The Young Tolstoy
by ERNEST J. SIMMONS
AN EMINENT historian once remarked that all the noble Russian families elevated during the reigns of Peter I and Catherine II had degenerated, with the exception of the Tolstoys. The assertion would have given little satisfaction to Leo Tolstoy. He distrusted historians and did not approve of their sweeping generalizations. He knew a great deal about his ancestors, but it was not family pride or genealogical curiosity that prompted his interest in them; it was the interest of an artist, for living and dead members of his family often served as models for the characters of his fiction.
On the walls of the large dining room of the Tolstoy home at Yasnaya Polyana hang blackened ancestral portraits — seventeenthand eighteenthcentury men in wigs, uniforms, ribbons, and decorations, and women in stiff gowns, laces, and powdered hair. At first the Tolstoy children were somewhat alarmed by these painted spectators from a mysterious past; but once the youngsters got accustomed to eating with the grownups, the portraits ceased to bother them.
The first eleven generations of Tolstoys are known only by name, and it is not until the time of Peter I (1682-1725) that history begins to record their activities. Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-great-grandfather, Peter Andreyevich Tolstoy, was awarded the family title of Count for the important if not very honorable part he played in the reign of Peter I. He was a cowardly, cruel, and treacherous individual, but clever in the ruthless tactics of court intrigue and in what passed for diplomacy in those bloody times. At first a partisan of Peter’s half-sister Sophia, he quickly deserted her for the Tsar when she was defeated in the struggle for the throne. His subsequent career was a varied one: he fought in the Azov campaign of 1696; was sent abroad with others to study naval science in 1697 and returned a confirmed Westerner; and in 1701 Peter appointed him first Russian ambassador to Constantinople.
When war broke out between the two countries in 1710, the Sultan, who had little regard for diplomatic immunity, promptly threw P. A. Tolstoy into the prison of the Seven Towers. There he languished for almost two years. This disaster ultimately provided him with a device for the family coat of arms, which displays the seven towers, supported by two wolfhounds rampant.
When he returned to Russia, Peter rewarded him for his services by making him a Minister of State. In 1717, P. A. Tolstoy performed a dastardly service in return for the favor of his master. Aleksei, the unhappy and disapproving son of Peter, and heir to the throne, had fled the country and was living near Naples. The Tsar wanted him back. P. A. Tolstoy tricked him into returning to Russia, where he was tried, tortured, and put to death, by order of his father. Not only was Tolstoy a member of the special tribunal that condemned the Tsarevich, but there is much reason to believe that, along with Buturlin and Rumyantsev, he helped to suffocate Aleksei with pillows in his prison cell.
The headship of the Secret Chancellery, large estates, and the title of Count were P. A. Tolstoy’s rewards for his part in this sorry business. Despite his position of trust, Peter did not place much faith in the loyalty of his cunning counselor. The Tsar is said to have remarked that Tolstoy was a very able man, but in doing business with him “it was necessary to take the precaution of keeping a stone by you in order to smash his teeth in should he be disposed to snap.” And in his cups Peter would fondly pat Tolstoy’s head and say, “Head, head, if you were not so clever, I should long ago have ordered you cut off.”
In the end the clever P. A. Tolstoy reaped the whirlwind. Because he feared that the young son of the murdered Aleksei — from whom he could expect no mercy — would become Tsar after the death of Catherine I, he plotted with a group to bring about the accession of Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter I. The ruling favorite, Menshikov, whose own daughter was betrothed to the Tsarevich, learned of the conspiracy and had Tolstoy and the others arrested.
The trial was rushed, and shortly before the death of Catherine, Menshikov persuaded her to deprive P. A. Tolstoy of his rank and his orders and estates, and to sentence him to the Solovetski Monastery, that bleak prison in the White Sea to which Tolstoy himself had condemned victims of Peter’s wrath. An old man of eighty-two, he set out under escort on his long journey, accompanied by his son, who had been convicted with him. After a year on this desolate island the son died, and P. A. Tolstoy died a year later (1729).
THE family fortunes were considerably repaired by Peter’s grandson, Andrei Ivanovich Tolstoy, to whom the Empress Elizabeth restored the title of Count as well as some of the confiscated estates.
Leo Tolstoy repeated a story about him which he had heard from his aunt. His great-grandfather’s young wife (she was probably only fourteen at the time) departed for a ball one evening without her husband, who was unable to attend. On the way she suddenly remembered that she had left without bidding him the usual farewell, and she at once returned, only to find him in tears over this lapse of wifely devotion. She was apparently a model spouse, for she bore him twenty-three children over the space of twenty-five years, an accomplishment that won for their household the nickname of “the great nest.”
One of this nest of children was Ilya Andreyevich Tolstoy (1757-1820), the grandfather of Leo. His round, fat, good-natured face among the sternvisaged ancestral portraits on the dining-room wall at Yasnaya Polyana seems to reflect the pleasure that he always found in the company of amiable guests around a table loaded with good food and fine wine.
In the characterization of Ilya Andreyevich Rostov in War and Peace, Tolstoy has reproduced the essential traits of his grandfather, the peccadilloes softened somewhat and the nature rendered more lovable to suit the artist’s purpose. A continuous round of feasting, theatrical performances, balls, outings, and card-playing ended in the financial ruin of the grandfather as it did with the fictional Count Rostov. Neither could refuse a petitioner, for generosity was instinctive and indiscriminate in both.
Even the fortune of his wealthy wife, Princess Pelageya Nikolayevna Gorchakova, was sacrificed because of her husband’s extravagances. Finally, in order to secure a means of livelihood, he obtained the post of governor of Kazan. Luxurious habits, however, are easier to acquire than to dispense with, and Grandfather Tolstoy continued to lead his prodigal existence — he ordered sturgeon for his table from Astrakhan, sent his linen to Holland to be washed, and maintained a domestic theater and orchestra.
