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Ch. 8: Tolstoy's Relation to His Wife

After his departure Leo Nikolaevitch never for a minute repented what he had done, and never considered the idea of his return to Sofya Andreyevna. When his daughter Alexandra Lvovna several days afterwards asked him whether he could regret his action, he answered: "Of course not. Can a man regret something when he could not act differently?"

And why he could not act differently he told her openly in his letter of the 29th October: "For me, with this spying, eavesdropping, everlasting reproaches, disposing of me according to caprice, everlasting control, pretence of hatred for the man who is nearest and most necessary to me, with this obvious hatred for me and affectation of love ... such a life is not merely unpleasant for me, but utterly impossible. If anyone is to drown oneself it is not she but I.... I desire one thing only, freedom from her, from the falsity, hypocrisy and malice with which her whole being is saturated.... All her behaviour to me not only shows a lack of love, but seems to have been unmistakably aimed at killing me...."

These words broke from Leo Nikolaevitch like the irrepressible shriek from the tortured soul of a man who had for long years been accustomed to hide in himself the deepest and most poignant of his sufferings. And therefore after giving vent for once to his need to speak out to his favourite daughter, he at once hastens to comment: "You see, dear, how bad I am. I do not conceal myself from you."[22]

This letter is important for us, Leo Nikolaevitch's friends, because it raises a little corner of the curtain with which for the last ten years of his life he scrupulously covered from the eye of man the inner tortures he experienced. Were it not for this "human document" it might have been supposed that, having attained the marvellous height of spiritual illumination which distinguished the latter period of his life, Leo Nikolaevitch was thereby saved from the possibility of feeling insult and experiencing spiritual pain. Now we know that if in his diary, in his correspondence and in conversation with his friends he abstained for the most part from any complaints of the bitterness of his position, preferring to note his own mistakes and weaknesses, he did this not because he was at that time free from the common human characteristic of feeling pain inflicted upon him. We now see that to the very end of his days he had not ceased to be for us ordinary people a comrade capable of feeling the same mortifications and sufferings as we. For that reason we ought to be grateful to fate which for one instant revealed before us in that letter the deep spiritual wound which Leo Nikolaevitch bore away with him when he left his wife. But at the same time it would be quite a mistake to suppose that though he left Sofya Andreyevna he retained any evil feeling towards her and was not capable of forgiving her. On the contrary, almost at the same time as the letter to his daughter which we have quoted, he wrote his wife a touching, warm-hearted letter which leaves not the slightest doubt of his real love for her. And on the following day he wrote to his two elder children: "Please try and soothe your mother, for whom I have the most sincere feeling of compassion and love." And he not only pitied Sofya Andreyevna, but had so much real love for her that he could with a pure heart forgive her, and himself beg her forgiveness.

Altogether the last letters of Leo Nikolaevitch to his wife, which have, by the way, been published by her,[23] strikingly reveal some characteristic peculiarities in his relations with her during the latest period of their life together. The most conspicuous peculiarity is that in spite of the very painful crises Leo Nikolaevitch had passed through in his family relations, the habitual and extremely delicate consideration in his behaviour to Sofya Andreyevna never left him for one minute. Consequently when telling her the causes of his departure, he does not without necessity touch upon those of his impulses which were disagreeable to her. Avoiding them as far as possible, he accentuates those of his motives which had a general character and did not wound her vanity. He only alludes to the points in which she had been to blame towards him when it is quite unavoidable, and touches on those questions as gently and carefully as possible.

I will quote those of his letters which directly concern his departure, beginning with one written thirteen years before he actually went away, at a time when he was intending to leave his family but did not do so. He directed that this letter should be given to his wife after his death, which was done.


"June 8, 1897.

"Dear Sonya,

"For a long time past I have been worried by the inconsistency of my life with my convictions. To make you change your life, your habits in which I have trained you, I could not; go away from you hitherto I could not either, thinking that I should deprive the children while they were small of at least that little influence I might have on them, and should be grieving you; nor can I any longer continue to live as I have lived these sixteen years, at one time struggling and irritating you, at another myself, succumbing to the temptations to which I am accustomed, and by which I am surrounded; and I have determined now to do what I have long wanted to do—go away: in the first place, because for me with my advancing years this life becomes more and more oppressive, and I long more and more for solitude; and secondly, because my children are grown up, my influence is not now needed in the house, and all of you have interests more vital to you which will make you feel my absence less.

"The chief thing is that just as the Hindus when close on sixty go away into the forest, as every religious old man longs to devote the last years of his life to God, and not to jests, to puns, to gossip and to tennis, so I, entering on my seventieth year, long with my whole soul for peace, for solitude, and if not for complete harmony, at least not the glaring discord between one's life and one's convictions, one's conscience.

