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Why Tolstoy Did Not Leave His Home

(From a letter to H. Dosev, October 19, 1910[5])

Dear Dosev,

I feel that I must protest against what you say in your last letter in connection with Leo Nikolaevitch.

Among other things you say of him: "Nothing is worse than slavery. And worse still is slavery to a spoilt child who has been spoilt by oneself. But I know nothing worse in the world than being enslaved to an irrational, self-willed woman who is convinced that her slave husband will do whatever she chooses. Is not Sofya Andreyevna such a woman, and is not Leo Nikolaevitch in slavery to her? His submissiveness to Sofya Andreyevna I regard not as a virtue but as a weakness. He makes concessions to her through fear of sinning against love; but in doing this is he not sinning against the great love? You know she keeps him away from his friends, from the peasants, from humanity; she makes him live the revolting life of a wealthy landowner. I do not reproach Leo Nikolaevitch, I do not condemn him—I love and respect him too much. But I am sorry for him. I am sorry for his whole life, and for his great teaching, which has not passed in vain for himself and for those near him, but which will pass in vain for the peasants and for humanity; for his external life blurs all the significance and meaning of his words and thoughts in men's eyes."

You conclude with the words: "Do not be hurt by my words. I repeat—this is the expression not of censure, but of the pain of a man who loves him. And so if there is something I don't see rightly, you and all the others and Leo Nikolaevitch must forgive me. The greatest joy of my life is my love for him and for all of you, friends of the spirit."

Just because I believe in the sincerity of your love for Leo Nikolaevitch, and know that he too loves you, just because of that I feel irresistibly impelled to answer those words of yours, dear friend. You really do not "see rightly," and are mistaken in assuming slavishness and inconsistency in Leo Nikolaevitch. On the contrary, he displays in his attitude to Sofya Andreyevna the greatest freedom—freedom from anxiety about the opinion of men, and the highest consistency—the determination to do, according to the measure of his powers and understanding, not his own will but the will of God. And for the sake of doing this will of God he is ready to endure any personal sufferings of his own and any human censure and disgrace.

You are mistaken in supposing that Leo Nikolaevitch does whatever Sofya Andreyevna wishes. On the contrary, there is a limit beyond which he does not give way to her. He does not give way to her when she demands from him what is distinctly against his conscience. And it is just because he does not give way entirely, but adheres to this limit in his concessions—it is just through that, that he has so much to put up with from Sofya Andreyevna.

During the last ten years of his life Leo Nikolaevitch has often thought of leaving his wife, and has more than once been on the verge of taking that step. It is still perfectly possible that he will take it in the end if he becomes convinced that his remaining with his wife is not attaining his object, but merely exciting her, and encouraging her in her exactingness and tyranny. But to do this he must clearly and unmistakably recognise in his conscience that he ought to leave her. That he has not hitherto left her is not at all because it is more agreeable or more convenient to live in her house, it is not at all through weakness of character or dread of disobeying her; but, believe me, solely because he is not yet sufficiently convinced that he ought to go away, and does not feel that it is God's will that he should go. For him personally it would be so much more agreeable, peaceful and in every way convenient to go away, that he is afraid of acting selfishly, of doing what is easier for himself, and of refusing through cowardice to bear the trials laid upon him.

If he did leave Yasnaya Polyana at his advanced age, and with his infirmities, he could not now live by manual labour. Nor could he go staff in hand about the world and fall ill and die somewhere by the high-road, or as a passing pilgrim in a peasant's hut. He could not do it simply from affection for those who love him, for his daughters and the friends who are near him in heart and spirit—however attractive such an end might be for him himself, and however theatrically splendid it might seem to the crowd which at present censures him. He could not without being cruel refuse to settle in some modest abode where, without the help of servants, they could do his housework for him, surrounding him with the affection and care necessary at his age, giving him the opportunity of associating without hindrance with the working people whom he loves so much, and from whom he is at present completely cut off. Why, such a free, quiet life would be a real paradise for him in comparison with the prison in which he has to live now!