Although he was the soul of probity for a Russian governor of the time, Grandfat her Tolstoy’s administration of Kazan was soon being furtively whispered about among the local gentry. He never took bribes (except the traditional ones from the liquor monopolists), although his more realistic wife was not averse to them. Perhaps it was his unconventional honesty as a government official that resulted in his being reported to his superiors in Petersburg for malfeasance. He was advised to resign, and an investigator was sent to Kazan to report on the conduct of his office. Apart from an illegal loan of five thousand rubles from government funds, which was repaid from his estate, nothing incriminating was discovered in the official life of Grandfather Tolstoy.
The kindly old man was so shaken by the charges that in less than a month after the order for his retirement he died. Of his two sons, the younger died, and the elder, Nikolai, became the father of Leo Tolstoy.
Nikolai Ilich Tolstoy was of medium height, well built, active, with a pleasant face but with eyes that seemed always sad. Since he had been brought up in a pleasure-loving household, his mind and tastes were formed to the lax social pattern of gentlemanly pursuits and occasional license common among the landed gentry. To promote his physical wellbeing— as they imagined—his parents had even arranged a liaison between their sixteen-year-old son and a pretty serf girl.
“That union,” Tolstoy records in his Recollections, “resulted in the birth of a son, Mishenka, who became a postilion and who, while my father was alive, lived steadily, but afterwards went to pieces, and often when we brothers were grown up used to come to us begging for help. I remember the strange feeling of perplexity I experienced when this brother of mine, who was very much like my father (more so than any of us), having fallen into destitution, was grateful for the ten or fifteen rubles we would give him.”
Before he was eighteen, N. I. Tolstoy entered the army over the protests of his parents. This was in 1812, at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Since a near relation of his mother was Minister of War, the young soldier encountered no difficulty in eventually obtaining the post of adjutant to another relative, a general in command of part of the active army. He saw action in most of the important engagements of this bitter campaign, but he soon lost his zeal for war, if one may judge from the letters that he wrote home.
In October, 1813, he was sent with dispatches to Petersburg, and on the way back to rejoin the army he and his orderly were captured by the French and sent under guard to Paris. At the moment of capture, the orderly had the presence of mind to slip all his master’s money into his boots. During the long journey to Paris, which took several months, the orderly never once dared to remove his boots, although he suffered extreme pain from the concealed coins. This devotion enabled his master to support the trials of captivity in Paris in relative comfort.
Young N. I. Tolstoy retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1819, went to Kazan, where his father was governor, and entered the civil service. His father’s death in 1820 left him with an estate so encumbered with debt that he refused to accept his inheritance. The salary of a civil servant was now entirely inadequate to meet the new demands thrust upon him — the care of a distant relative and of a mother and sister who were accustomed to every luxury.
IN SUCH a situation the natural way out for a brilliant young man with a name and important connections was an advantageous marriage, and one was soon arranged. He married the wealthy Princess Mariya Nikolayevna Volkonskaya in 1822, retired from the civil service, and settled on his wife’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana. A large income from the efforts of some eight hundred serfs placed him beyond all financial need and enabled him to lead the pleasant and placid life of a Russian country gentleman.
No doubt Nikolai’s bachelor friends wondered at his choice. Mariya Volkonskaya, the only daughter of Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Volkonski, was already thirty-two, four years older than her husband, a ripe old-maid age in those days. Added to this disqualification was her very plain appearance; some even called her ugly.
Tolstoy took a great interest in the personality and career of his maternal grandfather. In his Recollections he gives an account of Prince Volkonski that is in striking accord with the imaginary portrait of him as Prince Bolkonski in War and Peace. A stern but wise landowner, he was opposed to the cruel punishments inflicted on serfs, and he managed his large estate with an eye to the practical advantage of both himself and his peasants.
Yasnaya Polyana (“Clear Glade”) had been inherited by Volkonski from his father. The estate is a hundred and thirty miles south of Moscow and is situated in the Krapivenski district in the government of Tula, about ten miles from t he city of Tula. Grandfather Volkonski did a great deal to improve the estate: he built the original large manor house in which Leo Tolstoy was born and the two buildings that now serve as wings to the present central dwelling. He also constructed fine accommodations for his serfs and saw to it that they always had enough to eat and sufficient clothing to wear—considerations of little concern to many landowners.
The vividly described relationship between old Bolkonski and his only daughter, Princess Mariya, at Bald Hills in War and Peace was inspired by what Tolstoy could learn of the life that his mother and her father led at Yasnaya Polyana. Artistic exaggeration no doubt plays a necessary part in the quixotic and altogether exasperating manner in which Bolkonski manifests his love for his daughter; but Tolstoy’s mother was also severely brought up by her father, who tolerated no girlish nonsense in his deep affection for her.
Unlike most girls in aristocratic circles, for whom a thorough knowledge of Russian instead of a passable one of French was considered a breach of good taste, she spoke and wrote her native language correctly, and she also knew French, German, English, and Italian. Nor were practical matters concerning the management of the estate neglected in her rigorous training; and from her diary we learn that on a visit to Petersburg, when she was twenty, her father made her tour a number of factories, as well as museums, art galleries, and famous churches and palaces. She shared his love for music, played the piano well, and was credited with a unique talent for inventing folk tales and narrating them.
Unusual moral and spiritual qualities endeared Tolstoy’s mother to all who surrounded her. Although quick-tempered, she exercised the utmost self-control. When provoked to fierce anger, her maid once told Tolstoy, she would go quite red in the face and even begin to weep, but she would never say a rude word — she did not even know any. Sincerity and simplicity dignified all her relations with people. Never offended by criticism, she did not allow herself to censure others. Modesty was so deeply ingrained in her nature that she seemed literally ashamed of her own mental, moral, and spiritual superiority. Large, beautiful eyes transfigured her plain face and reflected the spiritual depths within.
