The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 2



Much about Tolstoy's childhood is to be found in the fragmentary memoirs he wrote for various editions of his works. His novel, "Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth," cannot be considered a true picture of his own early days, as in it reality is blended with imagination.

His recollections went very far back. He faintly remembers how he was swaddled, and bathed in a tub.

"It is a strange and awful thought," he says in his "First Recollections," "that from my birth to the age of three, during which time I was suckled, I began to crawl, to walk, and to speak; yet in spite of all my efforts I cannot find anything to remember except the two facts of swaddling and bathing. When did my existence commence? When did I begin to live? And why should it give me pleasure to represent myself at the beginning of life, and dread seizes me, as it does many others, at the thought of re-entering a non-existence of which there will be no remembrance expressible in words? . . . From a five-year-old child to my present self is only a step; from a new-born infant to a five-year-old child the distance is enormous; from an embryo to a newborn it is immeasurable; but between non-existence and the embryonic state the distance is not only immeasurable but also inconceivable."

In Leo Tolstoy's first clear recollections he saw himself playing with his nurse, Yeremeëvna, and the German male nurse, Theodore Ressel, described in "Childhood" under the name of Carl Mauer. Further, there was Tatiana Yergolsky, a distant relative of the family, but called by them "Auntie," and to Tolstoy the dearest person in the world. According to his own words, after his father and mother, she had the greatest influence on his life.

She was a gentle, loving woman, but at the same time of a strong, decisive character. To Leo Tolstoy she was a second mother. With the exception of a few years which he spent in Kazan and in the Caucasus, they passed their lives together under the same roof of Yasnaya Polyana, where she died in 1875. Tolstoy describes her beneficent power over him in the following words:

"Aunt Tatiana had the greatest influence on my life. It was she who taught me while yet in my childhood the moral joy of love. Not by words, but by her whole being she imbued me with love. I saw, I felt, how happy she was in loving, and I understood the joy of love. That was the first lesson. The second is that she taught me the beauty of a quiet, lonely life."

Another person who had a strong and good influence on his childhood was his elder brother, Nicolas. In the following words Tolstoy speaks of this elder brother and the childish games he was in the habit of inventing for his younger brothers:

"Nicolas was six years older than I. He must have been between ten and eleven years, and I between four and five, when he was leading us to 'Fanfaron Hill.' I do not know how it happened, but we children used to address him with: 'you.'[1] He was a remarkable boy and, later, a remarkable man. Turgenef quite correctly observed that he only lacked the imperfections necessary for the making of an author. He did not possess the principal and necessary defect—vanity; he was not at all interested in what people thought of him. But the qualities of an author which he did possess were a refined, artistic instinct, an exceedingly delicate sense of proportion, a good-natured, gay humour, exceptional and inexhaustible imagination, and high moral conceptions; and all this without any conceit. He had such an imagination, that for hours he could tell humorous tales and ghost stories in the style of Mrs. Radcliffe, with so much earnestness and such an air of reality that one forgot it was fiction.

"When I was five years old, and my brothers Dimitri and Sergius six and seven, Nicolas announced to us that he possessed the secret which, if known, would make everybody happy. There would be no illness, no trouble, nobody would feel anger against another, and people would begin to love each other and live in 'Ants' Brotherhood.' (Probably he meant Moravian Brotherhood,[2] about which he had read or heard; but in our children's minds it was 'Ants' Brotherhood.') I remember that the word 'ants' especially pleased us, reminding us of the ants in their hills. We even invented a game of 'Ants' Brotherhood.' We crept under chairs, placed boxes around them, covered up all chinks with handkerchiefs, and sat in the darkness pressed against each other. I remember that I used then to have a particular feeling of love and tenderness, and I liked the play very much.

"The secret of the 'Ants' Brotherhood' had been disclosed to us; but the great secret—how to banish all unhappiness from life, all disputes and anger, and to make people happy for ever—this secret, as he told us, he had written on a green stick, and the green stick was buried near the road along the hollow by the old wood. As my body must find somewhere a resting-place, I beg that I may be buried on that spot in memory of my brother Nicolas.

"Besides this stick there was somewhere a 'Fanfaron Hill,' to which he might lead us if we could fulfil certain conditions. These conditions were: First, to stand in a corner and not to think of a white bear; (I remember how I stood in the corner, and tried hard not to think of that white bear, but without success; (second, to walk along a straight line without stumbling; and third—which was easy—during a whole year not to see a hare, whether dead, alive, or roasted. At the end of all to swear not to disclose these secrets to anyone.

"The ideal of the ant brethren clinging lovingly together, not under two chairs covered by handkerchiefs, but under the wide, blue vault of heaven and embracing all mankind, has remained. As I believed then in the existence of a green stick on which was written the secret which would do away with all evil in humanity and give great happiness, so I believe now that there exists such a truth; this will be divulged to mankind and all promises will be fulfilled."

