Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Tolstoy—the Reformer of the East

Italy had won unity after a gallant struggle, and Greece some fifty years before revolted from the barbarous Turks and became an independent kingdom. The traditions of the past had helped these, since volunteers remembered times when art and beauty had dwelt upon the shores of the tideless Mediterranean. Song and romance haloed the name of Kossuth's race when the patriot rose to free Hungary from the harsh tyranny of Austria. General sympathy with the revolutionary spirit was abroad in 1848, when the tyrant Metternich resigned and acknowledged that the day of absolutism was over.

It was otherwise with the revolting Poles, who dwelt too far from the nations of the West to rouse their passionate sympathies. France promised to help their cause, but failed them in the hour of peril. Poland made a desperate struggle to assert her independence in 1830, when Nicholas the Autocrat was reigning over Russia. The Poles entered Lithuania, which they would have reunited with their ancient kingdom, but were completely defeated, losing Warsaw, their capital, and their Church and language, as well as their own administration.

Under Nicholas I, a ruler devoted to the military power of his Empire, there was little chance of freedom. He had himself no love of the West and the bold reforms which might bring him enlightened and discontented subjects. He crushed into abject submission all opposed to his authority. The blunt soldier would cling obstinately to the ancient Muscovy of Peter. He shut his eyes to the passing of absolutism in Europe and died, as he had reigned, the protector of the Orthodox Church of Russia, the sworn foe of revolutionaries.

Alexander II succeeded his father while the Crimean war was distracting the East by new problems and new warfare. Christian allies fought for the Infidel, and France and England declared themselves to be on the side of Turkey.

At the famous siege of Sebastopol, a young Russian officer was fighting for promotion. He wrote vivid descriptions of the battle-fields and armies. He wrote satirical verses on the part played by his own country. Count Leo Tolstoy was only a sub-lieutenant who had lived gaily at the University of Kazan and shared most of the views of his own class when he petitioned to be sent to the Crimea. The brave conduct of the private soldiers fighting steadfastly, without thought of reward or fear of death, impressed the Count, with his knowledge of the self-seeking, ambitious nobles. He began to love the peasantry he had seen as dim, remote shadows about his father's estate in the country. There he had learnt not to treat them brutally, after the fashion of most landowners, but it was not till he was exposed to the rough life of the bastion with Alexis, a serf presented to him when he went to the University, that Tolstoy acquired that peculiar affection for the People which was not then characteristic of the Russian.

After the war the young writer found that, if he had not attained any great rank in the army, high honours were awarded him in literature. Turgeniev, the veteran novelist, was ready to welcome him as an equal. The gifted officer was flattered and feted to his heart's content before a passionate love of truth withdrew him from society.

After the death of Nicholas reaction set in, as was inevitable, and Alexander II was eager to adopt the progress of the West. The German writers began to describe the lives of humble people, and their books were read in other lands. Russia followed with descriptions of life under natural conditions, the silence of the steppes and the solitude of the forest where hunter and trapper followed their pursuits far from society.

Tolstoy set out for Germany in 1857, anxious to study social conditions that he might learn how to raise the hapless serfs of Russia, bound, patient and inarticulate, at the feet of landowners, longing for independence, perhaps, when they suffered any terrible act of injustice, but patient in the better times when there was food and warmth and a master of comparatively unexacting temper.

Tolstoy had already written Polikoushka, a peasant story which attracted some attention. He was in love with the words People and Progress, and spoke them continually, trampling upon conventions. A desire to be original had been strong within him when he followed the usual pursuits of Russians of fashion. He delighted in this wandering in unknown tracks where none had preceded him. He was sincere, but he had not yet taken up his life-work.

