Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

You think that I am one thing and my writing is another. But my writing is the whole of me.

Thus Tolstoy wrote in 1885, in one of the long and bitter letters to his wife in which he sought to explain the appalling suffering which they had caused each other since his spiritual crisis of the 1870s. Their misery was all due, he believed, to one fatal mistake: she had succumbed to “the general opinion that a literary artist…should write works of art, and not think about his life or improve it, and that all that is a kind of folly or mental illness.”

Tolstoy’s onslaughts on the principle of moral neutrality in art began in earnest only after the religious conversion he described in A Confession, which he began writing in 1879. But it was a principle that had always been alien to him. When as a young man in the 1850s he had turned for a brief period from writing to teaching and work on his estate, this was because he had temporarily ceased to find in art and beauty a sufficient answer to the central preoccupation of his life—the search for the truths by which men should live. When, having returned to writing in the early 1860s, he produced his greatest novel, War and Peace, he was apprehensive, as he wrote to his friend the critic Strakhov, that people might praise “the sentimental scene with the young lady…or other such rubbish,” and might not notice “the chief thing”—his views expressed in the epilogue on the limits of freedom and dependence, which were the essence of an outlook “formed in me God knows by what toil and suffering.”

His fears were well founded: as Isaiah Berlin has pointed out in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the “philosophical” passages in War and Peace have traditionally been seen as irrelevant digressions alien to the artistic structure of the work, early evidence of the tragic folly that would lead him to renounce his artistic calling for a role in which his talents were undistinguished: that of moralist and preacher.

That Tolstoy the artist continues so frequently to be divorced from Tolstoy the thinker can be partly accounted for in English-speaking countries by a significant gap in the relevant material available in translation. Tolstoy’s belief in the unity of his art and his life led him in his last years to give as much careful thought to the posthumous editing and publication of his diaries as he had ever done with regard to his literary works. Throughout his life those letters which dealt with the questions which most preoccupied him were meticulously copied and preserved. However, only partial translations of the diaries exist, and very few of his thousands of letters have been available in English. We now have 608 of the most important letters in the selection edited and translated by Professor R.F. Christian. Excellently annotated, these two volumes of letters have been carefully selected to provide a balanced vision of Tolstoy’s views on the art of writing, on contemporary problems and religious questions, and on his personal and family relations. As Professor Christian points out in his introduction, they should dispose once and for all of the persistent fallacy that Tolstoy’s “conversion” was a “sudden volte-face, the sour grapes of a man growing too old to enjoy the pagan, sensual and materialistic pleasures of life.” A similar task remains to be done with the diaries; together, the letters and diaries could revolutionize the way in which Tolstoy is conventionally seen in Britain and America.

The common picture of Tolstoy the thinker, especially in his later life, tends to be static and singularly unattractive: a self-appointed and self-righteous sage, with extraordinarily simplistic and utopian views on the organization of society; a moral despot and domestic tyrant whose narrow and unshakable dogmatism wrecked his marriage and drove his wife to the verge of madness. This picture is totally inconsistent with the spiritual journey recorded in the letters and diaries. Their dominant note to the very end is not dogmatism but doubt, so intense as to bring Tolstoy at one period close to suicide. To read them in sequence is an overwhelming experience.

Tolstoy’s life, like his novels, does not permit neat judgments about human character and the nature of human error; but even Anna Karenina, with its sense of catastrophe issuing from inescapable contradictions, does not have the tragic power of this totally honest account of a passionate and unremitting lifetime’s search. For the reader is soon aware of what Tolstoy would never accept—that his fleeting periods of intense happiness were deceptive tokens of hope, temporary distractions from the inexorable development of contradictions which his great gifts of mind and heart were impotent to resolve, and which culminated in the horror of his last years of family life, his despairing flight, and his death at the railway station of Astapovo.


As Isaiah Berlin has shown in “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in his search for fundamental laws of existence Tolstoy was torn between two opposing visions of reality. His artist’s love of the variety and irreducible complexity of life led him to reject all intellectual constructions claiming to provide final explanations, whether religious, scientific, or philosophical, of the meaning of history and of individual destinies. Those characters in his novels whom he portrays as possessing true wisdom rely in their moral lives not on their reason but on an instinctive sense of the flow and direction of life. But Tolstoy’s “nihilism,” his contempt for those who sought to fix this instinct in doctrines and systems, was at odds with his longing for moral certainty, attainable only through some unitary vision of the world from which clear rules for conduct could be derived—hence his attempts to erect a set of absolutes based on the Gospels or the beliefs of simple peasants.

