The Young Tolstoy: Student, Lover, and Country Squire

Leo (Lyovochka) Tolstoy was the fourth son of Count Nikolai Tolstoy, a Russian nobleman whose family had been elevated and enriched during the reigns of Peter I and Catherine II. The boy hardly knew his mother, for she died before he was two, five months after the birth of his only sister, Marya (Masha). Leo’s golden age was spent on the huge family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, with its thousands of acres and several hundred serfs. There he played with his three brothers, Dmitri (Mitenka), Sergei (Seryozha), and Nikolai (Koko), and with them banded together into the Ant Brotherhood: there he acquired some rudimentary German from their tutor, Fyodor Ivanovich; there he felt the religious zeal of Aunt Alexandra, listened while Auntie Tatyana played the piano, and imbibed what little knowledge he was ever to have of his good-natured but ineffectual father.



ON A fine January day in 1837, the Tolstoy brichka and calash stood at the front door of the manor house at Yasnaya Polyana. The commotion attendant on preparations for a long journey reigned through the house. Servants ran back and forth, angrily shouting directions to each other, lugging boxes and portmanteaux and piling them on the vehicles. A motley group of barefoot children and of peasant women with striped kerchiefs on their heads and babies in their arms stood around the porch and watched the packing with vagrant curiosity. Coachmen greased the brichka while hungry dogs furtively licked the smears on the hubs of the wheels.

At last all was ready. Members of the family and domestics assembled in the large living room for the traditional minute of silence before departure. Father Tolstoy, Grandmother, Aunt Alexandra and her ward Pashenka, Auntie Tatyana, and all the children filed through rows of servants to receive their tearful farewells and customary kisses on the shoulder. Then, with much crowding, they arranged themselves in the vehicles. Eight-year-old Lyovochka, with tears in his eyes, tenderly kissed the muzzle of his favorite dog, Milka, and got into the calash with his father. The coachman cracked his whip and they were off, down through the birch-tree avenue, past the whitewashed brick towers, and out on the open road to Moscow.

The oldest son, Nikolai, was now fourteen, and the time had come to think of preparing him for the university. He required specialized tutoring that could be obtained only in the city. Besides, the other brothers were nearing an age when the instruction of Fyodor Ivanovich would be too elementary.

For the irrepressible Lyovochka this first venture into the great world beyond the towered gates was a memorable event. The road was a child’s storybook of scenes and people foreign to his sheltered existence at Yasnaya Polyana. Stolid-faced pilgrims with knapsacks of birch bark on their backs, legs swathed in dirty bands, and heavy bast shoes on their feet trudged by, their staffs swinging in a rhythmical up-and-down movement. The red scarified stump of a beggar’s outstretched arm frightened him; and he was puzzled by the contemptuous look of a carter who whipped his shuffling horse past the calash.

The family put up at inns and villages on the way, and no one paid the slightest attention to them. Peasants failed to smile and bow, and often they did not even bother to notice them. All this strange indifference worried Lyovochka.

The journey dates the beginning of Tolstoy’s boyhood. The sudden awareness in the life of a child that his family is really not the center of the universe now dawned on Lyovochka for the first time. He began to wonder what could possibly interest all these people if they did not care about him and his father, grandmother, and aunts. This thought led him to speculate on how these strange people lived. Who taught their children? And how were they punished? The walls of his own childhood world at Yasnaya Polyana had finally crumbled, and new horizons loomed in the distance. At last the party approached Moscow with the cupolas of its forty times forty churches gleaming in the distance, and his father proudly pointed out to him the famous buildings of the city.

The family rented the large and expensive Shcherbachev house in Moscow. Tolstoy never remembered much of his first winter and spring in the city — only that he saw very little of his father, and that he took long, interesting walks about the unfamiliar streets with Fyodor Ivanovich.

In the summer a terrible event left a deep impression on Lyovochka’s mind. His father went to Tula on business. On the way to visit his friend Temyashov, he suddenly fell dead in the street. The theft of papers and money on his person led to the suspicion that he had met foul play at the hands of the handsome Petrushka and Matyushka, the two servants who had accompanied him on the trip. Possibly the suspicions were groundless; in the midst of family grief and distraction they were never followed up, and the body was removed to Yasnaya Polyana for burial.

Lyovochka’s thoughts were strangely confused. For some time, perhaps because he had not seen him dead, Lyovochka refused to believe that his father no longer existed. He treasured for a long time the conviction that the next man he would meet, when walking in the Moscow streets, would be his father. When he grew sad over his loss, it was largely in imitation of the grief of the grownups; and this sadness also seemed to surround him with a special importance. He rather enjoyed hearing people say of him that he was now a poor and unfortunate orphan.

Grandmother Tolstaya continually mourned the death of her son. Excessive grief unhinged her mind at times, and she imagined that she saw him in a neighboring room, and held long conversations with him. Her health was undermined and she fell dangerously ill. Lyovochka and his brothers and sister were led into Grandmother’s room to take their farewell of her. She lay on a high white bed, clothed all in white, and he remembered his horror when he kissed her still white hand, so swollen that it looked like a pillow.

Grandmother’s serious illness, however, did not act as a damper on the fun-loving Tolstoy children. One day, some eleven months after the death of their father, the brothers were in high spirits over the visit of their comrade Volodenka Milyulin. In honor of the guest, Lyovochka, Dmitri, and Sergei invented a new game. They collected a lot of paper which they proceeded to burn in the chamber pots. When the conflagration was at its height, their tutor dashed into the room, his face pale and his lower lip trembling. But instead of giving them the scolding they expected, he solemnly announced to the boys: “Your grandmother is dead!”

