The Young Tolstoy "The Hero of My Tale Is Truth"
by ERNEST J. SIMMONS
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. He hardly knew his mother, for she died before he was two. Leo’s golden age was spent on the huge family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, with its thousands of acres and hundreds of serfs. There he played with his three brothers, Dmitri (Mitenka), Sergei (Seryozha),and Nikolai (Koko), and with them baded 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 Tatyna playedthe piano, and imbibed what little knowledge he was ever to have of his good-natured but inffectual father. A visit to Moscow when Leo was eight ended in the tragic death of his father. From that time until he came into his inheritance at nineteen, Leo was an indifferent student and a social misfit.
SPRING was filling the air again, always a harbinger of restelessness for Tolstoy. “Not long ago,”he wrote from Moscow in March, 1851, to Auntie Tatyana, “I read in a book that the first tokens of spring affect usually the moral side of man. With the renewal of nature one also wishes to be renewed. One regrets the past, the time badly spent, and one repents weaknesses, and the future appears like a bright hope before us; one becomes better, morally better.” In truth, he was morally sick of his Moscow life and felt the need of renewal.
At this opportune moment, the arrival from the Caucasus of his beloved brother Nikolai, whom he had not seen for four years, settled the issue. He decided that he would keep Nikolai beside him as long as possible during his furlough and then accompany him on his return to his regiment in the Caucasus in May.
During the journey, Nikolai complained of his brother’s cleanliness. Changing one’s shirt, “twelve times a day,” as he put it, seemed excessive. The fastidious Leo, on the other hand, admired nearly everything about his older brother except “his dirtiness.” Several years of soldiering in the Caucasus had made Nikolai a bit forgetful about social amenities; it had also strengthened his independent nature, which now manifested itself in the itinerary that he planned.
Instead of taking the direct southern route to the Caucasus by way of Voronezh, he decided to head southeast for Saratov, in order to cover the long stretch from there to Astrakhan by boat down the Volga. A delightful prospect; and the additional attraction of a northern swing through Moscow and Kazan increased Leo’s enthusiasm for the plan.
The memory of a girl’s face may have contributed to Tolstoy’s willingness to go by way of Kazan; a veiled hint in a letter to Auntie Tatyana suggests as much. She was Zinaida Molostvova, whom he had known and liked in his university days. Then, timidity on both sides had rendered dumb a mutual attraction. Five years had changed Zinaida, but had hardly made Tolstoy any less shy in the presence of a virtuous young woman. She was not a beauty, but the qualities of her mind that he now discovered, her wit, humor, and warm heart, rekindled his interest.
Tolstoy fell in love, and in that brief week missed no opportunity to be in Zinaida’s company. She obviously reciprocated, but for both of them love was apparently a secret thing, expansive only in hidden ways. He recalled how they stood in the side path of the archbishop’s garden. It was on the tip of his tongue to declare himself, and she too almost hinted. Nothing was said, for at that moment words would have spoiled their felicity. He left Kazan with this undeclared love buried in his heart.
On the thirtieth of May, after about a month on the road, the brothers arrived at the Cossack village of Starogladkovskaya, where Nikolai’s battery was stationed. The spell of strange places was quickly broken, and somewhat disillusioned he asked himself in his diary how he had got there and with what purpose.
STAROGLADKOVSKAYA nestled in a hollow on the left bank of the Terek River, which served as a border between the Grebensk Cossacks and hostile Mohammedan hill tribes. Here Tolstoy spent the next two and a half years, although he made frequent trips to surrounding villages, forts, and watering places.
The village consisted of a single street of reedthatched huts adorned with large carved gables and high porches. Surrounding them were kitchen gardens, dark green poplars, and acacias with their delicate pale leaves and scented white blossoms. The inhabitants, a Cossack sect of Old Believers who separated from the Russo-Greek Church in the seventeenth century, were a proud, independent people. They retained the Russian language and their ancient faith in all its purity, although they had intermarried with the native Chechens and adopted their manners and customs. Plundering and war were their trades, and swaggering bravery was a cult.
They acknowledged none but Cossacks as human beings, and despised everybody else, especially Russian peasant soldiers. Drunkenness they regarded as a rite, the non-practice of which was considered apostasy. Although the Cossack women were in nominal subjection to the men and did most of the heavy farm work, they were endowed with a peculiarly emancipated masculine character. A combination of the purest Circassian type of face with the broad, powerful build of northern women gave them a strikingly handsome appearance in their colorful, semi-Oriental dress. In their relations with men they enjoyed complete freedom, especially the unmarried girls.
The native setting interested Tolstoy more than the battery of Russian soldiers quartered in the village. He was well received by the officers of the battery, and all the more so as the brother of Lieutenant Nikolai Tolstoy, who was admired by his comrades in arms. They were a typical group of soldiers of the line, brave, hard-drinking, incessant gamblers, and, for the most part, poorly educated. Many of them had come to the Caucasus as a promised land, in order to repair their fortunes after reverses in Russia.
The commander, N. P. Alekseyev, was an exceptional individual and a general favorite with both officers and soldiers. He presented an unusual appearance, for one of his ears had been bitten off by a horse. Extremely pious, he spent whole hours in prayer, kneeling and bowing to the ground, and his dislike of vodka frequently led him to lecture the young officers, in a kindly spirit, on the evils of strong liquor. Tolstoy thought him vain, and often amused himself at dinner by pretending to drink, in order to provoke the commander to deliver his temperance sermon that always ended with an offer of sweets instead of vodka.
