The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

MILITARY SERVICE

Tolstoy's elder brother, Nicolas, having finished his university studies, entered the military service and joined the artillery in the Caucasus. In April, 1851, just when the turbulent period in Leo Tolstoy's life had reached its greatest height and threatened to ruin irremediably his moral life, already blossoming with promise—just at that moment his brother Nicolas arrived on leave from the Caucasus. He saw at once the danger of the situation, and persuaded Leo to return with him to the Caucasus. It was not difficult to persuade Leo; he was consumed by passions, and seized his brother's proposal as a last means of salvation.

That same spring they started for the south. Both young men liked to be rather original, and they did not follow the usual route from Moscow straight to Voronesh, but first they went east, to Kazan, where they spent a few days with their guardian Yushkoff. Here Leo Tolstoy fell in love with a young girl, Zenaïde Molostoff, and in the happiest state of mind he started with his brother from Kazan to Saratoff in their own coach. At the latter place they embarked, with their carriage, on a large boat and, sometimes sailing, sometimes rowing, they arrived at Astrakhan. Thence by coach to Kizliar—the place where Nicolas Tolstoy was quartered. This was the journey that was afterwards so picturesquely described by Tolstoy in his novel, "The Cossacks."

Very soon the battery in which Nicolas Tolstoy was serving was transferred to the fortified camp, Stary-Yurt, this detachment being destined to protect from Circassian raids the newly-erected sanatorium at the hot, strong, mineral springs. The camp was situated at the foot of the mountain, beside the springs, and on the slopes of the mountain the houses of the Circassian village Stary-Yurt were picturesquely spread out. In a letter to his aunt Tatiana, Leo Tolstoy describes this beautiful spot in the mountains:

"This is a large mountain of piled-up rocks. Some of these in their fall have formed grottos; some are still hanging high in the air. In many places streams of hot water are rushing down noisily. The white steam from this boiling water envelops and obscures, in the morning especially, the upper part of the rocks. The water is so hot that in three minutes one can boil eggs in it quite hard. In the ravine, on the torrent, three mills, one above the other, are built in a very curious, but attractive way. The whole day Tartar women are seen moving above and below the mills, washing their clothes. I must tell you that they wash with their feet. There is always great activity, like the bustle in an ant-hill. The women mostly are handsome and well-built. The dress of Oriental women, however poor, is always graceful . . . . Picturesque groups of women, the wild beauty of nature—all this makes a delightful scene. Often I stand for hours contemplating the landscape."

The greater part of his three years' stay in the Caucasus Leo Tolstoy spent at Stary-Yurt. The beauty of the scenery of the mountainous country formed the background for the beautiful descriptions of nature in his novels on life in the Caucasus. We quote from "The Cossacks" the following splendid picturing of the mountains:

"The morning was perfectly cloudless. Suddenly he saw, at a distance of only twenty paces as it seemed to him at first, brilliant white masses with their delicate outlines, and the fantastic, sharply defined contours of their summits against the distant sky. When he realised the great distance

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Tolstoy's House at Moscow.

between him and the mountains and the sky, when he understood the immensity of the mountains, when he felt their infinite beauty, he was awed, thinking it was a vision—a dream. He shook himself in order to come to his senses. The mountains were still the same.

"'What is that? What is that?' he asked the driver.

"'The mountains!' Nogai answered indifferently.

"'I also have been looking at them a long time,' said John. 'How beautiful! At home they will not believe it.'

"With the quick driving of the troika on a level road, the mountains seemed to be running along the horizon, their rose-coloured summits shining in the rising sun. At first the mountains simply astonished Olenin; then they delighted him; but afterwards the more and more he gazed on that chain of snow-capped peaks rising not from above other dark mountains, but directly from the steppe, he began, little by little, to understand and to feel their beauty. From that moment all that he saw, all that he thought and felt, began to assume for him a new character, that of the severe majesty of the mountains. All Moscow memories, the shame and regrets, all the vulgar dreams about the Caucasus, disappeared, never to return. 'Now it has begun,' some solemn voice seemed to whisper to him. The distant line of the Terek, and the villages, and the people—all that appeared to him now in a serious light. He looked up at the sky—and remembered the mountains. He looked upon himself and his companion, John—again the mountains. There two Cossacks rode on horseback, their rifles, in cases, evenly moving on their backs, their horses intermingling their brown and grey legs—and again the mountains. . . . Beyond the Terek the smoke of a village was rising up—and the mountains? . . . The sun rose and gleamed in the waters of the Terek, appearing through the reeds—and the mountains. . . . From the Cossack village came a peasant cart. Women—handsome young women—moved about—but the mountains . . . The Abreks[1] are scouring the steppes, and I travel without fear of them. I have a rifle and strength and youth—and the mountains!"

