Facing Death With Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia, aged eighty-two, at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village, on November 7, 1910. He had left his family home on October 28, in the middle of the night, walking out on his wife of forty-eight years—the long-suffering and increasingly paranoid Sonya. “I am doing what old men of my age usually do: leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet,” he wrote in the uncomfortably chilly letter of explanation he left for her.
In fact, there were to be very few of those “last days.” For whatever Tolstoy’s plans for the future had been (and we can now only guess at them), they were soon interrupted when he was taken ill on board a train and forced to get out at Astapovo, where the stationmaster gave him the use of his house. And there was certainly very little solitude or quiet. His death became one of the first international media “events.” It attracted to the little station not only hundreds of his admirers (and some watchful government spies) but also a Pathé News camera team, eager to catch the great man’s final moments on film, and reporters from all over the world who wired often unreliable stories back to their editors. “Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” blazed a headline in the New York Times just a couple days before his death, when he was already drifting in and out of consciousness. One of the most haunting images caught on camera is of Sonya herself, peering in through the window of the room in which her sick husband lay. She had traveled to Astapovo as soon as she heard of his illness, but the friends caring for him did not allow her in until Tolstoy was on the very point of death.
This drama at the railway station unfolded more than thirty years after Tolstoy had written the novels for which he is now best known: War and Peace, completed in 1869, and Anna Karenina, completed in 1877. His popular celebrity in 1910 owed more to his political and ethical campaigning and his status as a visionary, reformer, moralist, and philosophical guru than to his talents as a writer of fiction. Vegetarian, pacifist, and enemy of private property, he was, over the last decades of his long life, a persistent critic of the Russian imperial regime (hence the government spies infiltrating the crowds at Astapovo) and of the Russian Orthodox Church. He came to favor a primitive version of Christianity based entirely on the teachings of Jesus, rejecting the dogma of Orthodoxy (hence his excommunication by church authorities in 1901). And he was a vigorous supporter of the Russian poor. He had launched welfare programs, including soup kitchens, and funded schools. In a gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, he renounced his aristocratic title (“Count” Leo Tolstoy) and took to wearing the characteristic dress of the peasants—though neither contemporary photographs nor the comments of eyewitnesses suggest that he ever really looked the part of an authentic laborer.
It was perhaps fitting that his final days became so celebrated across the world because, throughout his life but particularly from the late 1870s on, death was another of Tolstoy’s obsessions. He had firsthand experience of death and the dying that was unusual even for a man of his era. As an active-duty soldier in 1854-55 he had witnessed the slaughter of the Crimean War, and he vividly recalled both the agonizing death of his brother Dmitry from tuberculosis in 1856 and the appalling sight—and sound—of a man being guillotined in Paris in 1857 (it was partly this experience that made him a staunch opponent of the death penalty). Of his thirteen children with Sonya, no fewer than five had died before they were ten. But in his writing he went beyond the horrors of death to reflect on the big questions that the inevitability of death poses for our understanding of life itself: if we must die, what is the point of living? Some of his most memorable reflections on this theme are found in the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and in the autobiographical memoir Confession. Both were written after Tolstoy had completed Anna Karenina: the novella was begun in 1882 and finished in 1886; the memoir was completed in 1882, but fell afoul of the Russian censorship efforts and was circulated only unofficially until it was published (in Russian) in Geneva in 1884. They are both powerful reminders of just how impressive Tolstoy’s writing was, even when he had turned his back on those grand Russian novels that have become his main claim to fame. And turn his back he most certainly had: “an abomination that no longer exists for me” was his description of Anna Karenina in the early 1880s.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as its title plainly suggests, tells the story of the final months of one man: an ordinary, reasonably prosperous, and successful middle-aged Russian judge. An apparently trivial injury (he hurts his side in a fall from a chair while hanging curtains in his new apartment) quickly develops into something worse. Doctors offer all kinds of diagnoses, medicines, and guarded reassurance, but within weeks, Ivan Ilyich can see that he is a dying man, confronted with the agony, indignity, loneliness, and (in Tolstoy’s uncompromising description) foul stench of his own demise. For most of his family and colleagues, his death is an inconvenience and an embarrassment; they were, as the living usually are, relieved not to be dying themselves but simultaneously aggrieved by the reminder of their own mortality that Ivan Ilyich’s death gave them. It is only a young servant, Gerasim, with all of Tolstoy’s favorite peasant virtues, who can look the processes of dying in the eye and care for his master with true humanity; he deals unashamedly with excrement and allows the dying man to lie in the one position in which he can find some comfort—with his legs raised, resting on Gerasim’s shoulders.
Confession is in a very different style and genre of writing: it is a first-person account of Tolstoy’s own spiritual journey, from his rejection of religion as a young man, through his rediscovery of the Orthodox church in middle age, to his final rejection of the myths and falsehoods of the established church (from the Trinity to the Eucharist) while embracing the simplest moral teachings of Jesus himself. It is often taken as testimony to Tolstoy’s spiritual “crisis” after he had completed Anna Karenina, and as a crucial point in his turn from fiction to politics and philosophy. But it also confronts the fear and the inevitability of death. It is inConfession that Tolstoy tells of his experience watching an execution in Paris and discusses his own dilemmas about suicide. And he broaches some of the major questions of the relationship between life and death that underlie the story of Ivan Ilyich: as he sums it up at one point in the memoir, “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?”
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