Leo Tolstoy speaks also of his other brothers:

"With Dimitri I was comrade, Nicolas I respected, but Sergius I adored, imitated, loved, and wished to resemble. I worshipped his handsome exterior, his singing (he was always singing), his drawing, his gaiety, but especially, strange to say, his frank egoism. I always used to be self-conscious, and always felt and guessed, rightly or wrongly, what others thought and felt towards me; and that always spoilt the pleasure of my life. That is probably why in others I so much liked the very opposite—frank egoism. For that reason I particularly loved Sergius. The word 'love' is not correct; I loved Nicolas, but Sergius I worshipped as something strange and foreign to my nature. Such a human life appeared to me beautiful, but quite incomprehensible and mysterious, and was therefore especially attractive."

The brother Dimitri, in his youth, was very religious and unselfish; his self-sacrifice bordered on asceticism, which undoubtedly had its influence on Leo.

It is necessary to point out yet one other influence bearing on his early childhood which Tolstoy himself recognises. His family observed all the traditions and customs of the Greek Orthodox Church. One of these customs was the hospitality extended to all sorts of pilgrims—men as well as women, to monks and nuns, and to Yurodivy. The latter is a strange manifestation of piety, but has undoubtedly its historical meaning. It reminds one somewhat of Eastern dervishes, but is quite characteristic of Russian popular life, and it left a deep impression on Tolstoy in his early childhood.

On this subject we read in his memoirs:

"Yurodivy Gregory is a fiction. Many of them passed through our house, and I was taught to look upon them with great respect, for which I am deeply thankful to my elders. Even if hypocrites were amongst them, or if in their lives there were periods of weakness and insincerity, nevertheless the aim of their lives, though practically absurd, was so high that I rejoice that from my very childhood I unconsciously learnt to appreciate the loftiness of their purpose. They carried out the saying of Marcus Aurelius: 'There is nothing higher than to bear contempt for your good life.' The temptation to glorify oneself is so pernicious and unavoidable, and so intermingled with all good acts, that one cannot help feeling sympathy for those who not only try to evade praise, but actually provoke contempt. Such a Yurodivy was my sister's godmother, Maria Gerasimovna, the simpleton Evdokimushka, and some others."

All these influences created the peculiar, charming, poetic-spiritual atmosphere of Leo Tolstoy's early childhood, and made it possible for him to write in such enthusiastic terms on the memories of that time: "Happy, happy past years of childhood! How could I fail to love and cherish their memory! Their remembrance refreshes, lifts up my soul, and is the source of my greatest delight."

The children grew up and required increased attention. For the sake of the more serious studies of the elder brother, Nicolas, the whole family removed to Moscow.

Just at that time three deaths occurred, one following the other: first, Leo Tolstoy's father, eighteen months later the grandmother, and finally the aunt and guardian of the children Baroness Osten-Saken. The guardianship then passed to another aunt, Pelagie Yushkoff. She was living at Kazan and brought all the Tolstoy children there, for whom a new life opened. This happened in 1841. Leo was thirteen years old, and certain definite traits began to appear in his character. Boyhood" gives some autobiographical material. Vanity was one of those character traits of Leo Tolstoy against which he had to fight hard, and which probably more than once troubled his peace of mind. In his childhood this manifested itself in a rough, primitive, naive form. He was particular about his appearance, and was miserable when he saw in the mirror that he was not handsome. His shyness, the opposition of vanity, also caused him much suffering. He early developed a disposition to reason and to analyse, certain definite sceptical conceptions being the result.

This is what the hero of "Boyhood" says:

"No other philosophic system ever carried me so completely away as scepticism, which at one time brought me to a state bordering on madness. I imagined that nobody and nothing existed in the whole world save myself—that objects were not objects, but images appearing only when I paid attention to them, and the moment I ceased to think of them those images immediately disappeared. In a word, I agreed with Schelling's conviction that no objects exist, but only my relation to them. There were moments when, under the influence of this fixed idea, I had reached such a degree of absurdity that I sometimes turned abruptly to the other side in the hope of catching a glimpse of the void."

Developing irregularly, but rapidly, Leo Tolstoy reached adolescence and entered the University of Kazan. His three elder brothers were already there. He first chose the faculty of Eastern Languages, but not passing his examination at the end of the first year, he went over to that of Law. Here things went a little better, but nevertheless, towards the close of the second year, his zeal had considerably cooled. His studies were carried on irregularly. His ardent, passionate and independent nature could not adapt itself to the routine of the instruction given at that time.

