The Last Days
Leo Tolstoy

Chapter II

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ow deeply moving and how characteristic of Leo Tolstoy that, to the very last instant of consciousness, he never ceased to be troubled by pangs of conscience and by shame for the material advantages and comforts which he had enjoyed throughout his life. He never forgot that this luxury of his, denied to the toiling masses, was made possible only by their labor.

So, for instance, a day before his death, his daughter Tanya left his bedside to join us in the common room. We were taking a break. In a state of shock, she spoke through her tears. "He just told me -- write this down!" -- in a loud voice:

Tatyana Lvovna Tolstoy

"Let me give you a piece of advice: Leo Tolstoy is not the only human being on this planet. Yet all I ever hear you talking
about is Leo Tolstoy..."

n that same day, November 3, 1910, Tolstoy asked me once again to read him something from the papers. I picked up a newspaper and asked him whether I should read what has been written about him. He inquired who the author was. As luck would have it, the newspaper gave my letter top billing, i.e. the very letter I read to Tolstoy from the manuscript copy the night before. I told him that I would skip this letter, since we had already read it. Yet, apparently due to failing memory, Tolstoy had forgotten its contents. He asked me to read him my letter once more. Deeply moved, he listened attentively, as if he were hearing it for the first time. When it was over, he said through his tears: "Very, very good!"

In view of such complete agreement on Tolstoy's part with the contents of my letter, I shall take the liberty of presenting here a brief excerpt. So much bad copy has been written about Tolstoy's flight from Yasnaya lately that it would not be inadvisable for me, in the interest of truth, to direct the reader's attention once again to Tolstoy's own explanation, which he himself happened to confirm twice on his deathbed (see above):

"It is, of course, inappropriate to enlarge upon the purely personal, domestic reasons for his flight...

"For my part, I can say only that Leo Tolstoy had pondered taking this step long before actually doing so. If, at last, he took the plunge, then this was because he felt that his conscience left him no other alternative. And all those who know and understand the guiding principle of his life do not doubt but that in making critical decisions, he'll strive to be guided in the future, as he has been in the past, by that selfsame desire to act in accordance with God's will rather than his own.

"Moreover, there is nothing surprising in the fact that a man of his age should seek a life of quiet, inner meditation in order to prepare himself for death, whose coming he cannot help but feel...

"... We can only hope that in the solitude of modest surroundings and in the company of simple folk so dear to his heart, Tolstoy will find the solitude and inner concentration his soul has yearned for and that he has earned by his indefatigable, fearless work on behalf of a suffering and enslaved humanity."

hen I finished, Tolstoy asked me to read him something from the "political" section. So I read him the feuilleton and the leading article from RIETCH'. I then asked him what I should read next. He suddenly remembered that he was still receiving mail. So he asked me who was in charge. I told him that, in accordance with his own instructions, his mail had at first been collected by Alexandra, and that, after she left Yasnaya, I took over this job from her. I told him that letters arriving on his behalf were all being examined by us: that is, letters from petitioners were, as was his custom, left unanswered, orders for books were being filled and letters of an intellectual import were brought with me to Astapovo so that, if he asks for them, they may be read to him as the occasion arises. He was delighted when he heard this and asked me to read some of these letters to him, which I did. I managed to read to him four letters and to record his replies or comments on their envelopes. These were the last letters Tolstoy ever heard or read.

One letter came from his friend, the peasant Mikhail Petrovich Novikov, who had recently visited him. In an earlier letter to him, Tolstoy inquired if, in the event he was forced to leave Yasnaya, he could take temporary lodgings with him in his peasant hut. Novikov replied very warmly that he would be delighted to offer Tolstoy the hospitality of his home. Here is an excerpt from his letter:

"I ' ve always been frank with you and have always said what was in my heart.
I've decided, here and now, to tell you only how I feel about your request,
as expressed in your letter, whether you like it or not... Your life is
setting like the twilight sun. Yet, to me and to all those who feel kinship
with you, it is still precious. Our only wish is that it last as long as
possible. And this is possible only under those conditions which you have
been accustomed to and in which you have lived these past eighty-two years.
Much as I may wish to see you unconfined, free with all simple folk, yet I
cannot wish this seriously because the relationship which is so dear to all
of us will come to an end unless you conserve the life flowing in your
ancient body. I only hope that no external circumstances constrain or
hinder you, during the remainder of your life amongst us, from mingling
with those who love you. And, yes, if you are thinking of visiting your
friends for a short time, say, for a day, a week or two or a month, my hut
may prove very convenient. It has a lighted room, which my family will
gladly relinquish to you. And they will serve you with love in their
hearts... That's what I think. However, if you feel differently, then let
it be not as I see it, but as you see it. In that case, my room is
available to you for as long as you wish..."

The letter continues with household matters.