The sad sight of his grandmother in the coffin and the grief of the various mourners upset Lyovochka, but the fine new jacket of black material, braided with white, that was bestowed on him for the occasion of the funeral tempered this unpleasantness. And again he enjoyed overhearing the conversation of gossiping female guests who said: “Complete orphans. Their father only lately dead, and now the grandmother gone too!”


DEATH worked its swift changes on the diminishing household. Saint-like Aunt Alexandra now became legal guardian of the children. Expenses had to be cut, for the family property was placed in trust. These reverses, however, did not relieve the Tolstoy brothers of the onerous burden of education, and shortly after their arrival in Moscow a rather foppish Frenchman, Prosper Saint-Thomas, was engaged as their new tutor.

He had none of the kindly, generous qualities of humble Fyodor Ivanovich. Lyovochka was soon keenly aware of the difference, and his relations with the new tutor left an unpleasant and ineffaceable impression on him. As a pedagogue, SaintThomas was well-informed and fulfilled his duties conscientiously. As an individual, he possessed exactly those traits — frivolous egotism, vanity, insolence, and ignorant self-confidence — that were calculated to arouse his pupil’s antipathy. Lyovochka at once recognized in the handsome young Frenchman a theatricality and a hidden contempt for these “barbaric” Russians on whom he was obliged to waste his polished manners and cultural superiority.

Saint-Thomas failed utterly to understand the kind, loving, but essentially proud character of the boy. The climax came when the tutor threatened to whip him. It was not fear that aroused Lyovochka’s fury. He rebelled against the very thought of corporal punishment. The childish prank that resulted in his being locked in a dark storeroom under threat of a caning from his tutor, and his hysterical state of mind at the time, are no doubt correctly depicted in Boyhood.

How deeply this not uncommon childhood experience burned itself into his memory and affected his sensibilities may be gauged by his remarks about it almost seventy years later: “I experienced a terrible feeling of indignation, revolt, and aversion not only to Saint-Thomas, but towards that violence which he wished to exercise on me. This occasion was perhaps one reason for that horror and aversion for every kind of violence which I have felt throughout my whole life.”

There has been a tendency to magnify the importance of this episode, as though as a child Tolstoy had suffered a psychological hurt that left a permanent scar on his psyche. Certainly Saint-Thomas, if not his pupil, learned a lesson from this first threat. He never repeated it. Henceforth he buttered the self-esteem that always lurked beneath the apparent indifference of Lyovochka. And Léon’s studied contempt gradually waned; he began to think that this French dandy, despite his faults, was not such a bad fellow after all. Here the little devil of vanity that Tolstoy was to fight all his life raised its head.

The genius likes to fancy himself as unsuited to conventional education. During his boyhood Tolstoy was a poor student by his own choice. His assimilative powers were prodigious, but one aspect of his knotty originality was his refusal to assimilate unless his intellectual curiosity was aroused.

Certainly the combined efforts of various teachers seem to have made little impression on Lyovochka from the age of eight to thirteen. The reading that influenced him most over this period could hardly be regarded as choice pabulum for a child prodigy. It consisted of the story of Joseph from the Bible, “The Forty Thieves” and “Prince Camaralzaman” from The Thousand and One Nights, Russian folk poems, Pogorelski’s popular story “The Black Hen,” folk tales, and Pushkin’s poetry, especially “Napoleon.”

The sexual impulse in Lyovochka awoke early; in a few more years it would rage lustily, to his alternate delight and disgust. Pretty house-serfs were often the initiators of Russian boys into the mysteries of love. In Boyhood Tolstoy tells of young Nikolai’s (Lyovochka’s) confused sentiments for the chambermaid Masha, a secret affection that found its sole outlet in peeping-Tom activities in the women servants’ quarters.

But when Tolstoy was asked, as an old man, about his early “loves,” he made no mention of the pretty chambermaid Masha; his first and most intense love, he said, was for little Sonya Koloshina, who is strikingly portrayed as Sonya Valakhina in Childhood. His description of their first meeting at the children’s party, their dancing together, and the whole wonderful aura of childish sentiment steeped in a boy’s first pure, innocent, poetic feeling of love is done with Tolstoy’s superb insight into the minds and hearts of the young. In this incident he draws a brilliant picture that reveals all the joyful, loving, sensitive, lifegiving qualities of his nature as a boy.

When little Nikolai goes to bed that night after the party, he sees in the dark his charming Sonya with her large, lustrous eyes and shapely mouth, and he converses with her in his imagination, using to his indescribable pleasure the intimate thou and thee that he had been unable to say, despite her request, in talking to her that day. Unwilling to keep his secret, he wakes his brother to tell him of his love, only to make the joyful discovery that he too loves Sonya.

But when the older brother translates his affection into terms of a desire to kiss Sonya’s fingers, eyes, lips, nose, feet, and all of her, Nikolai is deeply wounded. The pure white poetic image is distorted by this realistic fleshly touch, and he weeps from sheer mortification. With this incident of boyhood love still green in his memory, Tolstoy jotted down in his diary at the age of sixty-two: “I have been thinking of writing a novel of love — chaste love as with S. Koloshina — in which a transition into sensuality is impossible and which serves as the best protection against sensuality.” Unfortunately, this projected novel was never written.


AFTER the death of Aunt Alexandra, in August, 1841, the guardianship of the children fell upon her younger sister, Aunt Pelageya Ilinichna Yushkova, who lived in Kazan. She hastened to Moscow and heard the plea of the oldest brother, Nikolai, who was now in the first year of the university, not to desert them. Her immediate decision was that they should all go to Kazan.

