Reflection on the Life of Tolstoy by Waltenegus Dargie

October 17th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

I completed reading “The Life of Tolstoy” by Aylmer Maude amidst a veritable pile of work and deadlines. The problem with my profession is that there are so many deadlines and notifications. You submit a project proposal, your lifeline, and wait for the decision; you submit papers to journals and conferences and wait to be notified of their acceptance. Others do just the same and you are expected to make decisions and notifications. This happens to be the occupation of everyday life. When this becomes a habit, your life becomes one in which there are so many expectations and disappointments. Unless you are careful, the swing between elation and despair falsely begins to be the very driving force of your living.

But more importantly, you cease to check on yourself. The distinction between right and wrong blurs itself and you stop counting how many times you have been residing at the boarder. Unless you balanced your professional activity with something else that has nothing to do with your occupation, soon or latter, life becomes charmless and false.

With this in mind, I decided to read Tolstoy this past semester. I have already read his two known books long ago, but I wanted to read all the novellas and his biography. I chose Tolstoy because I knew I would be challenged. Now when I see in retrospect, it was a good decision, for without “Family Happiness”, “The Cossacks”, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and “Hadji Murad”, the semester would have been dull and I wouldn’t have kept the dreadful deadlines.

In July, a business trip to Miami presented itself. I took advantage of the break from the routine and ordered “The Life of Tolstoy” to read it on the way. When the book came, I realised that it was 908 pages long and the fonts were not particularly friendly. Those who know the spell of a good book on us unfortunate earthly dwellers can imagine how the subsequent days and nights were lived. In the words of one contemporary Russian writer, the book was a perpetual holiday.

The Author

Aylmer Maude was an English goldsmith who lived with his wife in Moscow when Tolstoy was at the pinnacle of his carrier (if one may say so about Tolstoy). He knew Tolstoy very well and to some extent became his follower. He spent much of his latter life translating Tolstoy’s books. It is apparent from several references that Tolstoy was affectionate towards him and unreservedly revealed to him his mind.

My first impression about the author was that he was a good observer. He observed Tolstoy as well as all the people around him with keen interest and a certain aloofness. He was strongly attracted by the personality of the great author, but managed not to be completely taken by his philosophy of life. He writes and translates into English remarkably well. Interestingly, despite a long time of friendship and a long time stay in Russia, he considered himself as an outsider. I believe that is the reason why he kept his criticism of Tolstoy as well as of Russia and its system of government to himself (and to us through his book). Only towards the end was he able to pen some of his disagreements with Tolstoy and made them known to the latter by way of a letter.

The Book

The book gives a detail account of Tolstoy – his life, work, and philosophy. It is reach in material, including precious letters to family members, famous writers, and emperors. It is also rich in personal diaries. It is the most authoritative book I have read on the subject. My only disappointment is that Maude inserted in the book some materials which have no significance to the biography (for example, the chapter on “The Doukhobors” should have been removed from the book). Moreover, at some places, he brings in personal disagreements and strife (with Chertkov) and attempts to justify himself.

The Setting

I was exceptionally conscious of the setting particularly because I had my own country in my mind throughout this year. The setting of the book is the 19th century Russia (1828-1910), at a time the country was being ruled by Tsars and a minority class of people, the aristocrats, who were enjoying boundless privileges at the expense of the multitude. The Tsars of Russia were once the deliverers of the land. Before them, the country had been a prey to “Tartar hordes who swept over her, burning, slaying, and outraging. Slowly, the Grand Dukes of Muscovy spread their dominion until, while still nominally tributary to the Tartar Khans, they made themselves practically the master of Central Russia. Then they threw off the yoke and claimed themselves the title of Tsar or Caesar”. But long after the oppression of the Turks had ceased, the Tsardom gradually transformed itself into a terrible and oppressive establishment. The best description of the setting is to be found in the book itself: “…the existing order of things resulted in the mass of people having to live in conditions of blighting ignorance and grinding poverty, while a parasitic minority who lived in plenty, and sometimes in extravagant superfluity, rendered no service at all equivalent to the cost of their maintenance…”.

But it was also the time Russia produced some of her best thinkers and artists: Dostoyevsky, Herzen, Turgenev, and Tchaikovsky, to mention just the very few.

The Protagonist

There was every indication that Tolstoy would take after his generation. He was born a Count to an immensely rich family. Unfortunately, he grew up an orphan, under numerous caretakers, and this situation had a lasting impression on him. Apart from that, Tolstoy indicated every sign of being one of those lucky, spoilt, and snobbish minorities. He enjoyed his privileges (he had his own servant since childhood who was condemned to serve even when his master was in a university prison); frequented those fancy and superficial high society gatherings (balls), gambling and carousing at a grand scale. He joined the University of Kazan at the age of 16, but after a short stay, he withdrew from it. He was labelled by his professors as both “unable” and “unwilling” to study.