It will be asked why he does not accept for himself these happy surroundings so easily within his reach, seeing that his wife has, one would have thought, given him long ago sufficient ground for leaving her house. Why does he not now, at least, in the decline of his age, cast off the heavy burden which in the person of Sofya Andreyevna he has been bearing on his shoulders for thirty years, sometimes almost sinking under its weight? It is obvious that if he does not do this it is not from weakness or cowardice, and it is not from selfishness; but, on the contrary, from a feeling of duty, from a manly determination to remain at his post to the very end, sacrificing his preferences and his personal happiness for the sake of doing what he considers to be the divine will.

In July, 1908, Leo Nikolaevitch passed through one of those agonising spiritual crises, provoked by Sofya Andreyevna, which with him nearly always ended in serious illness. So it was on this occasion. Immediately after it he fell ill, and for some time after it was almost at death's door. I quote a few extracts from his diary in the days just before his illness.

"July 2, 1908.—If I had heard of myself as an outsider—of a man living in luxury, wringing all he can out of the peasants, locking them up in prison, while preaching and professing Christianity and giving away coppers, and for all his loathsome actions sheltering himself behind his dear wife, I should not hesitate to call him a blackguard! And that is just what I need that I may be set free from the praises of men and live for my soul....

"July 2, 1908.—Doubts have come into my mind whether I do right to be silent, and even whether it would not be better for me to go away, to disappear. I refrain from doing this principally because it would be for my own sake, in order to escape from a life poisoned on every side. I believe that the endurance of this life is needful for me....

"July 3, 1908.—It is still as agonising, life here in Yasnaya Polyana is completely poisoned. Wherever I turn, it is shame and suffering....

"July 6, 1908.—Help me, O Lord! Again I long to go away, and I do not make up my mind to; but do not give up the idea. The great point is: whether I would be doing it for my own sake if I went away. That I am not doing it for my own sake in staying I know....

"July 9, 1908.—One thing grows more and more agonising; the injustice of the senseless luxury in the midst of which I am living with undeserved poverty and want all around. I feel worse and worse, more and more wretched. I cannot forget, I cannot help seeing...."

I remember on one of these days Leo Nikolaevitch returning from a solitary walk in the woods with that expression of joyful inspiration which so often illumined his face of late years, and meeting me with the words:

"I have been thinking a great deal and very deeply. And it has become so clear to me that when one stands at the parting of the ways and does not know how to act, one ought always to give the preference to the decision which involves more self-sacrifice."

From all this it is evident how deeply Leo Nikolaevitch feels his position, how passionately he longs at times to throw off his yoke and at the same time with what sincerity and self-sacrifice he is seeking not his own comfort, but only one thing—the clear understanding of how he ought to act before his conscience, before his God, to whose service he had devoted his life not in word alone but in deed also.

After this how short-sighted, how unjust and cruel seem utterances—especially on the lips of a loved and loving friend of Leo Nikolaevitch's, as you are—such as that you look upon his submission to Sofya Andreyevna not as a virtue but as a weakness. We may suppose that in Leo Nikolaevitch's place we should act differently, though it would be difficult for us to say whether in so acting we should be doing better or worse than he. We cannot understand all that is passing in his soul, and so we may be perplexed by some of his actions. But I at least cannot help feeling the greatest respect for the pure, self-sacrificing impulses by which he is guided. I cannot help feeling complete confidence in him on this question, for if anyone, sacrificing all his personal needs and pleasures, and regardless of his suffering and privations, whatever they may be, tries unswervingly to follow the dictates of his conscience, he is doing all that can be expected of a human being, and no one has the right to condemn, nor need anyone be anxious about him. You see, for us, looking on Leo Nikolaevitch's life from outside, it appears in reality as an external phenomenon which we can consider according to our mood. In our moments of leisure we venture to criticise Leo Nikolaevitch and his manner of life and to decide on its value, as though it were far easier for us to grasp and understand it, than it is for him. "Another man's trouble I can handle easily, but my own is beyond my comprehension." We forget that for us it is only a subject of criticism about which we may have one opinion or another—a question concerning which we may on occasion argue and bring forward the pros and cons. But for Leo Nikolaevitch it is a question of conscience, it is the very business of his life, it is that into which he is putting all his soul, all his understanding. What grounds have we for imagining that we outsiders, who know ourselves to be greatly inferior to Leo Nikolaevitch spiritually, are capable of understanding his life better and deciding more conscientiously for him how he ought to act than he can himself, though he is seeking guidance for his conduct day and night before God?

