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Ch. 3: The History of the Will

In order to understand why Sofya Andreyevna's attitude to Leo Nikolaevitch was so exasperated, and what impelled her to treat him so cruelly, it is essential to have some conception why he found it necessary about this time to make a will, leaving all his writings free to the public.

The story of Tolstoy's will is so complicated and full of details that a separate circumstantial account of it is required. Here I will only briefly state the most essential facts.

At the beginning of the 'eighties, at the time when the spiritual regeneration of Leo Nikolaevitch was taking place, though his new attitude of completely disapproving of property was not yet fully defined, he made over to his wife an authorisation for the publication and sale of his collected works, the income from which was the principal source of the material means by which his family lived. Later on, when he came to realise that property of every kind was wrong, he did not, in spite of all his efforts, succeed in persuading Sofya Andreyevna to renounce this income voluntarily and to give him back the authorisation he had given her. He did not feel morally justified in forcibly depriving her of what she clung to so passionately, and what against the will of Leo Nikolaevitch she considered had been put at the disposal of the family for ever. This trading in his works by his wife against his wish was, in his own words, one of the most agonising sufferings of his life. All his new works, however, those that had appeared after 1881 and those destined to appear later, he thereupon freed from the monopoly of his family, announcing in a letter to the newspapers, that all who wished could reprint them without any fee. Sofya Andreyevna had, willy-nilly, to submit to this decision on the part of the author. But every time when, instead of articles of a religious and social character, which did not in the literary market command the immense value enjoyed by his artistic works, Leo Nikolaevitch undertook any work in artistic form, Sofya Andreyevna was so much excited and so persistently demanded that the publication of the new work should be handed over to her for the benefit of the family, that it completely destroyed the spiritual tranquillity which he needed for concentrated creative work.

Many times repeated, these family scenes led him to decide to print no more works of art during his lifetime.[14] And this decision of his is the real reason why, during the latter period of his life, he gave so little to humanity in that sphere.

In the end Sofya Andreyevna began quite openly to declare, even in the presence of Leo Nikolaevitch, that after his death, according to the advice of lawyers whom she had consulted, his renunciation of all literary property in the works of the second period would lose its validity, and that those works also would, like all the rest, become the property of his family. Besides this she began to insist that Leo Nikolaevitch should give her a fresh authorisation for the sale of his writings of the first period for a long time in the future and also give her the right to prosecute at law anyone who should infringe the copyright.

In his diary for 1909 Leo Nikolaevitch writes: "Last night I felt wretched after talking to Sofya Andreyevna about publishing my works and prosecuting. If she only knew and understood how she alone poisons the last hours, days, months, of my life! I do not know how to say it to her and have no hope that anything one could say would produce the slightest effect upon her."[15]

Becoming convinced that this greed of Sofya Andreyevna on behalf of the family would only increase with years, and that she really was capable of taking possession of all his works after his death and of depriving other publishers of the possibility of printing them, Leo Nikolaevitch felt himself morally bound to guard against such a monopolisation of his writings. And he was so firmly convinced that it was his duty before God and men to do this, that in spite of all that he had to endure on account of it afterwards, he remained unshaken upon this point right up to his death, which was brought about by the spiritual sufferings which were inflicted upon him in consequence of this.[16]

After carefully thinking over all the circumstances of the case and taking advice of persons conversant with the subject, Leo Nikolaevitch came to the conclusion that if he really desired that his writings should be freely accessible to everyone after his death, he could not secure his object without making a formal will. And therefore, with this end in view, he decided to have recourse to that means. The editorship and first publication of all his posthumous works he entrusted to me, with the understanding that everything brought out by me should at once become public property. And in order to make the fulfilment of this task secure in practice, he made a formal will in favour of his younger daughter Alexandra Lvovna, which would make it possible for her to safeguard my task from any attempts to hinder it. The profit on the first issue of his works after his death he assigned in the first place for the redemption of the Yasnaya Polyana estate from the Tolstoy family in order to hand it over to the peasants, and this was duly carried out after his death.

Of course the legal form of the will could not but be distasteful to Leo Nikolaevitch. But this was to some extent counterbalanced in his eyes by the fact that the object of the will was not prosecution of anyone in the future, but, on the contrary, the prevention of the possibility of legal proceedings being taken by persons who might put in claims to inherit proprietary rights in the works of Leo Nikolaevitch if there had been no such will.

