The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 1

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London: Cassell, pages 3–10



Fifteen versts to the south of Tula, on the old main road to Kieff, lies the village Yasnaya Polyana. Close to it, but separated by a hollow and a pond, is picturesquely situated the old Volkonsky manor house, which came into the Tolstoy family through the marriage of the Princess Marie Volkonsky to Nicolas the son of Count Eliah Tolstoy.

This Princess Marie Volkonsky and Count Nicolas Tolstoy were the parents of Leo Tolstoy, who was born on August 28, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, where he spent the greater part of his life, thus in Leo Nicolaievitch Tolstoy the blood of two famous families was united—that of the princely family of Volkonsky and that of the Counts Tolstoy.

The origin of the Tolstoy family is not definitely known. Some historians believe that the founder was a German. Others suppose that he was a Lithuanian, and still others trace his descent from a Tartar Khan. The first Count was Peter Tolstoy, a distinguished statesman, an able politician, and a grand seigneur. A dark stain on his memory remains, however, on account of his active participation in the assassination of the Tsarevitch Alexis, the son of Peter the Great. He was appointed Chief of the Secret Service by Peter, and generally enjoyed the close confidence of the Emperor and, later, of the Empress Catherine I., on the day of whose coronation he was created a Count. But when Peter II., the son of the assassinated Alexis, came to the throne, Count Peter Tolstoy lost his position. He was deprived of his title and, at the age of eighty-two, deported to the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea, where he died shortly after. The title was restored to the Tolstoy family in the reign of the Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great.

The grandfather of Leo Tolstoy, Count Eliah, was, as we know from his grandson's testimony, a simple-minded man—kind, soft-hearted, gay, and not only generous, but somewhat of a spendthrift. Dinners, theatrical representations, balls, card-playing, and parties were constantly taking place at his country-seat; but this mode of life ended in the large property of his wife becoming so heavily mortgaged that the pair had nothing to live on, and Count Eliah was obliged to solicit the post of governor of the Kazan province, which he obtained. His wife, the grandmother of Leo Tolstoy, born Princess Pelagie Gorchakoff, had received only a superficial education, but nevertheless she spoke French better than Russian. She was generally a much-spoilt woman.

The ancestors on Tolstoy's mother's side, the Princes Volkonsky, trace their origin to Rurik. At the beginning of the fourteenth century Prince John, of the thirteenth generation from Rurik, received the fief of Volkonsky, situated on the River Volkonka, in the present province of Kaluga and Tula, and from him the family of Volkonsky is descended. Leo Tolstoy's maternal grandfather, Prince Nicolas Volkonsky, after an eventful career in the service of the State, resigned, married Princess Catherine Trubetskoy, and settled in Yasnaya Polyana, inherited from his father. In his memoirs Tolstoy says of him:

"Princess Catherine died early and left him an only daughter, Marie. With this much-loved daughter and her French companion, my grandfather lived till his death in 1821. My grandfather was considered a very severe landlord, but I never heard any stories of cruelty or punishment, so usual at that time. I think these existed, but the house servants and peasants, though they freely criticised my father, when I questioned them about my grandfather appeared so deeply impressed by his imposing personality and his intelligence that I heard nothing but praise of his intellect, his management of the estate, his care of the peasants, and especially of the house servants.

"Evidently he was a man of extremely refined tastes. All the buildings he constructed are not only solid and comfortable, but exceedingly handsome. The same may be said of the park laid out by him in front of the house. It seems that he was also very fond of music, as he kept a small but good orchestra entirely for his own and my mother's pleasure.[1] During his morning walks in the park, this private band used to play for him. He hated hunting, bat was a great lover of flowers and exotic plants."

Shortly after the death of her father, Princess Marie married Count Nicolas Tolstoy. About his parents we read in Leo Tolstoy's personal reminiscences:

"My father was of an average height, well built, of a vivacious, sanguine temperament; he had a pleasant face and always sad eyes. Though not an expert, he occupied himself during his whole life with the management of his estate. However, he possessed one remarkable quality for that period. Not only was he not cruel, but even rather lenient, so that during his lifetime I never heard of corporal punishment being administered on his estate."

The character of the relations between Leo Tolstoy and his father may be gathered from the following description:

"I remember him sitting, with his pipe, on the leather-covered sofa in his study, where we used to go to bid him good-night or to play. He petted us, and sometimes, to our great delight, allowed us to crawl behind his back on the sofa whilst he continued to read or to talk to the steward or to my godfather, S. Yazykoff, who often was staying with us. I remember him coming down to us children and drawing pictures which appeared to us the highest perfection of art. On another occasion he made me recite Pushkin's poems, 'To the Sea,' and 'To Napoleon,' which I liked very much and had learned by heart. Evidently he was struck by the pathos of my recitation, and, listening until the end, exchanged a significant look with Yazykoff. I understood that he saw something good in my recitation, and I was very happy."

Nicolas Tolstoy, at the age of sixteen, had entered the army, and took part in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. Having been sent somewhere in Germany as a courier, he was taken prisoner by the French and was not liberated until 1815, when the Russian army entered Paris. The war over, he retired from military service. Shortly after, his father, Leo Tolstoy's grandfather, died, and Nicolas was left with a ruined estate and a spoilt mother, who was accustomed to luxury and of extravagant habits. His relatives arranged his marriage with the rich Princess Marie Volkonsky.

Princess Marie was a remarkable woman in every respect. Leo was only eighteen months old when she died, so that he had no recollection of her, but from what his aunts and other intimates told him, he created a very tender, loving, and beautiful image of his mother. In his memoirs he gives some of her characteristics:

The life of Tolstoy 027.jpg

Tolstoy's House at Yasnaya Polyana.

"By a strange coincidence not a single portrait of her exists, so that I cannot represent her to myself as a real, physical being. Partly, I am pleased with this, because in my imagination exists only her moral personality; and all that I know about her was beautiful, and I think that was not because the people who told me of her wished to say something kind, but because there really was great goodness in her.

"My mother was not handsome, but very well educated for her day. Besides Russian, which she wrote grammatically—an exception in her time—she knew French, English, German, and Italian, and she must have had an artistic disposition.

"She played the piano well, and her friends told me that she had a great talent for telling, and even improvising, stories. But the most precious trait in her character was her self-control, although by nature very excitable. Her maid used to tell me: 'Sometimes she grew red all over, even cried, but never used rough expressions.' She did not know them. My mother spent her childhood partly in Moscow, partly in the country with her father, an intelligent, proud, and gifted man. Her life at home with her father was, as I can tell from letters and from what I heard, very happy and pleasant. I was told that my mother loved me very much and used to call me 'mon petit Benjamin.' She appeared to me such a pure, moral being, that often in the middle period of my life, when I was seized by doubts, I prayed to her soul for assistance, and that prayer always helped me."

Such is the spiritual image of Tolstoy's mother. His father also died early, when Leo was only nine years old, and the children—four brothers and one sister—were left in the care of an aunt.

  1. An orchestra of serfs. Until the middle of the last century aristocratic families used to send their serfs to Moscow and St. Petersburg to learn arts and crafts. Returning often as accomplished artisans and even artists, they nevertheless had again to take their places as serfs.—Translator.