The Tolstoyans

On my father's followers

Alexandra Tolstoy
Spencer Barnes
A photograph of a tree.
Vernon Heath, “[Beech Trees, Inveraray],” 1871. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The years following the death of my father in 1910 up to the declaration of war in 1914 were the hardest of my life. While he was with me, I had no life or interest purely my own. All that was serious and genuine in me was bound up in him. When he departed, there remained a yawning void, an emptiness, which I did not know how to fill.

My father’s will covered all his literary rights, the posthumous edition of three volumes comprising his then unpublished works; the purchase of lands from the family from our country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, and the transfer of these lands to the peasants. It may seem that all this responsibility as his legatee should have filled my life.

Yet in fact this was not the case. My relations with my family had become embittered. My favorite older brother and sister, Sergei and Tatiana, who were the closest to my father, especially my sister and brother and my other brothers who had not received any share in author’s rights — all were offended. This was hard for me to bear.

Very soon there came a bitter disappointment with the followers of my father, the “Tolstoyans.” Vladimir Grigorievich Chertkov, with whom it was my lot to work closely, depressed me with his frequently senseless stubbornness and stupid dictatorial ways. I was only twenty-six and had had little experience, so it was hard for me to struggle with him when I thought him in the wrong. In my early youth he had been considered a devoted friend of my father. For him he had given up the promise of a glittering career at court. He had become a strict vegetarian. He had taken up the simple life and had given himself entirely to distributing my father’s philosophical works. With Ivan lvanovich Gorbunov-Posadov, he had founded an inexpensive publishing house, Posrednik (Mediator), which distributed my father’s popular tales for a price from one to three kopecks (a hundredth part of a rouble) per booklet, and this activity constituted the main interest of his life.

To Tolstoy, on the other hand, every person was interesting. He loved people.

One essential quality in my father was his gratitude for whatever anyone did for him. He felt this to an unusual degree in relation to Chertkov. “No one else has done for me what Vladimir Grigorievich has done,” he would say. Yet it would be hard to find two people more different in character, though it is not easy to define this difference.

There was no flexibility in Chertkov. He was heavy-handed in his singleness of purpose, his complete inability to adapt to circumstances. His manner, his actions, his reason—all were focused in one direction and permitted no compromise. Chertkov had no sensitivity; there was no warmth in him. His approach to people took the form of a rigid judgment: if a person ate meat and was rich, that person was immediately uninteresting.

To Tolstoy, on the other hand, every person was interesting. He loved people. Precisely here perhaps lay the difference between him and his faithful follower. Tolstoy was happy whenever he was communicating with people, whom he found absorbing. No matter who came to him, he always saw something special, something individual, in that person.

To Chertkov, a society lady was a zero. To Tolstoy, she was an entity from one or another point of view. Chertkov would never notice the half-wit standing by the door with a foolish smile, begging for a kopeck. To Tolstoy, that man was uniquely a person; toward everyone he was kind and loving. To me Chertkov was tiresome; he depressed me.

Yes, with rare exceptions, I did not greatly love the Tolstoyans. I felt in them a lack of sincerity, a constraint, an unnaturalness. Once, I remember, my little six-year-old nephew read a notice in Chertkov’s house: “Today at eight o’clock in the evening there will be a lecture on spiritual marriage.” The child asked our cook, “Annushka, what is spiritual marriage?” Annushka, a robust, hard-working woman who daily cooked the food of these idlers, only waved her hand. “They haven’t anything else to do, so they invent such foolishness. Today spiritual marriage—tomorrow we shall have spiritual children.”

All too often the Tolstoyans were dirty in person, smelling of unwashed clothing; they killed all joy in life. They wore Russian blouses and high boots. Some of them grew beards. They were repugnant to me, especially on two occasions when I had to escape persecution from such “spiritual” people. Their teacher, on the contrary, understood perfectly the joy of life. It showed in his facial expression, his smile, his jokes, his laughter. His followers, though, preserved their gloomy Lenten faces, as if fearing to spoil their state of perfection by an unnecessary smile or a happy song.

My father liked not only classical music but also popular pieces, gypsy songs, whereas the Tolstoyans shunned all cheerful catchy airs. Once Wanda Landowska was my guest at my own house on the estate next to Chertkov’s house. Famous for her playing of old familiar classical music on the harpsichord, she played for his visitors. The next day reports reached us that the young people had slept badly. Her playing had disturbed them and awakened sinful thoughts. When she heard this, she laughed heartily. The next evening, when she was again playing at Chertkov’s, I said to her, “Wanda, what are you doing? Your playing is so brilliant, I’m afraid none of the Tolstoyans will close an eye tonight.”