Let his enemies vent their malice over his seemingly humiliating position; let narrow-minded and short-sighted "Tolstoyans," who have neither spiritual penetration nor the delicate intuition of the heart, condemn him or bestow their patronising pity on him; but we, his real friends, who are of one spirit with him, who understand by what he is living, and are struggling towards the same goal as he, we, dear Dosev, ought to have more faith and trust in him.

As you are aware, none of Leo Nikolaevitch's friends suffers more from Leo Nikolaevitch's relations with Sofya Andreyevna than my wife and I, for they deprive us of one of the greatest joys of our life—of personal intercourse with him, the enjoyment of which was the principal reason for our settling in this district.[6] But when I am in a good frame of mind, all this which is painful and humiliating vanishes before my trust in Leo Nikolaevitch, and my conviction, which nothing will shake, that he desires nothing for himself, but is striving for one thing only—that is, that at every given moment he may be doing what God requires of him.

Some members of his household who are devoted to Leo Nikolaevitch are distressed that he should give in to the farce—to them obvious—which Sofya Andreyevna so often plays before him in order to attain her objects, at one time agitating him by feigned attacks of despair and frenzy, at other times touching his heart by displays of penitence, meekness and care for his welfare which are even more insincere, or, if at times half sincere, are at least extremely transitory. But it seems to me that if, through the wonderful purity of his own heart, Leo Nikolaevitch is incapable of seeing Sofya Andreyevna as she really is, and with touching trustfulness seizes upon every justification for recognising in her the smallest signs of an awakening conscience, then, though he may be mistaken in it, the tender emotion and joy which he feels on such occasions are perfectly legitimate, because they arise from his great love and readiness to forgive everything. It is doubtful whether her success in pretending is good for Sofya Andreyevna herself. But who knows, perhaps this wonderful faith in her soul on the part of Leo Nikolaevitch, which nothing can shake, his continual expectation, his premature, eager anticipation of the spiritual awakening in her which he so whole-heartedly desires, will in due time have its effect upon Sofya Andreyevna. Perhaps such an attitude to her on the part of the man whom she has so mercilessly tortured for so many years, and who nevertheless is of all people the only one who has sincerely loved her, and loved her to the end, will one day be reflected in her soul. The memory of this in its due time, for instance, when she will become conscious of the nearness of her own death, when all worldly plans, aims and desires inevitably retreat into the background, is the one thing that may be capable of awakening in that unhappy woman the divine spark, the possibility of which we have no right to deny in any human being. And if this is possible, is it surprising that Leo Nikolaevitch, entirely given up to the service of the divine love as he is, should untiringly attempt to melt with his love the heart of the partner of his life whom he once drew to himself, with whom he shared his past sinful life, and with whom he would also wish to save his soul?

And indeed as a rule, dear Dosev, I am deeply convinced that no one of us can decide for another, nor determine in regard to another man's behaviour what is his weakness and what is his virtue. "Before his God," as it is written in the gospel, "every one of us shall stand or fall." It is not for us human beings to meddle in the secret region of another man's soul with our short-sighted criticisms, our frivolous verdicts and our mistaken condolences.

And however Leo Nikolaevitch may act in the future—whether he remains to the end beside his wife, or whether at some time he finds it necessary for her benefit to go away from her—I am convinced of one thing: that in that matter he will really act only as his conscience bids him, and therefore he will act rightly.

