The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 18



The principal work of the last years of Tolstoy's life was the re-editing of "A Cycle of Reading"; he wished to present with greater lucidity the treasure of the world's thoughts collected by him during many years. Modest in appreciation of his own work, to this "Cycle of Reading" he gave a great importance.

"All my chatterings," he said, with his habitual severity to himself, "will be forgotten, but this work will survive."

And it is the opinion of many of us that in it he has laid the foundation of the universal religion of which he dreamt in his youth.

Simultaneously with this strenuous intellectual labour, and while carrying on a voluminous correspondence, a process of spiritual illumination was incessantly taking place within Tolstoy. His kindness, goodwill, and affability towards his innumerable visitors, his modesty and austerity regarding himself, reached, in the last year of his life, the highest degree. This ennobling moral evolution rendered him more and more sensitive to his surroundings, which were in such contrast with his moral conceptions.

This contrast he had felt acutely from the moment of his first spiritual awakening at the end of the seventies. Even then he had begun to think of the necessity of changing his surroundings, or of leaving them altogether. The latter always seemed to him so easy and attractive that he did not trust the impulse, deeming it a highly selfish act to procure peace and freedom for himself at the expense of his family's grief and suffering. Therefore he kept this solution of the problem in abeyance until such time as he might become convinced that all the means he employed for the first method of solution had failed. But this period of suspense was often interrupted by painful scenes. At first these were of rare occurrence, then more frequent, until, in the last year of his life, they became almost incessant; and those for the sake of whom he had sacrificed all that was most dear rendered his life unbearable.

All who knew Tolstoy intimately are convinced that the idea to leave his home had been ripening in his mind for a long time. The proof of this is contained in a recently published letter to his wife, Countess Sophie, written in 1897, which, however, he never sent to her. It bears the inscription, "To be delivered after my death." This letter explains so clearly and calmly the reasons for his departure that it is necessary to quote it in full:

"Dear Sonya,—Already for a long time I have been tortured by the contradiction existing between my life and my religious convictions. I could not oblige you to change your life—the habits to which I myself accustomed you—neither could I leave you till now, lest I should deprive the children whilst they were young of such small influence as I had on them, and grieve you. But I cannot continue living as I have lived these sixteen years, sometimes quarrelling with and irritating you, sometimes submitting to the comfort to which I am accustomed and with which I am surrounded; and now I have decided to carry out that which for a long time I have wished to do—to go away; firstly, because with my advancing years this life grows more and more trying, and I long for isolation; secondly, because the children are grown up, my influence at home is no longer necessary, and you all have more absorbing interests which will make my absence unnoticeable. But especially, like the Hindus who at the age of sixty retire to the forests, like every religious old man desires to devote the last years of his life to God, and not to jokes, games, gossip, or tennis, so I, reaching my seventieth year, with all the strength of my soul am seeking rest, isolation, and, if not absolute harmony, at least not a crying contradiction of my life with my convictions and conscience. If I carried out this plan openly there would be entreaties, disapproval, disputes, complaints, and I might be shaken and not accomplish my end.

"So I pray you all forgive me if my act will grieve you—especially you, Sonya. Consent with good will to my going; do not search for me; do not complain; and do not condemn me.

"If I leave you, it is not a proof that I am dissatisfied with you. I know that you could not—literally could not and cannot—see and feel as I do, and consequently you could not and cannot change your life and make sacrifices for that which you cannot conceive. Therefore I do not blame you, but on the contrary gratefully and lovingly remember the thirty-five years of our life together especially the first part, when you, with your inborn mother's devotion, so energetically and steadfastly followed what you considered your vocation. You have given me and the world what you could give; you gave much motherly love and abnegation, and that cannot be sufficiently appreciated. But during the last period of our life—the last fifteen years—we have become estranged. I cannot think that I am wrong, because I know that I changed not for my own sake, not for that of others, but because I could not do otherwise. And neither can I blame you that you did not follow me; on the contrary, I thank you, and with love remember and will remember what you have given me.

"Good-bye, dear Sonya.
"Yours lovingly,
"Leo Tolstoy."
"820 July, 1897."

A similar letter Tolstoy wrote to his wife in July, 1910, enjoining her in the kindest, most touching, and loving terms to put aside her anxieties, and to be tranquil, adding that if she could not adopt this peaceful way he had decided to leave home.

A week before carrying out his decision he spoke in detail about it to his friend Michael Novikoff, the peasant, to whom he said that he had firmly made up his mind to leave his home in the near future. On taking leave of him he added:

"We shall soon see each other again."

On November 6th he wrote to Novikoff:

"In connection with what I told you the other day I have to make the following request: If I really should come to you, could you not find for me in your village a separate and warm hut, however small, so that I need not inconvenience you for long? One thing more: if it should be necessary to send you a telegram I shall not sign it with my name, but 'T. Nikolaef.' I shall await your answer. Friendly handshake.

"Do not forget that this must be between ourselves."