There was also another disagreeable side to this business for Leo Nikolaevitch. To avoid in connection with the will any altercations and dissensions, which would have been undesirable in themselves and would have made the position of Alexandra Lvovna, as legal heiress of his manuscripts, utterly impossible in the family, Leo Nikolaevitch resolved not to tell anyone of his will. Though to keep the fact of the existence of a will secret is a fairly usual thing to do in such circumstances, it will be readily understood that it was against the grain for Leo Nikolaevitch, and he resolved to act in this way solely because he saw no other alternative.[17]

Sofya Andreyevna's fears that Leo Nikolaevitch might make a will depriving his family of the copyright of his works were the underlying cause of her hostile attitude to him. It was on account of this that she made such efforts, on the one hand to wring out of him the complete transfer of all rights in his works to her, and on the other hand by incessant watchfulness over him to eliminate all possibility of his signing any business document without her knowledge. And it was for this same reason that she was filled with such hatred for me personally, assuming, though quite mistakenly, that the initiative in Leo Nikolaevitch's renunciation of his copyrights and the arrangements for carrying this out came from me.

Leo Nikolaevitch was so firm in his resolution to leave his writings for the free use of all, that with his own hand he wrote a will in accordance with that idea, not once only but several times, owing to the fact that the legal form of the documents he composed were never sufficiently correct to secure the required authority for them. The last time he made his will while Sofya Andreyevna was watching over him most vigilantly, during a ride on horseback in the thickest part of the forest, having previously invited three persons of the circle of friends living with me at Telyatniki near Yasnaya Polyana to meet him there and witness his signature.

By making this will Leo Nikolaevitch secured that after his death his writings became accessible to all, and not the property of his family. This result in itself is of vast social importance, seeing that it gave the working people—the poorest class of all countries—access to Tolstoy's works in the cheapest form, since it was open to any number of publishers to print them, and the competition between them would bring down the price of the books.

But apart from this purely practical gain for the vast masses of mankind, the struggle between Leo Nikolaevitch and his wife for the copyright of his works,—the struggle which cost him his life,—had also a great significance from the ideal side. It displayed before the eyes of mankind, present and future, an extremely important truth in connection with the Christian doctrine of the non-resistance to evil by force which Tolstoy so vividly set forth and lighted up in his writings. Leo Nikolaevitch completely sacrificing himself showed in practice that this principle does not lead, as many suppose, to helplessly giving in to evil and allowing it to triumph unchecked. Unyieldingly maintaining his rejection of copyright in the interests of the working masses of mankind, he confirmed by his example, plain to the whole world, what the less eminent "non-resistants" are continually exemplifying in their life. He showed that people of such a theory of life do not give in to evil, but are continually struggling against it in the best and truest way, by refusing to take part in it. He showed also that to yield to the demand of others from meekness and love for them is only admissible up to the limit beyond which they try to make one do what is against one's conscience; and that when people's demands pass beyond those limits, one ought not to yield to them in any way in spite of any sufferings oneself or those one loves may have to bear.

No insistence on the part of those nearest him, no sufferings of his own on account of it, were able to compel him in this case to depart from what he considered himself bound to do. Is it possible to find a more convincing proof that Tolstoy recognised it as morally necessary to resist evil in the most resolute way?—and it was just in consequence of this resistance to evil that he had to sacrifice both his peace and his life.

In a letter to me of September 10, 1910, Leo Nikolaevitch writes of his inner experience in a way which is highly significant. He says: "Of late, not with my brains but with my sides, as the peasants say, I have come to a clear understanding of the difference between the resistance which is returning evil for evil and the resistance of refusing to yield in the line of conduct which one recognises as one's duty to one's conscience and God. I will try."

At the same time by his attitude to the very idea of literary property Tolstoy, by the exceptional sincerity and consistency of his manner of action, has helped and still more will help his literary brethren to see clearly in this "delicate" question, to shut their eyes to which has now become impossible. As time passes a greater and greater number of writers will undoubtedly be troubled by doubts as to whether it is not as morally reprehensible to traffic in one's words, in one's soul, as to traffic in one's body, and Tolstoy's attitude will serve conscientious writers as a guiding star in illuminating this question.

One cannot but recognise Tolstoy's conspicuous services in all this. And though he acted as he did without considering what bearing this would have on the consciousness of men, merely striving not to let himself be drawn into an action contrary to his conscience, nevertheless this first renunciation of literary property on the part of one of the greatest writers of the world undoubtedly has a vast significance for humanity.