When Aunt Pelageya finished appropriating “necessities” for the journey and the future existence of the Tolstoy children at Kazan, Yasnaya Polyana looked as though the Golden Horde had ravaged it. An immense amount of household equipment was sent on ahead, together with carpenters, tailors, mechanics, cooks, and upholsterers from among the skilled serfs. And the “complete orphans” with their various attendants and staples for the road set out accompanied by a long train of carriages and carts.

For the boys the trip to Kazan, in September, 1841, was a prolonged picnic. They halted frequently in the woods and fields on the way, gathered mushrooms, and bathed in the streams and ponds. On one occasion Lyovochka’s urge to be a show-off got the better of him. When the coachman stopped to adjust the harness, be leaped out of the carriage and dashed ahead at full speed. Every time they attempted to catch up with him, he strained himself to the utmost, and the carriage overtook him only when he was a thoroughly exhausted youngster.

The happy travelers finally reached Kazan and were all lodged in the spacious Yushkov house, on the site of which a Soviet school stands today. Kazan, a thriving old river port, mellowed with an ancient history of fierce Tatar-Russian strife, was at that time a town of fewer than a hundred thousand inhabitants. Mongol influences still waged an equal battle with Slavic, and a typically small-town society tried desperately to assume metropolitan airs and culture. Here Lyovochka was to spend the next five and a half years of his life.

Through their connections with the Yushkovs, the Tolstoy brothers had a clear title to membership in the ultra-aristocratic society of Kazan. Aunt Pelageya had married V. I. Yushkov, a rich landowner. Her vanity, dearth of brains, and excessive sentimentality were compensated by her kindness and a deep but conventional religious feeling that eventually led her to retire to a nunnery. But there was nothing religious about her husband. His dignified black mustache, whiskers, and spectacles gave an air of respectability to his satyr-like traits, but his weakness for women ultimately brought about a separation between him and his wife.

Since she was the daughter of a former governor of the province (even though his memory was not exactly venerated by the local citizenry), Aunt Pelageya’s house was one of the social centers of the town, and she cultivated only the “very best” people. With such an experienced preceptress, the Tolstoy boys would soon be much in demand in the beau monde, quite a new experience for them.


THE immediate problem was the brothers’ future education, one of the reasons for coming to Kazan. The town boasted an excellent university, not on a par with those of Petersburg and Moscow, but sufficiently reputable to attract scholars from Western Europe. Nikolai had failed promotion at the end of his second year at Moscow University, and he transferred to the Philosophy Faculty at Kazan. Two years later, in 1843, Sergei and Dmitri matriculated in the same field.

Meanwhile Lyovochka, too young to enter the university, had plenty of leisure to contemplate a career. His slight experience with formal education did not whet his appetite for more. Conventional book knowledge seemed an unnecessary obstacle to his grandiose schemes for the future. Aunt Pelageya offered her advice. He ought to plan to be an aide-decamp — preferably an aide-de-camp to the Emperor.

Her greatest joy, however, would be to see him married to an heiress and the owner of as many serfs as possible. Soon this religiously-minded but worldly lady, herself the purest, of beings, Tolstoy declared, would strongly urge him to have relations with a married woman, on the principle that “nothing so forms a young man as an intimacy with a woman of good breeding.”

But first the university loomed up before him, like some desert through which he must pass in order to reach green fields beyond. Whether he prepared for the army or for a diplomatic career, it was felt that he ought to attend the Faculty of Oriental Languages, one of the most difficult and distinguished fields. In the autumn of 1844 he matriculated at Kazan University.

At last a “man,” no longer under the thumb of a tutor, Leo Tolstoy dressed in his new student uniform, with its glittering gilt but tons, cocked hat, and a sword on his left hip; he received his own allowance and a trap with a spirited brown trotter for his private use. No doubt, he also took up cigarette smoking, which was then the height of fashion for a young dandy. With money in his pocket and joy in his heart, he drove to his first class, hoping to meet a policeman on the way who would honor him with the customary salute to a student.

Tolstoy’s initial enthusiasm for the university quickly diminished as his interest in the social aspects of student life increased. Often he failed to attend lectures, and at the mid-term examinations he did so badly that permission to return was denied him. This failure was more of a shock than he cared to admit. The glamour of his new uniform had not worn off. Nikolai had graduated in 1844, and Sergei and Dmitri, although not brilliant, had been advanced to the third year. At the moment he wished to emulate his brothers. A happy alternative was suggested: he could forget his diplomatic career and transfer to the Faculty of Jurisprudence. It was notoriously easy — “A man must be a fool who cannot be a jurist” was the way the students dismissed it. At the beginning of the next academic year Tolstoy transferred to the Faculty of Jurisprudence.

This faculty was the scandal of the university and an ancient object of student ridicule. Its professors were mostly crotchety German pedants who mangled the Russian language. Despite the prevailing atmosphere of levity in his new faculty, Tolstoy admits that during this year he began for the first time to take a serious interest in his studies. A few of the subjects, especially criminal law, inspired him to make some effort, and he attended with regularity the lectures of one or two of the most brilliant professors. He acquitted himself very well in the finals and was advanced to the second year. However, the thirdrate Faculty of Jurisprudence offered little mental stimulation, nor could it compete at this time with his passion for social activity.

The aristocratic set that Tolstoy frequented in Kazan society indulged in fabulous hospitality. Friends visited each other freely, remained for dinner, chatted, and went home for a brief rest. In the evening they would be off to a ball, theater, or concert, at the conclusion of which a Lucullan feast was sure to be served at someone’s house. Guests rarely left before five or six in the morning, slept till noon, and began the whole procedure over again.

As an eligible, titled young bachelor, with the best of connections, Tolstoy was much sought after in this society. The three brothers (Nikolai had entered the army in 1844) had by now taken an apartment of their own and lived in style. Each had a serving boy, a luxury that Aunt Pelageya had foolishly insisted upon.

