The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 5

London: Cassell, pages 50–56



In the beginning of 1860 Tolstoy was very much alarmed by the failing health of his elder brother Nicolas. The doctors suspected consumption, and advised him to go for a cure at Soden, where he went next summer, accompanied by his brother Sergius. His illness caused great anxiety to many friends, Fet and Turgenef amongst them, who were attached to Nicolas and held him in high esteem. Turgenef wrote:

"Your news about the illness of Nicolas Tolstoy has deeply grieved me. Is it possible that this dear and lovable man must perish? And how did it happen that this illness was allowed to develop? Can he not overcome his indolence and go abroad for a cure? Was he not travelling in the Caucasus by coach, and the devil knows in what other ways? Let him come to Soden! One meets here, at every step, consumptives. It seems that the waters of Soden are the best cure for such illness. I am writing to you from two thousand versts distance, as if my word could be of any help. . . . If he has not yet started, he never will. . . . That is how Fate breaks all of us."

At first Soden seemed to do Nicolas good, but later the news became less and less comforting. Then, in order to take the place of his brother Sergius, Tolstoy went to Soden with his married sister, Marie, and her two little daughters.

They travelled by steamer from St. Petersburg to Stettin, and from there by Berlin to Soden. The sister went straight to Soden, but Tolstoy stayed a few days in Berlin to see the town, and attended a few lectures of the famous professors Dubois-Raymond, Dreusen, and others. Afterwards he visited Dresden and the well-known novelist Auerbach, who was very much respected by Tolstoy for his sketches of popular life. But especially, wherever he got the chance, Tolstoy visited schools. The idea to start a school of his own had already taken deep root in his mind, and he never missed an opportunity in Europe to study elementary education and to visit schools. But German schools did not satisfy him. In his diary he gives the following impression of the Saxon schools:

"I was in a school. Awful. Prayer for the King; thrashings; all is learnt by heart. Frightened and unnatural children."

At the same time Tolstoy gave a good deal of his time to the reading of philosophical, historical, and educational works of the best known authors of that time: Riehl, Fröbel, Diesterweg, and others.

At last he reached Soden, where he found his beloved brother Nicolas in a very bad state of health. They hurried to the south of France to lengthen his life as much as possible, settling at Hyères, by the seaside, in that mild, beautiful climate. But it was too late. On September 20th, 1860, Nicolas died in Leo's arms. This death made a strong, ineffaceable impression on Tolstoy, and gave a new direction to his thoughts. Writing to his friend Fet on the death of his brother, he says:

"He was quite right in saying that there is nothing worse than death. Considering that death is the end of all, life in that case appears worse than anything. What is the use of striving and struggling if from what was Nicolas Tolstoy nothing remained for himself? He did not say that he felt the approach of death, but I know that he watched every step of it, and that he knew for certain what was left to him. A few moments

The life of Tolstoy 081.jpg

Tolstoy in 1895.

before the end he slumbered, and suddenly awoke and whispered in terror, 'What is that?' He saw Death, and he felt himself swallowed up in the darkness. And if he found nothing to cling to, what shall I find? Yet less. Certainly, neither I nor anybody else will struggle to the last moment as he did."

And he continues, farther on:

"All who watched his last moments, say, 'How wonderfully quiet and peaceful was his death'; but I know how terribly painful it was to him, as not a single one of his feelings was hidden from me. Hundreds of times I say to myself, 'Let the dead bury the dead,' but in some way one has to spend one's remaining strength. You cannot bid a stone fall up and not downwards, where there is attraction. You cannot laugh at a worn-out joke. You cannot eat when you are not hungry. Is it worth while to trouble when tomorrow may begin the agony of death with its detestable lies and self-delusion, and when all ends in nothingness, naught for myself. Curious thing! 'Be useful, be virtuous, happy as long as you live,' people say to others. But usefulness, morality, and happiness are all united in truth. The truth I found after thirty-two years of life is that the condition of our existence is dreadful.

"'Take life as it is,' they say. 'You have put yourself in that condition.' Well, I take life as I find it; but when man reaches the highest degree of development he sees that all is nonsense, fraud, and that truth, which he nevertheless loves above all, is terrible. When he comes to see this thoroughly and clearly, he starts up and exclaims with terror, like my brother: 'What is that?' Certainly while there exists the desire to know and speak the truth, one endeavours to do so. This is the only thing I preserved from all moral conceptions, and higher I cannot rise. This only I will do in future, but not in the form of your art. Art is a lie, and I can no longer love a beautiful lie."

Recovering somewhat from this heavy blow, Leo Tolstoy continued his foreign tour, studying the systems of elementary education in France, Germany, and England. In London he made the acquaintance of Herzen,[1] and spent with him a whole month in most friendly intimacy.

February 19th, 1861, the day of the liberation of the serfs, had arrived. Tolstoy hurried back to Russia, having been appointed a "Mediator" between the peasants and the nobility of his province.

As a Mediator, Tolstoy took at once the side of the peasants, defending their interests against their former masters, who reluctantly obeyed their monarch's will, and tried by every means to cheat the former serfs. Naturally, by acting thus, Tolstoy provoked quite a storm of anger amongst the nobility. Secret denunciations were pouring into the central government, and his position became untenable, so that in less than a year he was obliged to tender his resignation. With his whole heart he then devoted himself to the problem of elementary education.

Just at that time, in 1861, he had the misfortune to quarrel seriously with Turgenef. Their mutual friend, Fet, in his "Memoirs," gives this episode in detail. The quarrel broke out in his house, when Turgenef and Tolstoy were his guests. The insignificance of the cause—the question of the education of Turgenef's daughter—shows clearly that this was only the outbreak of a long-standing, hidden, mutual disagreement. Only the noble character of both men prevented a fatal ending to the quarrel. A challenge was sent, but happily the duel did not take place. Only with time, however, was the breach gradually healed.[2]

  1. Alexander Herzen, a brilliant political author and philosopher, was the first Russian political refugee in London, where he started the Russian Free Press. An intimate friend of Mazzini, Proudhon, Kossuth, and others, he was well known also in English political and literary circles. His influence on Russian life is unsurpassed.—Translator.
  2. Turgenef, on his death-bed in Paris, in 1883, wrote to Tolstoy a touching letter, in which, calling him a great author, he begged Tolstoy to continue the literary work, which at that time the latter, in one of his moral crises, intended to abandon.—Translator.