The Young Tolstoy: Literature for the People

Leo 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 knew little of his mother, who died before he was two, and not much more of his good-natured but ineffectual father, who died when Leo was eight. Leo’s golden age was spent with his three brothers, Dmitri, Sergei, and Nikolai, on the huge family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, with its thousands of acres and hundreds of serfs. But for the future novelist — supersensitive, vain, foppish, intensely passionate, an indifferent student and a social misfit, obsessed with an ideal of perfection that he could never approach — the road to the palace of wisdom lay through the valley of excess. He joined the army in time to command a battery in the heroic defense of Sevastopol, and in his spare Lime during that action he began to write in a dugout the sketches that brought him immediate fame.



ON A December morning in 1855 the poet A. A. Fet, then an army officer on a furlough to Petersburg, called upon his good friend Turgenev for a glass of tea and a chat. In the hallway he noticed a short saber hanging on the wall and asked the dignified servant about it. The man answered in a low voice that the saber belonged to Count Tolstoy, a guest of his master.

For an hour Fet and Turgenev conversed in whispers in the latter’s study for fear of waking the sleeping count in the next room. “He is like this all the time,” Turgenev smilingly explained, “He has come from his battery at Sevastopol, is staying with me, and has gone off on a tangent. Sprees, gypsies, and cards every night; then he sleeps like the dead until two o’clock in the day. I tried to restrain him, but I’ve given it up now.” Tolstoy finally sauntered in and was introduced. Fet remarked of the meeting; “From the first moment I noticed in young Tolstoy an involuntary opposition to all commonly accepted opinion” — a hasty but shrewd judgment.

The Petersburg literary group was curious about the mysterious “L.N.T,” and eager to welcome him as one of them. On the road to Petersburg from Sevastopol he had received a letter from Turgenev, who offered to go as far as Tula to meet him, and Tolstoy accepted his generous invitation to stay at his apartment in the capital. With such a sponsor as Turgenev, the leader of the capital’s literary world, he soon met all the important writers.

In the 1850’s the Petersburg literary set consisted of a group of self-indulgent men, whose concern for their own immortality did not prevent them from being interested in the vital social and political questions of the day. It was a relatively small and provincial group, and it moved in a Masonic-lodge atmosphere of half-mystery and jealous devotion to literary ritual and comradeship. Their favorite publication was the Contemporary, and its editors, N. A. Nekrasov and I.I. Panayev, were the artful engineers of frequent literary gatherings in the interest of their magazine.

On such occasions the perennial hostess was Panayev’s wife, the beautiful black-eyed Avdotya. Gossip had it that the co-editors were also co-husbands — a form of George Sandism common enough among Russian liberals of the time. Nekrasov and Panayev had been followers of Belinski, radical critic and leader of the Westerners, and they had turned the Contemporary, founded by Pushkin and Pletnyov, into the most living literary review in Russia and the rallying-ground of all progressives.

With the accession of Alexander II the hope of reform filled the air, and writers of the Contemporary helped to spread liberal ideas. There were, however, varying degrees of liberalism among them, and sharp controversies had already broken out. Chernyshevski and Dobrolyubov, young radical contributors who had sprung from the people, were beginning to attack the tired liberalism and non-social literature of Turgenev and the older aristocratic writers. This was the group that the sublieutenant fresh from Sevastopol took by storm at the end of 1855.

Tolstoy was perhaps too obviously conscious of the fact that he was the lion of the moment; soon some of his admirers set him down as a cub, and nearly all of them eventually felt his claws. The day after his arrival he dined with Nekrasov. It was their first meeting, although they had been corresponding for three years. This hard-living, democratic poet, clever gambler, and astute publisher was much impressed by his young, aristocratic author.

Turgenev was delighted with his guest and wrote to the elegant critic P. V. Annenkov, who in a review of Reminiscences of a Billard-Marker had already included Tolstoy among the immortals: “Imagine, for more than two weeks now Tolstoy has been living with me, and what I would not give to see you both together! You cannot picture to yourself what a dear and remarkable man he is, although I have nicknamed him the ‘troglodyte,’ because of his savage ardor and buffalo-like obstinacy. I have grown to love him with a strange feeling that is almost parental.”The troglodyte, however, would creep into the cave of his own mind and roar at the parental Turgenev who, although only ten years older, insisted in watching over his guest “like an old nurse,” as he expressed it.

At first Tolstoy was pleased and flattered with all this attention. At the Hôtel Napoléon he held an evening of his own for the Contemporary set and introduced some gay gypsy entertainers to take the minds of these literary pundits off shop talk. In his immaculate uniform he conducted himself with severe decorum at these gatherings. It was as though he were acting according to a studied course of behavior. With individuals he sometimes showed the temper of his mind, but in large groups he remained mostly silent and observant. He was coldly taking the measure of his admiring literary colleagues.

Still in the army, Tolstoy had been detailed as an inspector in a Petersburg munitions factory. After a month in the city, he obtained a brief leave to go to Moscow, for there another literary group was eager to honor him. The stern Moscow Slavophils, with their deeply rooted nationalist convictions, detested the Petersburg Westerners and the progressive views of the Contemporary set. But their “convictions" — a fashion-word among intellectuals in Russia then, much as “ideology” has been in America — irritated Tolstoy. So did the “convictions” of the Petersburg literary group. He thought that both sets were tilting at windmills.

The serious illness of his brother Dmitri cut short Tolstoy’s pleasant visit in Moscow. He hurried to Orël, and found Dmitri dying from consumption. The appearance of his childhood playmate shocked him. Dmitri’s enormous hands hung to the two bones of his arms, and his wasted face seemed all eyes — the same beautiful, serious eyes as of old, but now fixed on him with a continually questioning look. Pock-marked Masha, the girl he had taken from a brothel, tenderly watched over him. Tolstoy mentions in his diary that all the evil thoughts he used to have about Dmitri crumbled into dust, and he felt terribly depressed. He stayed only two days and returned to Petersburg by way of Moscow. There he learned that Dmitri, unloved member of the family, had died on January 21. A naked reference to the fact is all that appears in the diary.