Tolstoy persistently emphasizes his mother’s eyes in his idealized portrait of her in War and Peace. He writes of Mariya Bolkonskaya: “The princess’s eyes, large, deep, and luminous . . . gave her an attract ion more powerful than that of beauty.” And Mariya Bolkonskaya’s profoundly religious nature, her spirit of self-sacrifice, and her infinite goodness correspond with everything that we know of Tolstoy’s mother.
Although an heiress and a member of a most prominent family, the Princess Volkonskaya does not appear to have had many suitors. Her plain appearance and perhaps the jealous love of her severe father - as was true in the case of old Bolkonski — served to discourage them. In the household, besides her father, she lavished her affection on a French companion, Mademoiselle Hénissienne, the model for Mademoiselle Bourienne in War and Peace.
As a mere girl she had been engaged to one of the sons of Prince Sergei Feydorovich Golitsyn. But before the marriage could take place, the fiancé fell ill and died. In his Recollections Tolstoy observes that his mother’s love for her deceased betrothed remained always in her memory as that poetic love which girls experience only once. As the years passed and the prospects of marriage faded, one may be certain that the belated proposal of N. I. Tolstoy was utterly without benefit of “ poetic love” in the eyes of Mariya Volkonskaya.
GENIUS has no ancestors or descendants; it is an accident of nature and hence inexplicable in terms of human influences. The man who possesses genius, however, is subject to all the ordinary factors and circumstances that influence the average person. Tolstoy’s heightened sensibilities made him even more susceptible to such influences, and among them his mother must be accorded a significant place. Although she died before he was two years old, her moral and spiritual influence persisted to an extraordinary degree throughout his long life. The absence of any real memory of her only served to contribute to the idealized memory that his vivid imagination invoked.
Tolstoy heard about his mother from aunts and old family servants. Some of her extant letters and her diary provided additional information, but he was really glad that no portrait of her existed (only a silhouette has been preserved), for it left his own beautiful image of her uncontaminated by reality.
Feminine sympathy, help, and love were essential to Tolstoy, and he sought them all his life. Everything he learned of his mother seemed to contribute to his imaginative conception of her as the quintessence of feminine solicitude and, no doubt, intensified her spiritual influence over him. Three sons were born before him — Nikolai (June 21, 1823), Sergei (February 17, 1826), and Dmitri (April 23, 1827). Nikolai, who possessed unusual qualities, both as a child and as a man, was her favorite. When Leo — often called by his pet name, Lyovochka — came along, however, on August 28, 1828 (Russian Calendar) he displaced Nikolai, who was now old enough to be given over to the care of the family tutor, as his mother’s favorite. Her latest-born she called “mon petit Benjamin.”
“I think that my mother was not in love with my father,” Tolstoy wrote, “but loved him as a husband and chiefly as the father of her children.” No more could be expected from this mariage de convenance. Perhaps Princess Mariya in War and Peace, for whom marriage was a divine institution to which we must conform, exactly echoed the sentiments of her model when she said: “However painful it may be, should the Almighty ever lay the duties of wife and mother upon me I shall try to perform them as faithfully as I can, without disquieting myself by examining my feelings towards him whom He may give me for husband.” Tolstoy’s father, morally and spiritually inferior to his wife, could not understand her radiant nature; yet he proved an excellent husband in everything that made for happiness and prosperity in the household.
In later life Tolstoy rarely spoke of his mother to his own children, but when he did, it was always with such tenderness and reverence that they thought of her as a saint.
Nikolai Tolstoy was the original for the characterization of Nikolai Rostov in War and Peace. The external events of Rostov’s life and his qualities of mind and personality recall Tolstoy’s account of his father in his autobiographical notes. After his marriage he settled down at Yasnaya Polyana and managed his agricultural affairs with competence, just as young Rostov does at Bald Hills after he marries Princess Mariya. And some of the details of his existence as a country gentleman, such as his zeal for hunting, reappear in the novel. Unlike Rostov, however, Nikolai Tolstoy was lenient with his serfs. His son remembers with pride that, with one exception, he never heard of corporal punishment on the estate when he was a child.
Education was not taken very seriously by landowners on the social level of Nikolai Tolstoy; landowners below his level were often illiterate. He had no fondness for pure science, but he read widely in the French classics and in political science and natural history. Like young Rostov again, he endeavored to build up a library, and he made a rule — the pious hope of many a collector of books — never to buy a new volume until he had read the old ones. His son, however, found it hard to believe that his father obeyed this self-imposed rule with reference to the many-volumed Histoires des Croisades and des Papes that he found in the library at Yasnaya Polyana.
Apart from a few close hunting companions, Nikolai Tolstoy avoided the company of his neighbors. Nor did he allow himself to be drawn into the political activities of the local district. Like so many of the gentry who had taken part in the patriotic campaigns of 1812 to 1815, he was disillusioned by the later illiberal attitude of Alexander I and deeply disappointed by the reactionary rule of his successor. The result was an aloofness from all government service and an implied if not uttered condemnation of both the foreign and the domestic policy of his country.
Of course his son at that time did not understand the significance of this attitude, but he did fully realize that his father never humbled himself before anyone and never changed his debonair, gay, and often ironical tone. And this sense of personal dignity increased the boy’s admiration of his father. The son was to possess this same consciousness of his own worth and the same unwillingness to humble himself before anyone — “least of all, government officials.