Although to be comme il faut seemed to him the height of human perfection, young Tolstoy had a total incapacity for it. His failure caused him endless grief at this time. Much of the effort that should have been expended on studies was devoted to acquiring those graces which would enable him to shine at the dinner parties and balls of Kazan aristocracy. One look in the mirror would upset all his hopes. The face of a simple peasant stared back at him, and his big hands and feet seemed downright shameful. His muscular physique (he was practicing gymnastics daily in the hope of becoming the strongest man in the world) was not well-proportioned, and clothes somehow never set him off as neatly as they did Sergei.

Tolstoy tried to make a virtue of such handicaps, and when this failed, he took refuge in queer and original behavior, the customary retreat of the social misfit. To be outstanding was his aim; if he could not gain attention by natural graces, he would do it by calculated rudeness. When all talked, he was haughtily silent. If he elected to speak, he eschewed the usual empty compliments of fine society and endeavored to impress people by a certain impolite frankness. “Old inhabitants of Kazan,” writes one of them, “remember him at all the balls, evening parties, and gatherings of fashionable society, invited everywhere, always dancing, but not in the least pleasing to these worldly ladies as were his rivals among the aristocratic students; they always observed in him a stiffness and self-consciousness.” One of his rivals remarked; “We called him the ‘bear,’ the ‘philosopher’ Lyovochka, awkward and always embarrassed.” The “bear” was a highly sensitive young animal, however, and his failure to achieve social success pained him deeply.


SUCCESS with the ladies was one of the requisites of being truly comme il faut. Here again Tolstoy bungled. Marriageable girls in Kazan high society found him rather boring. His shyness, alternating with moments of boorish behavior and bursts of conversation that was intended to be strikingly original, bewildered and even frightened these young things. If he had been inclined to put into practice his aunt’s advice to form a liaison with a fashionable married woman, he would probably not have survived the preliminaries of introduction.

He ogled these ladies of quality from a safe distance, fell in love, and imagined scenes of delightful intimacies with them. But even the offer of an introduction to one of these imaginary victims terrified him, as though he were convinced that by mere acquaintance she would at once become aware of all his shameful thoughts. To his inordinately shy mind these fine ladies seemed clothed in impregnable bronze. How he wished to be like that Lovelace of a brother, Sergei, who seemed able to take with an easy grace all the good things that life offered him.

Yet Tolstoy’s passions in his youth, as always, ran high. And the morals of young men of the gentry were, by prescription, singularly unconstrained. Wild oats were to be sown early under the common delusion that they would not have to be sown again. Had not his grandparents served up to his father, at the age of sixteen, a pretty little serf girl for the good of his health? If Tolstoy’s unattractive appearance and gauche manners could not win him success among Kazan’s marriageable girls or women of quality, then he would take the other way out.

Not much is known about Tolstoy’s relations with loose women during his Kazan existence, but bitter references to them later suggest that his experiences made a deep impression on him. In dividing the years of his life for biographical purposes, he described the first period of “innocent, joyous, poetic childhood up to fourteen; then the terrible twenty years that followed — a period of coarse dissoluteness, employed in the service of ambition, vanity, and above all of lust.”

Why did Tolstoy designate the age of fourteen as the end of his childhood and the beginning of a period of his life devoted chiefly to lust? The natural supposition is that he had his first sexual experience at this tender age. In the fragmentary Memoirs of a Madman, with its undoubted autobiographical significance, Tolstoy has his hero declare: “I was fourteen years old when I first learned the vice of the pleasures of the flesh, and it horrified me. All my being strained after it, and then all my being, it seemed, was opposed to it.”

N. N. Gusev once heard from Tolstoy’s close friend, Marya Alexandrovna Schmidt, an interesting account concerning his first sexual experience. When he was writing Resurrection, his wife sharply criticized him for the chapter in which he described the seduction of Katyusha. “Old man that you are,” she scolded, “are you not ashamed to write such nastiness!” Tolstoy made no reply, but when his wife had left the room, he turned to M. A. Schmidt and said, almost in tears: “See how she attacks me, but when my brothers took me for the first time to a brothel and I accomplished this act, I then stood by the woman’s bed and wept.”

Fleshly desires were at once alluring and repulsive to the young Tolstoy, but his strong moral repugnance received no encouragement from the dissolute Kazan society that he frequented. Much of his waywardness was in imitation of the corrupt behavior he found on every side. Apparently he paid dearly for it, and not merely in moral suffering. For his first diary in 1847 opens: “It is six days since I entered the clinic, and six days since I became almost contented. Les petites causes produisent des grands effets. I’ve had gonorrhoea, had it from that source whence it is customarily obtained.”

Young as he was, Tolstoy had a highly developed moral sense, and every violation of it caused him infinite heart-searching. In his youthful meditations he had already dwelt upon the question of love, as though seeking some idealistic conception that would purify his debauched thoughts. With the pedantic precision of a young philosopher, he neatly divided love into three kinds: beautiful love, selt-denying love, and active love. His own ideal tor the moment partook of the best qualities of all three, and it gained substance in his dream of an imaginary woman. She had a bit of Sonya Valakhina in her, a dash of the chambermaid Masha as he had seen her washing the linen, and the external charms of a lady with pearls around her white neck whom he had noticed long ago in a box at the theater.

The shyness that made Tolstoy uneasy in the company of women also stood in the way of friendship with his fellow students. He carried his stuffy notions of comme il faut from the ballroom into the classroom. High school graduates and poor scholarship students he scorned. Their incorrect French, shabby clothes, untidy boots, and dirty nails condemned them. In his pride and affected indifference, he always refused to bow first.