BACK in the capital the lion began to show his claws. By now he had a clear comprehension of the “civil war” that raged among the Contemporary circle. He saw that each side hailed his talent and hoped to get his allegiance, but that both were afraid and jealous of him. The aristocratic liberals were sure of him; after all, he was a count, and they expected him to share their hate for Chernyshevski and Dobrolyubov— the snake and rattlesnake, Turgenev dubbed them. Tolstoy called a plague on both their houses, and did not hesitate to roar at either.

It came as a painful surprise that Tolstoy should first direct his fire at the liberal aristocrats, and most of all at their leader, Turgenev. There has been much speculation over the quarrel of these two famous writers and not a little wonderment at their inability to form a firm friendship. Both were aristocrats and novelists who, on the surface at least, appeared to have a sincere appreciation of each other’s ability.

But Turgenev’s conviction of “disinterested love for utter truth” annoyed Tolstoy. It was merely a phrase, he believed, coming from a flabby nature. This giant of a man, with his huge shoulders, striking features, and shock of prematurely graying hair, strangely failed to impress discerning people like Tolstoy, who found in him a lack of spirituality; he seemed capable of experiencing only physical feelings.

With persistent and deadly effect Tolstoy began nagging Turgenev on his “political convictions.”Men were really being hypocritical, he declared, when they flaunted their convictions. Convictions were simply invented by the intelligentsia in order to have something to talk about. As for himself, he would have asserted that he lived by instinct. The “rules” that he compounded to guide his existence were suggested not by conviction, but by moral instinct. And moral instinct he could trust, but only his own. Here was the quintessence of individualism.

Tolstoy’s involuntary opposition to all commonly accepted opinion was evident in literary as well as political and social questions. He strove always for originality in discussion. Even Shakespeare was sacrificed to this passion. “How sorry I am that you are late,” Panayev declared to a friend who called on him just as Tolstoy left. “What marvels you would have heard! You would have learned that Shakespeare is an ordinary writer, and that our astonishment and delight over Shakespeare are nothing more than a desire to keep up with others and the habit of repeating foreign opinion. . . . Yes, how curious! The man simply does not wish to know any traditions, either theoretical or historical.”

The war was on. Tolstoy harried Turgenev, nor did he spare other members of the novelist’s group. He was invited to a dinner for the stall of the Contemporary at Nekrasov’s. When someone praised George Sand’s new novel, he abruptly blurted out his hatred for this favorite French author. And he shocked all present by declaring that if such women as George Sand’s heroines really existed, then they ought to be bound to the hangman’s cart and driven through the streets of Petersburg for the general edification. Avdotya Panayev, the hostess, whose worship of George Sand was common knowledge, preserved a pained silence. In an instant the room was in an uproar. But Tolstoy maintained his point. George Sand’s love of sheer animalism in man while disguising it with a cloak of poetry and aesthetic feeling disgusted him. He considered her unable to distinguish good from evil.

Turgenev appears once more to have borne the brunt of Tolstoy’s argumentative wrath. For in his diary the next day Tolstoy mentions that he has quarreled with Turgenev. Turgenev struck back, not very cleverly or successfully. He was no match for Tolstoy in an argument. With an ironical expression on his face, Tolstoy would listen to his opponent, piercing him with his penetrating glance, his lips pressed together in an expression of concentration that suggested he was thinking up some devastating epigram or an answer that would perplex by its unexpectedness. Turgenev complained that his young rival never believed in people’s sincerity, and he confessed that Tolstoy’s inquisitorial look, when accompanied by biting words, goaded a man to fury.

The boiling-over point was reached in a quarrel that the novelist and wit Grigorovich humorously described to the poet Fet. Again, the unfortunate Nekrasov’s quarters were the locus. “You cannot imagine what a scene it was,” said Grigorovich. “‘Ach, my God!’ Turgenev squeaked and squeaked, holding his hand to his throat; and with the eyes of a dying gazelle, he whispered: ‘I can stand no more! I have bronchitis!’ And with huge strides he began pacing back and forth through three rooms. . . . We were all agitated and did not know what to say. Tolstoy in the middle room lay sulking on a morocco divan, while Turgenev, spreading the tails of his short coat by placing his hands in his pockets, continued to go back and forth through all three rooms. To avert a catastrophe, I went up to the divan and said: ‘My dear Tolstoy, do not agitate yourself! You do not know how he esteems and loves you!’ ‘ I will not permit him to do anything evil to me!’ exclaimed Tolstoy with dilated nostrils. ‘Look how he keeps marching past me on purpose, wagging his democratic haunches! ‘ ”

Not only the democratic haunches of the Contemporary’s liberal aristocrats bothered Tolstoy: so did the radical haunches of Chernyshevski and his followers. He tolerated them for a brief time, but he soon turned on them and their exiled oracle Herzen, who in distant London had highly praised Childhood. These liberals were preaching equality and reforms when he knew that many of them were devoted to swilling, gambling, and immorality. The fact nauseated him. His own private life was far from being exemplary, but he was willing to admit the fact, and he did not try to reform others.


WITHIN a few months after his arrival in Petersburg from Sevastopol, Tolstoy had more or less deservedly won for himself in the Contemporary circle the reputation of being a “savage” young man. And he augmented this opinion by challenging M. N. Longinov to a duel. At a card party one evening a letter arrived for Nekrasov from Longinov, a genial but not too reputable historian of literature and contributor to the Contemporary. Busy with his hand, Nekrasov requested Tolstoy to read the letter. Unfortunately it contained an aspersion on Tolstoy’s liberalism. He read through to the end, said nothing, but went home and sent a challenge to Longinov.

