The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 16

London: Cassell, pages 136–141



Towards the end of the century, Tolstoy's influence was universally recognised. In Russia, people of all classes—especially those whose consciences were awakened and who were dissatisfied with the existing ways of living—began to pay deep attention to his words, and addressed themselves to him for help and encouragement in their initial efforts.

In order to paralyse Tolstoy's influence, the Russian State Church decided to take measures against him. On March 5th, 1901, the Holy Synod issued a ukase excommunicating Tolstoy from the Greek Orthodox Church on account of his false doctrines and un-repentance. This involved deprivation of the protection of the Church, its prayers, and burial in conformity with Orthodox rites.

The excommunication provoked quite unexpected results. On the day of the promulgation of the ukase in Moscow, serious disorders took place amongst the students, who were joined by the workers. Excited crowds paraded the main streets and squares. Tolstoy had gone for his usual daily walk and, crossing the square near the Kremlin, he was recognised by the crowd, surrounded, acclaimed, and treated with the greatest manifestations of respect and sympathy. With difficulty he succeeded in freeing himself and driving home. There, already, deputations were awaiting him, and greetings and manifestations continued the whole day. Flowers, presents, and expressions of sympathy poured in from all sides and, as Tolstoy himself said, he was feted as if it were his birthday. These tokens of feeling grew as the news of the ukase gradually spread to more distant parts of the country.

To the ukase Tolstoy replied by a short but powerful exposition of his conception of Christianity. In this document he made the remarkable statement that not only did he not wish to consider himself a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, but he also even hesitated to call himself a Christian, as this term might obscure truth, dear to him above all. From truth, he said, no existing power could excommunicate him.

It was soon after this epoch-marking incident in his life that Tolstoy fell dangerously ill. When he began to recover, his family decided that he should spend the winter in the south, and on the doctor's advice the whole family removed, in September, 1901, to the Crimea, and settled at Gaspra, in the villa which Countess Panin had kindly put at Tolstoy's disposal. At every halting-place on the journey, especially at Kharkoff, crowds of people enthusiastically greeted the venerable teacher.

At the beginning of his stay in the Crimea, under the influence of the mild and warm climate, he began to recover rapidly. But later he fell ill with typhus and inflammation of the lungs. These illnesses weakened him terribly, and there were times when his family expected a fatal end; but Tolstoy's strong constitution asserted itself, and he was soon able to resume his work.

During his convalescence he wrote an article in the form of a letter, "To the Tsar and his Associates," in which he described the wretched condition of the Russian people, and suggested a series of reforms which were partially initiated by the Manifesto of November 1st, 1905. He wrote also a number of addresses to people of different professions, working people, clergy, politicians, soldiers, officers, and another letter to the Tsar. In all these appeals he tried to show the right way of living, according to Christ's teaching.

During his long illness, when he felt himself near the portals of eternity, hours of quiet thought raised and purified his soul. In a letter to the present biographer he wrote:

"I must say one thing: my illness was a great help to me. Much that was foolish left me when I placed myself sincerely face to face with God, or the All of which I am but a transient particle. I saw much evil in myself, which formerly I did not observe. I felt much relieved afterwards. Generally one should say to one's beloved, 'I do not wish you health, but illness.'"

In the autumn of 1902 he returned to Yasnaya Polyana, where he speedily recovered his health and former energy.

On the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, he shared the general grief and moral suffering of the best part of the Russian people, and with indignation in his heart he issued his severe "Bethink Yourselves." But life follows its own unknown laws, and we submit to accomplished facts. The Japanese war came to an end, but the physical and moral tension which it had provoked broke loose in a popular agitation.

True to his conviction that the principal object for man is the understanding of the aim of life, Tolstoy continued his work and published a collection of thoughts and aphorisms of the great thinkers of the world. In this collection were brought together for the first time in the Russian language the ideas of the leading thinkers of humanity: Christ, Socrates, Rousseau, Pascal, Buddha, Lao-tsze, and many others.

The wave of social and political agitation grew apace, and caught in its vortex ever larger and larger masses of the people. At last came the fatal January 21st, 1905, with Gapon's demonstration and its sanguinary suppression. All Russia was shaken by the volleys in the streets of St. Petersburg. The whole nation was aroused; new political parties sprang up; strikes took place, as well as armed risings, expropriations, agrarian disorders, and brigandage. The Imperial Manifesto of November 1st was followed by pogroms, the first Duma, then the Vyborg appeal, and afterwards deportations, imprisonment, exceptional laws, and executions.

It was difficult at that time to find one's bearings, and to avoid joining one or other of the struggling parties. But Tolstoy was true to himself. He had to bear reproaches, threats, and abuse from all sides, and people carried away by politics temporarily fell away from him, as he could not share their opinions or those of any political party.

The life of Tolstoy 187.jpg

Tolstoy's Tomb.

Pure and hard as a crystal, he wrote to all those people at strife and enmity among themselves, gently reproaching them, and pointing out the only way of salvation—submission to the will of the Father of Life, and an existence based on reason and love.