The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 6

London: Cassell, pages 57–66



The educational activity of Tolstoy forms quite a separate period in his life. The value of this activity for the advancement of popular Russian instruction has till now not been sufficiently appreciated. Teaching always attracted him. As far back as 1849, on his return from Kazan, he opened a little school on his estate. But during his stay in the Caucasus and the following eventful years the school was closed. He reopened it during the winter of 1858–59, after his first journey in Europe; but somehow it was not a success.

As we have seen, during his second journey in Europe he seriously studied the subject. Now, armed with knowledge and experience, he once again took his school in hand, and this time he carried out his intention, establishing a model for the regeneration of the Russian elementary school.

In Yasnaya Polyana he organised quite an educational circle of young teachers, amongst them a German, Herr Keller, whom he had expressly engaged from Germany. Tolstoy opened several schools, published an educational review, Yasnaya Polyana, in which he expounded his theories upon instruction, gave accounts of his own work as a teacher in elementary schools, attracted the teachers of neighbouring schools to collaborate in his paper, and published their essays and reports. As supplements to his review, he gave model, popular reading-books, under the general title, "From Yasnaya Polyana"; they contained a whole series of masterly, popular sketches from history, geography, biography, and general literature, written by the teachers and even by the pupils, under his supervision. The quintessence of his theory on education Tolstoy developed in four articles in his review. In the first of these articles, "On Popular Instruction," he explained that the greatest impediments to the development of popular instruction are preconceived theories and their arbitrary imposition on the people without examining the people's needs or the suitability of the theories to those needs. In conclusion of his argument he states that the sole educational method must be experience freed from preconceived ideas, whilst the only guide must be liberty, as without it no experiment of any value can be accomplished.

To these free experiments Tolstoy devoted himself in his own school at Yasnaya Polyana, as well as in the other schools created by him, whilst his review remained the organ of his theories. Though the review existed only a year, it contained a most interesting account of Tolstoy's experiences.

In the second article Tolstoy asserted that reading and writing are not the first step, and consequently not the most important step, in education. There are many illiterate people with experience, and much useful, and even technical, knowledge; whilst on the other hand there are literate men who do not possess any of those qualities. The schools created by the Government and the intellectual classes are not meant to serve the immediate needs of popular life, and not adapted to them. The elementary schools are created for the purpose of preparing the pupils for a secondary school. The latter prepares the pupils for the high school, which existed before either of the first two. The high schools are the continuation of the former monastic schools, serving a Church and State purpose. Liberated now from the Church, and in Russia simply divided into clerical and lay schools, the high, secondary and elementary schools continue to serve the State ends, but not the people.

Concerning the ways of teaching, Tolstoy finds that method best which requires the least effort from the child; but he considers the principal requirements in teaching are individual talent and art in the teacher. Teaching is an art; its development and improvement have no limits, but perfection is unattainable.

In his third article, "Education and Instruction," Tolstoy draws a sharp line between the two. Education is more or less an enforcement of our will on the child; instruction leaves it comparatively free. For the first he finds no sufficient justification. "There exist no rights to educate. I do not recognise it. Nowhere and never have the young generation recognised, nor will they recognise it; that is why they are always in revolt against the compulsion of education."

If, to a certain degree, the compulsion of family and religious education can be justified and explained, Tolstoy cannot find a reason for the compulsion of education by the State, and he arrives at the following conclusion:

"We do not pay attention to the voice of the people. We do not hear it even, because it does not speak in the Press or from the platform; nevertheless the people are against this education."

The life of Tolstoy 091.jpg
Photo. Hertz.

Tolstoy on the road from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana.

From this point of view he severely and pitilessly examines the school system. Although his article was written half a century ago, many of his observations have their full value even at the present time.

His trenchant articles did not fail to provoke replies and criticisms in other reviews. To one of these replies, that of Eugene Markoff, Tolstoy wrote a strong and powerful defence, "Progress and Instruction." Seeing that the principal argument in defence of the present system of education is belief in progress, Tolstoy applies himself to uproot this belief by proving the insignificance and the conventionality of the idea of "progress." He points out that the greater part of humanity, the hundreds of millions of Eastern people, are quite without this idea.

Tolstoy analysed in his review, Yasnaya Polyana, the Ministerial project of organisation of popular schools, and showed its unfitness for Russian life, based as it was on the American system of school taxes. Altogether, he found that the project was not adaptable to popular needs, and that the regulations of popular instruction proposed in the project represented a drawback to the existence and expansion of free education.