Tolstoy asked me to express his deep thanks to Novikov and to tell him that he, Leo Nikolayevich, is following a different path entirely.

T he second letter begins with the words: "Exalted Teacher!" In it a young woman tells of her love for a man who reciprocates her love, but who is married and has two children. "We do not have the strength to call it quits," she writes. "If only I could bring myself to end it all by leaving this world which has become repugnant to me..." Tolstoy cut me off with the words: "You don't have to go on. What can anyone say to that?!"
The third letter came from a man whose personal life was, as he put it, in ruins. He "had lost his taste for living." He said that "the religious life of the masses is bound up with Church ritual," that "among its worshippers are ... not a few who are truly religious," that "like it or not, the Church has not ceased to preach words of life," and so on. At the same time, he acknowledged that "the modern Church is made up of people yoked together against their will," that "it crudely and pitilessly tortures the soul of every sensitive person," and that he, the author of this letter "has been disenchanted with the Church as with nothing else." Listening to this letter to the bitter end, Tolstoy remarked that there was no need to answer it. When I asked him why, he said: "It's too vague: the Church is good and, then again, the Church is not so good..."

Emperor of Bells

T he fourth letter, with ten 7-kopeck stamps enclosed for return postage, came from a "profound admirer" who requested that the "great thinker" autograph the photo that was sent out concurrently under separate cover. Since the photo had not yet arrived, we filed the letter away under REQUESTS FOR AUTOGRAPHS. It was Tolstoy's practice to fulfill these requests at one sitting, when a sufficient number of them had accumulated on his desk.

Dushan Petrovich asked me not to take up too much of Tolstoy's time with these readings from his mail-bag. I brought this activity gradually to an end and let the remaining letters which I had brought with me go unread.

On the following day, November 4, 1910, Tolstoy's parched, pale lips indicated that his condition had become very grave. These symptoms disappeared on subsequent days. Yet, on the whole, with each passing day, his cheeks shrank further, his lips became pale and thin, and his entire face seemed to speak of agony. No doubt this attested to the physical suffering which he had to endure. This was especially noticeable on the lips as well as around the mouth which, due to Tolstoy's labored breathing, remained mostly half-open and slightly twisted.

H e showed almost no other signs of physical pain. The groans and loud sighs which accompanied his every breath and every hiccup for hours on end were so regular and so monotonous that they failed to evoke any special or acute sense of suffering. Once or twice, when asked whether he was suffering, he answered in the negative. Only a few times during the entire illness was Tolstoy wracked by paroxysms of pain. On such occasions, he'd rise convulsively to a sitting position and, his legs dangling, toss anguishedly from side to side. All the while, he'd complain how agonizing this was for him. Yet, soon he'd lower himself onto his pillow once more and lie silently as if reconciled meekly to the inevitable ordeal.

T olstoy evidently recognized the fact that the immediate task before him at this juncture was to endure patiently and meekly the physical pain that was becoming ever more intense. Judging by Tolstoy's conduct, he approached this task with the same conscientious and firm resolve with which he habitually performed any duty. When he woke up in the morning, he recognized me. Though apparently in great pain, he said with unusual kindness in his voice: "Looks like I am dying. And, then again, perhaps I'm not. We must keep on trying..." And tears welled up in his eyes. Evidently, even the night before his death, he wanted to do what's right. In deep agony, he looked at me and said: "I don't know what to do."
On those days, lying quietly on his back, Tolstoy often stroked his blanket with the fingers of his right hand. He'd do this often and at some length. He was to all appearances jotting down the thoughts streaming into his head on an imaginary pad.

In order to air Tolstoy's bedroom, the doctors and I carried him in his bed to an adjoining room, where a variety of commonly used and auxiliary instruments and medications were stored. Seeing a table with these -- for him -- unusual objects, Tolstoy began bombarding me with questions concerning individual vials, etc. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to an attractive, pink vial. I picked it up. It read: "Eau dentifrice" [i.e. mouthwash]. "And do I have any 'dents'? [i.e. teeth]," he asked. "Not at all," he observed playfully. "And what is this?" he continued. "This is olive oil. It was sent to you by Galya at Alexandra's request," I answered. "And what is it for?" he inquired. "It is used for enemas and things of that sort," I said. "Aha!" he exclaimed.

Anna Chertkova (Galya)

I t was on this day that Leo Tolstoy first showed symptoms of delirium as well as -- however insignificantly -- that unconscious irritability which so often afflicts people suffering from extreme exhaustion. He gave instructions, not without a certain impatience, on how to make his bed. He then insistently tried to use his watch, which he had been holding in his hand, in a way thoroughly incompatible with its nature. For a long time, he refused to allow Dushan to rectify the situation. Finally, we took the watch away from him, replaced it with a worthy substitute and put it on a little night table by his bed. On three occasions Tolstoy whispered: "I feel so sick." He then added firmly: "I can't understand it... what did you do with my 'wosh'?" The meaning of this word, pronounced emphatically and somewhat unnaturally by Tolstoy, escaped both Dushan and me. He kept repeating: "What did you do with my 'wosh'?" At last, it occurred to me that he might be looking for his "watch". I picked it up and gave it to him. He took it in his hand and calmed down, contented at last.

