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Ch. 1: Life at Yasnaya Polyana

A few days after the foregoing letter was written Leo Nikolaevitch left Yasnaya Polyana.

At first sight it may seem that if he did well in remaining so long with his wife, he ought not to have abandoned her in the end; or, on the contrary, if he was right in going away, it was a mistake not to have done so sooner.

That is how many do reason. Some—the majority—commend him for his departure, considering that thereby he "atoned" for his supposed weakness and inconsistency in the past. Others—a small minority—commend him, on the contrary, for remaining so many years with his wife, but consider his going away a proof of his inconsistency.[7]

It seems to me that in any case Leo Nikolaevitch's friends who were able to estimate at its true value the self-sacrifice with which he remained a voluntary prisoner in his wife's house for so many years ought, more than anyone, to have that confidence in him of which he was worthy. They might at least be confident that if, after all this, he did decide to go away, he must have had good grounds for doing so; especially since such an explanation is far more natural and credible than the supposition that Leo Nikolaevitch, who had so successfully endured this prolonged ordeal and had displayed such striking stoicism and self-sacrifice, on the eve of his death suddenly, for some reason, broke down and was false to his conscience.

In regard to the question of whether he was to remain with his wife or go away, Leo Nikolaevitch was guided not by any one impulse, but by many, and often contradictory, impulses.

On the side of not leaving his wife he had various considerations which are touched on in my letter to Dosev. The chief of them was his consciousness that in remaining he was fulfilling the demands of love in regard to Sofya Andreyevna, and was trying to do her good, while he was performing an act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of his own soul.

He had also, in the course of the last thirty years of his life, many grounds for going away; and though, until the time was ripe, they could not outweigh those that kept him with his family, yet in themselves they were very weighty.

On one side he was painfully conscious—and ever more painfully as time went on—of all the injustice, all the sinfulness of the surroundings of his home life, which were those of a rich landowner in the midst of the poverty around him, and he never forgave himself for his participation in those surroundings. Some months before his death he wrote, as is well known, in the introduction to his novel, There are No Guilty in the World: "The complicated conditions of the past, my family and its demands, have not let me out of their clutches"; and, at once, with the fear of self-justification characteristic of him, hastened to add "or rather I had not the ability nor strength to free myself from them." But recognising at that time the hopelessness of his position, Leo Nikolaevitch found a good side in the fact that it was so painful to him. "Being without any desire for self-justification, or any fear of the liberated peasants, and also without the peasants' envy and bitterness against their oppressors, I am in the most favourable position for seeing the truth and being able to tell it. Perhaps it was just for this that I have been placed by fate in this strange position. I will try, as far as I know how, to take advantage of it. This at least to some extent, anyway, alleviates my condition."

On the other hand, he was at times much distressed by the consciousness of the false position in which he was placed before men, and before the peasants especially, by the external conditions of his life, which were so directly opposed to his convictions. He was well aware that the majority of people condemned him for taking part in that life. But he was resigned even to that, finding a spiritual blessing in his humiliation before men. In his Circle of Reading[8] he said: "What is called religious folly, i.e. conduct which provokes censure and attack, is intelligible and desirable as the sole proof of one's love for God and one's neighbour." "The condemnation by man of your actions," he says in a private letter, "if your actions are not due to selfish motives, but to doing the will of God, is far from requiring you to justify them; on the contrary, this condemnation is a benefit, in that it gives you certain conviction that you do what you are doing not for the praise of men, but for the sake of your soul, for God."[9]

But above all Leo Nikolaevitch had to suffer directly from his wife's antagonism and disagreement with regard to what was for him more precious than anything. This hostility on the part of his wife often reached the point of unconcealed hatred of him, making him at times despair of the possibility of softening her heart at all. As years went on the spiritual rift between them became complete. Leo Nikolaevitch had periods of such doubt and depression of spirit that he felt quite hopeless, and was ready to run away from home. One of these periods I have referred to above, but even at the beginning of the 'eighties Leo Nikolaevitch had moments when he could scarcely restrain himself from going away.

It was so, for instance, in the summer of the year 1884. In his diary of that time we find such entries: "If only I could have confidence in myself.... I cannot go on with this savage life. Even for them" (the members of his family) "it would be a benefit. They will reconsider things if they have anything like a heart.... I said nothing, but I felt horribly depressed. I went away, and meant to go away altogether, but her being with child made me turn back half way to Tula.... It was horribly painful.... It was a mistake not to go away. I think it will be bound to happen sooner or later."[10]

After 1884, as Leo Nikolaevitch's spiritual forces developed further and gained strength, he did succeed to some extent in bearing patiently the insults and suffering inflicted upon him, and learnt to resign himself to the painfulness of his position, extracting gain for his inner life from all that he endured. But how hard it still was for him may be seen, for instance, from the confession that broke from him in conversation with a friend of his, the peasant M. P. Novikov, when the latter visited him on the 21st October, 1910: "I have never concealed from you that in this house I am boiling as in hell, and I have always dreamed of going away, and longed to go somewhere into the forest to a keeper's hut, or to a village to some lonely peasant's hut, where we could help one another. But God has not given me the strength to break away from my family. My weakness is perhaps a sin, but I could not for the sake of my personal satisfaction make others suffer, even although they are members of my family...."

During this time everything that was painful in Leo Nikolaevitch's relations with Sofya Andreyevna, and which had grown with the decades, began to develop with increased rapidity. In this brief but terribly concentrated period of his life much which his goodwill towards her had prevented him from observing in Sofya Andreyevna before began to be apparent to him. At first it was very difficult for him to see his way in his complicated position and among all the varied feelings and impulses which rose up in his soul. He had not only to bear his old, long familiar cross, but also to deal with new, quite unforeseen trials before he had time to see clearly what attitude he ought to take up to them.

These exceptionally complicated conditions must be kept in view in order to follow Leo Nikolaevitch's spiritual experiences of that period with any degree of accuracy. It was difficult for him to understand his own state of mind, and he exercised the greatest circumspection in order not to act prematurely nor precipitately. It is all the more necessary for us to be extremely circumspect in examining the various spiritual states which followed each other and were interwoven in him at that time. It is impossible to approach the very complicated workings of his soul with ready-made theories, or to offer a rough-and-ready explanation of Leo Nikolaevitch's behaviour on the lines of one's personal bias—whether domestic, religious, social, or otherwise; and least of all can one be guided by information or argument coming from his domestic circle, whose vanity was so deeply wounded by his departure. In order really to understand Tolstoy and his behaviour in this most important period of his life, it is above all needful to free oneself from the slightest partiality, narrowness and one-sidedness, to be ready to look the truth in the face and as far as possible to weigh attentively all the conditions and circumstances, not taken separately, but in combination and in all their complex interaction.


[7] I have come across references to my letter to Dosev as though it proved that, for all my devotion to Leo Nikolaevitch, I considered that he ought not to have left his wife. But there is nothing of the sort in my letter, the main drift of which is merely that no one has the right to set himself up as a judge of Leo Nikolaevitch in the matter. I indicated in detail how sound were the reasons impelling him to remain in Yasnaya Polyana while he did remain there; but at the same time, in the very same letter, though it was written before Leo Nikolaevitch went away, I made several allusions to the possibility that in the end he would think it necessary to go.

[8] Circle of Reading, May 17.

[9] 1907.

[10] June 17-24, 1884.

Leo Tolstoy

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