Nekrasov learned of the matter and the next day pleaded with Tolstoy to withdraw the challenge or he himself would have to shoot it out with Longinov, for the editor insisted on assuming full responsibility for the mess. Tolstoy remained adamant. Happily, Longinov settled the whole matter by the simple, unorthodox procedure of not answering the challenge. Only three months later, in the peaceful seclusion of Yasnaya Polyana, did it suddenly occur to Tolstoy how offensive his behavior had been, and he at once wrote to Nekrasov to ask his pardon and promised to do the same with Longinov.

Statements in the diaries and correspondence of the Contemporary circle in 1856 indicate that their final judgment on Tolstoy was a mixed one of bewilderment over his views and conduct and admiration for his talent. They perceived in him an enormous literary and moral force, and the several groups trying to influence opinion on the magazine were willing to overlook his prickly and independent nature if they could gain his support. For a time he allowed himself to be swayed by the most conservative faction, principally by Druzhinin, and somewhat by Botkin and Annenkov.

Of the whole Petersburg group at this time, only the poet Fet retained Tolstoy’s lasting friendship. And perhaps it is significant that Fet was the least “literary” of the circle and the most conservative. Years later, in his Confession, Tolstoy condemned these writers and their influence on him, and yet admitted how proud he had been to be accepted by them. His inability to get along was not merely a case of bad manners or of his irritating, contradictory nature, of which he was entirely conscious. He tells in the diary how he disputed with the Slavophil Konstantin Aksakov, and the same day argued with a differently-minded opponent from exactly the opposite point of view.

He was not being reactionary in turning his back on the Contemporary’s progressives, for he really shared some of their advanced views. But now, as later, his powerful individualism would not permit him to subordinate his views. All must come from within himself. It was both an aesthetic and an intellectual pride. The thinker, like the artist, insisted upon originality.

The literary group did not monopolize Tolstoy’s time, and his stay of six months in Petersburg was a repetition of his feverish social life of some four years before. He had acquired more poise and worldliness, and his fame as an author had widened the circle of his acquaintances and made him a much desired guest in the homes of prominent families where he was occasionally persuaded to read his stories. Neither had his capacity for light entertainment diminished, nor the stern conscience that censured his indulgence. There are frequent clipped references to the city’s grisettes, particularly to an Alexandra Petrovna and Alexandra Zhukov, who claimed a great deal of his attention.

Apparently as a precaution for the future, he sets himself the rule not to drink more than half a glass of vodka, one glass of strong wine, and one tumbler of light wine. A few weeks later an entry relates how he and a friend went with two girls to an amusement park. “Disgusting!” he writes. “Girls, stupid music, girls, an artificial nightingale, girls, heat, cigarette smoke, girls, vodka, cheese, wild shrieks, girls, girls, girls!” And the next day he underlines: “I make myself this rule forever: never to enter a pub or a single brothel!” Before the day was over, another lapse obliged him that night to repeat in a postscript to this entry: “My foot will never, never enter a public place, except a concert or theatre.”

Among Tolstoy’s new friends at this time in the Petersburg social world, perhaps the one who remained closest to him and influenced him most in later life was his “aunt” (actually a first cousin once removed), Countess Alexandra Andreyevna Tolstoy, eleven years his senior. She was a Maid of Honor and governess in the family of Grand Duchess Marie, daughter of Nicholas I. A woman of remarkable tact and unusual gifts of heart and brain, she occupied a position of consequence in the political and literary world of the capital. Their affection for each other deepened over the years, and her strong intellect and love of truth inspired a trust and confidence in her judgment that Tolstoy rarely accorded.

A reviewer had lyrically advised Tolstoy in print not to write better but more. He improved upon the advice and wrote both more and better during this brief period. Direct contact with literary admirers gave him a sense of great things expected of him. With not a little pride he mentions in the diary and repeats in a letter to his brother Sergei that the Emperor read Childhood to his wife and wept. He had no doubts about his future career now, and the praise of friends and rivals had banished uncertainty about his talents. Subjects for stories filled his mind, and living material on the Petersburg streets — a constable settling an altercation, or the character of a Russian crowd listening to an orator — he jotted down for future reference.

In December, 1855, Tolstoy finished Sevastopol in August, the first of his works to appear under his full name (it was published in the January Contemporary, 1856). The inspired war correspondent of the two previous Sevastopol sketches has disappeared; in the third he is the storyteller transposing the stuff of life into art. The didactic element and pathetic lyricism are absent. Living characters, especially the Kozeltsov brothers, lend a touch of unity to a loosely constructed story. In its leisurely, panoramic method of narration, in the manner in which plot is sacrificed to accumulating detail, and in the studied objectivity, one can detect the certain influence of Thackeray, whom Tolstoy had been eagerly reading and deeply admiring over this period. The three Sevastopol pieces are clearly efforts in the direction of War and Peace.

Tolstoy’s popularity with the reading public suggested the feasibility of publishing his collected works in book form even at this early stage. In September, 1856, his Army Tales appeared as a book, and the next month Childhood and Boyhood. They received very little notice and sold poorly. The failure was perhaps partly due to the fact that the stories had already appeared in the Contemporary. Something of the cool reception, however, must be attributed to the changing attitude of the liberal Petersburg critics whom he had offended. They were demanding works of political and social significance to meet the new progressive spirit of the age.

But Tolstoy was not a writer to fall into an accepted groove; he had to carve his own. He wanted to try his hand at new forms and new subjects. Over this period he worked on at least four separate plans for dramas. And in the diary he expressed his desire to strike out on new literary paths: “How I long to have done with magazines in order to write in the way I am now beginning to think about art: awfully lofty and pure.”


