead, but to others who are living, whom he loved, and who loved him.

He was never able to communicate his faith to those who were dearest to him—his wife and children. We have seen how the loyal comrade, who had so valiantly shared his artistic life and labour, suffered when he denied his faith in art for a different and a moral faith, which she did not understand. Tolstoy suffered no less at feeling that he was misunderstood by his nearest friend.

"I feel in all my being," he wrote to Teneromo, "the truth of these words: that the husband and the wife are not separate beings, but are as one. . . . I wish most earnestly that I had the power to transmit to my wife a portion of that religious conscience which gives me the possibility of sometimes raising myself above the sorrows of life. I hope that it will be given her; very probably not by me, but by God, although this conscience is hardly accessible to women."[15]

It seems that this wish was never gratified. Countess Tolstoy loved and admired the purity of heart, the candid heroism, and the goodness of the great man who was "as one with her; she saw that "he marched ahead of the host and showed men the way they should follow";[16] when the Holy Synod excommunicated him she bravely undertook his defence and insisted on sharing the danger which threatened him. But she could not force herself to believe what she did not believe; and Tolstoy was too sincere to urge her to pretend—he who loathed the petty deceits of faith and love even more than the negation of faith and love.[17] How then could he constrain her, not believing, to modify her life, to sacrifice her fortune and that of her children?

With his children the rift was wider still. M. Leroy-Beaulieu, who saw Tolstoy with his family at Yasnaya Polyana, says that "at table, when the father was speaking, the sons barely concealed their weariness and unbelief."[18] His faith had only slightly affected two or three of his daughters, of whom one, Marie, was dead. He was morally isolated in the heart of his family." "He had scarcely any one but his youngest daughter and his doctor"[19] to understand him.

He suffered from this mental loneliness; and he suffered from the social relations which were forced upon him; the reception of fatiguing visitors from every quarter of the globe; Americans, and the idly curious, who wore him out; he suffered from the "luxury" in which his family life forced him to live. It was a modest luxury, if we are to believe the accounts of those who saw him in his simple house, with its almost austere appointments; in his little room, with its iron bed, its cheap chairs, and its naked walls! But even this poor comfort weighed upon him; it was a cause of perpetual remorse. In the second of the tales published by the Mercure de France he bitterly contrasts the spectacle of the poverty about him with the luxury of his own house.

"My activity," he wrote as early as 1903, "however useful it may appear to certain people, loses the greater part of its importance by the fact that my life is not entirely in agreement with my professions."[20]

Why did he not realise this agreement? If he could not induce his family to cut themselves off from the world, why did he not leave them, go out of their life, thus avoiding the sarcasm and the reproach of hypocrisy expressed by his enemies, who were only too glad to follow his example and make it an excuse for denying his doctrines?

He had thought of so doing. For a long time he was quite resolved. A remarkable letter[21] of his has recently been found and published; it was written to his wife on the 8th of June, 1897. The greater part of it is printed below. Nothing could better express the secret of this loving and unhappy heart:

"For a long time, dear Sophie, I have been suffering from the discord between my life and my beliefs. I cannot force you to change your life or your habits. Neither have I hitherto been able to leave you, for I felt that by my departure I should deprive the children, still very young, of the little influence I might be able to exert over them, and also that I should cause you all a great deal of pain. But I cannot continue to live as I have lived during these last sixteen years,[22] now struggling against you and irritating you, now succumbing myself to the influences and the seductions to which I am accustomed and which surround me. I have resolved now to do what I have wished to do for a long time: to go away. . . . Just as the Hindoos, when they arrive at their sixtieth year, go away into the forest; just as every aged and religious man wishes to consecrate the last years of his life to God and not to jesting, punning, family tittle-tattle, and lawn-tennis; so do I with all my strength desire peace and solitude, and, if not an absolute harmony, at least not this crying discord between my whole life and my conscience. If I had gone away openly there would have been supplications, discussions, arguments; I should have weakened, and perhaps I should not have carried out my decision, and it ought to be carried out. I beg you therefore to forgive me if my action grieves you. And you in particular, Sophie—let me go, do not try to find me, do not be angry with me, and do not blame me. The fact that I have left you does not prove that I have any grievance against you. . . . I know that you could not, could not see and think with me; this is why you could not change your life, could not sacrifice yourself to something you did not understand. I do not blame you at all; on the contrary, I remember with love and gratitude the thirty-five long years of our life together, and above all the first half of that period, when, with the courage and devotion of your mother's nature, you valiantly fulfilled what you saw as your mission. You have given to me and the world what you had to give. You have given much maternal love and made great sacrifices. . . . But in the latter period of our life, in the last fifteen years, our paths have lain apart. I cannot believe that I am the guilty one; I know that I have changed; it was not your doing, nor the world's; it was because I could not do otherwise. I cannot blame you for not having followed me, and I shall always remember with love what you have given me. . . . Goodbye, my dear Sophie. I love you."

