Count Tolstoy at Home

The conversation turned upon the marriage of one of the younger men, which was to come off in a neighboring village two days later, at the conclusion of the fast of SS. Peter and Paul. A middle-aged peasant took up the subject in a rather unpleasant and not very respectful manner, saying that he saw no use for priests, who had everything provided for them (na gatóvayu rúku), and charged so high for baptizing and marrying.

“They demand seven rubles for marrying this fellow,” said he. “I’ll do it for a ruble, and be glad to.”

“If it is so easy, go pass your examinations and become a priest at once,” replied the countess.

“I don’t know enough for that.”

“Then go hire yourself out as clown. You are always making bad jokes.”

The man was subdued. The count took no part in this conversation, and looked somewhat disturbed when the other men joined disagreeably in the laugh against their comrade. He turned the subject.

“Look at the oldest of these men,” he said to us in English. “He has lost the first joint of all the fingers on one hand from frost.”

He was a weak-looking, withered little man, but when they began to mow again, at the count’s suggestion, he grasped his scythe as well as any of them. The scythes were short, thick, straight, looked very heavy, and were set on very long, straight handles, so that it was not necessary to stoop in mowing.

We watched the party for a while. The count made good progress over the uneven ground and thin grass, as though he were used to the work which he has described so inimitably in Anna Karénin. (Another reminder of this book is the old nurse of Levin, who still lives on the place, has charge of the dogs because she is fond of animals, and carries her mania to the extent of feeding and petting the black beetles. The grave of Karl Ivanovitch, the tutor in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, which lies in the cemetery a mile or two distant, is another memento of his writings.) As we strolled back to the house, we paused to look at the long white stables, the thatched granary with walls of wattled tree boughs, and other farm buildings. In the space between the house and the dining-table we found the children, with their cousins, the French tutor, and the English governess, engaged in a game of ball called wápta, which involves much running and some skill.

To this table the samovár was brought about half past seven, and the early tea, the children’s tea, was served at twilight in the open air heavy with the perfume of the linden-trees. Late tea was always served in the house, in the large hall, accompanied by various viands, and by wild strawberries fetched by the peasant children.

That evening the count talked to me chiefly about the pamphlets on the Hopedale community and the peace doctrines advocated by Adin Ballou, which had been sent to him a short time before from America. He had then learned for the first time that his principles in that direction had been anticipated, and he seemed to be genuinely gratified to know that this was the case. He prophesied that this movement in favor of non-resistance would attract much more attention in the future than it has attracted in the past. The fate of Mr. Ballou’s community did not seem to shake his faith.

Naturally the house was the first point which engaged our attention. In 1860, Count Tolstóy, being then thirty-two years of age, made up his mind unalterably that he would never marry. All the world knows that when the count has irrevocably determined upon anything he immediately furnishes substantial proof of his convictions. On this occasion his demonstration took the form of selling the manor house, which was taken down and set up again on another estate in the same government by the purchaser. The wings of the former house alone remained, detached buildings, such as were used in the olden days to accommodate the embroiderers, weavers, peasant musicians and actors of the private troupes kept by wealthy grandees, as a theatre, or as extra apartments. The count occupied one of these wings.

Two years later he changed his mind and married. He brought his beautiful bride of half his age to this tiny wing,—it chanced to be tiny in this case, and there she lived for seventeen years. The horrible loneliness of it, especially in winter, with not a neighbor for miles, unless one reckon the village at the park gate, which could not have furnished anything but human beings, and never a congenial companion for her! Needless to say that she never had on a low-bodied gown, never went to the theatre or a ball, in all her fair young life; and to the loneliness of the country must be added the absolute loneliness during the absences of the count, who had much reading to do in Moscow for the historical portions of his great war drama. When he got tired of his village school, of his experiments upon the infant peasant mind, of things in general, he could and did go away for rest. The countess did not. Decidedly, the Countess Sophia Tolstóy is one of those truly feminine heroines who are cast into shadow by a brilliant light close to them, but a heroine none the less in more ways than need be mentioned. Her self-denial and courage gave to the world War and Peace and Anna Karénin; and she declares that were it to do over again she would not hesitate a moment. The public owes the count’s wife a great debt of gratitude, and not of reproaches, for bravely opposing his fatal desire to live in every detail the life of a peasant laborer. Can any one blessed with the faintest particle of imagination fail to perceive how great a task it has been to withstand him thus for his own good; to rear nine healthy, handsome, well-bred children out of the much larger family which they have had; to bear the entire responsibility of the household and the business?

She remarked, one day, that there was no crying need for the Russian nobility to follow her husband’s teachings and give away all their goods in order to be on a level with the peasants. Plenty of them would soon attain that blissful state of poverty in the natural course of things, since they were not only growing poorer every year, but the distribution of inheritances among the numerous children was completing the work, and very many would be reduced to laboring with their hands for a living. This is perfectly true. There is no law of primogeniture in Russia. The one established by Peter the Great having produced divers and grievous evils, besides being out of harmony with the Russian character, it was withdrawn. All the male children share equally in the father’s estate as in title. The female children receive by law only an extremely small portion of the inheritance, but their dowry is not limited.

Among the count’s most ardent followers is one of his daughters. She does everything for herself, according to his teachings, in a manner which American girls, in even moderately well-to-do families, would never dream of: She works for the peasants in various ways, and carries out her father’s ideas in other matters as far as possible. Her Spartan (or Tolstóyan) treatment of herself may be of value in character-building, as mortification of the flesh is supposed to be in general. Practically, I think the relations between peasants and nobles render her sacrifices unavailing. For example: one of the peasant women having taken ill,—there was a good deal sickness in the village,—she went to the hayfield to do the woman’s work and prevent the forfeit of fifteen or twenty cents, the price of the day’s labor. We strolled out to find her. The thermometer must have stood at 100 F, ,and although the dry inland heat can be better borne than the same amount of damp heat, it was far from being comfortable weather even for indolent persons. We found her under a tree, resting and drinking cold tea, while she awaited the return, from some errand of their devising, of the peasant women who had been at work with her. She looked wretchedly ill, and we tried to prevail on her to go back to the house with us. But the count (who was not well enough to work) happened along, and as he said nothing she decided to stay and to resume labor at once, since the women seemed to have been detained.

As we beat a retreat homeward under that burning sun, we discovered the nature of the peasant women’s urgent business. They were engaged in stripping the count’s bushes of their fruit and devouring it by the handful. We could not persuade him to interfere. “They want it, or they would not take it,” he said. It was none of our business, to be sure, but those strong, muscular women offered such a contrast, in physique and conduct, to the fair, delicate young girl whom we had just left that we felt indignant enough to attack them ourselves, if it would have done any good. The next day his daughter was more seriously ill than the peasant woman whose place she had taken. I should not have felt unhappy to learn that those women had been uncomfortably ill in consequence of their greediness.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In