Count Tolstoy at Home

So far as he is concerned, there is not the slightest doubt that he would gladly attempt the life which he advocates. But if he were to take up his residence in a peasant’s cottage, and try to support himself on what his labors brought in exclusively, he would be dead in less than a month. He suffers from liver disease; he has not been used to hard labor from early youth; he cannot, at his age, accustom himself to it any more than he can compel his stomach to accept a purely vegetable diet in place of the meat diet on which he has been brought up. He strives conscientiously to do it. Even the fits of illness caused by his severe treatment of himself do not break his spirit. He exercises not the slightest calculation or forethought in the care of his health, either before it breaks down or afterwards. For example: about five years ago he bruised his leg seriously against the wheel of a peasant cart. Instead of resting it he persisted in working. Erysipelas developed. The Túla doctor paid him numerous visits, at fifteen rubles a visit. Then gangrene threatened, and a doctor was sent for from Moscow. He was a celebrity; price, three hundred and fifty rubles. This was penny wise and pound foolish, of course. But in all probability the count feels the responsibility of exerting his will in this matter of labor all the more because it does not come easy to him, and he attributes to weakness of will power what a peasant would recognize as simple physical exhaustion. The peasant would not hesitate to climb to the top of his oven and stay there until his illness was over, with not a thought whether the work were done or not; and yet the peasant would work far beyond the bounds of what one would suppose that a man could endure. But Count Tolstóy overrates his powers of endurance, and, having exhausted his forces in one desperate spurt, he is naturally obliged to spend more than a corresponding amount of time in recuperating, even if no serious complication intervenes; and this gives rise to the accusation of laziness and insincerity from those who chance to see him in one of these intervals of rest.

Another point which is too often lost sight of by people who disapprove of his labor theories is that, while he advocates living in all respects like a peasant, descending to that level in mind as well as in body, which doctrine seems to include the incessant toil of the masses, he has also announced his theory that men should divide their time each day between (1) hard labor unto perspiration and callosities; (2) the exercise of some useful handicraft; (3) exercise of the brain in writing and reading; (4) social intercourse, sixteen hours in all. This is not a programme which a peasant could follow out. In summer, during the “suffering” season, the peasant toils in the fields for nearly the whole of the twenty-four hours instead of the four thus allotted. In winter, when no field labor is possible, he is likely to spend much more than four hours at whatever remunerative handicraft he may be acquainted with, or in intercourse with his fellowmen (detrimental as likely as not), and a good deal less in reading at any season of the year, for lack of instruction, interest, or books. On the other hand, this reasonable régime is not practicable for many men of other than peasant rank. It happens to be perfectly practicable for Count Tolstóy when his health permits. But as he has also said much about doing everything for one’s self, earning in some form of common labor all that one spends, those who remember this only, and who know how little can be earned by a whole day’s toil in Russia, not to mention toil divided between two branches, which agriculture does not permit, are not altogether to blame for jumping to the conclusion that the count makes no effort to practice what he preaches. He does what he can. He is reproached with having made over his property to his wife and with living as before. It is really difficult to see what other course is open to him. An unmarried man, under obligations to no one but himself, may reasonably be blamed for not carrying out the doctrine which he volunteers to teach the world. A married man can only be blamed for volunteering the doctrine. No blame can possibly attach to the wife who defends the interests of the family to the extent of working havoc with his doctrines.

Even if Count Tolstóy were able to support himself, he certainly could not support a wife and the nine living children out of sixteen which he has had. There is no justice in expecting the adult members of the family to accept and practice his doctrines. They do not compel him to accept theirs, though they are in the majority. The little ones could not feed themselves, even were they ideal peasant children. It would be nearer the truth to say that the countess has taken possession of the property; she administers it wisely and economically, for the good of the family and her husband. She issued about five years ago a cheaper edition of her husband’s works, the only edition available hitherto having been very expensive. The wisdom of her steps was proved by the large profits derived from it in the course of three years,—fifty thousand dollars,—all of which was applied to the needs of the family.

The count is not the only one at Yásnaya Polyána to deny himself. For the past two winters the whole family have remained on the estate, and have not gone to Moscow, with the exception of one who is in business at the capital, one member who is at his studies, and one who is married and resides on another estate. This is because the income did not amount to a certain sum, a very moderate sum in American eyes, without which a stay in town would have been imprudent.

The question naturally follows: If the countess holds the property, and the count continues to get the good of it, in a modest way; if the count does not do everything for himself, and earn his daily bread by manual toil, is not he mentally unbalanced to proclaim his theories to the world, and to change his mind so often on other points?

The answer is: No. Undoubtedly the count, when he attained to his convictions on the subject of poverty and labor, hoped to carry his family with him. The countess, like a brave woman, like a devoted wife and mother, refused to adopt his views. She is willing to shoulder the responsibility of her refusal, and her conduct is an honor to her. As for his changes of doctrine, we are all very much like him in the matter of inconsistency. Only, as very few of us enjoy the renown or the authority of Count Tolstóy, it rarely occurs to us to proclaim our progressive opinions to the world; at most, one or two experiences cure us of that weakness, even if any one thinks it worth while to notice them in the slightest degree. Very few of us are so deeply rooted in our convictions, or so impressed with their importance to the world as principles, that we will raise a finger to defend them. We alternately know that we shall never change them again, and suspect that we may see something better at any moment; and we refrain from committing ourselves unnecessarily in any form which can be brought up against us hereafter.

The case is precisely the reverse with Count Tolstóy. He is so full of the missionary spirit, so persuaded of the truth and value of his beliefs, that he rushes into print with them instantly. There they are, all ready for those who do not sympathize with him to use as missiles when he gets a new inspiration. Change of opinion is generally progress. Continuity, an absolute lack of change, means stagnation and death in the mental as well as in the physical world. As the count is impressionable and reads much, his reading and meditation are fruitful of novelties, which he bravely submits to the judgment of the world without pausing to consider whether they coincide with his other utterances or not. That he does not always express his abstract ideas clearly is the inevitable result of the lack of philosophical training.

But enthusiastic souls who grieve over the imperfections in the present organization of society are always waiting for some one of warmer zeal lead them. Such persons perceive the ideal side of every argument, interpret doctrines with their hearts, not with their heads, and are fired by the newest conception of social relations. As one of the most marked characteristics of Count Tolstóy lies in infusing his own personality into every word he writes, it is only natural that these people should adopt him as their guide. It is not the fault of any one in particular that he has abandoned a doctrine by the time others have mastered it. The only refuge is in the cry of Hamlet:—

“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.”.

Thus much I think I may say of the home life of the famous Russian writer without sinning against the duties imposed by the frank and cordial hospitality for which we are indebted to the family. It has seemed time to enter a protest against various misrepresentations and misconceptions in regard to them which are current. In conclusion, I beg leave to explain that my spelling of the name is that used by themselves when writing in English, and in print upon their French cards.

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