"The fact that I have left you." He did not leave her. Poor letter! It seemed to him that it was enough to write, and his resolution would be fulfilled. . . . Having written, his resolution was already exhausted. "If I had gone away openly there would have been supplications, I should have weakened." . . . There was no need of supplications, of discussion; it was enough for him to see, a moment later, those whom he wished to leave; he felt that he could not, could not leave them; and he took the letter in his pocket and buried it among his papers, with this subscription:

"Give this, after my death, to my wife Sophie Andreyevna."

And this was the end of his plan of departure. Was he not strong enough? Was he not capable of sacrificing his affections to his God? In the Christian annals there is no lack of saints with tougher hearts, who never hesitated to trample fearlessly underfoot both their own affections and those of others. But how could he? He was not of their company; he was weak: he was a man; and it is for that reason that we love him.

More than fifteen years earlier, on a page full of heart-breaking wretchedness, he had asked himself: "Well, Leo Tolstoy, are you living according to the principles you profess?"

He replied miserably:

"I am dying of shame; I am guilty; I am contemptible. . . . Yet compare my former life with my life of to-day. You will see that I am trying to live according to the laws of God. I have not done the thousandth part of what I ought to do, and I am confused; but I have failed to do it not because I did not wish to do it, but because I could not. . . . Blame me, but not the path I am taking. If I know the road to my house, and if I stagger along it like a drunken man, does that show that the road is bad? Show me another, or follow me along the true path, as I am ready to follow you. But do not discourage me, do not rejoice in my distress, do not joyfully cry out: 'Look! He said he was going to the house, and he is falling into the ditch!' No, do not be glad, but help me, support me! . . . Help me! My heart is torn with despair lest we should all be astray; and when I make every effort to escape you, at each effort, instead of having compassion, point at me with your finger crying, 'Look, he is falling into the ditch with us!'"[23]

When death was nearer, he wrote once more:

"I am not a saint: I have never professed to be one. I am a man who allows himself to be carried away, and who often does not say all that he thinks and feels; not because he does not want to, but because he cannot, because it often happens that he exaggerates or is mistaken. In my actions it is still worse. I am altogether a weak man with vicious habits, who wishes to serve the God of truth, but who is constantly stumbling. If I am considered as a man who cannot be mistaken, then each of my mistakes must appear as a lie or a hypocrisy. But if I am regarded as a weak man, I appear then what I am in reality: a pitiable creature, yet sincere; who has constantly and with all his soul desired, and who still desires, to become a good man, a good servant of God."

Thus he remained, tormented by remorse, pursued by the mute reproaches of disciples more energetic and less human than himself;[24] tortured by his weakness and indecision, torn between the love of his family and the love of God—until the day when a sudden fit of despair, and perhaps the fever which rises at the approach of death, drove him forth from the shelter of his house, out upon the roads, wandering, fleeing, knocking at the doors of a convent, then resuming his flight, and at last falling upon the way, in an obscure little village, never to rise again.[25] On his death-bed he wept, not for himself, but for the unhappy; and he said, in the midst of his sobs:

"There are millions of human beings on earth who are suffering: why do you think only of me?"

Then it came—it was Sunday, November 20, 1910, a little after six in the morning—the "deliverance," as he named it: "Death, blessed Death."