A few days after his arrival, Tolstoy followed his brother to the near-by fortified camp of Stary Yurt. Here many invalids availed themselves of the excellent mineral springs. Several weeks later he wrote a letter to Auntie Tatyana in which he described the camp and his new life. His tent looked out on a magnificent view of the mountain. Enormous rock structures were intersected by torrents of hot water which gave off a white vapor that covered the whole upper part of the mountain in the morning. The water was so hot that one could boil an egg in it in three minutes. He spent hours gazing on the savage beauty of the place and idly watching the handsome Tatar women wash clothes by pounding them with their feet in adjacent pools. The ferruginous baths, he added, helped his rheumatism.
A passage in the diary at this time, however, belies Tolstoy’s picture of contentment. An inexplicable despondency, he wrote, filled his soul and saddened him. Perhaps something of this disillusion grew out of his confused feelings for Zinaida Molostvova, for his thoughts returned to the girl he had left behind in Kazan. He confesses in the diary that he is ignorant of what men call love. Is it like religion — a pure and lofty sentiment? He doubts now that he has any such feeling for Zinaida.
And then he begins to suspect his very doubts. “Shall I never see her again?” he writes. ". . . Not yet abandoned are my schemes of journeying back to marry her; I am in love, although I am not entirely convinced that she would constitute happiness for me.”
Then Tolstoy forgot love while wooing God and fighting the devil. It was night at Stary Yurt, a week after his arrival. He sat on a drum in the tent, writing his diary. The candlelight outlined sharply the shapes of pistols, Circassian sabers, poniards, and trousers hanging along the canvas walls. The evening noises of challenging sentries, of a soldier coughing in his sleep, and the distant baying of a dog disturbed his thoughts.
“I am searching for a certain frame of mind,” he jots down, “a view of things, a form of life which I do not grasp and am unable to define.” He begins to pray to God. “It is impossible to convey the blissful feeling I experienced in prayer. . . . Yet, if prayer be defined as a petition or thanksgiving, I was not praying. Rather, I was yearning for something lofty and good. What that something was I cannot explain, although I clearly recognized what I desired. I wanted to become fused with the All-Embracing Substance. I besought It to pardon my sins. . . . I could not separate the feelings of faith, hope, and love from my general feeling. No, the feeling I experienced last night was love for God, uniting in itself all that is good and renouncing what is bad.”
This sudden religious rapture under the impact of new scenes plainly anticipates the direction Tolstoy took many years later in his dramatic search for the meaning of life. Now, the irrepressible urges of youth trip him up in his sincere yearning after the lofty and good. “Not an hour had passed,” he records, “before I almost consciously heard the voice of vice, vanity, of the empty side of life. I knew whence this voice came; I knew that it had destroyed my state of blessedness. I struggled but yielded to it, and I fell asleep, dreaming of fame and women. But it was not my fault; I could not help it.”
The excitement of a raid on the Chechens took Tolstoy’s mind off his personal failings. He gladly accepted an offer to volunteer. Little is known of Tolstoy’s part in this raid, but there is some evidence to indicate that he acted bravely in his baptism of fire. His only comment in the diary runs: “Recently I took part in a raid. I did not act well; was even unconsciously afraid of Baryatinski.”The general, however, had observed his conduct. Shortly after the raid, he was presented to Baryatinski by Ilya Tolstoy, a distant relative, who was traveling in the Caucasus. At the meeting Baryatinski praised Tolstoy for his courageous bearing under fire, and advised him to enter the service as soon as possible.
Tolstoy thought Baryatinski’s advice worth considering, and his brother Nikolai seconded it. Perhaps it would put an end to his ceaseless indecision. He wrote to Auntie Tatyana: “I have finally decided to serve in the Caucasus. I have not yet determined whether it will be the military or civil service under Prince Vorontsov, My trip to Tiflis will decide the matter.”
FOUR months passed before Tolstoy could make up his mind about the army. New companions, the beauties of nature, hunting, literary activities, Cossack women, and perhaps a rooted dislike for the responsibilities of a settled occupation, postponed his decision. In restless activity he shuttled back and forth between Groznoye, another fortified post, Stary Yurt, and Starogladkovskaya. Sado, a “peaceful” young Chechen, who used to gamble with the officers, became his kunak (“sworn friend”). Since he could not write or count, he was regularly cheated until Tolstoy won his endless gratitude by offering to play for him. A present of Nikolai’s old silver watch sealed the friendship. Henceforth, no test of devotion was too great or dangerous for Sado.
If Tolstoy needed a horse, Sado cheerfully offered his, and was deeply hurt if the gift was refused. He learned that Tolstoy’s brother Sergei was a lover of good horses, and he at once suggested going up into the hills to steal the finest mount for the brother of his friend. Although the son of a well-to-do father, Sado lived by such thievery. He was a dzhigit (“a daring fellow”), who considered it his prescriptive right to steal from the enemies of Russia, even at the risk of his life. And he often risked his life for a theft that would bring him a few rubles.
A more epic figure was Tolstoy’s extraordinary friend Epishka Sekhin, who later inspired Eroshka in The Cossacks. Epishka was an ancient Cossack in whose hut at Starogladkovskaya Tolstoy and Nikolai were quartered. For many years he had been a notorious character in the surrounding country. Of gigantic size, unusually well-proportioned, and still very strong and lively despite his eighty years, Epishka made a striking figure in his bush beard dyed red and in his ragged hunting clothes.
Epishka described himself as “a dzhigit, a thief, and a swindler.” As a youth, he had distinguished himself as a most skillful horse thief and slayer of Chechens. Nor had he always been too particular about whose horses he stole or what “enemies” he killed; the Russians had also been his victims, and he had twice spent time in Russian prisons. In his old age, he contented himself with hunting, drinking, spinning yarns, and singing native songs.