Berlin has shown how this contradiction penetrates Tolstoy’s view of history. His letters and diaries reveal its effects on his daily moral life, where it can be described as a constant struggle between two opposing conceptions of self-perfection. On the one hand, his aesthetic intuition leads him to see his goal as self-fulfillment, the harmonious development of all his capacities, guided only by an instinctive sense of the life force which unites him with all living things. On the other hand, his intellect presents the process of self-perfection to him as one of self-mastery and self-denial, the control or elimination of instinctive drives in the name of norms and prescriptions advanced by reason and the conscious moral will as answers to the question of how man should live.

An account of the view of the world which Tolstoy developed in the years before his religious crisis is to be found in his correspondence with his cousin Alexandra Tolstaya, to whom throughout his life he confided the most intimate details of his spiritual life. In the late 1850s Alexandra Tolstaya, a devout Orthodox Christian, expressed frequent concern about Tolstoy’s lack of Christian faith, and in reply he attempted to outline his beliefs. At the age of fourteen he had replaced the naïve religion of his childhood with a “clear and logical” view of life in which religion had no place. Ten years later, in 1852 (after a restless succession of occupations—an unfinished university career, the running of his estate, followed by his first serious attempts at writing interspersed with dissolute interludes in Moscow society), he joined the army as a cadet and was posted to the Caucasus. In the tedium of garrison life he began to feel that life lacked not only mystery but also meaning. There followed two years of intense intellectual searching, resulting in the discovery of an “old and simple” truth: “that there is immortality, that there is love, and that one must live for others in order to be happy for all eternity.”

The “religion” which Tolstoy had evolved by the end of the 1850s was a form of pantheism, derived from his passionate love of nature combined with the influence of Rousseau, whose belief in the superiority of primitive, spontaneous virtue over the values of the civilized intellect found a deep response in Tolstoy during his life in the Caucasus. To his cousin, who disapproved of this “pagan” love of nature, he replied: “for me nature is religion’s guide.” It was among simple peasants, not the devout Christians of his own milieu, that he found the quality which he saw as essential above all others: a serene sense of the natural order of things, instinctive harmony with universal processes and with the infinite principle which was the common ground of all being. Tolstoy experiences the joy of this sense himself, expressing it in marvelous passages in his letters which describe spring in the country. In one of these, “wild,” as he says, with the intoxication of spring, he writes: “there may be moments of happiness stronger than these, but there is nothing to equal the fullness and harmony of such happiness.”

Tolstoy’s “Rousseauism” was deepened by a visit to Europe in 1857, where he witnessed a public execution—an event which profoundly affected his life. In a famous letter to his friend Botkin he expresses horror at the arrogance of the civilized intellect which assumed the right to ordain the killing of a healthy human being by reference to concepts of justice and truth on whose definition no two lawyers could agree. The political and moral norms accepted by civilized society were “terrible lies”—a view which began to lead him by logical steps to uncompromising opposition to the state in all its manifestations.


In the conclusion to the short story “Lucerne,” published in the same year, Tolstoy offers a powerful defense of an ethic based on the aesthetic principle of harmony. The false values of civilization have, he argues, stifled the infallible inner voice which prompts man to act in accordance with the instinctive demands of his nature and in harmony with the inexorable flow of life. Instead, he seeks universal solutions, absolute norms, answers to all questions; he draws imaginary lines across the infinite, eternally fluctuating ocean of good and evil, and expects it to divide itself accordingly, with all the good on the one side and all the evil on the other; as though there were not millions of other possible subdivisions, made on different planes and from different angles. If only men could understand that every idea was both false and true—false because of its one-sidedness, deriving from the impossibility of any man’s embracing the truth in its wholeness, and true because it represented one aspect of human aspirations.

Civilization is good, barbarism is evil; freedom is good, slavery is evil—this imaginary knowledge destroys the instinctive, most blessed, primitive demands for good in human nature. And who will define for me freedom, despotism, civilization, barbarism? And where are the boundaries of one and the other? In whose soul is this criterion of good and evil so unhesitating that he can use it to measure the fleeting, confused facts? Whose intellect is so immense that even in the immobile past it can embrace all the facts and weigh them? And who has seen a state in which good and evil do not exist together? And how do I know that I do not see more of the one and less of the other because I’m not standing in the right place?… There is one, only one infallible teacher for us—Universal Spirit, which penetrates each and every one of us, instilling into each a striving for what ought to be—the same Spirit which in a tree orders it to grow toward the sun, in a flower orders it to disperse its seeds by the autumn, and in us, orders us unconsciously to press close to one another.