On the morning of November 10th Tolstoy's final decision was taken. He rose early, and hurriedly made preparations for the journey. First of all he wrote a letter to his wife:

"4 o'clock. Morning of November 10, 1910.

"My departure grieves you. I am sorry, but that I cannot act in another way, understand and believe. My position at home is becoming, and has become, unbearable. And, besides, I cannot continue to live in the condition of luxury in which I have lived, and I am going to do now what old people of my age usually do—retire from worldly life, in order to spend in peace and quietness the remainder of their existence.

"Please understand me and do not follow me, even if you know where I am. Such a course would make your and my position yet worse, but would not change my resolution.

"I thank you for your forty-eight years honest life with me, and beg you to pardon me all my shortcomings, as I, from the depth of my soul, pardon whatever may have appeared to me faulty in you. I advise you to resign yourself to the new condition created by my departure, and not to feel any resentment against me. If you wish to communicate with me, tell Sasha; she will know where I am and forward what is necessary. She cannot tell you where I am, as I took her promise not to divulge this to anyone.

"Leo Tolstoy.

"P.S.—I told Sasha to collect and send me my manuscripts and things."

Then he awoke his friend, Dr. Makovitski, and his daughter Sasha, and with their assistance packed, went to the stable, and ordered a carriage to take him and the doctor to the station at Schekino. He was trembling during the drive, from fear of pursuit. At last he was in the train; the train started. There had been no pursuit, and he calmed himself. Doubt as to the righteousness of his decision he had none, but pity awoke in him for his deserted wife. Towards evening the travellers

The life of Tolstoy p191

Facsimile of Tolstoy's Will.

reached the Optin Monastery, spent the night there, and the following day continued the journey twelve miles further to the Shamardin Convent. Among the nuns there was Tolstoy's sister, Marie. She received him lovingly, and he felt so satisfied there that he intended to stay some time and even began to make inquiries for a hut in the nearest village.

But his health since his departure from home had not been satisfactory, and it became necessary to travel further. At first he had experienced only a feeling of weakness, then drowsiness, but soon after leaving Shamardin Convent he felt cold and feverish. Once more the journey had to be broken. The doctor and Sasha decided to stop at Astapovo, a station on the Ural-Kyazan railway. Tolstoy's intention had been to travel south without any fixed plan, hoping to come to a definite decision on the way. The good-natured station-master, Ivan Osolin, offered his apartments to Tolstoy, and his little house has consequently become a place of historic interest, and its fame is world-wide.

Leo Tolstoy's end was near, for inflammation of the lungs set in. Gently and patiently bearing the physical suffering, he quietly ebbed away. In moments of consciousness and strength he conversed with those around him, was interested in letters, sometimes joked, and sometimes, impressed by the solemnity of the moment, uttered words of deep wisdom. His diary, kept till four days before his death, ends with the words:

"Also my plan, fais ce que doit, adv——[1] All is for the best, for others, and especially for myself."

During the last days he more than once repeated: "All is well . . . all is simple and well . . . well . . . yes, yes."

His death was so calm and peaceful that it actually had a tranquillising effect on those around him. After successive hours of heavy respiration, the breathing grew suddenly light and easy. A few minutes later this light breathing also ceased. There was an interval of absolute silence—no efforts, no struggle. Then two scarcely audible, deep, long-drawn sighs . . .

On November 22nd the body was conveyed to the Saseka railway station, where it was met by a group of relations and near friends and a large crowd—mostly peasants, students, and deputations from Moscow.

The imposing simplicity of the funeral made a touching and exalting impression. The chanting of the "De Profundis" by the many thousands following the rude coffin, which was borne by peasants, heightened the impression. At the head of the cortege were two peasants, bearing an improvised banner of coarse linen, attached to two birch poles, with the inscription:

The Memory of your Good Deeds will not
die amongst us.

Orphaned Peasants of Yasnaya Polyana.

The coffin was brought home to Yasnaya Polyana, and placed in a room on the ground floor. It was left open, and a vast number of people filed past to gaze once again, and for the last time, on the great teacher's beloved features.

To the singing of funeral hymns the body was carried out by Tolstoy's sons. The assembled people knelt as it passed. Through the garden, through the wood, the coffin was carried, to the small ravine at the edge of the wood where, near the road, the grave had been prepared. On this spot, according to Leo Tolstoy, his brother Nicolas had buried the imaginary green wand on which was inscribed the way to make men happy. With contented, happy thoughts the great teacher of life had passed into eternity, and beside that symbol of universal happiness he had desired to be buried.

When the body was lowered into the grave the people again knelt and, in deep silence, thousands of heads were bent in prayer. In the solemn hush, the thud of the frozen earth thrown on the lowered coffin was heard.

Soon the clods were heaped up over the grave and covered with wreaths and flowers. Beneath lay all the earthly remains of the beloved Grand Old Man. But his spirit is alive and hovering over us; he is present; his words are sounding in our ears. It is our duty to strive with all our strength to realise his ideal of Love and Reason.

  1. Fais ce que doit, advienne que pourra.