Why, if Leo Nikolaevitch's wife were drowning and, plunging into the water to save her, he perished himself, nobody would reproach him for having sacrificed his friends and humanity for the sake of excessive family attachments. It is even more impossible to reproach him for devoting his life, sacrificing its joys and repose, and perhaps even giving it up altogether, for the sake of saving his wife from the ruin of her soul.

It ought not to be forgotten also that at the same time Leo Nikolaevitch always contrives in the most attentive and sensitive way to respond to every real need, spiritual or material, of the whole people and of all mankind, devoting his whole working time to intense spiritual labour in the interests of the working masses, and of all suffering mankind, whether the suffering be from external or internal evil.

As for your idea that for the simple people and for humanity "all his life and great teaching will pass in vain, because his external life blurs all the significance and meaning of his words and thoughts in men's eyes," on this too, I assure you, you are profoundly mistaken.

His words cannot pass in vain for humanity if only from the fact that they do not express something of "his own" with which only those who "follow him" can agree, but express the best that there is in the heart of every man. And from that very fact what Tolstoy says in his writings finds, apart from any relation to his own personal life, a direct and loving response in the heart and consciousness of all men whose conscience has not been blunted. And as time passes this response will only become clearer and more distinct.

When the true conditions of the domestic life of Leo Nikolaevitch become generally known, the great heroism of his family life, reproducing in deed what he expressed in words, will be added to the direct persuasive force of his words in the eyes of humanity.

"Going to the people," to prison, torture, the cross, the stake, the scaffold—all these have been already. And however deserving of the deepest respect are the men who face these for conscience' sake, yet if it is a question of a living example, we, people of the present day, needed an example of yet another kind.

Men go willingly to the scaffold even from a desire to blow their neighbour into the air. Men become cripples for life or are killed for the sake of beating a record with a motor-car or an aeroplane. All this is striking and sensational, but already no one is surprised by it. But it is quite a different matter to spend several decades with such a wife as Sofya Andreyevna without running away from her, and still preserving in his heart pity and love for her, and this to the accompaniment of the unceasing mockery of his enemies and misunderstanding and censure from the majority of his friends—so to live from day to day, from year to year, not seeing and not foreseeing any escape but his own death; to endure, in doing so, all that Leo Nikolaevitch has to endure, being periodically made ill by it and almost dying, and not only to have not the smallest blame or bitterness in his heart, but, on the contrary, to be always blaming himself for lack of patience and love—this really is the highest consistency on the part of Leo Nikolaevitch. This is a testimony of the truthfulness of his theory of life than which nothing stronger and more striking could be imagined. This is just the example that humanity is in need of in our day, and this example Leo Nikolaevitch is giving us in his life.

When one looks at the matter from this point of view it becomes so clear as to be obvious why Leo Nikolaevitch had to have just such a wife as was vouchsafed to him. "For a great ship a great journey." He who delivered the message of love in its absolutely unlimited sense needed to have the possibility in his life of proving in action that a love that nothing in the world could destroy was really attainable for man. And in due time, when the truth about Leo Nikolaevitch's life becomes common property, men will be infinitely grateful to him for this joyous confirmation of the possibility of following in practice the godly theory of life of which Tolstoy is the exponent in his writings.


[5] Ten days before Leo Nikolaevitch went away from Yasnaya Polyana this letter was written by me to Christo Dosev, the common friend of Tolstoy and myself, who migrated to Russia from Bulgaria and died in the year 1919. I quote my letter word for word to preserve its direct character. I ought to mention that a few years after Tolstoy's death Dosev told me that he recognised how mistaken was the censure of Tolstoy to which he had given expression in the letter which called forth this answer from me.

[6] This letter was written at the time when, though living only a few versts from Yasnaya Polyana, I was forcibly separated from Leo Nikolaevitch. This separation, which lasted for about three months, was due to the hostile attitude towards me of his wife, whose excited condition he hoped to soothe by the promise not to see me.

Leo Tolstoy

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