To be truly sensible of the power of this work, we must take into account its hidden unity. Too many readers, unable to see it in perspective, perceive in it nothing but thousands of details, whose profusion amazes and distracts them. They are lost in this forest of life. The reader must stand aloof, upon a height; he must attain the view of the unobstructed horizon, the vast circle of forest and meadow; then he will catch the Homeric spirit of the work, the calm of eternal laws, the awful
rhythm of the breathing of Destiny, the sense of
stream of history; and he conceived the plan of an epic romance dealing with Peter the Great; then of another, Mirovitch, dealing with the rule of the Empresses of the eighteenth century and their favourites. He worked at it from 1870 to 1873, surrounded with documents, and writing the first drafts of various portions; but his realistic scruples made him renounce the project: he was conscious that he could never succeed in resuscitating the spirit of those distant periods in a sufficiently truthful fashion. Later, in January, 1876, he conceived the idea of another romance of the period of Nikolas I.; then he eagerly returned to the Decembrists, collecting the evidence of survivors and visiting the scenes of the action. In 1878 he wrote to his aunt, Countess A. A. Tolstoy: "This work is so important to me! You cannot imagine how much it means to me; it is as much to me as your faith is to you. I would say even more" (Correspondence.) But in proportion as he plumbed the subject he grew away from it; his heart was in it no longer. As early as April, 1879, he wrote to Fet: "The Decembrists? If I were thinking of it, if I were to write it, I should flatter myself with the hope that the very atmosphere of my mind would be insupportable to those who fire upon men for the good of humanity." (Ibid.) At this period of his life the religious crisis had set in; he was about to burn his ancient idols.