“Lucerne” touches on a theme which is prominent in Tolstoy’s two great novels: that of the futility and sterility of virtue whose source is the head and not the heart. He writes to Alexandra Tolstaya in 1859: “To do good deliberately is shameful. The more so since I’ve experienced the happiness (however rarely) of doing it unconsciously, quite by accident, and straight from the heart.” Those of his characters who devote themselves to deliberate and reasoned altruism, whether in their personal relations or in social action, are shown as both impotent in their efforts to divide the ocean of good and evil and sterile in their inner lives, lacking the vital force which animates such characters as Natasha Rostova and Kitty Shcherbatskaya. They apparently live for themselves and their families, not for others, pursuing their personal happiness, but as Tolstoy’s alter ego, Levin, comes to believe, actions bear fruit not when they are consciously directed to “doing good to everyone, mankind, Russia and the whole countryside,” but when they spring from the unconscious urge for self-fulfillment which is the “natural” necessity of all living beings.

But while Tolstoy preaches this view of ethics to his cousin Alexandra, he confesses to a conflict between the feeling of “love and tranquillity” which it has given him and certain “highly developed” Christian feelings of which he is conscious. The nature of this conflict emerges clearly from his diaries of the 1850s. While his aesthetic sense presents man to him as a whole being whose goal must be the harmonious expression of all his impulses, his intellect reveals him to himself as the divided being of Christian doctrine, striving for the victory of his higher, spiritual nature over his animal urges. He is aware of being drawn simultaneously in opposing directions by “two wills”—the spiritual and the material, and it is the principle of conscious self-mastery, not instinctive self-realization, which dominates his personal moral development. In 1856 he records in his diary a sudden insight that happiness lies not in submission to laws and sanctions, but in “letting out of oneself, like a spider, a strong web of love in all directions, catching in it anything that comes by…”; but passages like this are very rare in his diaries. On the contrary, his daily struggle against what he considers to be his main vices—lust, laziness, gambling, vanity—is governed by a succession of naïvely devised rules and systems, according to which he sternly charts his progress in subduing his baser inclinations.

Tolstoy’s hesitations between opposing paths to self-perfection reached a climax in the years between 1856, when he resigned from the army, and his marriage in 1862, as he searched for an occupation to which he could devote his life. The central problem of those years was his relationship to the society around him, whose goals and values he increasingly despised. At first his feeling for nature enabled him to follow the path he had prescribed in “Lucerne,” retreating into his private world and seeking his personal fulfillment in art, in the certainty that he was thereby conforming to the “natural” order of things. He writes to Alexandra Tolstaya that after two months in “Sodom” (his time in Paris), a stay in the Swiss countryside had rid his soul of an “accumulation of filth,” revealing to him “how good things are.” Back in Russia in 1857 he was oppressed by “a feeling of disgust for my country”: against a background of patriarchal barbarism a handful of intellectuals were engaged in political arguments that did not seem to him to reveal any understanding of the deep causes of corruption and injustice.

At first he again found his salvation in the tranquillity of his inner vision and its embodiment in art; but in a letter written at the end of 1857 he notes the destruction of this refuge: “I tried and I still try to tell myself that I am a poet, and that another reality exists for me…[but] I was horrified to see that all this painful, foolish and dishonest reality was not an accident,…but a necessary law of life”; and writing to his cousin he renounces his belief in the possibility of creating his own “happy and honest little world” in which he would do good peacefully and unhurriedly:

To have an honest life you have to…struggle endlessly, and suffer loss. As for tranquillity—it’s spiritual baseness. That’s why the bad side of our soul desires tranquillity, not being aware that its attainment entails the loss of everything in us that is beautiful—not of this world, but of the world beyond.

Tolstoy’s views on art in the late 1850s reflect his hesitations between the view of virtue as consisting in conscious struggle and a conception of it as tranquil conformity to universal laws. He was on friendly terms with the defenders of the principle of art for art’s sake, and even planned in 1858 together with Ivan Turgenev and the poet Fet to establish a journal which would defend the independence of art against those who sought to turn it into a political weapon. But his indignation at the apparent absence all around him of harmony and instinctive good leads him, in a letter of 1860, bitterly to reject the vocation of the pure artist as a justification of the “monstrous and foul” act of living by the exploitation of the labor of others. The death of his brother Nicolas in the same year provoked an agonized self-questioning on the meaning of human existence, to which neither his love of nature nor his art could provide answers. “Art is a lie, and I can no longer live a beautiful lie.” He embarked on a policy of conscious altruism of the kind which he had not long ago stigmatized as futile, stifling his need to write in order to dedicate himself to the improvement of the conditions of his peasants, organizing a school on his estate and developing theories of education designed to protect and develop men’s precious primitive instincts.