When Tolstoy made friends, and there were a few in this Kazan period, they always belonged to his aristocratic set. The best of them was Dmitri Alekseyevich Dyakov, a youth several years older than Tolstoy. Unusually fervent attachments among young people of the same sex are a common enough experience, but in such friendships Tolstoy’s intense emotional nature brought him to the dangerous edge of unnatural relationship. This was strikingly true of his youthful affection for Dyakov, which may properly be described as love. The fact takes on an added interest in the light of his wife’s foolish charge against him, when he was a very old man, of homosexual relations.

Some four years after this period, in a remarkably revelatory passage in a loose leaf of Tolstoy’s diary that has only recently been published in Russia, he writes: “I was very often in love with men. . . . Of all these people I continue to love only D[yakov]. For me the chief indication of love is the fear to offend or [not] to be liked by the p[erson] l[oved]. It is simply fear. I was in love with [men] before I had any notion of the possibility of pederasty; but having learned about it, the thought of the possibility of such a union never entered my head. . . . Beauty always had much influence in my choice; however, there is the example of D[yakov]; but I never will forget the night, when we came from P[irogovo?], and, diving under the sleigh rug, I wanted to kiss him and weep. There was voluptu[ousness] in this feeling, but why it occurred here it is impossible to decide.”

In writing about his friendship for Dyakov in Boyhood, Tolstoy credits him with having a definite salutary influence on his character. Utter frankness was the first condition of their friendship, and each vowed to tell the other his every thought, no matter how unpleasant. Both worshiped an ideal of virtue and were convinced that man’s mission in life was to perfect himself.

The two perfectionists tried out their theory on a pretty girl whom they met in Kazan. Her story of seduction moved them. Tolstoy offered to finance her until she got a job and could earn an honest living. She joyfully agreed and began to thank him. “Not at all,” he magnanimously interrupted, “misfortune may happen to every one of us, and we must all help each other.” When they met again a few days later, she freely confessed herself unable to lead any other existence than the sinful one she had grown used to. “So I could not convince her to return to an honest life,” the worshiper of virtue concluded.

The hours spent with Dyakov were among Tolstoy’s happiest in Kazan. Their friendship brought out the finest qualities of his nature, and it is little wonder that the bond between them remained unbroken until Dyakov’s death in 1891.


LONG before the end of his second year in the Faculty of Jurisprudence, Tolstoy had lost what little interest he had in the professors and their lectures. One of his discriminating instructors, D. I. Meier, who recognized the superior mind of his indifferent student, tried to arouse his intellectual interests by setting him the task of writing a comparison of Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois and Catherine the Great’s Nakaz. His enthusiasm caught fire at once, for the task demanded the kind of independent intellectual effort that he had hitherto found no outlet for in his university studies.

Tolstoy read everything he could obtain on the subject. About this time — March, 1847 — he first began to keep a diary, for he felt that it would help him judge the progress of his developing faculties. In the diary he set down the results of his analysis of Catherine’s Nakaz. His critical remarks are often unusually penetrating and independent for a youth of eighteen. Curiously enough, no suggestion of his future firm opposition to every form of governmental coercion is apparent in the analysis. He accepts the autocratic framework of the Russian state and the legal system that supports it. Only in the matter of condemning capital punishment does he display consistency with his later views.

In the end, this independent bit of scholarly investigation did nothing to soften Tolstoy’s mounting antipathy to the university. On the contrary, he gave it as the reason for leaving. “The university with its demands not only did not assist in such a task,” he wrote, “but actually hindered it.” The professors, he paradoxically maintained, obstructed his thirst for knowledge. The analysis of the Nakaz led him into reading an endless quantity of books, but all in one direction. “This reading,” he wrote, “revealed to me limitless horizons. . . . I gave up the university precisely because I wished to occupy myself in this fashion. There I was obliged to work at and study things that did not interest me and were unnecessary.”

A variety of reasons contributed to Tolstoy’s decision. He had done badly in the mid-term examinations of the second year, and now with a string of unsuccessful performances behind him, he could not look forward to the final tests with equanimity. Sergei and Dmitri would finish their studies at Kazan that year, and two more years in the university without their company did not appeal to him.

Moreover, a division of property among the brothers had taken place in this same year. Leo Tolstoy had received as his share Yasnaya Polyana and several smaller estates, amounting to about 5400 acres, along with 350 male serfs and their families. And at this time he began to express a real or imaginary sense of responsibility for all these human beings under his direct control.

These factors, as well as a moral dissatisfaction with his loose life at Kazan, were no doubt part of the reason why he decided to sever his connections with the university. Yet his disillusion with the opportunities of so-called higher education was real and conclusive. In 1857 he wrote in his copybook: “Talented people are unsuited to learning in youth, for they unconsciously see that they must know something other than what the masses know.” On April 12, 1847, before the final examinations of the second year in the Faculty of Jurisprudence, he petitioned to be allowed to leave the university because of “illhealth and domestic circumstances.” Two days later his petition was granted. The only memento that the most distinguished alumnus of Kazan University left behind him was his name scratched on a bench in one of the lecture halls.


TOLSTOY had read a great deal during this Kazan period and in the summer vacation months he spent at Yasnaya Polyana. He gobbled a quantity of French novels by Sue, Dumas, and Paul de Kock. Their fictions seemed entirely real to him, and he discovered in himself a likeness to their characters, both heroes and villains. Less adventurous fiction and some poetry — Sterne, Dickens, Gogol, Turgenev, Druzhinin, Grigorovich, Lermontov, Pushkin, and Schiller — he admitted had a marked influence on his artistic sensibilities. There was much more in belles-lettres, but his questing mind favored sterner stuff — the New Testament, philosophy, and political science. He plunged into Hegel, who was then all the rage among the illuminati, and, like most youths of the time, he read Voltaire, whose skepticism, perhaps because it lacked high seriousness, had no pronounced effect on him.