At Lucerne he was filled with bitterness against the rich visitors at a hotel who refused to give alms to a wandering musician. He took the man to his table and offered wine for his refreshment. The indignation of the other guests made him dwell still more fiercely upon the callousness of those who neglect their poorer neighbours. Yet the quixotic noble was still sumptuous in his dress and spent much time on the sports which had been the pastimes of his boyhood. He nearly lost his life attempting to shoot a she-bear in the forest. The beast drew his face into her mouth and got her teeth in the flesh near the left eye. The intrepid sportsman escaped, but he bore the marks for long afterwards.

In 1861 a new era began in Russia, and a new period in Tolstoy's life, which was henceforward bound up with the history of the country folk. Alexander II issued a decree of emancipation for the serf, and Tolstoy was one of the arbitrators appointed to supervise the distribution of the land, to arrange the taxes and decide conditions of purchase. For each peasant received an allotment of land, subject for sixty years to a special land-tax. In their ignorance, the serfs were likely to sell themselves into new slavery where the proprietors felt disposed to drive hard bargains. Many landlords tried to allot land with no pasture, so that the rearer of cattle had to hire at an exorbitant rate. There had been two ways of holding serfs before—the more primitive method of obliging them to work so many days a week for the master before they could provide for their own wants, and the more enlightened manner of exacting only obrok, or yearly tribute. Tolstoy had already allowed his serf to "go on obrok," but, according to himself, he did nothing very generous when the new act was passed providing for emancipation.

He defended the freed men as far as possible, however, from the tyranny of other landowners, who began to dislike him very thoroughly. He had won the poor from their distrust by an experiment in education which he tried at his native place of Yasnaya Polyana.

The school opened by Count Tolstoy was a "free"; school in every sense of the word, which was then becoming popular. The children paid no fees and were not obliged to attend regularly. They ran in and out as they pleased and had no fear of punishments. It was a firm belief of the master that compulsory learning was quite useless. He taught in the way that the pupils wished to learn, humbly accepting their views on the matter. Vivid narration delighted the eager peasant boys in their rough sheepskins and woollen scarves. They would cry "Go on, go on," when the lesson should have ended. Any who showed weariness were bidden to "go to the little ones." At first, the peasants were afraid of the school, hearing wonderful stories of what happened there. They gained confidence at length, and then the government became suspicious.

Tolstoy had given up his work with a feeling of dissatisfaction and retired to a wild life with the Bashkirs in the steppes, where he hoped to recover bodily health, when news came that the schools had been searched and the teachers arrested. The effect on the ignorant was to make Tolstoy seem a criminal.

Hatred of a government, where such a search could be conducted with impunity, was not much modified by the Emperor's expression of regret for what had happened. The pond on Tolstoy's estate had been dragged, and cupboards and boxes in his own house opened, while the floor of the stables was broken up with crowbars. Even the diary and letters of an intimate character which had been kept secret from the Count's own family were read aloud by gendarmes. In a fit of rage, the reformer wrote of giving up his house and leaving Russia "where one cannot know from moment to moment what awaits one."

In 1862 Tolstoy married Sophia Behrs, the daughter of a Russian physician. He began to write again, feeling less zeal for social work and the need to earn money for his family. The Cossacks described the wild pleasures of existence away from civilization, where all joys arise from physical exertion. Tolstoy had known such a life during a sojourn in the Caucasus. It attracted him especially, for he was an admiring follower of Rousseau in the glorification of a return to Nature.

On the estate of Yasnaya there was work to be done, for agricultural labour meant well-cultivated land, and that meant prosperity. A large family was sheltered beneath the roof where simplicity ruled, and yet much comfort was enjoyed. Tolstoy wore the rough garments of a peasant, and delighted in the idea that he was often taken for a peasant though he had once been sorely troubled by his blunt features and lack of physical beauty. Family cares absorbed him, and the books he now gave to the world in constant succession. His name was spoken everywhere, and many visitors disturbed his seclusion. War and Peace, a description of Napoleonic times in Russia, found scant favour with Liberals or Conservatives in the East, but it ranked as a great work of fiction. Anna Karenina gave descriptions of society in town and country that were unequalled even by Turgeniev, the writer whose friendship with Tolstoy was often broken by fierce quarrels. The reformer's nature suffered nothing artificial. He sneered at formal charity and a pretence of labour. Hearing that Turgeniev's young daughter sat dressed in silks to mend the torn and ragged garments of poverty, as part of her education, he commented with his usual harshness. The comment was not forgiven, and strife separated men who had, nevertheless, a curious attraction for each other. Fet, the Russian poet was, indeed, the only friend in the literary world fortunate enough always to win the great novelist's approbation.