If in my present brief account of Tolstoy's leaving home I have had to dwell rather minutely upon the question of his will, it is because all the threads of the complicated conditions and circumstances which caused his departure meet about that central question. It is true that some of those near to Leo Nikolaevitch have tried to persuade themselves that Sofya Andreyevna's attitude to him, which made it impossible for him to remain longer with her, was chiefly provoked by property interests not connected with his will. They ascribe her conduct to various causes and principally to her neurotic condition and morbid, abnormal jealousy. Although putting the matter in such a light is undoubtedly due to affectionate goodwill to Sofya Andreyevna, I consider it my duty to protest against such an interpretation most decisively in the interests of truth, which here as everywhere is more important than anything. We ought not to hide from ourselves that there are more than a sufficient quantity of facts going to prove that Sofya Andreyevna in this case acted first of all, and most of all, under the influence of feelings and considerations immediately concerned with the material prosperity of her numerous family, consisting, as she was continually reminding people, of twenty-eight persons, counting children and grandchildren. It is essential to keep this circumstance in view in order to have a correct understanding of the attitude of Leo Nikolaevitch to his will.

True love for people dead and alive alike is not shown by concealing their mistakes and failures from oneself and others, but in knowing how, in spite of all the undesirable qualities which every one of us has in sufficient quantity, to behave to one another with compassion and tolerance, recognising that everyone is responsible for all. Then we shall not try to pass by the weak spots without noticing them, or to smear over the cracks on the outside, but shall, on the contrary, display them in order that they may be corrected by the efforts of all.

The above-mentioned circumstances and motives of the testamentary dispositions of Leo Nikolaevitch in regard to his writings must be kept in mind if one is to have a true conception of his position in the family at the period immediately preceding his "going away." An acquaintance with those circumstances and impulses makes it possible to understand the true character of the relations which have been formed between Leo Nikolaevitch and her with whom he had been connected for forty-eight long years and out of love and pity for whom he was ready to sacrifice all but his conscience.


[14] This decision, which Leo Nikolaevitch reached alone with his conscience, he tried to keep a secret from everyone, and when, guessing from certain signs how it was, I told him on one occasion, he was much puzzled to know how I could have discovered his secret. To explain why this decision not to publish his artistic work during his lifetime put a stop to Leo Nikolaevitch's work upon them, it must be pointed out that it was his habit to make the chief revision of his first rough sketches on the proofs sent him from the printer's. Besides, if he had merely worked at them in manuscript he would have been subjected to the same persistent persecution which so distracted his peace and his concentration upon his work. (Sofya Andreyevna told me that she had actually exacted a promise from him not to give anyone but herself his manuscripts to copy.)

[15] D. P. Makovitsky in his diary says the same thing: "In 1909 before the Stockholm Peace Congress, Sofya Andreyevna wanted to prosecute I. I. Gorbunov for publishing The Prisoner in the Caucasus, and sent Torba (a Court official, her helper in publishing Tolstoy's works) to see a lawyer. The lawyer asked what authority Sofya Andreyevna had for instituting proceedings. 'She has a deed of trust for transacting all Leo Nikolaevitch's affairs.' 'This is not enough, she must have a deed transferring the copyright to her.' Sofya Andreyevna asked Leo Nikolaevitch for it, but he refused point blank. Then Sofya Andreyevna had recourse to hysterics and did not let Leo Nikolaevitch go to Stockholm. In the summer of that year she started playing very cleverly the same game (this time against Tchertkoff), pretending to be ill in order to force Leo Nikolaevitch to give her the copyright. It was not Sofya Andreyevna who said the other thing, but Misha and Andryusha. They blurted out about the will."—(Sept. 14, 1910, Kotchety.)

[16] A clear light is thrown upon what Leo Nikolaevitch had to endure in this connection by a letter which a relation of his, the lawyer I. V. Denisenko, wrote for my benefit when I was exiled from the province of Tula in 1909, and being unable to be at Yasnaya Polyana, did not know what was taking place there. I append a few abstracts from the letter to complete the picture:

"In the July of 1909, when I was at Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Nikolaevitch Tolstoy was intending to go to the Peace Congress at Stockholm, and Sofya Andreyevna was opposed to this. This provoked a regular series of misunderstandings and Sofya Andreyevna fell ill, not wishing Leo Nikolaevitch to go to the Congress.