Tolstoy spent much time in Epishka’s company, and learned a great deal from his wide knowledge of woodcraft and hunting. No doubt, he was also peculiarly responsive at this time to the old man’s simple earthy philosophy, which offered a soothing solution for his own inner struggle between the good and bad impulses of his nature. God, Epishka firmly believed, made everything for the joy of man. There was no sin in any of it. Undeniably this was a comforting theory of life for that wild country, and much of Tolstoy’s stay in the Caucasus was influenced by the ancient Cossack’s forthright hedonism. In his youth Epishka had prided himself on his prowess with the girls, and he has an eye for them even in his old age. In The Cossacks, Olenin [Tolstoy] rebukes this senile propensity of Eroshka as a sin. “A sin?” roars Eroshka. “Where’s the sin? A sin to look at a fine girl? A sin to have some fun with her? Or is it a sin to love her? Is that so in your parts? No, my dear fellow, it is not a sin, it’s a salvation.”
Under the strong influence of these wholly natural people, Tolstoy, like Olenin, wanted to forget the puzzle of his existence, to turn his back on the civilization of sophisticated society, with its artificial etiquette, its obligatory chatter, and its modish dandies and damsels with pomatum-greased hair eked out with false curls. He yearned to live as these Cossacks lived. They fought, ate, drank, rejoiced, and died, without any restrictions other than those that nature placed on the sun, the animals, and trees. To him they seemed beautiful, strong, and free, and the sight of them made him feel ashamed of himself.
The wish to transform himself was there, but the fulfillment evaded Tolstoy. The cloak of civilization could not be sloughed off so easily. What would happen to his conscience, ambition, and desire to help others? By the time his twenty-third birthday had arrived, he and his new hopes reverted to type. He notes in the diary that from August 28 (his birthday) he will try to live in conformity with the aim he has set himself. The old rules are resurrected, and his determination is set down to work on a novel, to sketch, study the Tatar language, and read.
Just one week after the celebration of the birthday that was to begin his reformation, he sadly records in the diary: “I had counted much on this epoch, but unfortunately I remain always the same: in the course of several days I have done all the things I disapproved of. Abrupt changes are impossible. I had a woman, showed myself weak on several occasions — in simple relations with people, in dangers, in gambling, and I am still held back by false shame. I have told many lies. ... I have been very lazy; and even now I cannot collect my thoughts, and I write, but do not wish to write.” The bubble of buying a hut, marrying a Cossack girl, and settling down in the Caucasus had been pricked by the knife of conscience. The law of his being had to be fulfilled.
At this point, after jotting down a Chechen song that he had heard, Tolstoy breaks off his diary for 1851, and some seven weeks after this last entry (on October 25), he left with his brother for Tiflis to take an examination for entrance into the army.
On January 3, 1852, Tolstoy had easily passed the examinations to qualify as a cadet, a noncommissioned officer of artillery, but his appointment was held up. He relieved the boredom of waiting by taking up billiards, at which game he quickly lost much more money than he could afford. Once again his financial plight grew desperate, for a gambling debt he had contracted several months before was about to fall due.
The note was held by an officer and friend of Nikolai, F. G. Knorring, whom Tolstoy heartily disliked. In despair he prayed to God for aid. He was convinced that his prayer had been answered, for the next morning he received a letter from Nikolai, who wrote that Sado, Tolstoy’s devoted Chechen kunak, had won the note from Knorring and insisted on presenting it to his friend. Overjoyed by this “divine intervention” in a gambling debt, Tolstoy at once sent home for a revolver and a music box, which he knew would delight the generous Sado.
Worn out with waiting for the necessary document that would assure him an appointment, Tolstoy resorted to all the influence possible in high army circles of Tiflis. His efforts finally succeeded to the extent that he was assigned to the 4th Battery (his brother’s) of the 20th Artillery Brigade as a noncommissioned officer of the 4th class, but he was advised that his appointment would not be officially recorded until the arrival of his discharge from the Tula civil service.
“You will not believe how this pleases me,” he wrote to Auntie Tatyana. “It will seem strange to you, that I do not desire to be free. I have been free too long in everything; and it seems to me now that this excess of freedom has been the principal cause of my faults, and that it is even an evil.” The future hater of war expressed his pleasure more bluntly to his brother Sergei: “With all my strength I will assist with the aid of a cannon in destroying the predatory and turbulent Asiatics.”
At last Tolstoy was off to the wars, a soldier in uniform, though still lacking an official appointment. The viceroy of the Caucasus, Prince Vorontsov, had received an imperial order to put an end to the long resistance of the Chechens. Two Russian columns moved from opposite directions to effect a junction and trap the enemy. Tolstoy was with the main column under Major-General Baryatinski, and on the seventeenth and eighteenth of February he saw some fierce fighting in which the Russian forces were victorious.
During this campaign, he was cited twice for the coveted Cross of St. George, but the fact that his discharge paper from Tula had not yet arrived prevented the award’s being made.
After the campaign, Tolstoy’s battery returned to its base at Starogladkovskaya. Here he remained for the next four months, except for brief visits to the neighboring towns of Kizlyar and Oreshyovka, a trip to the Caspian shore, and a longer journey to Pyatigorsk to receive treatment for dysentery. He was also bothered by severe toothaches and rheumatism. The diary over this period is unusually detailed. It reveals clearly that he compensated for his restricted physical activity by an intense concern with his own thoughts and with reading and writing.
In a striking passage in the diary (March 29, 1852), he restates the idealism of the “Ant Brotherhood.” “There is something in me,” he writes, “that obliges me to believe that I was not born to be what other men are.” He was perfectly sincere. From boyhood he had treasured the conviction that he was different ; genius had whispered softly in his ear. But the prevailing feeling over these years had been one of defeat and unfulfilled hopes.
In June, Tolstoy heard the news that Zinaida was going to marry. Strangely enough, this sudden termination of a romance that he had run away from caused him little concern. “The fact vexes me,” was his only comment in the diary, “the more so because I have felt so little perturbed.”