On the other hand, the social life of his guardian, Yushkoff, who occupied a prominent position in the highest society circles of Kazan, attracted him to worldly pleasures. Balls, theatres, visits, etc., filled his winter hours, effectually hindering his studies. Besides, being a young man inclined to independent intellectual work, once absorbed in some subject he neglected every other. All this certainly did not tend towards success in his

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Tolstoy as a student. Tolstoy in the uniform of
an artillery officer.

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The Kazan University, in Tolstoy's student days.
studies. Often he missed lectures which he disliked, and once even was put in the University gaol. At repetitions and examinations he received bad marks. But a sympathetic subject once found, he gave himself up entirely to its study, thoroughly thinking it over. Such a subject usually aroused his creative power, and some literary work, of which the manuscripts still exist, was the result—such as, for instance, an essay comparing Montesquieu's "De l'Esprit des Lois" with Catherine's "Instructions" (Nakaz). This was a university thesis chosen by the noted professor of the Kazan University, Meyer, one of the few who had an influence on him.

At that time Leo Tolstoy was already writing a diary, and attempting to describe his observations on his surroundings and the exposition of his philosophic ideas. All these writings are imbued with high moral sentiments. In March, 1847, for instance, he wrote as follows:

"I have changed much, but I have not yet reached the degree of perfection (in my studies) which I want to attain. I do not carry out what I decide to do; what I do, I do not well; I am not training my memory. For that purpose I write down a few rules, which, it seems to me, will greatly help if I keep to them:

"1. What you have decided to do, do in spite of everything.

"2. Whatever you do, do it well.

"3. Never consult a book for what you have forgotten, but try to remember it.

"4. Force always your brains to act to their utmost capacity.

"5. Read and think aloud.

"6. Do not hesitate to tell people if they hinder you. At first give them a hint; if they do not understand (that they hinder you), apologise and tell them so."

Further on he says:

"Society is a part of the universe. Reason must be brought into harmony with the universe—with the whole—so that by studying its laws one may become independent of society, as a part of it."

Here is his definition of the philosophy of that time:

"Man has desires; otherwise said, he is active. Towards what is his activity directed? By what means can this activity be made free? This is the aim of philosophy in its true sense. In other words, philosophy is the science of life."

In his novel, "Youth," Tolstoy places in the mouth of his hero words which undoubtedly reflected his own youthful state of mind. These thoughts are expressed in a fine lyrical form:

"The moon rose higher and higher, growing brighter and brighter in the firmament, the dazzling glitter of the pond, by degrees increasing like a sound, became clearer and clearer; the shadows grew darker and darker, the light more and more transparent; and, contemplating and listening to all this, something whispered to me that 'she,' with bare arms and passionate embrace, was yet far from complete happiness, and my love for her was not yet perfect felicity. The more I gazed at the high, full moon, true beauty and goodness appeared to me higher and higher, purer and purer, nearer and nearer to Him, the source of all beauty and goodness; and the tears of an unsatisfied, but agitating, rapture rose in my eyes.

"And still I was alone, and it appeared to me that mysterious, grand Nature, the alluring, brilliant disc of the moon, resting as if immovable on an undefined point in the pale blue sky, yet at the same time shining everywhere and pervading the whole immeasurable space—and I, a worthless worm, already corrupted by petty and miserable human passions, but possessing a boundless power of loving—it seemed to me at those moments as if—Nature and the moon and I—we all were one."

Dissatisfied with university studies, Tolstoy, taking advantage of the first opportunity that presented itself—the completion of his brother Nicolas' university career—threw up his own studies and went with him to Yasnaya Polyana.

There he did not remain long. The cruel conditions surrounding serfdom, which Tolstoy already felt deeply in his soul, did not permit him to show his sincere sympathy. He was not in circumstances to become a philanthropist for slaves. He described such an unsuccessful attempt in a novelette, entitled, "A Morning of a Landowner." Then he went to St. Petersburg, one may say, to seek happiness. This was the stormiest and the most passionate period of his life. At one moment he intended to travel abroad, at another prepared himself for the university examination, then again proposed to enter on a military career. He played at cards, made debts, was attracted by gipsy singers, and generally was leading an irregular life. And all this was interrupted by gloomy, but very beneficent, moments of consciousness of his moral degradation.

In his diary of that time we find the following lines:

"I am living like a beast, though not entirely depraved; my studies are nearly all abandoned, and spiritually I am very low."

A part of that period Tolstoy spent in Moscow, but there also his life was no better.

During these stormy, worldly pleasures—gambling, attacks of sensuality, passion for hunting—suddenly a period of religious humility akin to asceticism set in. And in this dark background shone, like glittering sparks, the first attempts at artistic creation.

An end came to this changeable, dangerous period of his life upon his unexpected journey to the Caucasus.

  1. In Russian, as in French, in familiar language "thou" is used.—Translator.
  2. The Russian for "Ant" is muravei.—Translator.