"If I were to do this openly there would be entreaties, upbraidings, arguments, complaints; I should lose courage, perhaps, and not carry out my decision although it ought to be carried out. And therefore please forgive if my action hurts you, and in thy soul do thou, Sonya, especially, let me go with a good will; do not look for me, don't lament over me, or complain against me; do not blame me.

"That I have gone away from you does not show that I was displeased with you. I know that you literally could not see and feel as I do, and therefore could not and cannot change your life and make sacrifices for what you do not recognise. And therefore I do not blame you, but, on the contrary, with love and gratitude remember the thirty-five long years of our life, especially the first half of the time, when with a motherly self-sacrifice, which is part of your nature, you so vigorously and firmly bore that which you considered your vocation. You have given me and the world what you could give—you have given a great deal of motherly love and self-sacrifice, and one cannot but value you for it. But in the later period of our life—the last fifteen years—we have grown apart. I cannot think that I am to blame, because I know that I have changed neither for my own sake nor for other people's, but because I could do nothing else. I cannot blame you either for not following me, but I thank you and think of you, and always shall think of you, with love for what you have given me.

"Farewell, dear Sonya,
"Your loving
"Leo Tolstoy."

(Cf. Letters to his Wife, p. 524.)


"Yasnaya Polyana.
"October 28, 1910.

"My going away will grieve you. I am sorry for it, but do understand and believe that I cannot act differently. My position in the house is becoming, has become, unbearable. Apart from everything else, I cannot any longer live in the conditions of luxury in which I have been living, and I am doing what old men of my age commonly do—they retire from worldly life to spend their last days in solitude and quiet. Please understand this and do not come after me if you find out where I am. Your coming in that way would only make your and my position worse and would not alter my decision.

"I thank you for these forty-eight years of faithful life with me, and beg you to forgive me for anything in which I have been to blame towards you, even as I with all my soul forgive you for anything in which you may have been to blame towards me. I advise you to resign yourself to the new position in which my departure places you, and not to have any ill-feeling against me.

"If you want to communicate with me, give everything to Sasha. She will know where I am and will forward anything that is necessary; she cannot tell you where I am, because I have made her promise not to tell anyone."

(Letters to his Wife, p. 590.)


"October 31, 1910.

"A meeting between us and still more my return is now utterly impossible. For you it would be, as everyone declares, highly injurious, and for me it would be awful, since now, in consequence of your excitement, irritation and morbid condition, my position would, if that is possible, be worse than ever. I advise you to resign yourself to what has happened, to settle down in your new position, and above all to attend to your health. To say nothing of loving, if you don't absolutely hate me you ought to enter a little into my position. And if you do that you not only will not blame me, but will try to help me to find peace and the possibility of some sort of human life, to help me by controlling yourself, and you will not wish me to come back now. Your mood as at present, your desire to commit suicide and efforts to do so, show more than anything your loss of self-control, and make my return unthinkable at present. No one but yourself can save all who are near you, me and above all yourself, from sufferings such as we have endured in the past.[24]

"Try to direct all your energies not to bringing about what you desire—at present my return—but to bringing peace to your soul, and you will get what you desire.

"I have spent two days at Shamordino and Optina Pustyn, and am going away. I will post this letter on the way. I do not say where I am going, because I consider separation essential both for you and for me. Do not think that I am going away because I do not love you: I love and pity you with all my soul, but I cannot do otherwise than I am doing.

"Your letter I know was written sincerely, but you are not capable of doing what you would wish to. And what matters is not the fulfilment of any of my desires or demands, but only your balance, your calm, reasonable attitude to life. And while that is lacking my life with you is not thinkable. To return to you while you are in such a state would be equivalent to committing suicide. And I do not consider that I have a right to do that. Farewell, dear Sonya. God help you. Life is no jesting matter, and we have no right to throw it away at our own will, and it is unreasonable, too, to measure it by length of time. Perhaps those months which we have left to live are more important than all the years lived before, and we must live them well."

And from the touching interest which Leo Nikolaevitch displayed after he went away in everything relating to Sofya Andreyevna, questioning everyone about her with the greatest emotion and solicitude, it was perfectly clear that, though he recognised before his conscience that to live together with her any longer was impossible, yet in his soul he was fully reconciled with her.


[22] I permit myself to quote this letter without asking Alexandra Lvovna's permission to do so, because it has already, without our previous knowledge, appeared in print in the historical journal, Facts and Days (Petrograd, 1920), and because it makes a less one-sided impression in connection with the other contents of the present book.

[23] "Letters of Count L. N. Tolstoy to his wife, 1862-1910" (Kushnerev & Co., 1915).

[24] The words "sufferings such as we have endured in the past" have been left out of Tolstoy's letters by Sofya Andreyevna without any indication of an omission.

Leo Tolstoy

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