As the sons grew up, the family had to spend part of the year in Moscow that the lads might attend the University. It was necessary to live with the hospitality of Russians of the higher class, and division crept into the household where father and mother had been remarkable for their strong affection. Tolstoy wore the sheepskin of the labourer and the felt cap and boots, and he ate his simple meal of porridge at a table where others dined with less frugality. He had given up the habits of his class when he was fifty and adopted those of the peasantry. In the country he rose early, going out to the fields to work for the widow and orphan who might need his service. He hoped to find the mental ease of the manual labourer by entering on these duties, but his mind was often troubled by religious questions. He was serving God, as he deemed it, after a period of unbelief natural to young men of his station.

He had learnt to make boots and shoes and was proud of his skill as a cobbler. He gave up field sports because they were cruel, and renounced tobacco, the one luxury of Mazzini, because he held it unhealthy and self-indulgent. Money was so evil a thing in his sight that he would not use it and did not carry it with him. "What makes a man good is having but few wants," he said wisely. There were difficulties in the way of getting rid of all his property, for the children of the family could not be entirely despoiled of their inheritance. There were thirteen of them, and they did not all share the great reformer's ideas.

In 1888, Tolstoy eased his mind by an act of formal renunciation. The Countess was to have charge of the estates in trust for her children. The Count was still to live in the same house, but resolved to bind himself more closely to the people. He had volunteered to assist when the census was taken in 1880 and had seen the homes of poverty near his little village. He had been the champion of the neighbourhood since he defended a young soldier who had been unjustly sentenced. There was always a knot of suppliants under the "poor people's tree," ready to waylay him when he came out of the porch. They asked the impossible sometimes, but he was always kindly.

Love for the serf had been hereditary. Tolstoy's father was a kindly-natured man, and those who brought up the dreamy boy at Yasnaya had insisted on gentle dealings with both men and animals. There was a story which he loved of an orderly, once a serf on the family estate, who had been taken prisoner with his father after the siege of Erfurt. The faithful servant had such love for his master that he had concealed all his money in a boot which he did not remove for several months, though a sore was formed. Such stories tallied with the reformer's own experiences of soldiers' fighting at Sebastopol.

His mind was ever seeking new ways to reach the people. He believed that they would read if there were simple books written to appeal to them. He put his other labours on one side and wrote a series of charming narratives to touch the unlettered and draw them from their passion for vodka, or Russian brandy, and their harmful dissipations. Ivan the Fool was one of the first of these. The Power of Darkness had an enormous popularity. The ABC books and simple versions of the Scriptures did much to dispel sloth of mind in the peasant, but the Government did not look kindly on these efforts. To them the progressive Count was dangerous, though he held apart from those fanatics of the upper classes who had begun to move among the people in the disguise of workers, that they might spread disturbing doctrines.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


The police system of Russia involved a severe censorship of literature. Yet only one allusion did Tolstoy make in his Confessions to the revolutionary movement which led young men and women to sacrifice their homes and freedom from a belief that the section of society which they represented had no right to prey upon the lower. Religion, he says, had not been to them an inspiration, for, like the majority of the educated class in Russia, they were unbelievers. Different in his service toward God and toward Mankind was the man who had begun life by declaring that happiness came from self-worship. He prayed, as age came upon him, that he might find truth in that humanity which believed very simply as others had believed of old time, but he could not be satisfied by the practises of piety. He was tortured until he built up that religion for himself which placed him apart from his fellows who loved progress.