Tolstoy’s struggle between two visions of the moral life is at its sharpest in the ideal of family life which he developed in the late 1850s. At that time a “peaceful, moral family life,” lived in benevolent harmony with his peasants and combining art with the production and education of children, seemed to him the form of life most closely attuned to the fundamental processes of nature. But he approaches this ideal of the heart with all the dogmatic rigor of his moralizing head. He selects the daughter of a neighbor, Valeriya Arseneva, as a candidate for the role of wife, candidly announcing to her in a letter that he “passionately longs” to fall in love with her for the purpose, but warning her that he will not indulge in the nonsense of “tender and exalted feelings.” He looks at married happiness much too sternly for that. “I’m staking everything on this card. If I don’t find complete happiness, I shall ruin everything, my talent, my heart. I’ll become a drunkard and a gambler, I’ll steal, if I haven’t the courage to cut my throat.”

His correspondence with Arseneva reveals Tolstoy the moral dogmatist at his most naïve and unattractively despotic. The path to the tranquil idyll of rural and domestic virtue which he paints for her is by way of the most unremitting self-mastery, the ruthless eradication of all her defects, which Tolstoy discusses at length, attributing them to a weakness for the pleasures of society which must be overcome. He announces that he requires nothing less than perfection from her. Not the slightest moral backsliding can be tolerated: one false step and their happiness will be forever ruined. Their relationship—which needless to say was short—was enshrined by Tolstoy in a moralizing story “Family Happiness”; but by the time this was published in 1859 he had come to see its priggishness as a “shameful abomination,” and when in 1862 he fell in love with Sonya Behrs, this was an affair of the heart, not of the head. They were married after a rapid courtship, and Tolstoy’s letters to his cousin Alexandra throughout the 1860s show that, in spite of intermittent upheavals, he felt himself close to his ideal of a “tranquil and moral” happiness. After a year of marriage he writes:

I don’t analyze my situation (I’ve given up grübeln) or my feelings—I only feel my family circumstances…. This condition gives me an awful lot of intellectual scope. I’ve never felt my intellectual powers, and even all my moral powers, so free and so capable of work.

He gave up his teaching to devote himself to writing War and Peace, which was published in 1869. Throughout this period, the concept of self-perfection as identical with self-fulfillment predominates in his letters and diaries. Thus, in a diary entry of March 1863, he writes:

Everything that people do is done according to the demand of their whole nature. The intellect only makes up its own imaginary reasons for each act, which are called convictions, or faith in the case of the individual, and ideas…when applied to nations…. The chess game of the intellect goes on independently of life, and life proceeds independently of it…. What are called self-sacrifice, virtue, are only the satisfaction of one tendency, morbidly over-developed. The ideal is harmony. Only art senses this…. The self-sacrificing man is more blind and more cruel than others.

The artist is now reinstated in his eyes as the channel for the expression of the unconscious harmony of all being. In a letter of 1865 he asserts: “The aims of art are incommensurate with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations.”

But Tolstoy was preaching above all to convince himself. If his new happiness made the ideal to which he aspired clearer to him than ever before, he was still, in his constant introspection; the divided man of the past. He writes in his diary: “Only that is real which takes as its slogan: there are no guilty beings in the world. To be happy is to be right!”; but a few days later he is tormented by the conviction that he does not deserve his happiness, and plans to earn it by a program of self-improvement. The reason whose powers he had so much denigrated continues obstinately to present him with a dualistic vision of man, in which virtue consisted in the triumph of duty over natural inclination.

Tolstoy embodied his conflict in his short novel The Cossacks. Begun in 1852 but published only in the year after his marriage, it was the balance sheet of a decade of introspection. His hero Olenin has Tolstoy’s pantheistic love of nature and of primitive men who obey no laws but that of their own self-realization; they live for themselves alone and for that reason are harmonious and beautiful. But Olenin’s conscience orders him to seek “another kind of happiness,” that of living for others through self-sacrifice. The urges to serve beauty and the good seemed ultimately incompatible: self-denial, grounded in a vision of man as eternally at war with himself, was hardly the path to the aesthetic goal of an undivided nature.