While still at Pyatigorsk, Tolstoy had already begun to dwell fondly on the thought of returning to Yasnaya Polyana. The very notion brought tears to his eyes — this childhood weakness never deserted him; in fact, he considered it a virtue. He writes to Auntie Tatyana of the tearful joy they will share on meeting once again.
MEANWHILE, he had already announced to this sympathetic aunt a significant fact — the completion of his first novel, the work that she had inspired and encouraged, and which he wrote, as he said, “to please her.”
On July 3, 1852, Tolstoy wrote to N. A. Nekrasov, distinguished poet and editor of the Contemporary, Russia’s leading progressive magazine: “My request will cost you such little effort that I am sure you will not refuse to grant it. Look over this manuscript, and if it is not suitable for printing, return it to me. If you appraise it otherwise, tell me what it is worth in your opinion and print it in your magazine. I agree in advance to any cutting that you may find necessary, but I desire that it be printed without any additions or changes in the text.”
He then goes on to say that the manuscript is the first part of a novel under the general title of “Four Epochs of Growth,” and that the appearance of the following parts will depend upon the success of the first.
Almost two months passed before Tolstoy received Nekrasov’s reply. It “drove me silly with joy,” he notes in the diary. The famous editor agreed to print Childhood in his periodical, and added: “Not knowing the continuation, I cannot say definitely, but it seems to me that the author has talent. In any case, the bent of the author and the simplicity and realism of the contents constitute the unquestionable worth of his production.”
Childhood won praise on all sides, and the public was curious to learn the new author’s name, (He had signed the manuscript with only the initials L.N.) Shortly after reading his novel in print, Tolstoy went to a neighboring post to hunt with some fellow officers. In a hut he came across an issue of National Notes in which he found a highly laudatory review of Childhood. He lay on a cot and read the account, dwelling greedily on every sentence of praise. The last one must have made his heart jump: “If this is the first production of L.N., then it is impossible not to congratulate Russian literature on the appearance of a new, remarkable talent.” Tears of joy came to his eyes, and he obtained special pleasure from the thought that the comrades sitting around him did not realize it was he who was being praised in such lofty terms.
To fatten the young author’s self-esteem came letters from Sergei and Auntie Tatyana, telling him that everybody was reading and raving about Childhood. Panayev, co-editor of the Contemporary, was avoided by his friends because he insisted upon cornering them on the street and reading extracts from the new work. Turgenev, who was under the impression that Nikolai, Tolstoy’s brother, was the author, wrote to Nekrasov to tell him to encourage the author, and to convey his interest, greetings, and praise to him. In far-off Siberia the exiled Dostoyevsky wrote to a friend to ask him who was the mysterious L.N. whose recent story had so excited him. Tolstoy, like Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, had caught the public eye and that of the critics with his first published work and at once revealed himself as a coming new force in Russian literature.
Tolstoy’s fiction is unusually autobiographical. This is no reflection on his imagination or power of invention, which were very considerable. But the life he transposed into art was largely his own life of recorded experience and observation, rendered infinitely effective by penetrating analysis and by his subtle choice of significant psychological and real detail. Although Childhood draws heavily upon his own experiences, there is a great deal of sheer invention in the work. Many of the characteristic qualities of his mature art are already apparent in this first extensive effort. The customary initial period of imitation and immature attempts was avoided in his artistic development. With little faltering and no false moves, he mounted at the first try the immortal steed of great art.
Lack of money, as well as the natural urge to write, kept Tolstoy working during this same year (1852). He sent off to the Contemporary his long short story, The Raid, the first of several works that grew directly out of his Caucasian experiences. He has still not divested himself entirely of the poetic glamour of war, but he questions the justifiability of it in The Raid. Of course, the government censor saw to it that only the “ poetry” remained, and Tolstoy complained to his brother that all the good in the story had been struck out or mutilated. A recently published unexpurgated edition and the recovery of passages deleted in the original drafts reveal Tolstoy as well on the way towards that opposition to war which eventually resulted in his utter condemnation of it.
IN THE Caucasus Tolstoy’s thoughts turned to God and religion with a sincerity that he had never before experienced. He prayed every morning and found a new efficacy in prayer, because it “was not harmful and was moral solitude.” Several moving prayers are set down in the diary over this period. Doubts, however, always lurked in the corners of his mind. He could never succeed, he said, in deriving an idea of God as clearly as the idea of virtue. For “the idea of God comes of man’s recognition of his own weakness.” By the end of his second year in the Caucasus, he had arrived at a perfectly honest and conventional creed which he wrote down in the diary: “I believe in the one, incomprehensible, and good God, in the immortality of the soul, and in the eternal reward for our deeds; I do not understand the mysteries of the trinity and the birth of the Son of God, but I honor and do not reject the faith of my fathers.”
But in his personal life Tolstoy could take no deep satisfaction. His entry in the diary on his birthday is almost as severe as that of the preceding year, except that he adds a note of hope for the future: “I am now 24; yet I have done nothing. I feel that not in vain have I been struggling for 8 years with doubt and passions. For what am I destined? This the future will reveal. Killed 3 woodcocks.”
The beginning of 1853 brought war again. Cadet Tolstoy prepared for action. Pensive contemplation gave way to martial fervor. The campaign ended Tolstoy’s brief period of moral resistance. In camp, drinking, cards, and wenching were the order of the day between attacks. He complained sadly of Nikolai’s fondness for vodka, and then got drunk himself, picked a fight with Ensign Yanovich for trying to break his fingers, and threatened to challenge him to a duel. He imagined how he would magnanimously give the ensign the first shot and then hold his own fire. The affair ended with mutual apologies, but Tolstoy earned the scowls of the officers for his tactless behavior.