The days of persecution in the East were as terrible as in the bygone days of western mediaeval tortures. For their social aims, men and women were condemned to death or banishment. The dreary wastes of Siberia absorbed lives once bright and beautiful. Known by numbers, not by names, these dragged out a weary existence in the bitter cold of an Arctic winter. "By order of the Tsar" they were flogged, tormented, put in chains, and reduced to the level of animals, bereft of reason. Fast as the spirit of freedom raised its head, it was cowed by absolutism and the powerful machinery of a Government that used the wild Cossacks to overawe the hot theories of defenceless students. Educated men were becoming more common among the peasants, thanks to Tolstoy's guidance. He had shown the way to them and could not repent when they took it, for it is the duty of the reformer to secure a following. Anarchy he had not foreseen, and was troubled by its manifestations. The gentle mind of an old man, resting peacefully in the country, could not penetrate the dark corners of cities where the rebellious gathered together and hatched plots against the tyrant. In spite of Alexander's liberal measures, the Nihilists were not satisfied with a Government so despotic. Many attempts had been made to assassinate him before he was killed by a hand-bomb on March 13th, 1881.

Alexander III abandoned reforms and the discontent increased in Russia, where the plots of conspirators called forth all the atrocities of the spy-system which still existed. Enmity to the Government was further roused in a time of famine, wherein thousands of peasants perished miserably. Tolstoy was active in his attempts to relieve the sick and starving in the year 1891, when the condition of the people was heartrending. He received thanks which were grateful to one very easily discouraged. The peasants turned to him for support quite naturally in their hour of need.

Trouble came upon the aged leader through a sect of the Caucasian provinces who had adopted his new views with ardour. The Doukhobors held all their goods in common and made moral laws for themselves, based on Tolstoy's form of religion. They refused to serve as soldiers, which was said to be a defiance of their governor. The leaders were exiled and some hundreds enrolled in "a disciplinary regiment" as a punishment. Tolstoy managed to rouse sympathy for them in England, and they were allowed to emigrate instead of suffering persecution. He wrote Resurrection, a novel dealing with the terrible life of Russian prisons, to get money for their relief. He was excommunicated formally for attacking the Orthodox Church of Russia in 1901. The sentence caused him to feel yet more bitterly toward the Russian government. He longed to see peace in the eastern land whence tales of cruelty and oppression startled the more humane provinces of Europe. He would fain have stayed the outrages of bomb-throwing which the Nihilist societies perpetrated. He could feel for the unrest of youth, but he knew from his long experience of life that violence would not bring them to the attainment of their objects.

The tragedy of the Moujik-garbed aristocrat, striving for self-perfection and cast down by compromise made necessary by love for others, drew to a close as he neared his eightieth year. He would have given everything, and he had kept something. Worldly possessions had been stripped from his dwelling, with its air of honest kindly comfort. More and more the descendant of Peter the Great's ambitious minister began to feel the need of entire renunciation. It was long since he had known the riotous life of cities, but even the peace of his country retreat was broken by discords since all did not share that longing for utter self-abnegation which possessed the soul of Leo Tolstoy, now troubled by remorse.

In the winter of 1910 the old man left the home where he had lived in domestic security since the first years of his happy marriage. It was severe weather, and his fragile frame was too weak for the long difficult journey he planned in order to reach a place of retreat in the Caucasus Mountains. He had resolved to spend his last days in complete seclusion, and to give up the intercourse with the world which made too many claims upon him. He died on this last quest for ideal purity, and never reached the abode where he had hoped to end his days. The news of his death at a remote railway station spread through Europe before he actually succumbed to the severity of his exposure to the cold of winter. There was universal sorrow, when Tolstoy passed, among those who reckoned him the greatest of modern reformers.