At the age of 23, after having tried everything, he lost a large sum of money and buried himself deeply in debt. This resulted in mental anguish and a bottomless emptiness. It occurred to him that something was fundamentally wrong with his life. The society he was living in was outright false and superficial. He craved for something fresh and truthful. He decided to leave everything behind him and live a simple and authentic life in Caucasus. It was there in Caucasus that he started to write seriously. The beauty of the place, the simplicity of life, the honesty of the people…all, brought out the best in him. Whereas in Moscow and St. Petersburg he sensed that faultiness of his foundation, he had not properly analysed the problem. In Caucasus, while being able to test the joy and cleanliness of not having to keep appearances, he was able to put his fingers on some of the disturbing aspects of the society by which his identity was found:

1. Lies were easily told;
2. A borrowed and imperfectly spoken language (French) was considered a sign of refinement;
3. All governmental positions were obtained through relationships and connections;
4. Viral and incontrollable appetite for gossip at all levels of society;
5. From the youth to the old people were endemically afflicted by a spirit of lasciviousness;
6. Everybody wore a fake and inconsequential religious appearance;
7. No authentic work was done in all governmental establishments;
8. Everyone strove to get rich at no cost of investment and at the fastest speed possible.

Perhaps, the first and meaningful achievement was his ability to admit to himself the wrongness of the past he took thus far. Even though he experienced hiccups here and hiccups there (with gambling and carousing), he decided never to have anything to do with the Aristocracy. Moreover, he was determined to develop and use the Russian language in his literary work, instead of borrowing style and language from the French. It was in Caucasus that he published his first work: Childhood.

After Caucasus, Tolstoy participated in the Crimean War and published a series of sketches on the Siege of Sevastopol. His commitment to uplift the truth displayed itself by the way he depicted the grimness and distasteful face of war (unlike the popular mania to romanticise war and its heroes). After the war, instead of returning back to Moscow or St. Petersburg and ingratiating himself to secure a government position or a lucrative business, Tolstoy returned to the little known province of Yasnaya Polyana, to his state, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
The mighty of his artistic craftsmanship was devoted to expose, as he promised himself, the falseness of the selected few, the minority, the rich, and the shameful unfairness of its claim and lifestyle. His criticism was complemented by his chosen ordinary life and his endeavour to change the lives of the ordinary people. He refused to be served by anyone, not even by house servants or maids. He earned his own living, not only by writing, but also through hard labour on the field. As the days went by, his criticism of the established way of life became sharper. This is how he described his feeling in one of his books (Confession): “…the life of our circle, the rich and learned, not merely became distasteful to me, but lost all meaning for me, while the life of the whole labouring people, the whole of mankind who produce life appear to me in its true life.”

The Antagonist

The Russian Tsars of the time were typical examples of people who have been deceived and corrupted by power. All the great thinkers of the time foresee the eventual collapse of the reign. Dostoyevsky (Christian) saw it; Turgenev (Liberal) saw it; Tolstoy (“Christian anarchist”) saw it; Herzen (Socialist) saw it. Only the spoilt minority, the nobility, could not see it. In fact, they preferred to give a deaf ear to the exhortations and lamentations of those who craved for change. The grip of tyranny and greed became tighter and tighter. Here is how Maude describes the political spirit: “This conglomerate of the gendarmerie, the secrete police, the spy-system, and certain special troops, under a Head who reported directly to the Tsar and acted independently of other Minsters, controlled the press and public meetings, could arrest whom it pleased and deal with them by administrative action, and in alliance with the Church could and did harass dissenters and treat freedom of conscience as a crime.”

In Hadji Murad, Tolstoy expresses how Tsar Nickolas I managed to silence the unceasing reproach of his own conscience: “…to stifle that feeling of [guilt], he dwelt on a thought that always tranquilized him, the thought of his own greatness.”

Gradually and steadily, the country plunged into bottomless destruction. This destruction Tolstoy saw clearly; was horrified by it; but he was helpless to change it. After the publication of “Anna Karenina”, a drastic change occurred in his life. His horror in the plight and distress of the poor as well as the unjust distribution of wealth forced him to develop yet another and more severe philosophy of life, for which he lived and sacrificed everything he owned.
In the end Tolstoy rejected:

1. All forms of government: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens … Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”
2. Ownership of property. He considered greed to be the root of all evil.
3. The church, without rejecting faith in God. He strongly believed that the Russian Orthodox Church went so far away from its initial call to become a tool of manipulation of the poor by the strong, the privileged, and the oppressive.


As I mentioned elsewhere, I had my own country in my mind while I read the book. The book shares so many similar features with our present situation. Despite the lies we have been consistently supplied along with innumerable statistics and inferences, the fact is that there is disproportion in the distribution of wealth and power. A minority of people are preferred to take key positions (conspicuous or not) without any countable merit. People come together not because of a shared mental and spiritual interest, but because of an imagined fear, bitterness, hatred or greed. Some people whom we have been known for a long time have become overnight unapproachable tycoons, having multiple houses and business establishments. No one talks freely. People lie; they never speak their mind. No one is faithful. No one gives his best to anyone. No one is sure of his future. These all have created a spirit of falsehood.
Simply, we are in the wrong.

Tolstoy spent more than fifty years in reminding the monarchy that it was going in the wrong and deadly direction. No body listened. The fruits of that precious mind have never been enjoyed. Ten years after the death of the great man, Russia, for whom he lamented, collapsed completely. Sadly, the communists who replaced the monarchy brought with them unimaginable horror, not only to their own country, but to the entire world; the falseness of their belief does not need any analysis.

I recommend our leaders to take this book and spent sometime with it. I do not ask them to accept Tolstoy’s philosophy. I do not accept them in their entirety myself. But it is useful to understand the causes that led him to the conclusions he reached.

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