Tolstoy pleasantly recalls the bright, happy demeanor of his father when he was alone with the family. His jests and yarns at mealtime kept grandmother, aunts, and children constantly amused. He would draw pictures for the youngsters which they thought the height of perfection. Just before bedtime the children would take their father’s study by storm. As he smoked and read, they swarmed over the back of his huge leather divan to receive his good-night blessing. Sometimes they found him in the drawing room, where he had gone to lay out Grandmother’s game of patience; he was always tender and submissive to her. While she placed her cards and took a pinch from her gold snuffbox, one of the aunts would read aloud.
“ I remember once,” Tolstoy writes in his Recollections, “ in the middle of a game of patience and of the reading, my father interrupts ray aunt, points to a looking-glass and whispers something. We all look in the same direction. It was the footman Tikhon who (knowing that my father was in the drawing room) was going into the study to take some tobacco from a big leather folding tobacco-pouch. My father sees him in the looking-glass and notices his figure stepping carefully on tiptoe. My aunts laugh. Grandmamma for a long time does not understand, but when she does she too smiles cheerfully. I am enchanted by my father’s kindness, and on taking leave of him kiss his white muscular hands with special tenderness.”
The happy temperament, fondness for joking, and spontaneous fun-making of the father were pronounced traits in the son. Without possessing any special distinction, Nikolai Tolstoy was a solid citizen, a good father, conscious of his own worth, but capable of humility.
TOLSTOY’S mother had been the center of a household that radiated possessive feminine love for her children. After her early death the other women in the family circle drew closer to the motherless youngsters. They occupy an important place in Tolstoy’s childhood memories, and are not without significance in his later literary endeavors.
Grandmother Pelageya Nikolayevna Tolstaya has already been mentioned. Tolstoy describes his grandmother as a woman of small intellect who had been consistently spoiled by her father and then by both her husband and son. Although Tolstoy suspects that she was jealous of his mother, she deeply loved her son and his children. All sought to please her as the chief person of the household, with the natural result that she grew capricious and often behaved toward family and servants with little consideration.
With that arbitrary selectivity of memory functioning over a long stretch of years, Tolstoy’s mind fixes on the picture of Grandmother in her white cap and dressing jacket, smiling with satisfaction at the children’s delight over the large and wonderful bubbles that arose from her old white hands as she washed them with a special kind of soap. Another picture etched in his memory shows his grandmother in a yellow cabriolet standing in a clump of hazel bushes, the branches of which footmen bend down so that she can pluck the ripe nuts without leaving her seat. The children fill their own pockets, and Grandmother takes them into the cabriolet with her and praises them. Grandmother, the nut glade, the pungent scent of the leaves, the footmen, the yellow cabriolet, and the hot sun all merge in his mind into one joyful impression of childhood.
Perhaps Tolstoy’s most vivid recollection of his grandmother, however, concerns the night he passed in her bedroom with Stepanich, the old blind storyteller, whose remarkable memory enabled him to repeat, word for word, stories that were read to him. His hearing was so acute that he could indicate exactly the direction a mouse had taken by the sound it made in running across the floor. Tolstoy’s sister relates that the sightless Stepanich once interrupted a tale to remark that a mouse had just got at the oil that Grandmother used for her icon lamp. He often had his supper in Grandmother’s room and recited one of his stories while she undressed and went to bed.
On one such occasion it was little Leo’s turn to spend the night with his grandmother. He remembered her in the dirty light of the icon lamp, propped up against the huge pillows, and dressed all in white and covered with white bedclothes. From the window seat came the tranquil voice of blind Stepanich droning the story of Prince Camaralzaman. Tolstoy could recall nothing of the tale —only the mysterious appearance of his grandmother, her wavering shadow on the wall, and old Stepanich with his white, unseeing eyes.
Aunt Alexandra Ilinishna Osten-Saken, the grandmother’s oldest daughter, was the most unusual member of the Tolstoy family circle. Tragedy had wrecked her marriage. They had not lived together very long when her husband, a wealthy Baltic Count, showed signs of mental derangement. In a fit of insanity he shot her, almost fatally. While she was recovering, being pregnant at the time, he succumbed to another mad notion that she would betray him to his enemies, and he tried to cut her tongue out. Attendants rescued her, and Count Osten-Saken was shut up in an asylum.
As a consequence of these terrible experiences, she gave birth to a stillborn girl, and friends, fearing to tell her of this new catastrophe, substituted the recently born child of a servant. She eventually returned to her parents’ house, but after her father’s death she and her ward, Pashenka, went to live with her newly married brother at Yasnaya Polyana.
Aunt Alexandra’s misfortunes no doubt helped to deepen the Christian faith of a nature already intensely religious. Her favorite occupations were reading The Lives of Saints and playing devoted hostess to the numerous monks and nuns and half-crazy religious pilgrims who constantly visited Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s religious mother also had a fondness for these holy people, who were familiar figures on large estates and in the other places where they could obtain alms. Her favorite among them, and the godmother of her daughter, was Mariya Gerasimovna, who for some unknown reason masqueraded as a monk and assumed the name Ivanushka. Aunt Alexandra took her under her own protection after the death of Tolstoy’s mother. And as Ivanushka she appears as the female monk and pensioner of Princess Mariya in War and Peace.
In fact, Tolstoy drew heavily upon family accounts and upon his own memory of the dealings of his mother and aunt with these holy people in describing the interesting relations of Princess Mariya with “ God’s folk.” Although the remarkable portrait of Grisha in Childhood is original, once again Tolstoy was indebted to his remembrances of the religious idiots, the yurodivy, whom his aunt comforted and aided.
There was nothing insincere, however, in Aunt Alexandra’s religious zeal. She led a truly Christian life, avoiding luxury, dressing in the simplest fashion, accepting no service that she could perform herself, and giving away her money to the needy. She carried her disregard of worldly niceties so far that she neglected to keep clean, and Tolstoy uncharitably recalls the acrid smell that always seemed to enter a room with her. Yet the kindly, happy, self-effacing, unworldly, beautiful Christian existence of Aunt Alexandra was the vague ideal towards which Tolstoy earnestly but vainly aspired during the last years of his life.