The author who stirred Tolstoy most at this time and had a permanent influence on his thought was Rousseau. In 1905 he wrote: “Rousseau has been my teacher since I was fifteen. Rousseau and the New Testament have been the two great and beneficent influences of my life.” He declared to a French professor, who visited Yasnaya Polyana in 1901, that in his youth he read the whole twenty volumes of Rousseau. He worshiped him, he said, and in place of the cross which good Orthodox believers wear round their necks he wore a medallion portrait of Rousseau. The indebtedness was considerable, but Tolstoy could be severely critical of Rousseau. The fundamental difference between them he himself pointed out: namely, that Rousseau repudiates all civilization, whereas Tolstoy simply repudiates pseudoChristianity.

In his summers at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy appropriated some of the more garish aspects of Rousseau’s back-to-nature teaching in a youthful attempt to live as befitted a practicing philosopher. With perhaps a feeling of relief he discarded in the country the social straitjacket of comme il faut. He rigged up for daily wear a loose canvas garment, with the added advantage that it could be used as a nightshirt, and went about in slippers and bare legs. His favorite occupation was communing with nature wild or lying down under a bush in the garden with a thick lexicon for a pillow.

He allowed nothing to interfere with his philosophical musings or routine. A group of young ladies unexpectedly arriving for a visit, the philosopher was hastily summoned from his retreat in the garden, and he made his appearance in the living room in his Diogenes canvas robe, slippers, and bare legs. When Auntie Tatyana remonstrated, he replied with some heat that conventional propriety was unimportant compared with the comfort of his dress.

Apart from his intensive reading, he was also thinking and writing. Several fragmentary compositions of this time reflect the fearless quality of his mind. In “Philosophical Notes on Rousseau” he expatiates on the powerful influence of women for good in society and on the demoralizing effect of luxury on morality. In another piece, without a title, the young philosopher attempts to formulate rules for living and to define his own nature. On the margin are scribbled notes for future discussion: “From the very beginning I abandoned all prejudices, since I found nothing satisfactory in them.” There is an authentic story that a student friend of his brother, pockets loaded with bottles for a carouse, who descended on their apartment, found on Tolstoy’s desk an article on symmetry and proceeded to read it. The article seemed so brilliant that the friend was convinced it had been copied from some famed authority. When Tolstoy came in, the student asked him for the name of the author. Tolstoy blushingly admitted that the article was his, whereupon the student laughed in disbelief. This article on symmetry has been lost.

Tolstoy tells us in his Confession that by the time he was sixteen he had ceased to believe the religious precepts taught him as a child. He still believed in the existence of a God, but what sort of God he could not say. Likewise, he did not deny Christ and His teachings, but the substance of these teachings was not entirely clear to him. In short, while still quite young he refused to accept the Church, but all his reason and senses obliged him to believe in God. This attitude of his youth is highly significant for his later religious development.

The only faith that gave impulse to Tolstoy’s being at this time was a belief in self-perfection. All his awakening moral and intellectual powers were concentrated on this ideal of life. By perfecting himself morally, mentally, and physically, he would achieve happiness. With that perennial faith of youth in the efficacy of “rules of life,” he earnestly drew up quantities of them. The first series, in January, 1847, is not very promising: “ (1) To get up at five, go to bed at nine and ten, and perhaps sleep two hours during the day. (2) To eat moderately, nothing sweet. (3) To walk for an hour. (4) To fulfil all my written injunctions. (5) To have one woman only, and then only twice a month. (6) To do everything possible for myself.”

These elementary rules were soon developed into an elaborate design for living, almost metaphysical in its complexity and discouragingly inclusive in scope. He set down rules for the development of the will, with various subdivisions, rules for the development of the memory, of bodily and intellectual activity, of talents, of judgment. There were rules to scorn wealth, honors, and the opinion of society not based on reason; to love all to whom he can be useful; to care nothing for the praise of people whom he does not know or dislikes; and each day to express his love for all kinds and degrees of humanity in some manner or other.

In youth, as always in his life, Tolstoy’s rules of conduct far outstripped his observance of them. Nor did he ever fail to remind himself of the fact. In his diary at this time he jotted down: “It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to put a single precept into practise.” Constantly he heard the divine voice in him urging him to perfection. He writes of it in a beautiful passage at the end of Chapter III in Youth. All his dreams at that time, he says, were based on four feelings: love of her, his imaginary paragon; love of being loved — he wanted everybody to know and to love him; the hope of some unusual good fortune that would make him famous; and finally a feeling of self-disgust and repentance, but a repentance mingled with the hope of happiness.

Yet he believed in the people round him, who fostered his animal instincts, his pride and worldly ambitions, and frustrated his desire for self-perfection. With his life in Kazan partly in mind, he wrote in Confession: “With all my soul I wished to be good; but I was young, passionate, and alone when I sought goodness. Every time I tried to express my most sincere desire, which was to be morally good, I met with contempt and ridicule; but as soon as I yielded to nasty passions, I was praised and encouraged.”

Tolstoy’s desire to escape the corrupting influence of society, however, did not spoil the pleasure of a very liquid farewell that his aristocratic comrades tendered him. They accompanied him out of the town with many embraces sealed by potations deep. He left Kazan for Yasnaya Polyana on April 23, 1847.


UNLIKE Horace on his Sabine farm, young Tolstoy could not sit contentedly among his Yasnaya Polyana cabbage patches. For there were those everlasting “rules of conduct” to observe and his vast “programme of work” to fulfill. After all, he had not abandoned the city for the country merely to exchange the pleasures of worldly society for those of rustic simplicity. The incessant worm of perfectibility gnawed continually at his conscience.

