The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

THE ANNA KARENIN PERIOD

Towards the end of the 'sixties, when Tolstoy had finished his "War and Peace," he was brooding over new projects of popular instruction, interrupted, as we saw, in 1862. As usual, he threw his whole energy into the work, and published his well-known reading-book for beginners. Again he created a model school, collected teachers around him, took an active part in the proceedings of the Moscow Committee for the Promotion of Primary Instruction, and published an article "On Popular Instruction" in a St. Petersburg radical monthly review, Annals of the Fatherland—an article which aroused quite a storm in the educational and literary world.

Surveying with a sharp and pitiless eye the existing system of popular instruction, with new arguments he vindicated free schools, as he had done before in his review, Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy's views were heatedly discussed in the periodicals of that time and in educational circles. An ardent partisan of Tolstoy's amongst the pedagogues was the well-known A. K Strannolubsky, and in the press N. K. Mikhailovsky.

Of course, Tolstoy, this time also, did not succeed in shaking the routine in schools, established, as he expressed it, "by a Zemstvo-Ministerial Department," but his agitation gave another impulse to the Russian educational world: it awakened its conscience, holding up new, living ideals, and it is no exaggeration to say that if Russian schools are free compared with those of western Europe, we owe this in great part to Tolstoy.

During this time he published "A New Primer" and reading-books, which became well known in Russia and circulated in many million copies, being even frequently plagiarised, notwithstanding their rejection by the Ministry of Education.

It seemed as if, during this educational activity, his artistic powers had accumulated, and once again he betook himself to purely literary work. At first he chose the epoch of Peter the Great. In December, 1872, he wrote to N. Strakhoff:

"Till now I have not been working. I am surrounded by books on Peter the Great and his time. I read, I mark; I try to write, but cannot. But what a wonderful epoch for an artist! Wherever you turn, problems, enigmas, the solution of which may be given by a poet only. The whole crux of Russian life is there. It seems to me that nothing will come out of my preparations. I am studying and agitating myself too much."

The more he studied the subject the greater were the obstacles confronting him when trying to describe it; and in the end—in the summer of 1873—he abandoned those studies altogether.

According to A. S. Behrs, the reason of this was:

"Tolstoy found that his personal opinion on Peter the Great was diametrically opposed to that of the general public, and the whole epoch appeared to him unsympathetic. Tolstoy asserted that the personality and activity of Peter showed no greatness, and that, on the contrary, all his qualities were bad. His so-called great reforms were not adopted for the good of the State, but for his personal profit. The old, high aristocracy being in opposition to his reforms, Peter founded a new capital, (St.) Petersburg, in order to separate himself from them and to be able to pursue his personal, immoral life. The nobility at that time played a rôle of great importance, and consequently were dangerous to him. His reforms and ideas were borrowed from Saxony, where the code of laws was

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The Family Circle at Yasnaya Polyana.

most cruel and moral license had attained its greatest height, which specially suited Peter. Thus Tolstoy explained Peter's friendship with the Kurfürst of Saxony, one of the most immoral amongst the crowned heads of that period. Tolstoy explained Peter's intimacy with Menshikoff, a former street vendor, and Lefort, a Swiss adventurer, by the contempt in which the old nobility held Peter, and amongst whom he could not find a companion in his gay, depraved life. But Tolstoy was most of all revolted by the assassination of the Tsarevitch Alexis."

At last Tolstoy's creative powers found a subject worthy of their application. A comparatively small incident set him writing. Reading aloud the beginning of one of Pushkin's novels: "The guests arrived at the country house," etc., Tolstoy observed, "That is the way to begin; Pushkin is our master. He at once brings the reader into the middle of action. Others would first describe the guests, the rooms, but Pushkin starts the business directly." And going to his study, Tolstoy straightway wrote down the first pages of a novel, the subject of which had already been a long time in his mind. The plot was based on the suicide of a young woman who threw herself under the train near the station Yasenky. Tolstoy knew her, and was present when the inquest was held. The cause of the suicide was a romance.

Intending to write a story of a society lady who had left her husband, Tolstoy chose as a motto the biblical saying, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," with the intention of explaining the fundamental idea of the story as that people have no right to judge others—that judgment belongs to the Creator of the laws governing the existence of humanity. For human relations there is but one law: that of mercy. Among all the literary critics, only the novelist Dostoevsky understood "Anna Karenin" in this sense. He wrote a splendid article in his "Diary of an Author":

"There is One who says, 'Vengeance is Mine; I will repay.' Only He knows the whole mystery of this world and the eventual fate of mankind. Man should not judge with the pride of his infallibility; the hour and time have not yet come. The man who judges must recognise in his own heart that the balance and measure will be an absurdity in his hands if he himself will not bow before the law of inscrutable mystery, and seek the only way out—mercy and love. And this issue has been shown to man in order that he may not perish of despair through not seeing his path or his destiny, and through the conviction that evil is mysterious and unavoidable. This salvation is pointed out in the powerful scene of the illness of the heroine, when criminals and enemies are transformed into superior beings, into brothers pardoning each other, by mutual forgiveness liberating themselves from lies, faults, and crimes, and thus at once purifying themselves with the full consciousness that pardon has become theirs by right."

Unfortunately, Dostoevsky did not agree with Tolstoy about the end of the novel, when Levin, the positive character of the story, declares himself hostile to the volunteer movement for Servia. This divergence was caused by the Slavophile tendencies from which Dostoevsky could not emancipate himself.

In opposition to the history of the fallen woman, Anna Karenin, another story of spotless family happiness is developed in which we can trace much of Tolstoy's own home-life. The third element is the spiritual development of Levin, who, from a sceptic and egoist, little by little is transformed into a Christian, receiving from an artless peasant his faith, the quintessence of which is shortly expressed in the formula, "To live for God and your own soul."

The religious note now sounded in Tolstoy's literary work was the echo of a religious process taking place at that time in his mind. It turned away many liberal critics from him, whilst the conservatives, not understanding with whom they had to deal, hurried to proclaim Tolstoy as one of "theirs." He stood alone, not inclining towards either side—tracing his own way.

Whilst writing "Anna Karenin," Tolstoy took a very active part in assisting the starving population of the Samara province, and earned the thanks of many hearts. In 1873, with his family, he spent the summer in the province on his newly acquired estate. Observing the life of the surrounding peasantry, Tolstoy foresaw that the great calamity of a famine was menacing the population, and the Zemstvos and the State were doing nothing to avert it. After a careful investigation in some neighbouring villages, and armed with statistics, he published in August, in the Moscow Gazette, an appeal for help. At the same time he attracted the attention of certain high personages at court; donations came in lavishly, and the present misery was considerably alleviated. Altogether nearly two million roubles in money, besides much grain, were collected for the sufferers. The following harvest was abundant, so that the aid given had really been timely, as it afforded the population the means wherewith to bridge over the hard times.

The strenuous activity of the seventies, his family cares and duties, the question of the education of the children, his successful literary career, his beneficent social work—all these did not fully satisfy Tolstoy, and at the end of that period the same doubts about the meaning of life arose as he had experienced after the death of his brother, towards the end of his bachelor life. At that time, as we know from Tolstoy's own words, he overcame those doubts by his marriage, which opened to him a new and yet untried side of life. But now these doubts, not being subdued by any outside influence, returned with renewed strength and inevitably carried him on to the crisis of his life.