In his old age, when Tolstoy looked back upon the people who had been close to him during his childhood, the one he singled out as having the “greatest influence” on his life was Auntie Tatyana Alexandrovna Yergolskaya. She was not a real aunt and he could never remember the exact relationship she was his father’s second cousin through the Gorchakov line. When she and her sister were left poor orphans, Tolstoy’s grandmother, after praying before the icon, drew lots with another relative for possession of the girls. Tatyana fell to her and she brought her up as one of her own children.
She turned out to be an unusual child, resolute, resourceful, and devoted to her benefactress. Her courage once challenged by her playmates, she promptly placed a red-hot ruler on her arm, apparently inspired to make this particular kind of lest by the dubious example of Mucius Scaevola. It may be recalled that Natasha repeated this incident in War and Peace by way of proving her devotion to Sonya. Auntie Tatyana was the model for Sonya, who holds the same position in the Rostov family that her original held in the Tolstoy household. Each was in love with the son of her benefactress, but Auntie appears to have given up Nikolai Tolstoy with perhaps more unselfishness than Sonya surrendered Nikolai Rostov: their claims were sacrificed to wealthy brides.
Six years after the death of his wife, Tolstoy’s father asked his childhood sweetheart to marry him and act as a mother to his children. She rejected the first part of his proposal and gladly accepted the second: for the rest of her life she took the place of a mother to the Tolstoy sons and daughter.
Auntie Tatyana was about forty when she first impressed herself on the mind of the young Tolstoy. He remembered her as having an enormous plait of crisp black curly hair, black eyes, and a vivacious expression. And from the very beginning he loved her. When he was almost five, he recalls, he squeezed in behind her on the divan, and as she caressed him he caught her dusky broad little hand with its energetic cross-vein and began to kiss it and to cry from tender love of her.
Like Sonya in War and Peace, she had an extraordinary capacity for self-sacrifice. He never remembered one word of reproach from her, and her whole existence seemed to be devoted to service to others. She loved others not so much for the good they did her as for the good she did them. Love, Tolstoy remarked, was her chief characteristic, and her influence “consisted first of all in teaching me from childhood the spiritual delight of love. She did not teach me that by words, but by her whole being she filled me with love. I saw and felt how she enjoyed loving, and I understood the joy of love. That was the first thing. And the second was that she taught me the charm of an unhurried, tranquil life.”
Such were the people who surrounded Tolstoy in his infancy. The atmosphere, properly enough, was a feminine one, for he was still confined to the nursery upstairs and to the constant companionship of his younger sister. Dim recollections of being bathed and swaddled and of the secure feeling of boundless love, especially from his Auntie Tatyana, are all that he remembers before the age of five. But the world downstairs with his older brothers and their German tutor, Fyodor Ivanovich, the great world of men beyond the nursery with his father and the clever coachmen, with horses and dogs and hunting — all this awaited him. And many years later he recalled the change and resurrected all the poignant mixed feelings that attended this solemn event in his young life.
“When I was moved downstairs to Fyodor Ivanovich and the boys,” he writes, “for the first time in my life, and therefore more strongly than at any time since, I experienced that feeling which is called a sense of duty, a consciousness of the cross that every man is called upon to bear. I was sorry to leave what I had been accustomed to (accustomed to from the very beginning), and it was sad, poetically sad, to part not so much with people, with my sister, nurse, and Auntie, but with my crib and its canopy and pillows, and this new life into which I was entering seemed fearful. I tried to find a happy side to this new life that awaited me; I tried to believe the kind words with which Fyodor Ivanovich lured me to him; I tried not to see the scorn with which the boys received me — the youngest; I tried to think that it was shameful for a big boy to live with girls, and that there was nothing good in the fife upstairs with nurse; but at heart I was terribly sad. . . .”
“ I remember the dressing gown with the cord sewn to its back which they put on me, and it seemed to cut me off forever from upstairs. And I noticed then for the first time not all those with whom I had lived upstairs, but the principal person with whom I lived and whom I had not remembered previously. This was Auntie Tatyana Alexandrovna. I recall her — short, stout, black-haired, kind, tender, and compassionate. She put the dressing gown on me, and, embracing and kissing me, she tied it around me; and I saw that she felt as I did: that it was sad, terribly sad, but that it had to be. For the first time I fell that life is not a game but a serious matter.”
YASNAYA POLYANA, where Tolstoy was to spend some seventy of his eighty-two years, was an ideal playground for a boy. Visitors entered the grounds of the estate through a gateway between whitewashed brick towers that look like two strangely shaped mushrooms topped by Chinese roofs. Grandfather Volkonski is said to have stationed guards in these towers; on his first visit, the humble, lowborn Chekhov lost courage when he came in sight of the aristocratic lowers and ordered his puzzled driver to turn back. Tolstoy no doubt had these towers in mind in describing the stone entrance gates to Bald Hills, the Bolkonski estate in War and Peace.
The way to the house leads through a lane bordered with birch trees, their clean bark gleaming white where the sun strikes it through the leafy shade. In front of the old manor house with its forty-two rooms is a flower garden, and behind extends a large park with ancient lime-tree alleys and several small ponds. On the edge of the estate are the thick Zakaz woods that are cut by the Voronka River. From the house, running through a clearing studded with springtime forget-me-nots, is the “bathing-trail” to the family bathhouse on the bank of the river.
Across the undulating countryside in the distance stretches from east to west a long ribbon of imperial domain known as the Zaseka forest. It bounds on one side the extensive fields beyond the gates of the estate. From the road at harvest time one can see, where a strip of thick high rye has already been cut, a peasant woman reaping with even rhythm or bending over the cradle of her child that has been placed in the shade of the tall grain. In the cleared spaces the bright yellow field is full of sheaves, which black-bearded peasants load on their stubby carts.