In a separate “Journal of Daily Occupations” that Tolstoy kept at this time, he obliged himself to list on one side his tasks for each day and opposite them his rate of performance. A typical day’s planning, the third after his arrival at Yasnaya Polyana, reveals this debit and credit system of human endeavor in all its pathetic failure; —

5 to 6, practical agriculture

6 to 9, letters

9 to 10, drink tea

10 to 11, set things in order copybooks . . .

11 to 1, bookkeeping

1 to 1.30, lunch

1.30 to 3, Italian

3 to 5, English

6 to 8, Russian history

} Nothing done

Day after day debits piled up against similar good intentions. He observes plaintively in his diary that it is difficult for a man under the influence of what is bad to develop into what is good. If only he could cease to be dependent upon extraneous circumstances, then the spirit would take precedence over matter and he could achieve his proper destiny. This war of the mundane and the otherworldly, of body and soul, of spirit and flesh, never ceases.

In leaving the university for Yasnaya Polyana, part of Tolstoy’s plan was to devote much of his efforts to the affairs of the estate and particularly to the well-being of the several hundred serfs over whom he was now absolute master. From childhood his warm heart and moral sensibilities had often been shocked by the deplorable conditions of these slaves of the gentry. Their emancipation was still some fifteen years away, but already movements were afoot that advocated their liberation.

The young Tolstoy, however, had not absorbed so radical an idea. In his youth his aristocratic notions of social classes permitted him to regard the enslaved position of the peasantry in the traditional manner of the gentry — as something ordained by God. Many changes would take place in his intellectual and spiritual life before he could get himself to believe that peasants were the equals or even the superiors of his own noble class. Now, as their new master, he accepted his serfs as a definite responsibility, and he had simply a humanitarian desire to improve their lot. With the effort to perfect himself mentally in abeyance, he turned with enthusiasm to his new “purpose in life” — to do good for the peasantry. In this, he was sure, he would find real happiness.

Little direct information exists of Tolstoy’s first attempt to reform his fellow men. For some reason he discontinued his diary at this time, and no letters are available. But in this first effort to understand and help his peasants, Tolstoy lacked that experience which is more to be believed in than arguments and rules. All his life the disparity between experience and theorizing confounded him. He was like so many of the young men among the gentry at that time.

Their characteristic traits are brilliantly described in the heroes of nineteenth-century Russian poetry and fiction, such as Eugene Onegin, Oblomov, or the “superfluous men” of Turgenev. They grew up on country estates, completely insulated from the real business of life. The profits of serfdom took care of their financial needs; and politics, the organization of society, or the concerns of the outside world played little active part in their youthful existence, although they were quite capable of talking and theorizing endlessly about them. Even the traditional civil or military careers were regarded as mere gentlemanly formalities that customarily preceded early retirement to the pleasant dead calm of rural seclusion.

It was a parasitic existence compared to the bustling life of activity of modern youth. What would have happened to these dreamy, theorizing, impractical heroes if they had been kicked out into the world and obliged to earn their living is a question that inevitably occurs to the modern reader of this fiction.

This way of life, however, played an important part in the development of Tolstoy. His comparative isolation and severance from practical concerns intensified a natural bent for introspection. His own soul and state of mind became of much more importance to him than anything else in life. He pushed far ahead into the realm of abstract thinking and theorizing, but lagged far behind in those everyday lessons that the hard school of experience knocks into one in the daily struggle for economic security.

Tolstoy’s lack of experience prevented him from realizing that centuries of slavery had rendered serfs incapable of believing in the sincerity of a master who desired to help them. Masters had always tricked, abused, and cheated them, and the very fact that Tolstoy was their master made it impossible for them to have any faith in him. In the depths of his soul be began to feel that only by ceasing to be the master of these serfs could he win their belief in him.

Even after the government freed his peasants, however, and he himself tried to enter into their lives on more equal terms, it may be doubted that he ever really succeeded in gaining their implicit faith. For them he was always the aristocrat. In the last analysis, the sufferings of the peasants concerned him less than the people who obliged them to suffer — the gentry, whom he instinctively understood.


AT THIS time in his life Tolstoy resembled both the town mouse and the country mouse of the ancient fable, for he liked both places. Rather, he could not be contented with one while away from the other. Now that he was in the country, all the glittering prospects of the city — fame, love, social pleasures, adventure — drew him like a magnet. The lofty purpose of his rural isolation was soon shoved aside, and his failure with the peasants quickened a desire to escape. So urgently did he feel the need to get away that he galloped after the carriage of his future brother-in-law, who was off to Siberia to clear up his affairs before marrying Marya. Only the fact that he had forgotten his hat, he recalls, prevented him from going along. Shortly after this, Tolstoy was on his way to Moscow.

The twenty-year-old Tolstoy required no introduction to the upper levels of Moscow society. The drawing rooms of the best homes were open to a bright youth of good family and comfortable income, and he could aspire, he said, to any damsel he chose. Numerous relatives supported his claims to attention.

A few letters, only recently published, to Auntie Tatyana at Yasnaya Polyana shed some light on Tolstoy’s residence in Moscow during this winter of 1848. He stayed at first with distant relatives, the Perfilievs, but he soon took up quarters of his own. His first letters deal largely with money matters and requests for articles that he had forgotten to take with him, including his hat (in his youth Tolstoy was always forgetting his hat, overcoat, and important documents). Soon he adopts for his aunt’s benefit the bored air of the youth who thinks he has arrived socially. He describes his many visits to the homes of people of consequence and complains that his daily occupations are constantly upset by callers.