As Turgenev pointed out in a letter to Druzhinin, A Landlord’s Morning conveys the unpleasant impression that all efforts of landowners to enlighten or improve the conditions of the peasantry lead to nothing. The real moral of the work, however, is that so long as serfdom exists, there is no possibility of the two sides drawing together despite the most disinterested endeavor to do so.

In March of this year, the young Alexander II had made an historic address before the assembled nobles of Moscow. He warned them that the time would soon come when Russia’s serfs must be freed, and he concluded with the famous statement that it would “therefore be much better for it to come from above than from below.” While the government prepared its own program for abolishing serfdom, the way was left open for individual owners to take action.

Tolstoy decided to take such action. He spared no effort to devise an acceptable scheme, and when the project was drafted, he went to Yasnaya Polyana to place it before the serfs.

Yasnaya Polyana seemed sad and out of harmony with his feelings. A year of war had altered his opinions; the man who had scorned the organized liberalism of the Contemporary circle now observed in the diary: “In comparison with my former Yasnaya recollections of myself, I feel how much I have changed in the liberal sense. Even T. A. [Auntie Tatyana] displeases me. In 100 years you could not knock into her head the injustice of serfdom.”

Tolstoy had prepared his plan to free his serfs with care and business acumen. The drafts, notes, and even the speech he wrote to introduce the project have been found among his papers and recently published. All this material testifies to his excellent practical sense, an attribute rarely ascribed to him. A meeting of his 309 male serfs was called, and he explained his plan of liberating them and, at the same time, selling them small parcels of land for a low, fixed price to be paid over a long period of time.

Tolstoy was well pleased with this first meeting and he felt that the peasants believed in him. But he failed to take into consideration the innate hostility for the master that centuries of slavery had deeply rooted in the peasantry. He kept a record, The Diary of a Landowner, of the meetings with his serfs and individual peasants. This account clearly reveals their traditional fear of change and their inborn suspicion of a master bearing gifts. Finally, they refused to agree to Tolstoy’s plan, and they justified their refusal by seizing upon a wild rumor — widely believed by the peasants — that at the approaching coronation the young tsar would free the serfs and give them all the land, and hence their master was scheming to forestall this blessing by obligating them to a prior contract.

The failure of his project was a keen disappointment. At their request Tolstoy tried to remedy the immediate condition of his serfs by releasing some of them from obligatory labor by substituting a fixed yearly payment, not an unusual arrangement. Rather bitterly he told himself that the peasants did not want their freedom, and in the diary he well summed up the relationship between him and his serfs: “Two powerful men are joined with a sharp chain; it hurts both of them, and when one of them moves, he involuntarily cuts the other, and neither has room to work.”

The behavior of the peasants in this whole matter alarmed Tolstoy, and he drafted an extraordinary letter of warning to his Petersburg friend Count D. N. Bludov, influential President of the Department of Laws. He relates the outcome of his project and then goes on to add: “The despotism of the landowners has already engendered despotism in the peasants. When they told me at the meeting that I should give them all the land outright, and I said that I should be left, without my shirt, they laughed, and it was impossible to blame them.” He concludes: “If within 6 months the serfs are not freed, there will be a conflagration. Everything is ready for it. Treasonable hands are not lacking to light the fire of revolt, and then the conflagration will spread everywhere.”

Tolstoy’s prophecy of a revolution was right, but his chronology was off by some sixty years. The emancipation of the serfs took place five years after his letter and without any serious disturbances. But the letter reveals Tolstoy in a confused state of mind, pulled this way and that by both liberal and conservative tendencies.

Essentially, his approach to the peasant question was a moral one: he felt a moral, not a political, duty to give them their freedom. And his lack of success at Yasnaya Polyana did not change his point of view in this respect. Yet at the time he could not aspire to the absolute moral position of his later years, when he condemned all private property. The letter to Bludov shows him attempting to serve two ends: to acquit himself of a moral duty by freeing the serfs, and in a bourgeois fashion to protect, himself economically by keeping his land, without which the peasants would starve. Nor did he ever completely find his way out of this dilemma, despite the moral absolutism of his later years.

Flagrant village immorality intensified Tolstoy’s marked emotional instability at this time. His debauched surroundings suggested a play, Free Love, that would involve — he noted in the diary — the perverted relations of a “proprietress with her footman, a brother with his sister, and a father’s natural son with the father’s wife, etc.” On his own part, the Petersburg grisettes that had tempted him were now displaced by willing village girls, nor did the wives and daughters of his neighbors escape his attention. In vain did he flagellate himself for his “terrible lust” and try desperately to control his sensual thoughts.

The remedy of marriage had already suggested itself to Tolstoy. His continual state of emotional excitation, he felt, was bad. After all, he was twentyeight, and it was time to settle down. From the age of fifteen he had clung to the idea of a happy family life with a wife whom he would love as no woman had ever been loved before. He wanted to love and be loved. While in Petersburg he had written to Aunt Pelageya that he was thinking about marriage and would regard every eligible young lady he met from this point of view.

On November 28 he received his long-awaited discharge from the army, and he decided to gratify a wish that had been with him for some time: to go abroad. He left Petersburg January 12, and after stops in Moscow and Warsaw he arrived in Paris February 9.


ARISTOCRATIC Russians, like the English, regarded a grand tour through the countries of Western Europe as a fitting climax to a young man’s education, Tolstoy was a bit old for such a finishing touch; he had come to Paris not so much with the desire to learn from foreign travel as to escape — to escape from the Petersburg literary circle and from one of his periodic attacks of dissatisfaction with the lack of purpose in his life.