But harvest time is also hunting time, and little Lyovochka was soon initiated into the traditions of the chase, sacred among Russian landowners. He remembered the young borzois following his father out into the field and growing excited as the high grass whipped and tickled their bellies. With their tense tails raised sicklewise, they leaped gracefully over the stubble behind the horses’ feet. Milka, the highspirited, piebald favorite dog of his father, ran in front with expectant head raised, waiting for the quarry. The peasants’ voices, the tramp of horses and creaking of carts, the merry whistle of quail, the mingled odors of wormwood, straw, and horses’ sweat, the dark blue of the distant forest, the light lilac clouds, and the white cobwebs that floated in the air or stretched across the stubble — all these sights, sounds, and smells lingered in his memory when years later he described the first hunting experience of his childhood.
Then there was his recollection of the big gray wolf that the hunters caught alive and brought home in triumph. All stood around in awe as the trussed-up beast was unloaded from the cart. They held the wolf down with pitchforks, and it gnawed savagely at the cords while it was being untied. At a given signal the beast was released, and in a flash dogs, hunters, and horsemen flew after it downhill and across the fields. Much to the disgust of Lyovochka’s father, the wolf escaped — only to appear again many years later in the famous hunting scene in War and Peace. On this occasion the wolf did not escape.
Closer association with his brothers was of first importance in the new existence of the recent graduate from the nursery. They soon initiated Lyovochka into those exciting mysteries that are the peculiar possession of the world of childhood.
Curiously enough, black-eyed Dmitri (Mitenka) left little impression on Lyovochka in this period, although Dmitri was closest to him in age (not quite a year and a half older) and played with him more than the other brothers. He was a capricious, difficult child, and Tolstoy remembered only his excessive merriment and the fact that they got along well enough together.
The handsome, proud, sincere Sergei (Seryozha), however, Lyovochka admired to the point of heroworship. He was two and a half years older. Selfconscious and painfully aware of what others thought of him, Lyovochka was impressed by Seryozha’s spontaneous egotism and tried to imitate it. In fact, he imitated nearly everything Seryozha did: his keeping chickens, his colored drawings of them, and the original way he fed his flock in the winter by poking long slivers of bread through the keyhole. The ease and sureness with which Seryozha got things done baffled his brother and at the same time aroused his adoration. Throughout his life Seryozha remained for Tolstoy an inscrutable, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating personality. Their early relations, and particularly the role of hero that Seryozha played in them, are accurately suggested in Childhood, where he is characterized as Volodya Irlenev.
Nikolai (Nikolenka, Koko), who was nearly six years older than Lyovochka, was naturally the moving spirit among the brothers in all their childhood enterprises. Not only the fact that he was the oldest, but rare qualities of mind and spirit justified his leadership. Lyovochka deeply loved Nikolai, whose influence over him was enduring and important. Tolstoy believed that Nikolai resembled his mother in his indifference to what others thought about him, in his unusual modesty despite superior mental, moral, and spiritual endowments, and in his firm refusal to judge others.
Turgenev used to say of Nikolai that he lacked only certain faults to be a great writer. Tolstoy added that he lacked the writer’s principal fault of vanity, and possessed to a high degree a fine artistic sense, a gay, light fund of humor, an amazing imagination, and a highly moral view of life. He relates how Nikolai would invent folk tales, ghost stories, or shilling-shockers à la Ann Radcliffe for hours together, and so vividly did he realize characters and scenes that one forgot that they were all products of his imagination.
Nikolai’s imagination and power of invention, perhaps inspired in this instance by his reading about freemasons and religious sects, — he was a wide reader, — created an excit ing childhood fantasy that absorbed much of the attention and thought of the Tolstoy brothers for a brief period. (They ranged between the ages of five and eleven at this time.) Nikolai solemnly announced to them one day that he possessed a wonderful secret that could make all men happy. If it became generally known, a kind of Golden Age would exist on earth: there would be no more disease, no human misery, and no anger. All would love one another and become “Ant Brothers.” 1 The children adopted the idea with enthusiasm and even organized a game of Ant Brothers. Boxes and chairs were covered with shawls, and they all cuddled together in the dark within the shelter. Tolstoy recalled the feeling of love and tenderness that filled him on such occasions.
Nikolai had disclosed the Ant Brotherhood to them but not the chief secret — the means by which all men would become everlastingly happy. He had written this secret, he said, on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a ravine in the Zakaz forest. Apart from the green stick, there was also a certain Fanfaronov Hill, and he agreed to lead them up it if they would fulfill all the necessary conditions. The first was to stand in a corner and not think of a white bear. Tolstoy remembered how he would get off in a corner and vainly try to refrain from thinking of a white bear. The second condition was to walk along a crack in the floor without wavering; and the third was to keep from seeing a hare, alive or dead or cooked, for a whole year.
Of course, Nikolai strictly warned his brothers not to reveal these conditions to anyone. If they fulfilled them, and others that he promised to communicate later, then they would have one wish that would come true. And they had to tell Nikolai their wishes beforehand. Seryozha wished to be able to model a horse and a hen out of wax; Mitenka wished to be able to draw everything in life-size, like a real artist; and the five-year-old Lyovochka, clearly puzzled, lamely wished to be able to draw in miniature.
The children soon forgot about Fanfaronov Hill and the green stick. Tolstoy, however, traced to the Ant Brotherhood under the shawl-covered chairs his first childhood experience of love — not love of some one person, but love of love. Huddled together under the chairs, the Ant Brothers felt a particular tenderness for each other, and they talked of what was necessary for happiness and how they would love everybody. When he was over seventy, he recalled the incident in his Recollections: “The ideal of Ant Brothers clinging lovingly to one another, only not under two armchairs curtained by shawls, but of all the people of the world under the wide dome of heaven, has remained unaltered for me. As I then believed that there was a little green stick whereon was written something which would destroy all evil in men and give them great blessings, so I now believe that such truth exists among people and will be revealed to them and will give them what it promises.”