However, there were other kinds of Tolstoyans, like Maria Alexandrovna Schmidt, a great friend of my father’s. She had made a sharp break with her earlier life, and now devoted herself entirely to helping the peasants among whom she lived. In her there was never a shadow of insincerity. She influenced others through love, not through moralizing. In the difficult, insipid, unhappy period of my life after my father’s death, she was a great help to me.

And so I managed to live on with my petty interests. I was able to find a few diversions. I worked with the peasants on the business of transferring the land to them, and also with the cooperative organizations. With the aid of a trained agronomist, I tried to help them to improve their field work. Little by little the peasants took up crop rotation and began to plant clover so as to restore nitrogen to the soil. In the last years before the First World War great advances were made throughout Russia in scientific farming.

In the winter I lived in our Moscow house, in the summer, in the country. I kept a herd of pedigreed cattle and sent milk daily to the hospital in Tula, some twenty miles north of our lands. I acquired some thoroughbred horses. These, however, were put to work plowing and performing other field tasks. At that time my mother’s former secretary, who was a great lover of dogs, lived with me. As house dogs we had two black poodles, one my faithful Marquis, named by my father, and his friend Nitouche, as well as two white Eskimo dogs, large, powerful beauties named Belyak and Belka. Some things I did accomplish, I kept busy somehow or other, but it seemed all rather futile, and my soul felt empty.

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, war broke out.

Probably it is only natural for the masses of any country to pay little attention to major political events, whether national or international. Usually people are taken up by their own personal interests; they look no farther than their own wellbeing, their worries, their misfortunes. Why bother with matters of importance only to governments? Let the Presidents or the Tsars take care of all that. Only when catastrophe touches us directly do we wake up.

For many Russians, therefore, the First World War was unexpected. Yet those who habitually thought and read were aware of the warlike mood in Germany, her fear of a great—and then powerful—Russia, Austria’s enmity to Hungary and Serbia, the Serbians’ hatred for the Austrians for the latters’ domination of the Slavic provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everyone knew of the political attitude of the Austrian imperial dynasty of the Hapsburgs, who considered themselves a chosen people.

All Russians were more or less aware of such circumstances but no one wanted to believe in the menace. Even when the young Serbian Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the rattle of arms could already be heard in Austria and Germany, searching for an excuse for war with Russia, and even when the attaché in the British embassy in Berlin was still doing everything possible to achieve a satisfactory settlement, the Russian people did not believe in any real chance of war. “It will all turn out for the best, it will work out.”

I had never delved into political affairs. I had heard a little, I had read the newspapers, but political confrontations had gone over my head. Therefore I was thunderstruck when on August 1, 1914, war was declared. Now I began avidly to read the newspapers.

On July 26, 1914, Tsar Nicholas II addressed a joint meeting of the Council of State and the Duma (the national assembly, instituted in 1905). In conclusion he said, “We will not only defend our honor and dignity within the boundaries of our own territory, we will also fight for our Slav brothers.”

The response was a loud, enthusiastic “Hurrah!” Golubov, the chairman of the Council of State, responded, and then Mikhail V. Rodzyanko, the president of the Duma, delivered a magnificent address. The fatherland was in danger. Russians of different parties, different schools of thought, all united in a flaming outburst of love for their native land and devotion to the monarchy.

For me to sit with folded hands was unthinkable. Already, one after another, workers and relatives were departing. My thoroughbreds were taken for war service. The fields and villages of our country estate were desolated. Everything that had occupied my life—agriculture, the organization and direction of the cooperatives—all vanished.

I could not sit at home. I needed to take a part in the general tragedy. I decided to go to the front as a nurse. I went to the main house at Yasnaya Polyana to say goodbye to my mother. Nowadays she would sit the entire day, dozing in an armchair. It was hard to recognize in this quiescent, unassertive old woman the mother I had once known. Where was that limitless energy, her combativity, her domineering ways?

Hardly anything else had changed at Yasnaya Polyana, however. My elder sister Tatiana still lived in one wing of the house with her daughter Tanichka. The same cook as before, Semyon Nikolaevich—my mother’s godchild—prepared breakfast at twelve noon, and a dinner of four courses at six in the evening, while our old servant Ilya Vasilievich waited on table. It was quiet in the house. Empty. And boring.

“Why go to the war?” asked my mother. “There’s no point in it. Your father was against war, and now you want to take part in it.”

“I don’t think he was against my helping the sick and wounded.”

But my mother was not satisfied. “Well, I’ve given you my opinion, but I know it’s useless. You always get your own way.” Chertkov and the Tolstoyans also criticized me, but to no effect. I could not stay home.

Prepared for publication by Katharine Strelsky and Catherine Wolkonsky.

Alexandra Tolstoy was the daughter of Leo Tolstoy.
Spencer Barnes is a translator.
Originally published:
December 1, 1977


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