Paris turned out to be more than an agreeable haven for the fugitive; it was a veritable Isle of the Blest — for a time at least. All the charm and pleasures of the city were open to Tolstoy, without the foreigner’s usual lonely introduction to them. For here solicitous “old nurse” Turgenev eagerly greeted his troglodyte and found suitable quarters, where French sociability and conversation, interspersed with jests and puns in a babel of languages, cheered him at once. At the typical pension table he found a philospher, a Spanish countess spangled with romantic adventures, an opinionated American doctor, an Italian priest who declaimed the Divine Comedy, a playwright with long hair, and a female pianist who had composed the best polka in the world. After dinner, chairs and tables were pushed back for dancing on the dusty carpet, and in the dark hallway furtive flirting went on.

Aristocratic Russian families in the city gladly opened their doors to Tolstoy, and touring cousins were happy to dine with him. At the salon of his distant relatives, the Trubetskois, he met a weird assortment of people, from Jesuits to unsuccessful revolutionists. Nor was he indifferent to the Trubetskois’ daughter, whose marriage soon took place and wrung from him a confession of “sadness and envy. He was also welcome at the Lvovs, until the jealous husband began to suspect his guest’s attentions to his wife.

Tolstoy was really interested in their niece, the attractive Princess Ekaterina Lvov. Interest blossomed into affection. He noted in the diary that he was a fool not to marry her. Later, when away from Paris, he even wrote to Turgenev for his frank opinion of whether or not a proposal to the princess would be acceptable. Nothing came of the matter; he was still unready to cross the threshold of love.

Tolstoy was endlessly curious and tireless in his activities. An Italian and an English teacher were engaged to give him lessons. He visited all the stock tourist places — the museums, the Bourse, Fontainebleau and Versailles. He attended the theater diligently and enjoyed nearly all of it. Of the French dramatists he had harsh words only for one: “Racine’s drama and the like are Europe’s poetic wound. Thank God we have not got it and shall not have it.”The opera, always a bastard art to Tolstoy, he enjoyed in Paris almost against his will, but the concerts threw him into ecstasies. After a performance of Beethoven’s Trio (Opus 70), he decided that the French play him like gods. Attending lectures of distinguished professors was more in fashion among tourists then than now, and Tolstoy went to the Sorbonne and the College de France to hear talks on dramatic poetry, the classics, political economy, and international law.

Like Byron with his women, Turgenev could not seem to live with Tolstoy or live without him. They saw each other frequently, and Tolstoy’s opinion of his friend fluctuated from day to day. At one moment he found him “good but terribly weak,” then he was “vain and shallow,” and a few days later he decided that Turgenev “does not believe in anything” and “does not love, but wants to love.” Upon saying farewell to him in Paris, however, Tolstoy confessed in the diary: “I wept. I don’t know why. I am very fond of him. He has made and is making a different man of me.”

The period was a low one in the fortunes of Turgenev, He was ill and having difficulties with the great love of his life, the famous singer, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Tolstoy thought that he exaggerated both complaints, and was annoyed by his feminine querulousness and self-pity. After he had been in Paris a short time, he agreed to go with Turgenev to Dijon to help him get over his “moral loneliness,” his illness, and the feeling that his imaginative powers were failing.

In a letter to Annenkov, Turgenev described the two of them at work in a little hotel room in Dijon, almost sitting on the hot coals to keep warm. He looks on wistfully — and laments that he has long since sucked his own lemon dry — while Tolstoy industriously scribbles page after page. And with a sunset glow of artist’s temperament, he orders Annenkov either to print the last manuscript he has sent him or “consign it to a peaceful end in the watercloset.”

They got along capitally together, and Tolstoy even admitted that he had misunderstood him in the past and generously granted his artistic superiority. Within five days this literary honeymoon ended. Tolstoy read the draft of a new tale to him, and Turgenev reacted coldly. He decided categorically that Turgenev has “never loved anyone.” They quarreled once again, and Tolstoy left for Paris. In all their relations his esteem for Turgenev as a great artist was patent. In fact, this feeling irritated him, and he wished to free himself of it.

Back in Paris, Tolstoy once more applied himself wide-eyed to monuments and cocottes. He felt his “lack of knowledge” amid the culture and art of the French capital. Sergei arrived, but Tolstoy’s sincere delight over the presence of his brother quickly vanished. He now discovered that they had little in common. Nikolai, with his artistic soul (his charming Hunting in the Caucasus had just appeared in the Contemporary), understood him thoroughly; Sergei loved without understanding him. Somewhat to Tolstoy’s relief, he soon left Paris.

After almost two months of dizzy, delightful playing, Tolstoy started a letter to Botkin (March 24), in which he enthusiastically declared that he could not foresee the time when this great city would lose interest for him. He described the artistic pleasures he had enjoyed and the striking differences in French and Russian life, “especially the social freedom of which I did not even have a comprehension in Russia.” Two months more at least, he reported, must be spent in this delectable place.

The next day Tolstoy completed the letter, but Paris in the brief interval had taken on all the aspects of a Sodom. Early that morning he had gone, in the spirit of a tourist seeing the sights, to witness the execution of a certain Francis Richeux, who had killed and robbed two persons. The scene shocked Tolstoy’s sensibilities. The image of the guillotine haunted him. “A stout, white robust neck and chest,” he jotted down in the diary. “He kissed the Gospels, and then — death. How senseless!” He had nightmares. The glistening knife descended on him. He awoke trembling and felt his neck for a cut. The scene would not fade from his mind.

Paris became hateful to Tolstoy. He did not stop to reason objectively that Moscow or Petersburg could present scenes of equal horror. The fact is that his intensely impressionable nature revolted at any display of human cruelty. His mind was keyed to the disharmony between absolute good and man-made laws, even to the extent that he was beginning to doubt the so-called benefits of civilization. Now, he could find no further charm in this city’ of refinement and culture, and the day after the execution, he notes in the diary: “Suddenly a simple and sensible idea occurred to me — to leave Paris.” The following day he set out for Geneva.


