Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive. An Englishman is self-assured as being a citizen of the best organized state in the world, and therefore always knows what he should do and that what he does is undoubtedly correct. The German’s self-assurance is the worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth—science—which he has himself invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

But the Russian is self-assured, Tolstoy went on to say, “just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known.” Self-assurance, the sense of his own existence, was immensely strong in Tolstoy, so strong that at moments it was bound to turn itself inside out into the negative state—that equally immense and terrifying loss of confidence in his own purpose and identity—that he suddenly experienced in middle age in a hotel room in the town of Arzamas. He wrote about this experience, which haunted him for the rest of his life, in “The Diary of a Madman.” But it is self-assurance that gives its prodigious authority to his novels: where other authors invent, what Tolstoy says is true just because he says so.

The obvious paradox has often been commented on, most notably by Isaiah Berlin in his study of Tolstoy’s personality, The Hedgehog and the Fox. The Russian “knows nothing and does not want to know anything,” and yet Tolstoy passionately wanted to know. When articles of appreciation were written in 1910 on the sixth anniversary of the death of Chekhov, whose reputation was already very high, Tolstoy was full of scorn, though he had liked and admired Chekhov during his lifetime. “The fact that he didn’t know and had never found the meaning of life strikes them all as being somehow special—they see something poetic in it!”

The comment is recorded by Valentin Bulgakov, the young man who became Tolstoy’s secretary during the last year of his life. Modest, sensible, surprisingly shrewd, Bulgakov naturally revered the aged Tolstoy, but also found himself becoming more and more sympathetic toward his wife, the countess. Like King Lear, Tolstoy never reached the state of simplicity and peace which he so passionately desired. He never found “the meaning of life,” but life compelled him, like Lear, to suffer its oppressions and incongruities until the final moment at Astapovo railway station when the meaning of life ceased to matter.

After only a few days at Yasnaya Polyana Bulgakov had some inkling of this.

A curious conviction rose in my soul that Leo Nicolayevich’s personal life, despite his advanced age, was not yet over, that he would undoubtedly undertake something more—something of a nature no one could expect from him now.

Bulgakov’s narrative is naturally dramatic, for it relates the last act of the Tolstoyan drama, the three-cornered duel between husband and wife and the powerful personality of Tolstoy’s chief disciple, Chertkov. An aristocrat and former Guards officer, Chertkov flung himself into the power struggle that developed around the aged giant with a relish that hardly accorded with Tolstoy’s principles of pacifism and nonresistance. Was he such a “dear person and precious friend” because Tolstoy recognized in him some of the same contradictions that beset his own nature? However that may be, Tolstoy’s infatuation—the word is hardly too strong—for his most ardent follower filled the countess with jealousy and despair. She even went so far as to hint at something “unnatural” in it, using as an instance an entry in one of the diaries that Tolstoy had kept as a young man, in which he had recorded his strong attraction toward a fellow-officer.

It was over the question of the diaries that the quarrel reached its head. Chertkov had appropriated them, with Tolstoy’s consent, and used them as a lever in his battle to secure the copyrights of all the works on behalf of the Tolstoyan movement—a foundation of which he would be chief trustee—thus depriving the countess and her family of immense financial benefits. Tolstoy reproached himself for the secret will by which he had left the future of his works outside the family, and he recorded that—like Lear again—he should have settled the matter openly in his home in plenary session. The conflict distressed him unbearably but he did nothing to resolve it. It was Bulgakov who was persuaded by the countess to act as go-between, and the young man’s chivalrous pity and genuine liking for her induced him to undertake the assignment.

The fascination in Bulgakov’s narrative lies in his refusal to think or write ill of Chertkov, while at the same time a picture of the latter emerges that is downright sinister, even diabolic.


I began by telling him about Sofya Andreyevna’s request that the manuscripts be returned to her. He became violently agitated.

“Do you mean to say,” he broke in, fixing his large, light-colored restless eyes on me, “that you came straight out and told her where the diaries were?”