Tolstoy’s bravery in a major attack won him another recommendation for the St. George Cross. There was nothing he wanted so much as this little silver testimony of courageous conduct under fire, He stayed up so late over a game of chess that he failed to appear on duty the morning the award was to be made. Instead of the Cross, the commander of the brigade had him clapped in the guardhouse. From his prison he heard the drums beat and the band play while the awards were presented, and he yielded to utter despair. Some time later he was scheduled to receive another Cross allotted to his battery, but upon a hint from his colonel, he gave way to an old soldier of the line for whom the reward meant a pension for life.
When the battery got back to Starogladkovskaya at the end of March, Tolstoy continued to live as he had on the campaign — like a gambler, he said, who fears to count up how much he owes. His wild Chechen kunaks, Sado and Balta, were always at hand to lead him into some adventure or other. He was still quartered in Epishka’s hut, and the ancient Cossack, with his roaring basso, quaint language, and inexhaustible supply of yarns, provided endless entertainment. Running through the diary at this time are frank references to Solomonida, Oksana, Kasatka, Fedosya, Teodorina, Aksinya, and others. “Everything young acts strongly on me,”he confesses; “every woman’s bare leg seems to me to belong to a beauty.” In vain he tries to abide by his rule of exhausting himself with hard physical labor when he feels the ache of strong desire, and to no purpose does he tell himself over and over again that the pleasure is brief and the remorse great.
AT Starogladkovskaya a very noticeable change now took place in Tolstoy’s relations with his fellow officers. With simple folk, such as Epishka, soldiers in the ranks, or peasants on the road, he was unusually successful in winning their confidence by his firm, straightforward, uncondescending manner. He felt that these common people were far above his own class by virtue of the work they accomplished and the privation they endured.
With his officer friends, his equals, or those who pretended to be his equals, he was standoffish, always afraid that they would underestimate him. He did not feel at ease with them, because he was convinced that they could never sympathize with his interests. His own standards were beyond their understanding. “ Once for all,” he writes in the diary, “ I must become accustomed to the thought that I am an exception, and that either I am ahead of my age or am one of those incompatible, unadaptable natures that are never satisfied. . . . I have not yet met a single man who was morally as good as I, and who believed that I do not remember in my life an occasion when I was not attracted by what is good, was not ready to sacrifice everything for it.”
But his natural conviviality and the desire to be liked by all, which had been strong within him from his boyhood days, reasserted itself. His hut now became a common meeting place for the officers. They dropped in at any hour for a drink of vodka or to chat. Some of them he even impressed into service to copy his manuscripts. When he could curb his sharp tongue and hypercritical nature, they enjoyed his jollity, humor, and superb storytelling ability.
The inevitable shame, sadness, and deep depression soon overtook Tolstoy for the excesses that had begun with the campaign. He revived his “ rules of life” again to bolster up his moral backsliding. His precept of being content with the present was all very well, but day after day passed without anything getting done.
In July Tolstoy went to Pyatigorsk to see his sister, who had come with her husband for medical treatment. After some two years of separation, he was delighted to set eyes on Marya, but soon after their meeting he wrote home to Sergei to complain feelingly of the fact that neither she nor her husband had given the slightest evidence of any love for him. He was becoming peculiarly sensitive over his failure to inspire in people the sense of deep devotion of which he himself was capable. Two days before this letter, he wrote in his diary: “Why does nobody love me? I am not a fool, not deformed, not a bad man, not a dolt. It is incomprehensible.” He could not always understand the absence in other people of his own intense sensibilities.
For the next four months Tolstoy wandered in aimless fashion from town to town in the neighborhood of Pyatigorsk. Restless, uneasy in his mind, and not always well, he complained constantly of his sloth and apathy. He took up spiritualism, and his sister relates that he would hold séances around a table in a sidewalk café. His principal diversions, however, were women and gambling. In August he lost at cards the large sum of three thousand rubles, although in an effort to pay up his outstanding debts he was trying to live on ten rubles a month.
Tolstoy’s restlessness and depression were largely induced by the uncertainty about his immediate future. He had not intended to enter the army when he came to the Caucasus, but once having joined, he was ambitious for advancement and tangible rewards. He had had a reasonable expectancy of promotion after six months of acceptable service. But two years passed and he was still a cadet.
At last, his patience worn out, and against the advice of Auntie Tatyana and Sergei, who urged him to remain in the service, he sent in his request for a discharge. And when the lack of documents delayed his release, he asked for a furlough. In the meantime, Russia had declared war against Turkey, and retirement was forbidden, until the end of hostilities. His hopes eventually centered on the possibility of obtaining both his promotion and a furlough, and finally a transfer to the army in action against the Turks on the Danube. On October 6, he wrote to his relative, Prince M. D. Gorchakov, head of the General Staff and commander of the Danubian armies, for a transfer.
DURING 1853, literary activity was an effective counter-irritant for “moral deterioration.” “Only work can afford me pleasure and profit,”he jots down in the diary. Initial success drove him on. He laid out a rigid schedule of work. Every spare moment he had his pen in hand. Excited over a piece, his “heart fails,” and he “trembles” on taking up his copybook. He read an article on the literary characteristics of genius, which awoke in him “the conviction that I am a remarkable man for my capacity and my eagerness to work.” Fame seemed within his grasp.
Tolstoy at first worked hard on Boyhood, the continuation of Childhood, but before he finished, he lost interest. There are fewer autobiographical elements and more sheer fiction, but the work is too much overlaid with sentiment that dangerously borders on sentimentality. For a literary composition to be attractive, he felt that it should be directed by a consistent thought and penetrated by a consistent feeling. These conditions, he admitted, were lacking in Boyhood.
The wonderful evocative atmosphere of Childhood is thinner in the sequel, perhaps because of the greater emphasis he places upon analysis. Yet this analysis is uncannily convincing, responsive to all the evasive simplicity of a boy’s inmost feelings. Some of the descriptive passages, such as the beautiful chapter on the storm, which with his own stern judgment he pronounced “excellent,” foreshadow similar passages in his later works. He kept the manuscript by him for further correction until after he left the Caucasus.