TOLSTOY’S reason for selecting Geneva as a haven was the presence there of his cousin, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy. She was traveling with the family of the Grand Duchess Marie, as an attendant upon her children. The day after his arrival Tolstoy called on his cousin at the luxurious Villa Bocage and vehemently poured out his disgust for Paris. He had almost gone out of his mind with the things he had seen. Nineteen of the thirty-six couples in the apartment building where he had lived, he charged, were unmarried. It had revolted him. And then the execution had murdered his sleep. So he had rushed headlong to his dear cousin, feeling sure that she would save him.

Happily, “Granny” (so Tolstoy humorously called the countess, because he thought her too young for the usual Russian appellation of “Aunt ”) thoroughly understood her eccentric “grandson.” His impressions, she guessed, were nearly always extreme, but she was very fond of him and liked his modesty, liveliness, and kindly, expressive eyes. With her sharp intellect she had already recognized in him a kindred characteristic: they were “both terrible enthusiasts and analysers — who loved goodness, but did not know how to follow it properly.”

Soon they were on terms of intimate friendship and acted together like two youths off on a holiday frolic. His visits were always welcome, for both children and grownups unfailingly responded to his intense, active personality. Tolstoy and the countess had long discussions, with lancet in hand but always with mutual affection and respect for each other’s views. The subject was often religion, in which they had no common ground, for she was a serious and devoted believer, and he was altogether uncertain of what he believed. Yet his sudden attendance at church and reading the Bible at this time may have been somewhat inspired by her influence. This woman who had remained unmarried by choice, despite all her charm and high connections, came close to fulfilling his idea of the wife whom he would love more than any woman had ever been loved. “I am so ready to fall in love that it is terrible,” he wrote in the diary. “If A[lexandra] were only ten years younger! A fine nature.” She was young enough to be his “granny” but too old to be his wife.

Tolstoy set out for Turin on June 1 to join Botkin and Druzhinin. They visited art galleries, monasteries, and Roman ruins. His literary friends accompanied him back to Clarens, walking part of the distance by way of St. Bernard. Alt hough he worried about consumption, which ran in the family, Tolstoys energy seemed inexhaustible. Copious entries in the diary also indicate that little escaped his observing eye — least of all, pretty maids and waitresses, whom he could not always forbear to pinch. The good and bad impulses still waged their war within him, and in the diary he repeatedly reminded himself that he must marry and find his own little corner and settle down.

A few days’ rest in Clarens and Tolstoy was off again. At Lucerne a curious incident occurred. Returning to the Schweizerhof Hotel at night, he noticed a tiny man who stood outside and sang Tyrolese songs to a guitar. The balconies of the hotel were crowded with well-to-do tourists who enjoyed the singularly fine performance. When the street singer begged for money, however, the guests turned away in silence, He went off muttering to himself and the crowd ridiculed him. Tolstoy overtook the man and invited him back to this exclusive hotel for a drink. The guests were shocked, and the waiter and hall porter grew offensive over this breech of decorum. Tolstoy became furiously angry and scolded them all.

A few days later, Granny also arrived at Lucerne. She found Tolstoy still excited and burning with indignation over the incident of the itinerant singer. The affair made such a strong impression on him that it involuntarily communicated itself to others. After he had told her of how he had ordered supper and champagne for the man, she judiciously commented: “I scarcely think the guests or even the poor musician himself quite appreciated the irony of this action.” Within a few days Tolstoy called on Granny and her party to read them Lucerne. The story of the humiliated singer had received the form of enduring art.

Tolstoy remained in Lucerne for a few more days, spending much of his time with Granny and amusing the Grand Duchess’s children. The youngsters were infinitely diverted by his antics, and expressed wonderment at the number of cherries he could eat at a sitting. So much had he endeared himself to them that they begged for his company when the Grand Duchess’s party moved on by boat to Küsnacht. Tolstoy was invited to go along, and he pushed on further to Zurich, Schaffhausen, and Friedrichshafen, continuing to Stuttgart and Baden-Baden, where he arrived July 12.


A LETTER to Auntie Tatyana from Lucerne had mentioned an extensive itinerary for the remainder of Tolstoy’s stay abroad — Holland, London, then back to Paris, Rome, Naples, and possibly a return to Russia by way of Constantinople and Odessa. This plan was gambled away at the roulette wheels of Baden-Baden. He ventured a few francs and lost. The next morning he was back and played well into the night with indifferent success. As in the Caucasus and Sevastopol, the gambling fever gripped him. The following day he lost everything, borrowed two hundred francs, and lost again. He promised himself to play no more, having already run through three thousand francs.

Penniless, Tolstoy dispatched a telegram to Nekrasov for money, and wrote letters to Sergei, Botkin, Turgenev, and Granny, who at once sent, him funds. The good Turgenev, who was slaying at Sinzig on the Rhine at the time, worried over his troglodyte and set out for Baden-Baden. The money that Turgenev lent him, however, quickly went the way of the rest, and Tolstoy damned himself as a “pig” and “goodfor-nothing.” (Curiously enough, it was also Turgenev who lent Dostoyevsky money at Baden-Baden; and like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky gambled the loan away.)

This final loss convinced Tolstoy of the necessity of leaving the city and returning to Russia. A letter from Sergei strengthened his decision, for he learned that their sister had finally broken with her husband; because of his many infidelities, Marya declared that she did not care to be the chief sultana in his harem, and left him.

