Tolstoy, Poet and Rebel

Tolstoy has passed his eightieth birthday and now stands before us like an enormous jagged cliff, moss-covered and from a different historical World.

A remarkable thing! Not alone Karl Marx but, to cite a name from a field closer to Tolstoy’s, Heinrich Heine as well appear to be contemporaries of ours. But from our great contemporary of Yasnaya Polyana we are already separated by the irreversible flow of time which differentiates all things.

This man was 33 years old when serfdom was abolished in Russia. As the descendant of “ten generations untouched by labor,” he matured and was shaped in an atmosphere of the old nobility; among inherited acres, in a spacious manorial home and in the shade of linden-tree alleys, so tranquil and patrician.

The traditions of landlord rule, its romanticism, its poetry, its whole style of living were irresistibly imbibed by Tolstoy and became an organic part of his spiritual makeup. From the first years of his consciousness he was, as he remains to this very day, an aristocrat, in the deepest and most secret recesses of his creativeness; and this, despite all his subsequent spiritual crises.

In the ancestral home of the Princes Volkonsky, inherited by the Tolstoy family, the author of War and Peace, occupies a simple, plainly furnished room in which there hangs a hand-saw, stands a scythe and lies an ax. But on the upper floor of this same dwelling, like stony guardians of its traditions the illustrious ancestors of a whole number of generations keep watch from the walls. In this there is a symbol. We find both of these floors also in the heart of the master of the house, only inverted in order. If on the summits of consciousness a nest has been spun for itself by the philosophy of the simple life and of self-submergence in the people, then from below, whence up the emotions, the passions and the will, there look down upon us a long gallery of ancestors.

In the wrath of repentance Tolstoy renounced the false and worldly-vain art of the ruling classes which glorifies their artificially cultivated tastes and envelops their caste prejudices in the flattery of false beauty. But what happened? In his latest major work, Resurrection, Tolstoy still places in the center of his artistic attention the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord, surrounding him just as solicitously with the golden cobweb of aristocratic connections, habits and remembrances as if outside this “worldly-vain” and “false” universe there were nothing of importance or of beauty.

From the landlord’s manor there runs a short and narrow path straight to the hut of the peasant. Tolstoy, the poet, was accustomed to make this passage often and lovingly even before Tolstoy, the moralist, turned it into a road of salvation. Even after the abolition of serfdom, he continues to regard the peasant as his – an inalienable part of his material and spiritual inventory. From behind Tolstoy’s unquestionable “physical love for the genuine toiling people” about which he himself tells us, there looks down upon us, just as unquestionably, his collective aristocratic ancestor – only illumined by an artist’s genius.

Landlord and moujik – these are in the last analysis the only people whom Tolstoy has wholly accepted into his creative sanctuary. But neither before nor after his spiritual crisis, was he ever able or strove to free himself from the purely patrician contempt for all those figures who stand between the landlord and the peasant, or those who occupy positions beyond the sacred poles of this ancient order – the German superintendent, the merchant, the French tutor, the physician, the “intellectual”, and finally, the factory worker with his watch and chain. Tolstoy never feels a need to understand these types, to peer into their souls, or question them about their faith. And they pass before his artist’s eye like so many insignificant and largely comical silhouettes. When he does create images of revolutionists of the Seventies or Eighties, as for example in Resurrection, he simply adapts his old landlord and peasant types to a new milieu or offers us purely external and humorously painted sketches.

At the beginning of the Sixties when a flood of new European ideas and, what is more important, of new social relations swept over Russia, Tolstoy, as I said, had already left a third of a century behind him: psychologically he was already molded.

Needless to recall, Tolstoy did not become an apologist for serfdom as did his intimate friend Fet (Shenshin), landlord and subtle lyric poet, in whose heart a tender receptivity to nature and to love was coupled with adoring prostration before the salutary whiplash of feudalism. But imbued in Tolstoy was a deep hatred for the new social relations, coming in the place of the old. “Personally I fail to see any amelioration of morals,” he wrote in 1861, “nor do I propose to take any one’s word for it. I do not find, for instance, that the relation between the factory owner and the worker is more humane than that between the landlord and the serf.”

Everywhere and in everything there came hurly-burly and turmoil, there came the decomposition of the old nobility, the disintegration of the peasantry, universal chaos, the rubbish and litter of demolition, the hum and ding-dong of city life, the tavern and cigarette in the village, the factory limerick in place of the folksong – and all this repelled Tolstoy, both as an aristocrat and as an artist. Psychologically he turned his back on this titanic process and forever refused it artistic recognition. He felt no inner urge to defend feudal slavery, but he did remain wholeheartedly on the side of these ties in which he saw wise simplicity and which he was able to unfold into artistically perfected forms.

His whole heart was fixed there where life is reproduced changelessly from one generation to the next, century after century. There where sacred necessity rules over everything; where every single step hinges on the sun, the rain, the wind and the green grass growing. Where nothing comes from one’s own reason or from an individual’s rebellious volition and, therefore, no personal responsibility exists, either. Everything is predetermined, everything justified in advance, sanctified. Responsible for nothing, thinking nothing, man lives only by hearing and obeying, says Uspenky, the remarkable poet of The Dominion of the Land. And this perpetual hearing and obeying, converted into perpetual toil, is precisely what shapes the life which outwardly leads to no results whatever but which has its result in its very self ... And lo, a miracle! This convict-labor dependence – without reflection or choice, without errors or pangs of repentance – is what gives rise to the great moral “ease” of existence under the harsh guardianship of “the ears of rye” Mikula Selyanovich, peasant hero of the folk epic, says of himself: “I am the beloved of raw mother earth.”

Such is the religious myth of Russian Populism which ruled for decades, over the minds of the Russian intellectuals. Stone deaf to its radical tendencies, Tolstoy always remained personally and represented in the Populist movement its aristocratic conservative wing.

Tolstoy was repelled by the new and in order to create artistically Russian life as he knew, understood and loved it, he was compelled to withdraw into the past, back to the very beginnings of the 19th Century. War and Peace (written in 1867-69) is his best and unsurpassed work.

Leon Trotsky


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