Marriage and his concentration on War and Peace distracted Tolstoy from this dilemma until the end of the 1860s, when his search for meaning in life entered a new, more desperate phase. He became too much oppressed by the injustice and corruption of the world around him for his reason to be satisfied with the pantheistic faith in the essential goodness of all things which had carried him through earlier crises. On the other hand, as is shown by his increasingly savage attacks on current ethical and political theories, his instinct was never more suspicious of the attempts of intellectuals to produce a coherent explanation of the fundamental mysteries of life. It was on religious faith that Tolstoy placed his final hope of a synthesis between the two truths which he longed to serve equally—the moral and the aesthetic.

In a letter to Strakhov of 1873 he defines an approach to religion which could permit him at last to reconcile the artist with the moralist in him. What is wrong with existing religions, he writes, is that beauty—which is the fundamental principle of all great religions—has been usurped in them by reason. The good is best understood as beauty: to turn the other cheek when you are struck “is not clever or good, but senseless and beautiful.” Theology and dogma had confused men by introducing logic into religion, with the result that “there is no longer beauty nor a guide through the chaos of good and evil.” Toward the end of the decade Tolstoy writes to Strakhov that he has achieved “the most precious thing of all”—inner harmony, by unquestioning and unreasoning acceptance of the traditions and observances through which simple Christians had for centuries expressed their answers to the “questions of the heart.” “I swim just like a fish in water, in actions which make no sense, and only refuse to submit when tradition tells me to perform actions…which do not correspond to the fundamental irrationality of that vague consciousness which existed in my heart.”

Religion seemed to offer in permanence what nature had given him only in transitory experiences—a sense of unity with simple, uncorrupted people and elemental processes. But it could not last. Tolstoy’s reason would not permit him to accept “actions which make no sense,” and it soon ruthlessly demolished, along with faith in miracles and the divinity of Christ, all the other traditions and dogmas whose adherents included his beloved peasants. Tolstoy’s version of Christ’s teaching, purged of all that he saw as superstitious or superfluous, was reduced to a “law of love” based on the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, which he took to their logical extreme in the two doctrines which were to be the essence of “Tolstoyanism”: total chastity and nonresistance to evil. He defended the intransigence of his interpretation of Christianity in a letter to a Tolstoyan by the following proposition: “Christianity, like any truth, has this peculiarity, that if it is not accepted in its entirety, it may as well not be accepted at all.”

He had once argued powerfully in “Lucerne” that propositions like this were nonsense, because all concepts that could be put into words were “both false and true.” He had also poured scorn on men’s efforts to do what he later, in a letter of 1884, sees as the primary requirement for an artist: “to see plainly the dividing line between [good and evil].” Few thinkers had argued more convincingly than Tolstoy that the need for certainties and moral absolutes, by falsifying man’s understanding of the complex truth, disorients him morally, putting him hopelessly at odds with himself and the world. But the need for faith was ultimately stronger in him than the instinct for harmony; and it even made him denounce the latter as a dangerous delusion. In a letter to Aylmer Maude in 1901 he criticizes Ruskin for his “hazy ecclesiastical-Christian understanding of the demands of life which enabled him to combine ethical ideals with aesthetic.” The last years of his life were governed by a rigidly dualistic view of reality, in which beauty and good, matter and spirit, were locked in perpetual conflict. In a letter to Strakhov he describes himself as having “two natures”; the conflict between the aspirations of the spirit and the power of the flesh is a constant theme of his correspondence and his diaries.

Tolstoy’s relentless battle with his own nature is described with appalling frankness in his diaries. Even his letters, which are much more reticent about the upheavals in his family life, make painful reading: they reflect all too well his fits of shame and self-loathing when his sexual drives, his hot temper and intolerance, and above all his artistic gifts, led him to betray his narrow principles. He had pronounced that art, in order to serve the goal of universal brotherhood, must be didactic in content and accessible in form to the simplest of literate peasants, and he contemptuously dismisses the novel form as “obsolete”: “If I have something to say, I won’t describe a drawing-room or a sunset etc.” In 1896 he writes to Strakhov: “What a crude, immoral, vulgar senseless work Hamlet is.” But he never ceases to be ashamed of the “terrible power” exercised over him by music which is incomprehensible to the masses, and he is unable to prevent himself from relapsing into the unconscious art of earlier years. After one such lapse—his comedy The Fruits of Enlightenment—he writes of his sense of shame: “what a soul-degrading occupation art is. A man may die at any time, and all of a sudden he jots down anxiously a phrase which is appropriate to a particular person and is funny; and he is glad to have found it.”