Tolstoy’s first stop was at Frankfurt, where he met up again with Granny. Distinguished guests were present when he visited. She recalls the occasion; “I almost cried out in horror when the door opened and Leo stood there in a more than incredible costume. Neither before nor after have I seen anything like it. He was like a bandit, not a gambler who had lost all his money. Obviously displeased that he did not find me alone, he stayed a brief time and vanished.” When the guests learned that this “singular personage” was Tolstoy, they were disappointed at not being introduced, and went into raptures over his literary talent.

Tolstoy went on to Dresden. He visited the music and book shops and the art gallery, where the Sistine Madonna moved him deeply. At Marienbad he met a group of Russians, among them the Lvovs. His interest in the pretty princess flared up again, and it was with some reluctance that he left for Berlin. There he attended a concert, but the “street debauchery” disgusted him. The following day he took the boat at Stettin and arrived in Petersburg July 30.

During this first tour abroad Tolstoy worked on four pieces: The Cossacks, Far-Away Field (a projected novel on which he made only a beginning), a short story, Albert, and Lucerne. At the end of 1856, social and political questions had been much on his mind; now he was concerned with the question of art. Art, he felt, must be based upon some “moral truth” that would go deeper than the “convictions” of the Petersburg theorists. And Albert was designed to convey this belief. The life of the talented but hopelessly drunken violinist Kiesewetter, whom he had met in Moscow the previous winter, provided the material for Albert. In a sense the story is a protest against society’s inability to understand and protect real art, and it was his first literary failure.

Lucerne actually appeared before Albert, although written after, and may be considered a variant of it. Tolstoy called it an “article” and packed into it all that the limitations of fiction prevented him from saying in Albert. The theme is the incident of the humiliated little singer before the Schweizcrhof Hotel, and Tolstoy wrote it in a few days in a white heat of indignation. Lucerne is his first moralistic tract. Here he develops ideas of the beauty of primitive art and its blending with nature, and of the fixed opposition of nature, morality, and art to political laws, organized government, and civilization. Lucerne is a slight thing in the totality of Tolstoy’s vast literary creations, but it is a highly important signpost because it points the direction of much of his future thought.

In truth, these few months abroad coincide with an obvious step forward in the growth of Tolstoy’s historic mission. His contact wit h the culture and civilization of Western Europe did not so much change as accelerate a consistent development in his thinking. Upon his arrival in Paris he had prophetically observed in the diary that this trip “must certainly mark an epoch” in his life. Tremendous doubts about the meaning of life had only timidly knocked at the door of his mind; now they boldly enter it and absorb his attention.

Rebellious thoughts and feelings prompted by Tolstoy’s experiences in the Caucasus and at Sevastopol are affirmed in an uncompromising and dogmatic manner, His experiences at Sevastopol definitely marked the end of his career as a militarist and the beginning of that of pacifist. Not that he at once began preaching the beating of bayonets into plowshares: even when he treated the subject of war in a more formal manner in War and Peace, he could not escape an attack of patriotism in writing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

At Sevastopol his mind had been stored with a wealth of argument and his heart with a feeling of implacable hatred for war. Arguments and feeling emerged first in 1889 in a preface he was asked to contribute to A. I. Ershov’s Recollections of Sevastopol. There, in brief form, he condemns the terrible bloodshed of the siege and points out its utter futility. What is more frightful than the suffering, mutilation, and death of man’s body, he maintains, is the mutilation and death that war brings to man’s soul.

He went to the Invalides to see the imposing sarcophagus of Napoleon. Angrily he commented: “This deification of a malefactor is terrible. Soldiers are animals taught to bite everybody. They ought to die of hunger. Legs torn off — serves them right.” An entry in his notebook is less bitter: “Is it worthwhile to dress a man in uniform, separate him from his family, and give him a drum to beat in order to make an animal of him?”

There is much in the notebooks over this brief period abroad that shows a surprising advance in Tolstoy’s political, social, and moral views. He condemns British imperialism and the shedding of blood for any political gain; he hazards the guess that socialism is impossible; and he asserts that the Russian people are capable of living under a republican form of government. The twenty-nine-year-old thinker has already found the road that will lead him straight to this future, epoch-making revolt against the whole organization of modern civilization.

While he was abroad, Tolstoy’s fresh reflections on art, which were strikingly revealed in Albert and Lucerne, had filled him with doubt concerning his future as a writer. He realized that he had no sympathy with the current literary trend, and at the same time he felt dissatisfied with his own efforts. On February 4, 1859, he was inducted into the Moscow Society of Lovers of Russian Literature, and he used the occasion to vent his wrath against contemporary literature. The tendentiousness that had entered Russian literature at about the time of Gogol had by now swept all before it. Art was expected to indict political and social abuses or offer a progressive program of reform. Unfortunately the literary atmosphere became almost as muddled and disputatious as the political atmosphere in the nineteenth century, but such a result was almost inevitable in a modern country still struggling with political feudalism and a nascent economic capitalism.

The time would come when Tolstoy’s own views on “literature for the people” would radically change, but at the moment he had reached a point of despair, and thought of giving up writing entirely. Stories such as Lucerne and Albert had fallen on barren soil. At most, he would sit in Yasnaya Polyana, tend to the estate, and write for himself, not for publication. To scribble stories is stupid and shameful, he told Fet in a burst of enthusiastic confidence, when he learned that this poet was thinking of settling on an estate near him and making literature secondary to husbandry. And to Druzhinin he explained that if he were only tormented by ideas that aroused him by their boldness and audacity, he would write, but in the future he would not lift a finger to scribble pretty stories agreeable to read.

Turgenev railed at Tolstoy’s new resolution. “What a man!” he wrote to a friend. “With perfect feet, he is determined to walk on his head.”

Tolstoy, however, could not give up literature any more than he could cease his search for truth; one was the essential medium for the expression of the other. With assurance and insight, Granny wrote to him from abroad at this time: “When you have erred and sought for one thing and another without ever being satisfied, you may perhaps attain truth. Your kind and unconsciously Christian heart will steer you into harbors unknown to yourself; I have no doubt of that.”