Before a month is up his tone changes somewhat. “There is nothing either good or bad to tell you about myself,” he writes. “My existence is neither too worldly nor too retired; I’m neither amused nor bored. . . .” Another month and the familiar note of moral despair creeps into his saga. “I have grown quite debauched in this social existence,” he writes. “Everything bores me frightfully; I am dreaming again about life in the country, and I intend to return to it soon.”

The beginning of the next year, however, found Tolstoy in Petersburg instead of the country. He had had a second thought. It was comforting to contemplate the quiet of Yasnaya Polyana amid the noisy pleasures of the city, but then he had never sampled the pleasures of the capital of All the Russias. They apparently took him by storm. “I intend to remain here forever” was the first enthusiastic comment that he wrote to his brother Sergei at Pirogovo, his estate. The letter has all the earmarks of having been written with glass in hand amid the promptings of jolly companions.

With its manifold possibilities for a career, Petersburg seemed to Tolstoy a veritable Eldorado. He decided to turn over a new leaf. This city “has a great and good influence over me,” he writes to Sergei in the same letter. Here everything is busy and it is impossible to lead the aimless life of Moscow. Although he is sure that his brother will not believe him, he insists that he has already changed. “You will say: ‘For the twentieth time now you have changed, but nothing comes of you, the emptiest of fellows.’” This time the transformation is real, he tells Sergei, for he has at last convinced himself “ that one cannot live by speculation and philosophy. One must live positively — that is, be a practical man.” And this newest discovery will be utilized at once, for he declares his intention of taking the examinations for the Faculty of Jurisprudence so that he may obtain his degree and enter into government service. Renewed determination rather than progress is reflected in this old ambition.

Sergei had abundant experience with these sudden shifts in his brother’s enthusiasms. He jocosely wrote back his disbelief in the announced “change,” and then took the occasion to warn Lyovochka against the card sharps of Petersburg. “With your scorn for money,” he cautioned, “you may well lose a large amount.” The advice went unheeded and Tolstoy rapidly accumulated gambling debts. Letters to Sergei over the next few months are filled with urgent requests to sell his woodlot and his horses in order to raise money.

Cards became a passion with him. Like Dostoyevsky, he imagined it possible to contrive a rational system that would assure success, and he actually drew up an elaborate series of “Rules for CardPlaying.” As might be expected, the rules proved futile in the face of bad luck, and their principal precept of moderation was always forgotten in the excitement of play. In the course of the next few years his gambling habit was to bring him to the verge of financial ruin.

Neither in his letters nor in his diary does Tolstoy show the slightest flicker of awareness of the absorbing political and literary activity of Petersburg’s brilliant intellectuals at this time. This fact betrays as nothing else could the nature of the company he kept and his single-minded preoccupation with himself. The February Revolution of 1848 in France had taken place and had inspired in thousands of oppressed Russians the hope of reform in the viciously bureaucratic and reactionary regime of Nicholas I. The great literary critic Belinski and his followers in Petersburg were already advocating a Russia that would be modeled on the more advanced civilization of Western Europe.

Revolutionary murmurings were in the air and repression was brutal. At the very time that Tolstoy was concerned solely with making a place for himself in the city’s high society, the Tsar’s police rounded up a group of radicals known as the Petrashevski circle. Among them was the young Dostoyevsky, who had already won some literary fame.

Meanwhile Tolstoy, on his own admission, had become a “practical man,” and something had to be done about it. There were the university examinations to test his new resolution. Although he confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about the first two subjects, — criminal and civil law, — he put off his preparations until a week before the examinations. Then he plunged into study, working day and night, and passed both tests well.

Hardly had he accomplished this feat, however, when he dispatched a pleading letter to Sergei: “I believe you are already saying that I am the emptiest of fellows; and you are saying the truth. God knows what I have done! For no reason I came to Petersburg and have achieved nothing decent here, except to squander money and run up debts. It is stupid. Insufferably stupid! ” He has a large debt of honor to meet, and he begs Sergei to arrange for the sale of one of his smaller properties. Failure to pay will mean the loss of his reputation. Such a price, he complains, for freedom and philosophizing.

In the future, however, all will be different, if only the present mess can be straightened out. He is going to give up the university once and for all and become a cadet in the Horse Guards. The Guards will soon leave for Vienna to help the Austrians quell the Hungarian rebellion. (The moralist has no thought now for the injustice of this cause.) With luck, he might get a commission before the usual two years if he sees action. So please, he asks Sergei, send on his birth certificate; but before all else, he concludes, raise the necessary funds to pay off his cursed debts.

Before two weeks had elapsed, the wind of events had shifted the young weathercock in Petersburg to a different direction. “Spring arrived,” he said years later, “and the charm of rural life again attracted me to my estate.” In June he returned to Yasnaya Polyana with a talented but drunken German musician by the name of Rudolph in tow.

In the company of his kind foster-mother, Auntie Tatyana, he always regained a sense of security and a feeling of contentment with himself and life. She watched over his material welfare, mildly scolded him for gambling excessively, and continually feared that he would make a bad marriage. At times he chafed over her limited understanding of the broader aspects of morality, but in her utterly unselfish devotion to all whom she loved, he saw a beautiful life of self-sacrifice that he might one day make the subject of a book.

Many years later he recalled how he would arrive at Yasnaya Polyana, feeling ashamed and morally unclean after a prolonged period of carousing. Auntie Tatyana would greet him lovingly. By old custom, he would kiss her soft, energetic little hand and she his “dirty and depraved one,” and then they would converse in French. Her gentle kindness and affection never changed. He would sit in an armchair through the long winter evenings and read while she played Old Maid, or he would hear her soft, childlike laughter as she chatted with the housekeeper. At such moments, he said, his finest thoughts came to him, the noblest responses of his soul.

(To be continued)