  1. Letter to the Chinese, October, 1906. (Further Letters.)
  2. Tolstoy expressed a fear that this might happen in the above letter.
  3. "It was hardly worth while to refuse military and police service only to revert to property, which is maintained only by those two services. Those who enter the service and profit by property act better than those who refuse all service and enjoy property." (Letter to the Doukhobors of Canada, 1899. Further Letters.)
  4. In the Conversations with Teneromo there is a fine page dealing with "the wise Jew, who, immersed in this Book, has not seen the centuries crumble above his head, nor the peoples that appear and disappear from the face of the earth."
  5. To see the progress of Europe in the horrors of the modern State, the bloodstained State, and to wish to create a new Judenstaat is an abominable sin." (Ibid.)
  6. Appeal to Political Men, 1905.
  7. In the appendix to The Great Crime and in the French translation of Advice to the Ruled is the appeal of a Japanese society for the Re-establishment of the Liberty of the Earth.
  8. Letter to Paul Sabatier, November 7, 1906. (Further Letters.)
  9. Letters to Teneromo, June, 1882, and to a friend, November, 1901. (Further Letters.)
  10. War and Revolution.
  11. War and Revolution.
  12. Perhaps this refers to the History of a Doukhobor, the title of which figures in the list of Tolstoy's unpublished works.
  13. "Suppose that all the men who had the truth were to be installed all together on an island. Would that be life?" (To a friend, March, 1901. Further Letters.)
  14. December 1, 1910.
  15. May 16, 1892. Tolstoy's wife was then mourning the loss of a little boy, and he could do nothing to console her.
  16. Letter of January, 1883.
  17. "I should never reproach any one for having no religion. The shocking thing is when men lie and pretend to religion." And further: "May God preserve us from pretending to love; it is worse than hatred."
  18. Revue des Deux Mondes, December 15, 1910.
  19. Ibid.
  20. To a friend, December 10, 1903.
  21. Figaro, December 27, 1910. It was found among Tolstoy's papers after his death.
  22. This state of suffering dates, as we see, from 1881; that is, from the winter passed in Moscow, and Tolstoy's discovery of social wretchedness.
  23. Letter to a friend, 1895 (the French version being published in Plaisirs cruels, 1895).
  24. It seems that during his last few years, and especially during the last few months, he was influenced by Vladimir-Grigorovitch Tchertkoff, a devoted friend, who, long established in England, had consecrated his fortune to the publication and distribution of Tolstoy's complete works. Tchertkoff had been violently attacked by Leo, Tolstoy's eldest son. But although he was accused of being a rebellious and unmanageable spirit, no one could doubt his absolute devotion; and without approving of the almost inhuman harshness of certain actions apparently committed under his inspiration (such as the will by which Tolstoy deprived his wife of all property in his writings without exception, including his private correspondence), we are forced to believe that he thought more of Tolstoy's fame than Tolstoy himself.
  25. The Correspondance of the Union pour la Verité publishes, in its issue for January 1, 1911, an interesting account of this flight.

    Tolstoy left Yasnaya Polyana suddenly on October 28, 1910 (November 10th European style) about five o'clock in the morning. He was accompanied by Dr. Makovitski; his daughter Alexandra, whom Tchertkoff calls "his most intimate collaborator," was in the secret. At six in the evening of the same day he reached the monastery of Optina, one of the most celebrated sanctuaries of Russia, which he had often visited in pilgrimage. He passed the night there; the next morning he wrote a long article on the death penalty. On the evening of October 29th (November 11th) he went to the monastery of Chamordino, where his sister Marie was a nun. He dined with her, and spoke of how he would have wished to pass the end of his life at Optina, "performing the humblest tasks, on condition that he was not forced to go to church." He slept at Chamordino, and next morning took a walk through the neighbouring village, where he thought of taking a lodging; returning to his sister in the afternoon. At five o'clock his daughter Alexandra unexpectedly arrived. She doubtless told him that his retreat was known, and that he was being followed; they left at once in the night. "Tolstoy, Alexandra, and Makoviktsi were making for the Koselk station, probably intending to gain the southern provinces, or perhaps the Doukhobor colonies in the Caucasus." On the way Tolstoy fell ill at the railway-station of Astapovo and was forced to take to his bed. It was there that he died.