So enchanting were the mountains to Leo Tolstoy in his approach to Stary-Yurt.

The great natural beauties of the Caucasus, the wild mountaineers, the no less wild Russians, the Cossacks of the Terek—all this new, or rather regenerating, condition of life had such a beneficial influence on Leo Tolstoy that he threw off, like a dirty shell, all the worldly, infected atmosphere of the life in Russia in which he had so nearly perished. And this regenerating and vivifying process awakened in him two great forces: religion and creative power. In his diary we find the following note on his religious awakening:

"I scarcely slept the whole of last night; after having written a little in my diary, I began to pray. I cannot express the feeling of bliss during that period. I repeated my usual prayers, 'Our Father,' 'To the Virgin Mary,' 'To the Trinity,' 'The gates of Mercy,' and 'Appeal to the Guardian Angel,' and then I still remained in prayer. If praying means to petition or to thank, I did not pray. I longed for something high and good, but what—I cannot convey, though I clearly felt, what I desired. I longed to be absorbed in the all-enfolding Being. I prayed Him to forgive my sins—but no, I did not ask that, because I felt that by giving me these blessed moments He had pardoned me. I prayed, and at the same time felt that I had nothing to ask for, that I could not, and even did not know how to, ask. I thanked Him, but not with words or thoughts. In one feeling I united all—prayer and thankfulness. Every sense of fear had vanished. From this general feeling I could not distinguish faith, love, and hope. No; the feeling I experienced yesterday was love of God, the highest love, uniting in itself all that is good, rejecting all that is evil. How dreadful it was for me to consider the trivial, vicious side of life. I could not understand how it could have attracted me. With what a pure heart I prayed to God to accept me in his bosom. I did not feel my flesh, I was—no, the carnal, petty part again asserted itself, and in less than one hour I heard consciously the voice of sin, of vanity, and of the whole empty side of life. I knew whence this voice came, and that it had destroyed my bliss. I struggled, but yielded.

"I fell asleep dreaming of fame, of women; but that is not my fault—I could not help it.

"Eternal bliss is impossible on earth. Suffering is necessary. Why? I do not know. And how dare I say 'I do not know'? How dared I think that the ways of Providence were known? But Providence is the origin of reason, and reason tries to understand. Reason is losing itself in the depth of wisdom, whilst emotion is afraid of offending Him. I thank Him for the moments of bliss which showed me my insignificance and my greatness. I want to pray, but do not know how. I want to understand, but dare not. I resign myself to Thy will.

"Why have I written all this? How flat, how faded, and even senseless, appear my feelings when expressed; and yet they were so exalted."

Such a moral awakening is described in "The Cossacks." Olenin, the hero of this novel, seated within a beautiful forest of the Caucasus, gives himself up to thoughts on the meaning of life.

"Suddenly it was as if a new world had opened before him. 'Happiness,' he said to himself, 'consists in living for others.' And that is clear. The longing for happiness is inborn in man. This means that it is legitimate. Trying to satisfy it in a selfish way, by seeking wealth, fame, comforts of life, and love—it may be that circumstances will so shape themselves as to make it impossible to satisfy these desires. Consequently these desires are illegitimate, but the desire for happiness is not illegitimate. Which desires may be satisfied regardless of circumstances? Which? Love, self-sacrifice. . . ."

Leo Tolstoy spent the whole summer with his brother, taking part as a volunteer in expeditions against the mountaineers. For the winter he went to Tiflis to pass his examination in order to enter the artillery service. In Tiflis he began to write his first novel, "Childhood."

After a successful examination he returned to his brother, wearing military uniform, and was appointed as a non-commissioned officer to the 4th battery of the 20th artillery brigade.

In July he finished the novel and, signing it modestly with the initials, "L. N. T.," sent it to the Sovremennik.[2] Towards the end of August he received an answer from the editor, the poet N. Nekrasoff—who recognised talent in the unknown author—announcing that the novel would be published, and it duly appeared in the September number of the review, 1852.