... A little later, looking at the bed before him, Tolstoy asked Dushan: "What's that?" Dushan replied: "That's a blanket, Leo Nikolayevich." "And what's that over there?" "That's the bed." "Well, now it's all right," Tolstoy concluded, relieved.

T olstoy would often crumple the blanket while running his hand over his bare chest, as if clutching at it. These actions, taken customarily for signs of imminent death, alarmed some of us. Yet, we consoled each other by recalling that he had behaved similarly during previous grave illnesses. Speaking for myself, let me say that I continued to hope till the very end. I recalled the astonishing vitality of Tolstoy's body, and how this vitality had rescued him so many times before when those around him had given up all hope. I observed happily that Tolstoy's organism was still carrying out its normal functions. And I applauded the strength and unexpected abruptness of some of his bodily movements and the firm sonority of his voice. I even rejoiced -- along with the doctors -- at the irritability which kept cropping up unconsciously in Tolstoy. But, mainly, my hope was sustained by my faith in the indispensability of his life, that is, in the indispensability of his mind, which, I well knew, brimmed over with wonderful artistic projects and other ventures. This belief so permeated every pore of my being that I could not entertain the thought that this time Tolstoy's illness might well be a fatal one.

Tolstoy 6 Nov. (old calendar) Astapova
There was one thing that I had failed to realize at the time, namely, that the vitality of his body had been fundamentally undermined by the unbelievable mental agony which he had been subjected to during his last months at Yasnaya Polyana. I was kept from seeing him during these last three months by those very circumstances which eventually sapped his strength.   

In his letters to me, Tolstoy tried to keep up his morale, as was his wont. Consequently, he did not elaborate on his health. That is why, arriving in Astapovo, I was quite ignorant of the extent to which his heart, nerves, indeed, his whole body had already been worn down and totally emaciated by the mental anguish which he had endured even before his flight. Well before leaving Yasnaya, he had "laid down his life" by making a heroic gesture of love and self-renunciation. There simply wasn't any life left in him. I, of course, did not know this at the time.

O n November 5, 1910, at 2:30 in the morning, Alexandra woke me up. "Papa is not well," she said. I leapt out of bed. As I put on my shoes and jacket, I heard Tolstoy's loud, excited voice coming from a room twice removed from mine. Rushing to his bedside, I found him sitting sideways on the bed. I drew near. When he told me that he wanted to dictate something, I took out my notebook. He was just about to expound on something when he asked me to read back to him what he had already dictated. I explained that I had just entered his room and that I had not had time as yet to write down anything. Tolstoy then asked me to read back to him what Dr. Semenovsky had written down in his notebook. The doctor, sitting nearby, gave me a knowing look and pointed his notebook in my direction so that I could see that his notebook was blank. Only then did I realize that Tolstoy was having a fit of delirium. He now demanded even more insistently that I read to him from Semenovsky's notebook. Semenovsky got up and quietly left the room.

TOLSTOY: Well, go on and read it to me, please.

CHERTKOV: He hasn't written down a thing in his notebook. Tell
me, what would you like me to write?

TOLSTOY (more insistently): But no, read it! Why won't you read
it to me?

CHERTKOV: But his notebook is blank.

TOLSTOY (reproachfully): Oh, how strange. Come on, you're a good
man. Why won't you read to me!?

A Cycle of Readings

*Chertkova's Personal Copy & Comments

This painful scene continued for some time until Alexandra advised me to read him something from the book lying on the table nearby. It turned out to be A CYCLE OF READINGS, which he always kept by his side. It was his custom to read the daily passage without fail. I found the chapter for November 5.

  Ibegan reading aloud. Tolstoy listened with rapt attention. From time to  time, he'd ask me to repeat some word that he had not quite caught. Yet, never once did he try to interrupt me in order to dictate something of his own. "And who wrote that?" he'd ask concerning this or that thought in A CYCLE OF READINGS. A little later, supposing him tired, I stopped reading. After first waiting to see if I'd go on, Tolstoy said: "Now, as I was saying..." He was about to resume his dictation. Fearing renewed excitement on his part, I hastily resumed my reading and Tolstoy obediently resumed his listening. We went through this a second time. After a long time, I lowered my voice and finally quit reading altogether. Tolstoy, who must have been weary, said with satisfaction: "All right..." and he fell completely silent.

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Copyright (c) 1996-99 Leo Finegold
last update 19 Aug 1999