"It happened once that she called me into her bedroom, and showing me a general authorisation for the management of their affairs given her long ago by Leo Nikolaevitch, asked me whether she could upon this authorisation sell to a third person the right of publishing his work, and, what was still more important, institute proceedings against Sergeyenko and some teacher in a military school for making books of extracts and anthologies from the works of Leo Nikolaevitch on the ground that these books of extracts would cause her, Sofya Andreyevna, considerable material damage....

"I believe it was on the day after that that I was in the park picking berries with my wife and children. My wife asked me to go for something to the lodge. I went along an avenue, passing between flower-beds, and there quite unexpectedly I came upon Leo Nikolaevitch. I was struck by his appearance. He was bowed and he looked worried and exhausted. His eyes were dim and he seemed weak as I had never seen him before. He caught hurriedly at my arm on meeting me, and said with tears in his eyes: 'Ivan Vassilyevitch, darling, what is she doing to me? What is she doing to me? She is insisting on having an authorisation for instituting proceedings. You know I can't do that.... It would be against my principles.'

"Then walking a few steps with me he said: 'I have a great favour to ask of you, only let it be a secret between us. For the time don't speak of it to anyone, not even to Sasha. Please make up a deed for me by which I could announce publicly that I give all my works at whatever date they may have been written freely for the benefit of all.'"

[17] There was even a moment when these two undesirable conditions associated with the will, i.e. its legal form and the secrecy accompanying it, caused Leo Nikolaevitch to feel doubts as to the rectitude of his action. These doubts were aroused by a conversation with one of his intimate friends, who came in from outside and knew little of the circumstances of this complicated affair. Leo Nikolaevitch, who was distinguished by an extreme degree of touching sensitiveness to every criticism of his behaviour, agreed with his friend that he had acted, as the latter asserted, "inconsistently," and he told me of it, declaring, however, that he should nevertheless not change the dispositions he had made. On my side I was compelled to reply that in that case of course I should refuse to be his future executor for carrying out his testamentary dispositions, since only a conviction that I was accomplishing his definite and conscious desire could give me the necessary moral support for the performance of this difficult and responsible duty. At the same time, in accordance with his request, I reminded him of the circumstances and considerations which had induced him to have recourse to a will. In answer I received from him the following letter:

"I write this on little scraps of paper because I am in the woods out for a walk. Ever since yesterday evening I have been thinking about your yesterday's letter. The two chief feelings which it aroused in me were repulsion for the manifestations of coarse greed and heartlessness which I either did not see or have seen and forgotten, and distress and repentance that I should have hurt you by the letter in which I expressed regret for what I had done. The deduction I have made from the letter is that N. N. was wrong, and also that I was wrong in agreeing with him, and that I fully approve your conduct, but all the same am not satisfied with my own: I feel that it was possible to act better, but I don't know how. Now I do not regret what I have done, i.e. that I have made the will I did make, and I can only be thankful to you for the interest you have taken in the matter.

"I shall tell Tanya about it to-day, and that will be very pleasant to me.

"Leo Tolstoy.

"Aug. 12, 1910."    

In his private pocket diary on Aug. 11, 1910, Leo Nikolaevitch wrote as follows:

"A long letter from Tchertkoff describing all that has gone before. Very sad. Painful to read and recall. He is perfectly right, and I feel to blame in regard to him. N. N. was wrong. I will write to both of them."

Certain persons who, for one reason or another, do not sympathise with the testamentary dispositions of Leo Nikolaevitch, and especially those of them who took a personal share in the upsetting of them, continue to this day to assert that Leo Nikolaevitch saw in the end that he had made a mistake and regretted that he had made a will.

In confirmation of this they quote a few words written by Leo Nikolaevitch in his pocket diary at the time of his doubts; but they are carefully silent with regard to the later note in the same diary which I have just quoted.

In reality, of course, this incident of Leo Nikolaevitch's hesitation can only serve to prove how consciously from every point of view he weighed and considered all the circumstances of the case. If no doubts had ever assailed him it would have been possible to admit the supposition that it had never occurred to him to look at the question from the other side, and that therefore his attitude to it was one-sided. But now we know that he not only took a critical attitude as to his action, but that at one time he even doubted if it were right. If, even after such hesitation, he yet definitely confirmed his desire that the will should remain in force, what can be a better proof that this his final decision expresses his real and fully conscious will?—Cf. Diary, Vol. I. ed. 1916; Appendix, p. 260, "The Will," July 22, 1910.

Leo Tolstoy

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