This was the first step in the literary career of Leo Tolstoy, and from that time he realised that he had found his vocation. Shortly before the event he wrote in his diary:

"Something within me makes me think that I am not born to be as others."

Yet at that time his inner consciousness vaguely

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Tolstoy in 1876.

From the Oil Painting by Kramskoy.

foretold him his future. A little later he writes in his diary:

"The man who strives only for his own happiness is bad; he who aims for the good opinions of others is weak; he who seeks the happiness of others is virtuous; he whose aim is God is great.

"Justice is the least measure of virtue, and is obligatory for everybody. Higher is the striving for perfection; anything lower is vice."

It would be difficult to find a better expression of the views of Tolstoy.

Naturally, such a man was not in his place in the artillery of the Caucasus. Those moments of spiritual elevation were only a few bright spots on the grey background of the dreary camp routine. And, indeed, he began to grow tired and weary of military life. Then, towards the end of 1853, the Crimean War broke out. Just before Leo Tolstoy had handed in his resignation, but it was delayed, and through his influential relatives he requested to be transferred on active service to the Russian army on the Danube, where the fighting had begun. His relations procured him a post on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief of the Danube army, Prince Gorchakoff, who was also a relative.

Before his departure from the Caucasus, Tolstoy passed his examination as an officer and obtained his promotion. With the Danube army he took part in the storming of Silistria, and in the retreat of the army. This retreat was devoid of interest for him, and he petitioned to be transferred to Sebastopol, where he arrived in November, 1854, and was appointed to the 3rd battery of the 14th artillery brigade. Here he was imbued at once with the intense patriotic enthusiasm of the famous defenders of Sebastopol. In one of his letters to his brother he wrote:

"The spirit of the army is indescribable. Even in ancient Greece there was not so much heroism. Korniloff, when making the round of the troops, instead of saying, as usual, 'Good health to you, boys,' said, 'We must die, my boys. Will you?' And the soldiers shouted, 'We will die, your Excellency. Hurrah!' And this was not affectation. On the face of each man it was plain that he meant it. Already 22,000 of them have kept their promise."

Though Tolstoy did not take part in any important assaults and sorties, nevertheless his life was exposed to great danger. He was often on duty at the most dangerous points of the fourth bastion, and this danger he met always with unflinching courage.

In the officers' mess he cheered up everybody by his humour, and encouraged them by his gay energy. At one of those evenings he composed with his comrades the well-known verses beginning as follows:

"On the fourth of the month,
 The devil sent us out
 To capture the heights . . ."

This song, in which, with good-natured humour, many commanding officers were ridiculed, was soon learnt and sung by the soldiers when off duty.

In the midst of the horrors of death, of incessant suspense for his own and others' lives, Tolstoy continued to ponder over man's destiny, the aim of life, and the eternal truths. In his diary we read, under the date of March 5th, 1855:

"A discussion on God and Faith brought me to a great, a stupendous idea, to the realisation of which I feel able to devote my life. The idea is to create a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind, a religion of Christ purified from dogma and mysticism, a practical religion, not promising bliss in future, but giving happiness on earth. I understand that this idea can be realised only by generations consciously working for that purpose. One generation will bequeath this idea to the next, and some day by fanaticism or by reason it will be realised. To work consciously for the union of mankind by religion—that is the foundation of the idea which I hope will inspire me."

The whole long and active life of Tolstoy up to his old age was but the endeavour to realise this great idea—the religious union of mankind.

But these thoughts were like flashes in the dark background of a dreadful tragedy: the mutual extermination of men—brothers—having no sentiment of personal hatred of each other.

The tragedy of war was described by Tolstoy with inimitable insight and the highest art in his sketches from Sebastopol. In August, 1855, Sebastopol capitulated, and the remnant of the Russian army dispersed to their homes.

Tolstoy was sent to St. Petersburg with the report on the last battle. He did not return to the army, and soon after left the military service.

  1. "Abreks" were young Circasaians who were waging a sacred war against the Russian invaders. Their bravery was even recognised by their enemies, and the Russian poets Pushkin and Lermontoff sang their exploits.—Translator.
  2. The "Contemporary"— a leading, advanced, St. Petersburg monthly review. Amongst its contributors were the best Russian authors of that time, such as Turgenef, Tchernichevsky, etc.—Translator.