The promise was the brotherhood of man to which Tolstoy dedicated the best efforts of so many years of his life. It is not surprising that he never forgot the little green stick and the yearning for human brotherhood that Nikolai’s childish fantasy had evoked.
IF Lyovochka found anything serious in his new life downstairs, it was the irksome hours of study under the guidance of his first tutor, the German Fyodor Ivanovich Rössel. Children of the gentry ordinarily learned languages from foreign tutors, although such instructors were often former tailors, cooks, or soldiers, who had found their way into Russia and exploited their language as a means of livelihood. Fyodor Ivanovich had been a shoemaker, a soldier, a ropemaker, and a bit of a Don Juan, if the story of his life that Tolstoy tells so effectively in Childhood and Boyhood is authentic.
As a tutor, certainly, Fyodor Ivanovich had little to recommend him, except his unfailing kindness and his affection for the Tolstoy children. His intellectual interests appear to have been discouragingly limited to the repeated reading of three works: a German pamphlet on the manuring of cabbage plots, one volume of a History of the Seven Years’ War, and a treatise on hydrostatics. For good measure he supplemented this learned feast, with odd copies of the Russian periodical, Northern Bee.
Seated in an easy chair and arrayed in his quilted dressing gown and red-tasseled skullcap, Fyodor Ivanovich heard with an air of pedagogical pomposity endless recitations from a German dialogue book. “Wo kommen Sie her?” he would ask in his Saxon accent. And the pat answer would be droned back: “ Ich komme vom Kaffeehause.” Failure to know the answer of the exercise book entailed the risk of being sent to kneel in the corner. Sadly Tolstoy recalls that corner of shame in Childhood. Vexed with aching back and knees, he picked plaster off the wall and then grew frightened that the noise of a particularly large piece falling to the floor might attract the attention of his absent-minded tutor. But Fyodor Ivanovich heard nothing, for he was once again deep in his treatise on hydrostatics.
The kindly, sentimental tutor, however, was no tyrant. Perhaps more important than his German lessons were the virtuous precepts he encouraged of generous tolerance and loving kindness towards all the poor and unfortunate of life, among whom he included himself. This lesson the young Tolstoy learned well, and the sympathetic portrait in Childhood is convincing testimony of his regard for his old tutor.
Except for German, in which Lyovochka acquired considerable expertness, little else appears to have been within the teaching competence of good Fyodor Ivanovich. He may have fostered, however, what seems to have been an attempt at a magazine on the part of his young pupils. In the vast collection of Tolstoy manuscripts in Moscow, two pages of note paper, neatly ruled in childish fashion in pencil, have recently turned up. They are headed “Children’s Amusements,” with an indication that the contributions will be written by the four brothers. Beneath this is a subheading: “First Part. Natural History. Written by C.L.N.To, 1835” — that is, by Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
Seven brief accounts follow, the first of which is entitled “The Eagle.” It reads: “The eagle is the king of birds. They say about it that a certain boy began to tease it; it grew angry and pecked at him.” Similar descriptions follow of the hawk, owl, parrot, peacock, hummingbird, and cock. This is the first manuscript of Tolstoy in existence, and it was probably written when he was seven years of age. Nothing else remains of this attempt at a magazine.
Among the gentry, of course, an indispensable subject in the education of any child was French. No doubt Auntie Tatyana, who knew the language better than her own, was the teacher in this instance. She apparently laid a good foundation, for in later years Tolstoy’s knowledge of French was excellent. He began his study of the language at a very early age, for when he was five he was given the task of teaching little Dunechka Temyashova her letters in French. Dunechka was the illegitimate daughter of a distant relative of the Tolstoys, A. A. Temyashov, a wealthy bachelor. He begged Tolstoy’s father, to whom he was devoted, to bring up Dunechka in his household. In return, he offered to hand over a very rich property, Pirogova, if Tolstoy’s father would set aside a dowry for the girl. So the quiet, broad-faced child became a member of the family and played with the brothers.
Once, Tolstoy recalls, she and Dmitri started a game of spitting a small chain into each other’s mouth, but she spat it so hard and he opened his mouth so wide that he swallowed the chain. There was much wailing until the doctor came and calmed all concerned. Indeed, Dunechka gave way to tears as easily as her young teacher, whose propensity in this direction earned him the family nickname of Lyova Ryova, “Crybaby Leo.” On one occasion, he remembers, she grew weary with his efforts and stubbornly called incorrectly the French letters that he pointed out to her. The five-year-old pedagogue persisted and Dunechka burst into tears. So did Crybaby Leo, and when the mystified grownups arrived on the scene, the desperate sobs of both master and pupil prevented them from uttering a word of explanation.
UP TO the age of nine, Lyovochka’s formal education was neither systematic nor thorough. His own inclination, however, and the example of his elders over this period unquestionably encouraged that informal but valuable kind of instruction to be obtained from reading good books. There is no actual record of such efforts, except his own story of being asked, when he was about eight, to read Pushkin to his father. He selected from the volume his favorite pieces that he had learned by heart, such as “To the Sea” and “Napoleon”: —
The great man is no more.
[“My father] was evidently struck by the pathos with which I spoke those verses,” Tolstoy writes, “and having listened to me, exchanged significant looks with Yazykov [Tolstoy’s godfather], who was present. I understood that he saw something good in that reading of mine and I was very happy about it.” Not merely the effectiveness of his son’s reading, but the choice of poems, must have struck the father as unusual. For the poems mentioned, among Pushkin’s best shorter pieces, are extremely advanced for an eight-year-old boy, and their selection at least suggests a rare degree of artistic taste and understanding at this age.