Before the end of 1859 he had already found a harbor, a temporary but important one on his long voyage through life. The idea that he had thought of abroad — of starting a village school — now took hold of him with peculiar force. Once before, in that burst of youthful enthusiasm for bettering the lot of his peasants in 1847, he had unsuccessfully attempted to provide them with schooling.

Now the idea took on new meaning, since he saw in it a direct connection with his retreat from literature. For whom did Russian authors write? For themselves and the cultured few. For masses of illiterate Russian peasants, literature was useless. If they could not read his writings, then he would teach them. This was the first and essential step towards the creation of a “literature for the people.” Here was a purpose that would satisfy his thirst for activity and moral influence.


ON A fine morning in early autumn, 1859, a group of some twenty peasant children waited expectantly at the manor house door of Yasnaya Polyana. The master had announced that a school would be opened and lessons given free. All the youngsters were dressed for the occasion — clean white shirts, new bast shoes, and unruly hair glistening and plastered down with oil. Suspicious parents stood around and talked in nervous, subdued tones among themselves. What was their strange, unpredictable master up to now? Did he wish to teach their children and then hand them over to the Tsar to be soldiers? One cautious mother kept insisting that the lessons were free. Why, Ivan Fokanov had been going to the sexton for lessons for three winters at two rubles a month, and he had still not learned a thing! It was said that the master would also lake grownups free, and several parents signified their intention of attending the school.

Suddenly a loud voice sounded from behind the door. Parents hurriedly admonished their children again to bow low and say: “I wish you health, your Excellency!” Tolstoy appeared. All bared heads and bowed to the ground.

“Good morning! Have you brought your children?” Tolstoy asked, turning to the parents.

“Just so, your Excellency,” they chorused with bows.

“Well, I’m very glad,” he said, smiling and looking them all over. His appearance did not accord with their notions of a teacher. He was so plainly dressed, his hair as long as theirs, and his common face with its broad peasant nose was covered with a thick black beard, like that of a gypsy. With assurance he walked into the crowd of children and singled one out.

“Do you wish to learn?”


“What’s your name?”


Swiftly he questioned the others in similar fashion, a smile on his lips and merriment in his eyes. Then he led them into the house, up the stairway, and through the huge living room. Scared, wide-eyed children noticed the lofty ceiling and the floor cleaner than the tables in their wretched little thatched huts. Numerous portraits on the walls at once caught their attention. These figures looked so magnificent, holy, like the icons they saw in church. Several of the youngsters involuntarily started to cross themselves.

“Those are not gods, but people — my relatives and friends,” the teacher explained.

Tolstoy shepherded them into a neighboring room that had been fitted up with benches and blackboards. This was the schoolroom, he announced. Regular lessons would begin on the morrow. Today, he would just write a few letters of the alphabet on the board and they would try to learn them. But first he questioned them a bit. further about their work in the fields and their reasons for wanting to go to school. He used humor, kindliness, and simplicity to banish timidity and win confidence. Soon they were repealing the letters ol the alphabet alter him, their young voices rising to a fearless crescendo as he prompted, “Louder! Louder! In no time they were a happy, excited group working together and following the teacher with rapt attention until the lesson ended.

“Now go home and God bless you!" Tolstoy said. “Come early tomorrow. We’ll have another lesson. Come. I’ll be waiting.”

They left the school and said good-bye to their dear teacher, promising to come early on the morrow. Their rapture was boundless. Each told the other over and over again, as though he had been the only one to notice it, how the teacher appeared, how he questioned them, how he talked, and how he had smiled.

Work at the new school filled Tolstoy with an energy that delighted some of his friends. Estate affairs became a bore; “pretty stories” were scorned; and even his precious diary was allowed to lapse in the excitement of proving in practice that all existing methods of education were necessarily wrong.

After six months of successful teaching, Tolstoy realized his lack of historical knowledge and decided to go abroad again to make a firsthand study of foreign pedagogical methods. Having placed his school in charge of a teacher who had been working under his direction, he left Petersburg and went first to Berlin. For nine months he visited schools in Germany, France, and Italy, with side trips to Geneva, London, and Brussels. He returned to Russia with an immense amount of educational material which he was eager to digest, and resumed his teaching.

Tolstoy’s retreat from literature and his hostile attitude towards contemporary radical reformers may have created psychological factors that insensibly helped to lead him into educational work. But once fairly in it he embraced the enterprise with the same uncompromising spirit he had shown in his earlier attempts to serve the peasants. His philosophy of education was based on freedom — intellectual, moral, and physical; on individualism; and on experience with life. Education, he declared, was history and therefore had no final aim. Its only method was experience; its only criterion, freedom.

By September of 1862, however, there were plenty of indications that Tolstoy’s zeal for his school was waning. His absorbing experiment had fulfilled its purpose: the school contributed as much to the historical development of Tolstoy as it had to the education of peasant children — it brought him back to His career of writing fiction.

It was as though a kind of catharsis had been effected that once again left his mind and spirit free for artistic work. His literary stagnation had troubled Tolstoy, for he was first of all an artist. In the full tide of enthusiasm for educational work, he had complained of an acute dissatisfaction with himself. His thoughts were in a chaos and he seemed to be getting nowhere.

The fundamental demand of his nature was the need to search — to search for truth, for the meaning of life, for the ultimate aims of art, for family happiness, for God. Now, at the age of thirty-four, he was about to achieve two of these goals — family happiness and the very pinnacle of great art, War and Peace.

With this fourth installment, we bring to a close our serialization of the first half of Mr. Simmons’s distinctive biography. The latter half, dealing with Tolstoy’s maturity, will appear in the Atlantic beginning in the summer of 1946. — THE EDITOR