In 1853 Tolstoy also wrote Christmas Eve, an unfinished short story of a young man’s dissipation in Moscow; he continued the Novel of a Russian Landowner and The Cossacks; and he began Caucasian Reminiscences, and The Woodfelling. This represents a considerable amount of literary activity for a single year that was broken up by an extensive military campaign. And all he wrote was done with extreme care. Of Boyhood alone, the length of a short novel, there were three full versions.
On January 12, 1854, Tolstoy received the welcome news that he had been transferred to the 5th Battery of the 12th Artillery Brigade in active service on the Danube, and his request for a furlough was also granted. A week later, he joyfully set out on the long trip to Yasnaya Polyana.
Tolstoy’s two and a half years in the Caucasus were a momentous period in his life. They provided a severe moral and physical test from which he emerged a maturer and more highly developed man. In his unceasing efforts towards self-perfection, he was inclined, as always, to magnify his moral failings. The remarkable fact is that he had any moral scruples left, when one considers the customary loose living of frontier soldiers and the easy morals of the natives.
The sternly subjective picture of himself which is reflected in his diary and letters must be corrected by the objective appraisal of his friends and associates over this period. The natives held him in high esteem. They admired his simplicity, honesty, and generosity, his expert horsemanship and unquestioned bravery, which won for him their highest commendation, the title of dzhigit. And once he learned not to demand too much from the officers, he gained their respect and even their admiration.
At Yasnaya Polyana the cadet from the Caucasus received a hearty welcome. Tolstoys found the affairs of his estate in good order, and himself “out of date, amended, and aged.” The chief defect and peculiarity of his character, he presently decided, was that he had remained morally young too long, and that only now, at the age of twenty-five, had he acquired an independent, masculine view of things. He tested it that same day on a certain Mavrikiya, a pretty girl who distracted him at his prayers in chapel.
After a hurried visit to his sister’s estate at Pokrovskoye, Tolstoy returned to find his three brothers awaiting him. Their reunion was joyous. Infinite talk amid infinite tobacco smoke lasted far into the night; then all four made up a bed on the floor and continued their chatter. Only Dmitri worried Tolstoy. Always strange and unconventional, Dmitri’s deeply religious and chaste nature had lately succumbed to worldly temptation. His morbid conscience, like that of some character out of Dostoyevsky, had compelled him to pay for the release of his first prostitute from her brothel and make her his common-law wife. Moral and physical doom seemed already stamped upon his face and mind.
A few days after their meeting, all the brothers went to Moscow together. Tolstoy lavished moneyon military equipment, for news of his promotion to the rank of ensign had reached him. He next made his way to Shcherbachyovka, Dmitri’s estate in the Kursk district, and from there, having first taken the precaution to write his will, he set out for the active Army of the Danube on March 3.
Nine days later Tolstoy, almost sick with fatigue, arrived at Bucharest; he had traveled some fourteen hundred miles by way of Poltava and Kishinyov, and most of it in rickety conveyances. Instead of the atmosphere of war he expected to be plunged into, he found a disappointingly peaceful city.
Auntie Tatyana had hopes that her darling would obtain the fairly safe sinecure of adjutant to his relative, Prince M. D. Gorchakov, Commander-inChief of the Danubian forces. Tolstoy quickly paid his respects to the prince, and although he was kindly received, pride prevented him from making any direct overtures to the general. Since no one seemed anxious to use his services immediately, he was quite content to amuse himself with ample pleasures afforded by Bucharest, the first European city he had seen. In the company of the prince’s two nephews — “fine lads,” he called them — he enjoyed his fill of Italian opera, the French theater, and less cultured entertainment.
This tourist existence came to a sudden end on March 22, when Tolstoy was assigned to the 3rd Battery of the 11th Artillery Brigade, stationed at Oltenitza, not far from Bucharest. For the moment, he regarded philosophically enough the fact that he had not been taken on the General Staff as an adjutant. In May, he was able to write to Auntie Tatyana: “I have a fit of conscience in thinking that you believe me exposed to every danger, while I have still not smelt Turkish powder, and live here tranquilly at Bucharest promenading about, occupied with music, and eating ice cream.” He had remained at Oltenitza only a couple of weeks, quarreled with his battery commander, and finally obtained a post on the staff of Lieutenant-General A. O. Serzhputovski, Commander of Artillery of the Army of the Danube. The general he admired at first, and he found the officers on the staff “were, for the most part, men comme il faut.” After fulfilling several commissions that took him about the countryside, he returned to Bucharest for medical treatment.
By now Tolstoy had become almost a professional self-critic. As soon as he is alone, he reports in the diary, he involuntarily returns to his former ideal of perfecting himself; but now he at last realizes that all along he has been confusing perfecting himself with perfection. “One must first understand oneself and one’s defects well, and try to correct them,” he writes, “and not set oneself the task of being perfect, which is not only impossible to achieve from the low point at which I stand, but which, once it is perceived, makes one lose hope of the possibility of achieving it. . . . One must take oneself as one is and try to correct the corrigible faults. A fine nature will lead me to what is good without a notebook, which for so long has been a nightmare. Mine is a character that, desiring, seeking, and ready for all that is fine, is for that very reason incapable of being consistently good.”
One is tempted to shout, “Eureka!” In all his voluminous self-criticism, this is Tolstoy’s first clear recognition of the genuine limitations of his own nature and of the reasonable possibilities of improving it. And with the same insight, he now admits that he loves fame more than goodness, and that his frequent inability to make friends arises from an inclination to show his superiority. Indeed, he quickly observes that when he curbs his tendency to appear majestic and infallible, his relations with people are pleasanter and easier. Lack of character, irritability, and laziness, he sets down in the diary as his three chief defects, and he repeats them at the end of his daily entries so that he will not forget.
