The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 10

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London: Cassell, pages 95–101



In his "What is My Faith?" Tolstoy writes:

"Five years ago I adopted the teaching of Christ, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to wish that which I formerly wished, and I began to wish that which I formerly did not wish. What formerly appeared good now appeared evil; and what formerly appeared evil now appeared good. With me happened just what happened to a man who went out for some business and on the way decided that it was unnecessary, and therefore returned. All that which was at the right side, then was at the left side, and that which had seemed on the left was then on the right; the desire to be as far as possible from home gave way to the desire to be as near as possible to home. The direction of my life—my desires—became different; and good and evil changed places. All this was the result of my understanding the teaching of Christ otherwise than before."

Thus he saw in a new light all his surroundings and his own conduct. But life went on in the same way, and his new relation to it inevitably led to a series of collisions. Such collisions he could not avoid, even in his own family life, till then happy and tranquil, nor among his literary friends and his acquaintances in the high society to which he himself belonged. Finally, the conflict between his new conceptions and his surroundings extended itself to the State.

The events of Russian life at that period require special attention. The fundamental breaking up of the old order had begun, and the first thunderbolt fell on March 13th, 1881. The Revolutionary Executive Committee condemned Alexander II. to death, and carried out the sentence. This event shook the whole Russian nation, and made a deep impression on Tolstoy. It appeared to him as a confirmation of his conviction that the Russian State and society had lost the very foundation of Christian morality, but, on the other hand, the two hostile camps awakened in him boundless pity as he saw their profound error.

He addressed a long letter to the Emperor, Alexander III. He pleaded to the Tsar to pardon the culprits for the sake of Christ's teaching, as he considered the only way of Russia's salvation lay in the precepts of Jesus. The two other methods—cruel repression and liberal reforms—had been tried and had failed. No answer was made to this letter, and the regicides were executed. These events made a deep impression on his soul.

At that time a great change took place in his home life. He went with his family to live in Moscow. Town life was a great trial for Tolstoy: the crying contrast between the city beggars and the insolent opulence of the rich; at every street corner hungry beggars with hands stretched out for alms, and gluttons gorging themselves in brilliantly lighted restaurants; coachmen shivering on their boxes whilst their masters enjoyed the music of the theatres or churches—all this made his heart ache, imbued as he was with the Christian spirit and seeking for its manifestation around him.

In the winter of 1882 a census was taken in Moscow. Tolstoy conceived the idea of seizing the occasion to penetrate into the worst and most wretched slums of the poor, in order to study them and devise some means of alleviation. He made an appeal to Moscow society, inviting it to make use of the coming census in order to get into touch with the poor and to extend to them unfailing brotherly and Christian help. The resources needed for this purpose he supposed might be collected by public subscription, philanthropic evenings, and by personal demand for help and sympathy from the rich.

Tolstoy offered his services to the Moscow municipality for the census, and, according to his express wish, he was appointed to one of the poorest quarters of the city, where the night shelters of Roshnoff are situated. During the census, Tolstoy plumbed to the very bottom of Moscow's poverty and wretchedness, but all his efforts to organise some system of assistance were unsuccessful. He had an experience somewhat similar to that attending his philanthropic efforts among the peasants forty years before, described in the sketch, "A Morning of a Landowner." He now, as then, saw that the poverty and destitution of these people were the result of the worldly, luxurious life which he himself lived, and consequently that it was impossible to help those people whose sufferings were the direct outcome of one's own idle life—that real aid, the result of a moral and brotherly feeling, could not be given to people looking on one with defiance and hatred.

This unsuccessful attempt at charity was described by Tolstoy in a book, "What Then Must We Do?" He carefully, and in detail, examined the condition of the town, the division of the population

The life of Tolstoy 137.jpg

The Last Portrait of Tolstoy—taken six weeks before his death.

} into rich and poor, idle and working, and reached the conclusion that only a radical change in the whole social order could abolish the dreadful, bitter, and savage poverty created by the opulent and idle life of the privileged classes.

Tolstoy considered money one of the principal evils of the existing social order, as money is, so to say, concentrated compulsion, easily transferred to another. Our false social order is upheld by false science with its complicated theories justifying existing evil.

"What then must we do?" Tolstoy asked again, laying bare all the sores of the existing order by a subtle and merciless analysis. The answer he gave is the same as that given by John the Baptist to his contemporaries: repent, be re-born, give to the poor, not a farthing or a shilling from your thousands and millions, but share with the poor their hard, working lives. Accordingly, Tolstoy began to reform his own life; he renounced everything superfluous—wine, tobacco, meat, etc.—and endeavoured to spend his time in productive work for the general welfare. He divided his days into four parts, and gave the first part to intellectual work, the second to hard physical labour, the third to crafts and light manual labour, and the fourth to intercourse with people. He tried to repress anger and excitability in himself, to be gentle with everybody, to tame his pride, and continued his struggle against evil passions and habits.

Town-life began to be very heavy for him, and when the occasion presented itself he would return to Yasnaya Polyana. Sometimes he travelled the whole distance on foot. In the village he invari- ably threw himself heart and soul into the peasants' work—ploughing, mowing, cutting wood, building peasants' huts, especially for widows and orphans.

The spreading of his new views and his new way of living soon began to attract those people in whom the same ideas and feelings were slumber- ing, but who awaited a powerful initiative before starting together upon a new road. Some of these people came to him, others Tolstoy found himself; and in this way was formed around him a circle of new men, quite different from his former acquaint- ances. With the latter he did not break formally, but they left him little by little, feeling unable to follow him. The remarkable peasant Sutaieff, the painter N. Gay, the teacher Orloff, Feodoroff, the librarian of the Roumiantsef Museum, the peasant Bondaref (afterwards exiled to Siberia)—such as these were Tolstoy's new friends. The light of his faith began to penetrate also his former social circle; V. G. Tchertkoff made his acquaintance, and, through him, the writer of these lines. Tolstoy began to evolve a project to help the people in a new way: to select from the rich heritage of centuries of culture, art, and science all that is most useful and accessible and that leads to the welfare and union of mankind. The publishing society of Posrednik ("The Mediator") was started, and Tolstoy inaugurated a new sphere for his activity—that of the propagation of his ideas, now fully developed. This was during the middle of the 'eighties.