All these educational views were applied by him with the energy of a genius in his school at Yasnaya Polyana. This school was described in the following words in his review:

"The school occupies a two-storied brick building. Two rooms are used as classrooms, two for the teachers, and one as a physical cabinet. In the porch hangs a bell with a rope attached to it; in the entrance-hall, downstairs, parallel and horizontal bars are erected; whilst in the vestibule, upstairs, stands a carpenter's bench. The staircase and entrance-hall are covered with footmarks of snow and dirt. In the hall also hangs the programme. The order of the lessons is as follows: At eight o'clock in the morning the teacher living in the school, who is its administrator and very orderly, sends one of the boys who is sleeping in the school to ring the school-bell.

"Villagers are early risers, and for a long time the lights in the peasants' cottages have been visible from the school. Half an hour after the ringing of the bell, through the mist or rain, or in the slanting rays of the autumn sun, little dark figures appear separately or in pairs on the slopes of the hollow which divides the school from the village. They are not waiting for each other as formerly. The sentiment to herd together has disappeared long ago. They have learnt something already, and for that reason they are more independent. They do not bring anything with them: no books, no copy-books; they have no home-lessons to do. Not only do they carry nothing in their hands, but neither are their heads burdened. The little scholar is not obliged to remember any lesson, not even what he learnt yesterday. He is not tortured by the thought of a coming task. He only brings himself, his impressionable nature, and the conviction that to-day it will be just as gay at school as yesterday. He does not think of a lesson before it begins. Nobody is reprimanded for being late; but they are never late, except when the fathers keep the elder boys for some work; and as soon as they are free they run as fast as possible to school."

Such was the organisation of the school; but its internal life, the mutual relations between Tolstoy and the pupils, the budding of their imagination, their analysis by their commonsense of the existing routine of teaching—all this is of incomparably greater interest, and Tolstoy described it in some artistic sketches in his review.[1]

In the spring of 1862, Tolstoy felt exhausted by his labour as teacher, editor, Mediator, and many other occupations to which, with his impulsive nature, he devoted himself always so wholeheartedly. He began to be unwell, to cough, and the doctors ordered him to go for some time to the steppes to follow a Kumiss[2] cure. In the month of May he started, accompanied by two boys from his school. The air and nature of the steppes, combined with the invigorating influence of the Kumiss, soon restored his health.

During his absence from Yasnaya Polyana an absurd, though revolting, incident occurred. By the anonymous denunciation of a half-literate spy, Yasnaya Polyana was searched by the police. Ridiculous and outrageous as was the search, the authorities who carried it out made it worse by their usual brutality, which caused the greatest commotion amongst the peaceful inhabitants of Yasnaya Polyana, the aunt and sister of Tolstoy being especially alarmed. Of course, the authorities did not find anything incriminating. The quiet order of life at Yasnaya Polyana, however, was so disturbed that it required great efforts to re-establish tranquillity; but even then it was of short duration, and the school was closed.

Although he appeared quite absorbed by educational work, this sphere of activity could not fully satisfy Tolstoy. He was seeking truth—the highest truth—which he could not find. From time to time this struggle for truth became a great, nervous strain. In his "Confession" Tolstoy characterised his state of mind at that time in the following words:

"In the year of the peasants' emancipation I returned to Russia, and taking the post of 'Mediator,' I began to teach illiterate people in the schools and the educated people in the review which I began to publish. The work seemed to go well, but I felt that my mind was not in a normal state, and that a change had to come. Probably already at that time I would have reached that despair in which I was plunged fifteen years later, if there had not existed yet one side of life which hitherto I had never tried, and which promised me salvation—family life.

"During a whole year I was busy as Mediator, with my schools and review, and I was so terribly exhausted, especially because my work had become much invoked. My work as a Mediator was one continuous struggle; my educational activity had become more and more vague; my shifts in my own review were so odious, as they consisted in reality of the desire to teach everybody and to hide that I did not know what to teach, that I felt ill rather morally than physically. I left everything and went to the steppes—to the Bashkirs—to breathe the air, to drink Kumiss, and to live an animal's life. Returning from there, I married."

Tolstoy's marriage took place in the most auspicious circumstances. He had already been a long time acquainted with the family of the Court physician Behrs, living in the Kremlin at Moscow. He had known his future wife and her sisters from their childhood, and they had grown up under his eyes.

Passionately in love with the younger sister Sophia, as if afraid of his already mature age, he hurried on the marriage. On 17th September, 1862, he proposed, and on the 23rd of that month was married. After the marriage the young couple went to Yasnaya Polyana, where they were welcomed by the loving aunt and Leo's brother, Sergius. From that date a new and serious period of life began for Tolstoy. He was thirty-four years of age, and his young wife eighteen.

  1. Tolstoy's principal articles on education were published in the fourth volume of his complete works.—Author.
  2. Fermented mare's milk.—Translator.