And with these words, to my utter amazement, he made a hideous grimace and stuck out his tongue at me. I stared at him, suffering inwardly because of the preposterous position he had put me in. I did not know whether to feel humiliated myself, or to feel sorrow for this man who was inflicting such humiliation on himself. I imagine that Chertkov wanted to make fun of the helplessness I must have displayed when Sofya Andreyevna had become so importunate with me in the carriage…he was understandably irritated by my sympathy and compassion for her.

Tolstoy’s major disciple suddenly appears like a character out of Dostoevsky.

What upset the countess beyond all else was the fact that the diaries contained numerous references to herself, which she foresaw that future biographers might use without discretion or mercy. Tolstoy, it seems, neither knew nor cared about such very human fears. Honesty was for him so paramount a need that it overrode all considerations of natural and humane decorum, and even the saving grace of humor. Who but a malicious or an insufferably pompous man would write in his diary after he had made love to his wife: “Sinned again, but must not give up the struggle”—knowing that she would probably read it the next day? Yet Tolstoy was neither. He was even prepared to let kindness triumph at times over honesty. When the countess implored him to command Chertkov at least to delete from the diaries all unfavorable references to herself, he complied; and it was not his fault that Chertkov carefully photographed all the passages before destroying them.

If Bulgakov’s account of Tolstoy’s terminal year has the quality of drama, and of tragic drama, the memoir of his father by Ilya Tolstoy returns us to something more like the pastoral idyll of War and Peace. Ilya was the Tolstoys’ third child and second son. His own individuality obviously paralyzed by such a father, he seems to have accepted the ensuing diminishment of his nature with a grace and amiability that in his writing may appear to us as wholly admirable. Not that he in any way sentimentalizes his upbringing. His recollections of Yasnaya Polyana have the magic of so many accounts of nineteenth-century Russian childhoods: they remind us of Aksakov and, more recently, of Nabokov and Paustovsky in their emphasis upon sight, smell, and feel, the russky dukh of the hunt, the bathhouse by the river, the haymaking, and mushroom picking.

But even this “pure unclouded joy of childhood” was pervaded with a curious melancholy. As he grew up Ilya of course became aware of the tension between his mother and father, of their quarrels and solitary brooding unhappiness. Like Bulgakov, he did not judge between them, and in his memoir he passes rapidly over their causes of dissension and the circumstances that led to his father’s leaving home just before he died. But even in childhood he seems to have sensed something of the division that existed between the father who had himself had the ecstatic childhood described in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and the father who presided now over his own growing family.

When he could no longer endure the onslaught of agonizing thoughts he poured them out to us, but we withdrew, fearing to have our childish happiness destroyed. It is true that he sometimes entered into our life, expressed an interest in our lessons, tried to adapt himself to our thinking, but we felt that this interest was not that of a father but a teacher. And he himself was conscious of this.

It is a moving image—that of the genius who understood so much about literary creation and was unable in spite or because of this to communicate with his own family. Tolstoy was no worse off here than most fathers, yet it is difficult not to assume—just because he was Tolstoy—that his godlike powers would extend to this most primary and natural form of communication. But no: because he understood when he wrote about the family made it no easier for him to be on good terms with his own.

I stress the Tolstoyan concept of “understanding” because it seems to have been a particular talisman of the young and orphaned Tolstoy with his own brothers and sisters. It appears frequently in his writings up to the time of War and Peace, and it is significant that Ilya records a remark of his Aunt Tatyana (the closest original for the portrait of Natasha in War and Peace) about her sister’s lack of this kind of understanding.


She was even jealous of her younger sister [Tanya], who knew how to enjoy herself and “rejoice with all her being.” Sonya lacked this capacity. We children were not able to analyze so deeply, but we knew that “maman can’t understand a joke,” and if something struck us as funny we never shared it with her.