But it was not the difficulty of the tasks he had set himself that caused Tolstoy the greatest torment. He believed that “there is only one negative quality needed for everything in life, particularly in art—not to lie”; but he suffered perpetually from a sense of a fundamental falseness in his attempts to draw the dividing line between good and evil, some terrible flaw in the logic on which he based his gospel of love. He demonstrated repeatedly in his writings and in letters to the tsar and public figures—some of which are translated here—that all attempts to do good which compromised, however temporarily, with violence and the institutions founded on it were sterile and self-defeating: “It is impossible to do good without ceasing to do evil which is the direct opposite of that good; impossible for a landowner to help the starving people; impossible for a judge, tsar, ruler, or military man to oppose murders and violence….”

But this was a precept which he was unable to carry out himself. It demanded that when famine struck in Russia in 1891-1892 he should abstain from participation in the government-backed relief schemes, but this he could not bring himself to do. His well-publicized support of them brought large sums of aid from outside Russia, but according to the logic of his principles his active charity was a betrayal of the law of love. When on the other hand he produced a work in which he preached his ideal of chastity in all its rigor, he was subsequently filled with self-disgust: “There was something nasty about The Kreutzer Sonata…something bad about the motives which guided me in writing it.”

The contradiction that finally defeated him was his relationship with his family. When his desire that they should renounce their possessions and thus cease to exploit the labor of others was met with incomprehension from his children and active hostility from his wife he saw three choices for himself, each in contradiction with the law of love: to leave them would be to pursue his own self-perfection at the cost of his duty toward them; to use his authority to change their way of life would be to break the precept of nonresistance to evil; to remain with them as he did and to try “to fight evil lovingly” was to continue a way of life in contradiction with his beliefs. As a result, “I don’t achieve lovingness and gentleness, and I suffer twice over from my life and from remorse.”

The ocean of good and evil had not parted at the point where he had drawn his line; on the contrary, as he observes with appalled horror, his philosophy of love seems to foment division and hatred:

My friends, even my family, turn away from me. Some people—liberals and aesthetes—think me mad or feeble-minded like Gogol; others—revolutionaries and radicals—think me a mystic or a gasbag; government people think me a pernicious revolutionary, Orthodox people think me the devil…. What hurts is that the thing which constitutes the main aim and happiness of my life—loving relations with people—is destroyed….

This sense of moral failure was the more profound because Tolstoy’s vision of the moral ideal as the harmonious fulfillment of demands implanted in man never left him. Through physical work and on walks in the countryside he is still able to experience “the purest joy of all…the joy of nature,” which gives him a feeling of the essential goodness of all things, and his reading of Chinese philosophy leads to reflections on the nature of true wisdom which recall his former outbursts against “conscious” virtue. In August 1884 he writes in his diary: “how false the teaching of love is;…as a set of rules it is the most immense of lies;…love is life itself, it is attained through the natural satisfaction of the demands of [man’s] nature.”

A comparison which he makes between Dostoevsky and Turgenev gives a rare insight into his own awareness of the gulf between his ideal of wholeness and the path of struggle which he had chosen. He had often expressed a deep admiration for Dostoevsky’s moral passion, and had frequently dismissed Turgenev’s delicate, detached depiction of Russian society and its dilemmas as shallow, revealing an absence of heart and moral commitment. But in a letter to Strakhov of 1883 we find a striking change of view. He protests against the growing adulation of Dostoevsky as a religious thinker. He had died in the midst of a desperate struggle between good and evil, in which all his great brain and heart had not helped him; “one cannot set on a pedestal for the edification of posterity a man who was all struggle.” Dostoevsky was like a magnificent race horse made almost valueless by a single flaw. Turgenev on the other hand was the sort of “sturdy little steed” without a flaw with which one always reached one’s destination; because of this, though not because of his artistry, he would outlive Dostoevsky.

Tolstoy’s more eccentric judgments on art were almost invariably the products of his efforts to attain consistency in his moral vision. This one, on the contrary, clearly reflects a rare acceptance that his inner contradictions were not to be resolved, that his extraordinary intellectual powers were an insuperable barrier to the wholeness which his artist’s sense told him was the moral ideal, and which he believed was attainable by those simpler and less gifted than he. “The longer I live,” he wrote Strakhov, “the more I value horses without a flaw.”

This Issue

June 29, 1978