In January 1895, deep in the heart of the Russian winter, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy left Moscow to go and spend a few days with some old friends at their country estate. He had just experienced another fracas with his wife over the publication of a new story, he felt suffocated in the city, and he wanted to clear his head by putting on his old leather coat and fur hat and going for some long walks in the clear, frosty air, far away from people and buildings. His hosts had taken care to clear the paths on their property, but Tolstoy did not like walking on well-ordered paths. Even in his late sixties he preferred tramping in the wilds, so he invariably ventured out past the garden fence and strode off into the deep snow, in whichever direction his gaze took him. Some of the younger members of the household had the idea of following in his footsteps one evening, but they soon had to give up when they saw how great was the distance between the holes left in the soft snow by his felt boots.1
The sensation of not being able to keep up was one commonly felt by Tolstoy’s contemporaries, as he left giant footprints in every area of his life. After racking up enormous gambling debts as a young man, during which time he conceived and failed to live up to wildly ambitious ideals, he turned to writing extremely long novels and fathering a large number of children. When he went out riding with his sons, he habitually went at such a fast pace they could barely keep up with him. Then he became moral leader to the nation, and one of the world’s most famous and influential men. A tendency towards the grand scale has been a markedly Russian characteristic ever since the times of Ivan the Terrible, who created an enormous multi-ethnic empire by conquering three Mongol Khanates in the sixteenth century. Peter the Great cemented the tradition by making space the defining feature of his new capital of St Petersburg which arose in record time out of the Finnish marshes. By the time Catherine the Great died at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia had also become immensely wealthy. Its aristocrats were able to build lavish palaces and assemble extravagant art collections far grander than their Western counterparts, with lifestyles to match. But Russia’s poverty was also on a grand scale, perpetuated by an inhumane caste system in which a tiny minority of Westernised nobility ruled over a fettered serf population made to live in degrading conditions. Tolstoy was both a product of this culture and perhaps its most vivid expression.
Many people who knew Tolstoy noticed his hyper-sensitivity. He was like litmus paper in his acute receptivity to minute gradations of physical and emotional experience, and it was his unparalleled ability to observe and articulate these ever-changing details of human behaviour in his creative works that makes his prose so thrilling to read. The consciousness of his characters is at once particular and universal. Tolstoy was also hyper-sensitive in another way, for he embodied at different times of his life a myriad Russian archetypes, from the ‘repentant nobleman’ to the ‘holy fool’. Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy, but only Tolstoy could be likened in almost the same breath to both a tsar and a peasant. From the time that he was born into the aristocratic Tolstoy family in the idyllic surroundings of his ancestral home at Yasnaya Polyana to the day that he left it for the last time at the age of eighty-two, Tolstoy lived a profoundly Russian life. He began to be identified with his country soon after he published his national epic War and Peace when he was in still his thirties. Later on, he was equated with Ilya Muromets, the most famous Russian bogatyr – a semi-mythical medieval warrior who lay at home on the brick stove until he was thirty-three – then went on to perform great feats defending the realm. Ilya Muromets is Russia’s traditional symbol of physical and spiritual strength. Tolstoy was also synonymous with Russia in the eyes of many of his foreign admirers. ‘He is as much part of Russia, as significant of Russian character, as prophetic of Russian development, as the Kremlin itself,’ wrote the liberal British politician Sir Henry Norman soon after visiting Tolstoy in 1901.2 For the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, meanwhile, Tolstoy had ‘no face of his own; he possesses the face of the Russian people, because in him the whole of Russia lives and breathes’.3
Tolstoy lived a Russian life, and he lived many more lives than most other Russians, exhibiting both the ‘natural dionysism’ and ‘Christian asceticism’ which the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev defines as characteristic of the Russian people.4 First of all he lived the life of his privileged class, educated by private foreign tutors and waited on by serfs. He became a wealthy landowner at the age of nineteen, and immediately began exhibiting Russian ‘maximalist’ tendencies by squandering his inheritance on gypsy singers and gambling. Whole villages were sold off to pay his debts, followed by his house. Tolstoy also lived up to the reputation of the depraved Russian landowner by taking advantage of his serf girls, then assumed another classic identity of the Russian noble: he became an army officer. For most of his comrades-in-arms the next step was retirement to the country estate, but Tolstoy became a writer – the most promising young writer of his generation. It was at this point that he started showing signs of latent anarchism: he did not want to belong to any particular literary fraternity, and soon alienated most of his fellow writers with his eccentric views and combative nature. Turgenev disappointed him by failing to take writing as seriously as he did, and for being too enslaved to western Europe. Turgenev’s creative work was as deeply bound up with Russia as Tolstoy’s was, but he lived in Paris. Tolstoy made two visits abroad during his lifetime, but he was tied to Russia body and soul.
As he matured under the influence of the writers and philosophers who shaped his ideas, Tolstoy inevitably became a member of the intelligentsia, the peculiarly Russian class of people united by their education and usually critical stance towards their government. The deep guilt he now felt before the Russian peasantry, furthermore, made him a repentant nobleman, ashamed at his complicity in the immoral institution of serfdom. Like the Populists, Tolstoy began to see the peasants as Russia’s best class, and her future, and around the time that serfdom was finally abolished he threw himself into teaching village children how to read and write. But he was mercurial, and a year later abandoned his growing network of unconventional schools to get married and start a family. The emotional stability provided by his devoted wife Sofya (‘Sonya’) Bers enabled him next to become Russia’s Homer: War and Peace was written at the happiest time in his life.
Tolstoy’s overactive conscience would not allow him to continue along the path of great novelist, and in the first half of the 1870s he went back to education. This time he devised his own system for teaching Russian children from all backgrounds how to read and write, by putting together an ABC and several reading primers. He taught himself Greek, then produced his own simplified translations of Aesop’s fables, as well as stories of his own, a compilation of tales about Russian bogatyrs and extracts from sacred readings. The Yasnaya Polyana school was reopened, with some of the elder Tolstoy children as teachers. Tolstoy was more of a father during these years than at any other time, and he took his family off to his newly acquired estate on the Samara...