In Tolstoy’s choice of a wife there was a certain attraction of opposites. Tanya the younger sister might have suited him better, but it is clear that what attracted him about Sonya were her earnestness and her sense of responsibility, the qualities that were to estrange them in their maturity. What Ilya senses here is, oddly enough, exactly the same situation that Aksakov so brilliantly defined in A Russian Family—the child’s sense of a mother and father whose love for each other is not proof against the incompatibility that originally attracted each to the other. “Their relations, instead of becoming closer, as might have been expected, grew less intimate…it often happens thus in life.”

So it does, and Ilya Tolstoy demonstrates as great a delicacy and affection in his filial awareness. One thing he constantly emphasizes is the bedrock aristocrat in his father’s nature.

My father was a true aristocrat by birth, education and manner. Despite the workman’s smock he always wore and his disdain for all patrician prejudices, he was a nobleman and remained one to the end of his days.

Yet it was not because of this that the family was reared in seclusion. Tolstoy’s terror of sex made him insist that his sons should never mingle when young with the village children, from whom “things” might be picked up.

We used to go tobogganing in the village, but when we began to develop friendships with peasant boys papa was quick to notice our enthusiasm and put a stop to it. So we grew up surrounded by the stone walls of English governesses, tutors, and various teachers.

A touching passage relates Tolstoy’s extreme anxiety lest his son should have the same early experiences with prostitutes that he himself was so ashamed of. He encouraged Ilya’s early engagement, and entered as rapturously as his son into the arrangements for it. Before the marriage Ilya went into his bedroom to find his father sitting there writing.

Hearing my footsteps he spoke without looking round.

“Is that you, Ilya?”


“Are you alone? Shut the door. Now no one can hear us, and we can’t see each other, so we won’t feel ashamed. Tell me, did you ever have anything to do with women?”

When I said “No” I suddenly heard him start to weep, sobbing like a child. I too cried; and for some time, with the screen between us, we continued to shed tears of joy; and we were not ashamed but were both so glad that I consider the moment one of the happiest of my entire life. The tears of a father of sixty can never be forgotten, even in a moment of the greatest temptation.

Such a passage brings home to us just how foreign a country is the past. Both Bulgakov and Ilya Tolstoy reveal involuntarily, in their absorbing memoirs, how local and historically conditioned were some of the problems that vexed Tolstoy most acutely and how much he saw them as needing a solution sub specie aeternitatis. “What then must we do?” In the sexual guilt that tormented Tolstoy we no longer perceive a problem. It has been taken care of by contraception, just as the immorality of being looked after by servants has been taken care of by the disappearance of servants as a class. Tolstoy the man is buried among the prejudices and assumptions of his age; Tolstoy the artist shines in perpetual modernity—Tel qu’en luimême enfin l’éternité le change—for War and Peace and Anna Karenina are concerned with what is always present to us, with the deepest joys, conflicts, and trials of human nature.

Ann Dunnigan, who recently produced an excellent new version of War and Peace, has translated both memoirs with unobtrusive skill and assurance (though it irks an English ear that Tolstoy should continually go “horseback riding”!) and George Steiner contributes an illuminating Introduction to Bulgakov. Both memoirs are filled with facts so fascinating in themselves, with what George Eliot called the “ponies and shoes” of a first person narrative, that they would make the best kind of occasional or bedside reading.

Thus I learned for the first time that Tolstoy’s name for the high road to the south that passed a few versts from Yasnaya Polyana was “the Nevsky Prospect,” where he used to gossip with pilgrims, peddlers, and gypsies. And that his sister Masha, who after an unhappy marriage had entered a nunnery where Tolstoy frequently visited her in old age, once consulted him in great distress on a point of liturgical decorum. She was shortsighted, and had mistaken a swarm of autumn flies in one corner of her cell for the icon and prayed before it. How great a sin was this? What penance should she offer? “Papa tried to console her: the fact that she had been praying to flies for three days could not be counted a sin, since she had been quite unaware of it.”

This Issue

December 30, 1971