The pleasures of Bucharest, like those of Moscow and Petersburg, sorely tempted Tolstoy, and the gay young blades among his army comrades were insistent Satans who beguiled him into gambling and “gadding about,” a euphemism in the diary for pursuing loose women. Some of his abandonment was temporarily checked by unexpectedly meeting his commanding officer at a brothel. An occasional romantic interlude, such as his attraction for the landlady’s pretty daughter, varied this dissipation. He furtively watched her from his window at night as she leaned out of hers.
Despite romance, diarrhea, dissipation, and other distractions, Tolstoy made a serious effort to continue his literary work at Bucharest. He censured himself for laziness — one of his three self-denominated defects — but this failing was more imaginary than real. His reading was considerable, including both native and foreign authors, especially Goethe and Schiller.
Nekrasov had written him a very flattering letter about Boyhood, which was to be published in the October issue of the Contemporary. As usual, such praise encouraged Tolstoy’s literary efforts. He continued to work away at A Landlord’s Morning and The Woodfelling.
On July 20 Tolstoy left Bucharest with the staff of General Serzhputovski for the Russian frontier. He reached Kishinyov on September 9, and there he learned that he had been promoted to the rank of sub-lieutenant.
TOLSTOY’S patriotism, like that, of all Russians at the time, was tremendously aroused by the tales of the heroic defense of Sevastopol. He could not continue to remain at Kishinyov while his countrymen were dying behind the earthworks of the besieged city. He felt ashamed of his security when he heard that I. K. Komstadius, a young friend, had been killed at Inkerman. A request for a transfer to Sevastopol was finally granted. He left Kishinyov with a group of officers, and because of the blockade traveled by way of Odessa, Kherson, and Oleshko. At the latter place he was detained, he writes in the diary, “by a pretty and intelligent Ukrainian girl whom I kissed and caressed through the window. At night she came to me. . . . My remembrance would have been better,” he ruefully concludes, “if I had remained at the window.” Meanwhile his friends had left him far behind. Would he be late for the storming of Sevastopol that was threatened? He hurried on and reached the city on November 7.
The storming turned out to be just another rumor. Tolstoy had demanded a transfer to the besieged city, he told his brother Sergei, partly because he wanted to see the war, partly to get away from General Serzhputovski’s staff, which he had come to dislike, but mostly because of the feeling of patriotism that strongly influenced him at this time. This feeling was intensified when he saw the appalling conditions of Sevastopol and the spirit of the defenders, and he was filled with an ardent desire for victory. Enthusiastically he wrote to Sergei: “The spirit among the troops is beyond any description.”
Russian soldiers have never been deficient in courage, but an inspired bravery took possession of the defenders of Sevastopol, especially in the early days of the siege when their strength was fresh and hopes high. In this same letter to Sergei, Tolstoy proudly described how soldiers nearly mutinied when ordered to withdraw from batteries where they had been exposed to shellfire for thirty days; how they snatched the burning fuses from fallen bombs, how even Russian priests fearlessly read prayers under fire at the bastions; and how women from the town were wounded and killed while carrying water to the troops. They were wonderful days, Tolstoy declared, and thanked God that he had been spared to see such people live in this glorious time. He admired the French and British prisoners he talked with. They appeared morally and physically finer than the Russian soldier, who seemed “small, lousy, and shriveled up” in comparison. But he promised Sergei to tell of the brave deeds of these lousy and shriveled heroes, who would not be convinced that the enemy could take the city.
For some eight months after leaving Bucharest, Tolstoy shirked his writing. He was inclined to blame his lapse on the army. “A military career,”he noted in the diary, “is not for me, and the sooner I get out of it and devote myself entirely to literature the better.” A letter from his sister dispelled this gloomy thought. She told of her acquaintance with Turgenev (who eventually fell a bit in love with Marya), who lived not far from her estate, and of the famous author’s lavish praise of her brother’s ability. And his inertia entirely vanished after reading a very flattering review of The Reminiscences of a Billiard-Marker, which had appeared in the January Contemporary. “This is pleasant,” he observed, “and useful in that it inflames my vanity and incites me to activity.” He at once got to work on Youth, the sequel to Boyhood, and he began the first of his three celebrated Sevastopol sketches.
Events interrupted Tolstoy’s writing but also provided him with the opportunity for invaluable material. On February 18, Nicholas I had died, but his successor, Alexander II, decided to continue the war. Tolstoy heralded the new reign in his diary with the following observation: “Immense changes await Russia. One must work and be strong in order to take part in the great moments in the life of Russia.” His own immediate part was to be a very dangerous one. On March 28 the allies began a terrific bombardment of Sevastopol. For ten terrible days the smoke-filled city cowered under a hail of cannon shot and exploding bombs from some two thousand guns. An assault was expected, and Tolstoy’s battery, along with many others, was ordered back to Sevastopol.
The Fourth Bastion, most southern and exposed point in the labyrinthine Sevastopol earthworks constructed by Totleben, was under almost continual fire, and many men had died in its defense. Here Tolstoy was placed in charge of a battery of guns and served on a schedule of four days on and eight days off from April 3 to May 15.
In this early example of modern trench warfare, heroism was a matter of retaining one’s humanity under the slow disintegrating agony of ever-present death. The chief thing was not to think. Under these trying conditions, Tolstoy’s nature expanded and exulted. He got on excellently with everyone.
When not directing the fire of his battery, Tolstoy worked feverishly away at his manuscripts of Youth or the first Sevastopol sketch in the bombproof dugout, an oblong hole in the rocky ground, covered with oak beams. By the light of a candle a group of soldiers crouched in the corner and played a continuous game of “noses.” Tolstoy wrote away undisturbed by their laughter when the winner smacked the loser’s nose with the pack of cards.
