Life of Tolstoy/Chapter III

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Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter III. Youth: The Army

CHAPTER III

YOUTH: THE ARMY

Tolstoy, in the year 1850, was not as patient as Nekhludov. Yasnaya Polyana had disillusioned and disappointed him. He was as weary of the people as he was of the world of fashion; his attitude as benefactor wearied him; he could bear it no more. Moreover, he was harassed by creditors. In 1851, he escaped to the Caucasus; to the army in which his brother Nikolas was already an officer.

He had hardly arrived, hardly tasted the quiet of the mountains, before he was once more master of himself; before he had recovered his God.

“Last night[1] I hardly slept. I began to pray to God. I cannot possibly express the sweetness of the feeling that came to me when I prayed. I recited the customary prayers; but I went on praying for a long time. I felt the desire of something very great, very beautiful... What? I cannot say what. I wanted to be one with the Infinite Being: to be dissolved, comprehended, in Him. I begged Him to forgive me my trespasses... But no, I did not beg Him; I felt that He did pardon me, since He granted me that moment of wonderful joy. I was praying, yet at the same time I felt that I could not, dared not pray. I thanked Him, not in words, but in thought... Scarcely an hour had passed, and I was listening to the voice of vice. I fell asleep dreaming of glory, of women: it was stronger than I. Never mind! I thank God for that moment of happiness: for showing me my pettiness and my greatness. I want to pray, but I do not know how; I want to understand, but I dare not. I abandon myself to Thy will!”[2]

The flesh was not conquered; not then, nor ever; the struggle between God and the passions of man continued in the silence of his heart. Tolstoy speaks in his Journal of the three demons which were devouring him:

1. The passion for gambling. Possible struggle.

2. Sensuality. Struggle very difficult.

3. Vanity. The most terrible of all.

At the very moment when he was dreaming of living for others and of sacrificing himself, voluptuous or futile thoughts would assail him: the image of some Cossack woman, or “the despair he would feel if his moustache were higher on one side than the other.” — “No matter!” God was there; He would not forsake him. Even the effervescence of the struggle was fruitful: all the forces of life were exalted thereby.

“I think the idea of making a journey to the Caucasus, however frivolous at the time of conception, was inspired in me from above. God's hand has guided me. I never cease to thank Him. I feel that I have become better here ; and I am firmly convinced that whatever happens to me can only be for my good, since it is God Himself who has wished it...”[3]

It is the song of gratitude of the earth in spring. Earth covers herself with flowers; all is well, all is beautiful. In 1852 the genius of Tolstoy produces its earliest flowers: Childhood, The Russian Proprietor, The Invasion, Boyhood; and he thanks the Spirit of life whi has made him fruitful.[4]


  1. The 11th of June, 1851, in the fortified camp of Starï-Iourt, in the Caucasus.
  2. Journal.
  3. Letter to his Aunt Tatiana, January, 1852.
  4. A portrait dated 1851 already shows the change which is being accomplished in his mind. The head is raised; the expression is somewhat brighter; the cavities of the orbits are less in shadow; the eyes themselves still retain their fixed severity of look, and the open mouth, shadowed by a growing moustache, is gloomy and sullen; there is still a quality of defiant pride, but far more youth.