Tolstoy and His Quaker

Aylmer Maude (1858-1938) was an English businessman in czarist Russia, a committed Quaker, and a frequent visitor to Tolstoy’s great estate at Yasnaya Polyana. With his Russian-born wife Louise, Maude translated Tolstoy’s principal works. Tolstoy, who knew English well, said that these were the best English translations of his work. This was at a time when many English versions of the novels were being made from old French versions, so that Tolstoy’s name was still ridiculously spelled Tolstoi.

Maude knew Russian perfectly, he knew the old Russia, Tolstoy’s own Russia, as brilliant biographers in our day have not known it. Above all, he knew Tolstoy. He was Christian idealist enough himself, in a safe and sane English way, to sympathize with Tolstoy’s belief that he, the greatest literary and intellectual figure against czarism, could help create a new moral order. He understood Tolstoy’s guilt as a great aristocratic landowner in the backward Russian countryside, and so watched with interest and admiration, if not with full participation, Tolstoy’s vehement efforts to proclaim out of his own nature, as it were, a new (“Tolstoyan”) Christianity as the only way out for the unhappy Russian people.

Maude was fascinated by the crushing directness and often profound uncanny “simplicity” of Tolstoy’s art, though in Maude’s biography of Tolstoy he did not analyze his novels with the knowledge that as a practiced translator he could have given to such an analysis. Above all, Maude was fascinated by the endlessly contradictory personality of Tolstoy himself. Maude was a modest, alert recorder of the great man’s private storms at a time when he publicly declared his disgust with art and was propounding vows of poverty, chastity, pacifism, manual labor, etc., that were driving his wife crazy and confusing many of the best minds in Russia. We get from this quiet English perspective an unforgettable, unique picture of Tolstoy in old age—Tolstoy as Lear—Tolstoy as the “impossible,” destructive, yet finally impressive moral genius that he was now trying to be. Even as a young officer during the Crimean War, Tolstoy was able to write in his diary:

A conversation about Divinity and Faith has suggested to me a great, a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of devoting my life. That idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present state of mankind: the religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and absolutism—a practical religion, not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth. I understand that to accomplish this the conscious labor of generations will be needed. One generation will bequeath the idea to the next, and some day fanaticism or reason will accomplish it. Deliberately to promote the union of mankind by religion is the basic thought which I hope will dominate me.

“Never trust the artist,” said Lawrence, “trust the tale.” We of the Western world who owe so much to Tolstoy the artist have never understood just why some of the best Russian writers,…

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