Here was rich ore for an author, and Tolstoy mined it assiduously at the Fourth Bastion. By the end of April he sent to Nekrasov his first sketch, Sevastopol in December. It was published in the June number of the Contemporary and aroused much favorable comment. Alexander II read it with emotion, had it translated into French, and is reported to have dispatched an order to “guard well the life of that young man.” Tolstoy’s service at the dangerous Fourth Bastion revived in him the exalted patriotism that thrilled everyone in the early days of the siege.
Towards the end of his period of duty at the Fourth Bastion, a letter from his influential Aunt Yushkov to her relative, General Gorchakov, gave him some hope of realizing his ambition of an appointment as adjutant to the Commander-in-Chief. Instead, he was not entirely dissatisfied to receive charge, on May 15, of a battery of mountain guns, stationed on the Belbek River, and without any regrets he soon left the Fourth Bastion to take up his new post.
FOR the next two and a half months Tolstoy avoided reasonably well the excesses that inactivity usually led him into. He read Goethe, Thackeray, and Balzac, translated a poem of Heine, and finished the third and last version of The Woodfelling. This story, based upon his army experiences in the Caucasus, he sent to the Contemporary, in which it appeared in September. Feeling that he had been influenced by Turgenev in The Woodfelling, he asked permission to dedicate it to him. Turgenev was flattered and readily agreed.
On the day Tolstoy dispatched this story, he began work on another Sevastopol sketch. The writing absorbed him. He had taken an entirely new point of view, and when he sent Sevastopol in May to his publisher on July 4, he accompanied it with a letter, in which he wrote: “Although I’m convinced that it is incomparably better than the first, I’m certain that it will not be liked.”
Tolstoy was right. The editors feared the sketch could not be published. They managed to get it past the censor with a few changes, but it was hastily recalled in proof. The President of the Censor’s Committee, expressing surprise and anger that the editors had ever entertained the idea of printing such a piece, banned it because of the “ridicule of our brave officers, the brave defenders of Sevastopol.” He ultimately reconsidered and passed the sketch, after making numerous deletions and changes. So completely altered were the whole narrative, tone, and intention, that Panayev decided not to publish. The President of the Censor’s Committee, aware that he had virtually transformed the sketch into a propaganda document for the government, now insisted that it be published. Panayev had to comply, but he refused to place Tolstoy’s name to Sevastopol in May when it appeared in the Contemporary in September.
Tolstoy’s first patriotic Sevastopol sketch had contributed greatly to his reputation, and he fully realized the fact. He wrote in the diary at this time: “Have only now reached a period of real temptation through vanity. I could gain much in life if I wished to write without conviction.” Sevastopol in May is emphatic proof of the resolute manner in which he turned his back on this temptation. The idealizing patriotism of the first sketch has vanished. Longer service and broader experience had finally convinced him to take a stand that had always been his. War with all its cruelty, stupidity, and mock heroism is exposed.
Boldly he declares at the end of this second sketch: “There, I have said what I wished to say. . . . The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who always has been, is, and will be beautiful — is truth.” And under the uncompromising, dazzling light of truth, Tolstoy reveals the monumental folly, hypocrisy, and utter futility of this slaughter. The questions the diplomatists did not settle, he remarks, still remain unsettled by powder and blood. All is vanity, vanity on the very brink of the grave. Officers are eager to climb on the shoulders of fallen comrades in order to reach the promotions their deaths have made possible. Every one of them is a little Napoleon, a petty monster ready to kill men in order to get an extra medal or one-third additional pay.
War now becomes for Tolstoy the greatest of crimes, the antithesis of every sincere Christian belief. With feeling he describes the raising of flags of truce to enable the Russian and French to gather the mangled corpses that lie in the flowery valley between the opposing lines of trenches. The air is filled with the smell of decaying flesh. While the bodies are piled on carts, French and Russian soldiers fraternize, borrow tobacco, and laugh and joke in friendly fashion over their efforts to make themselves understood. At last, the grisly business of burying the dead is over; the fraternizing ceases. “The white flags are lowered,”writes Tolstoy, “the engines of death and suffering are sounding again, innocent blood is flowing and the air is filled with moans and curses.”
The Tsar’s censor, of course, could not permit such truths to reach the great gray masses that were dying by the thousands at the earthworks of Sevastopol. When Tolstoy received the news that his sketch had been mutilated and printed, he wrote in his diary: “It seems that I am under the strict observation of the Blues [the police] for my article. I wish, however, that Russia will always have such moral writers; but I can never be a sugary one, nor can I ever write from the empty into the void, without ideas, and above all without aim. Despite a first moment of anger, in which I promised myself never again to take my pen in hand, my sole and chief occupation, dominating all other inclinations and activities, must be literature. My aim is literary fame, the good that I can accomplish by my writings.”
Tolstoy’s bitterness over the censor’s arbitrary distortion of his sketch was somewhat assuaged by the indignation and praise of Nekrasov, who wrote: “The shocking disfiguring of your article has quite upset me. Even now I cannot think of it without regret and rage. Your work, of course, will not be lost ... it will always remain as proof of a strength that was able to speak such profound and sober truth in circumstances amid which few men would have retained it. It is exactly what Russian society now needs: the truth — the truth, of which, since Gogol’s death, so little has remained in Russian literature.
“You are right to value that side of your gifts most of all. Truth — in the form you have introduced it into our literature—is something entirely new among us. I do not know another writer of today who so compels the reader to love him and sympathize heartily with him as he to whom I now write. And I only fear lest time, the nastiness of life, and the deafness and dumbness that surround us, should do to you what it has done to most of us, and kill the energy without which there can be no writer — none at least such as Russia needs.”
Nekrasov’s fear was groundless; the last thing his budding author would do would be to turn his back on truth.
(To be concluded)