Another important aspect of the cultural influence of the home on Lyovochka during this early period was music. His mother had played the piano well, and so did Auntie Tatyana and the governess of his sister. Little Masha herself played excellently when still quite young; as Lyubochka in Boyhood, she is represented as rendering Field’s concertos and Beethoven’s sonatas. How early Lyovochka began to take lessons is not known, — he eventually became a very competent pianist, — but his love of music as a child is eloquently suggested in a rejected chapter of the third version of Childhood. Little Nikolenka Irtenev (Lyovochka) is sitting in the drawing room, with his feet up on an easy chair, while his mother plays Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. Tolstoy writes: —
“The restrained, majestic, but agitated motif of the Introduction which, as it were, fears to express itself, made me hold my breath. The more beautiful, the more complex the musical phrase, the more powerful becomes the feeling of fear lest anything should disturb this beauty, and the more powerful the feeling of delight when the phrase is harmoniously resolved.”
There is a similar analysis of his reaction to the Allegro. During the Andante he drowses. “One’s soul,” he continues, “was tranquil, joyous, one wished to smile, and one dreamed of something light, white, and transparent. But the Rondo in C minor aroused me. What is he about? Whither is he entreating to go? What does he want? And one wishes it all to finish quicker, quicker; but when he had ceased to weep and to entreat, I still wanted to hear the passionate expression of his suffering.”
Here one must reckon, however, with Tolstoy’s extraordinary sensitivity not only to all manner of artistic expression but to anything that touched his feelings. And of all the arts, music acted most powerfully upon his emotions. His son Sergei, a professional teacher of music, remarked that he had never met anyone who felt music as intensely as his father. When it pleased Tolstoy he grew excited, a lump rose in his throat, and he shed tears.
A FEW of the thirty or more serf domestics of the Tolstoys were distinct personalities and important individuals in the household during Lyovochka’s childhood. Their absolute dependence on master and mist ress, true of servants among the gentry before the emancipation of the serfs, often engendered a nearness and devot ion to the family quite uncommon in such a relationship.
Tolstoy dedicated several pages of his Recollections to these favorite domestics of his childhood, and they provided him with valuable material for the servant types in his fiction. There was toothless nurse Anna Ivanovna, a relic of Grandfather Volkonski’s boyhood, whose extreme age and witch-like appearance frightened the Tolstoy children. She was assisted by the much younger Tatyana Filippovna, who lived long enough with the family to become the nurse of Tolstoy’s eldest son. The whole life of this simple peasant centered in her foster children, and she freely gave away to her wheedling husband and son all the money she earned.
With little Dunechka Temyashova had come her own nurse, Evpraksiya, an ancient woman with a pendulous jowl like a turkey cock’s, in which a ball moved around. As a special treat she would allow the Tolstoy youngsters to feel this growth in her neck. The deep-voiced, genial Nikolai, brother of Tatyana Filippovna, who always had about him the pleasant smell of the stables, was the family coachman. The children loved him and were much in awe of his skill with horses. And Tolstoy remembered the kindly butler, Vasili Trubetskoi, who used to carry him up and down the pantry on his tray; the valet Nikolai Ilich and the waiter Tikhon, a former flutist in the serf orchestra of Grandfather Volkonski and also a comedian of some ability; and the two handsome brothers, Petrushka and Matyushka, strong and skillful huntsmen.
Of all the domestics of his childhood, the one whom Tolstoy recalled with deepest affection was the housekeeper, Praskovya Isayevna. He portrayed her faithfully and beautifully in Childhood as Natalya Savishna. She too had served the family since the time of his grandfather, and Tolstoy remembered how he would go up to her little room and have long talks with her about all those matters of supreme importance in the life of a child. She would answer his eager questions concerning the military exploits of Grandfather Volkonski, and no doubt she told him a great deal about his mother, whom she loved. His only unpleasant memories of her concern the time she struck him with a wet napkin for a boyish prank (an incident described in Childhood) and the enema she administered to him by mistake — the operation apparently had been intended for one of his brothers.
She was a rare character, however, and Tolstoy frankly admits her fine influence on the development of his sensibility. So instinctive were her love and kindness that it never occurred to him to value them for their true worth until after she had died. Only then did he realize what a wonderful being she had been. He wrote of her: “She not only never spoke, but it seems that she never even thought, of herself; her whole life consisted of love and self-sacrifice.”
On holidays the house serfs often mingled with members of the family in the festivities. This was especially true of the celebrations at Christmas time. Tolstoy happily recalls these amusements of his childhood, and he lived them over again in bright chapters of War and Peace, where he describes the Yuletide merrymaking among the servants and younger members of the Rostov family. All would dress in outlandish mummers’ costumes — a bear, a goat, a Tatar, a Turk, or a robber. Sometimes neighbors would come, such as Islenev — the grandfather of Tolstoy’s future wife and the model for the father of the Irtenev children in Childhood — with his three sons and three daughters, weirdly made up to represent a dressing table, a boot, a cardboard buffoon, and other oddities.
Bustling Auntie Tatyana quickly disguised the excited Tolstoy children. Little Masha was particularly attractive as a Turkish girl, and her brother Lyovochka thought himself very handsome as a Turkish man. He studied his burnt-cork mustache and exaggerated eyebrows in the mirror, and the expression of a majestic Turk that he tried to assume vanished in the smile of pleasure that came over his face.
Music and country dances followed, and then the mummers, both serfs and gentry, formed a large circle and played traditional Christmas games.
(To he continued)
- Moravskiye bratya (“Moravian Brothers ”), of whom young Nikolai had no doubt read, was probably mistakenly translated by the boy into Muraveinye bratya ("Ant Brothers”).↩