Leo Tolstoy about 1863

Leo Tolstoy about 1863
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The Last Days
Leo Tolstoy

Chapter III




This incident highlights two characteristic traits of Leo Tolstoy: first, as a writer, he had a need to share with others the inner workings of his mind, a need so deeply and tenaciously ingrained in him by habit that even when gravely ill and unable to write he persisted in dictating his thoughts. Secondly, he showed a remarkable respect and consideration for the opinions of others. To the very end of his life, Tolstoy felt not only a need to expound his own ideas but also to come to know the inner lives and ideas of other people. He always found something worth learning from others, whether by way of personal contact or the printed word.

The absence of dogmatic sectarianism in Tolstoy and his indisputable humanity which so profoundly distinguished his world-view from that of most other prominent thinkers was due above all to his capacity to take in from the world outside all that is good and new without relying exclusively on the workings of his own mind, to absorb like a sponge, so to speak, the best achievements of the human mind, to assimilate them into his own flesh and blood. This receptivity was no less remarkable than the originality of his great mind. The doctors, giving Tolstoy frequent injections, were surprised that he completely failed to respond to them.

Room in Astapovo where Tolstoy died

Recalling those days, I must confess that nothing pains me so much as these frequent injections of camphor and digalen and codeine and, especially, -- twelve hours before his death -- of morphine (notwithstanding Tolstoy's reluctance, as expressed to Makovitsky, his personal physician).

Having little faith myself in medications and knowing Leo Tolstoy's negative opinion of them as well, I can't shake off the feeling that it might have been preferable to let him suffer and, if need be, die without resorting to these medical tricks. Had he been conscious at the time, he would no doubt have resisted them. Who can tell if such interference with the natural course of his illness might not have harmed him or his mind in the last days of his life?

On the other hand, I console myself with the thought, often expressed by Leo Tolstoy, that everything that happens to a human being is inextricably bound up with the life of the rest of the universe and serves as a manifestation of one and the same life force. Though inaccessible to our minds, this life force is undoubtedly rational and good. Therefore, the death of each and every human being -- whatever its external cause -- occurs only when this death becomes necessary for his own good and for the good of others.

I do not doubt the rightness of such a view of life. Though, naturally, it does not exempt evildoers from moral responsibility for their actions, yet such a world-view helps to dispel many nagging doubts and vain regrets.

Then again, the warmth, care and tireless efforts of the attending physicians made an indelible impression on me. Most of them were already well acquainted with Leo Tolstoy, for whom they felt profound respect and devotion. The moment they learned of his grave illness, they abandoned their regular duties in order to come to his aid. Drs. D. V. Nikitin and G.M. Berkenheim, who were totally devoted to Tolstoy, cared for him whenever he was seriously ill.

Tolstoy managed, however fitfully, to express himself on this subject with sufficient clarity. Although he continued to hold a negative opinion of medicine in general, he nonetheless felt only good will towards the attending physicians as people. He felt deep gratitude to them for their exertions on his behalf.

Drs. Shchurovsky and Usov arrived from Moscow and came to his bed. Acting on the assumption that he would not recognize them, they immediately set out to question and examine Tolstoy.

After examining him, one of the physicians asked: "How do you feel?"


DOCTOR: Are you bothered by hiccups?

TOLSTOY: No, it's nothing. Everything is fine.

Saying this, Tolstoy turned away, and the doctor left. A little later, Tolstoy asked me who these new people were. I told him who they were. "Aha," he said, evidently remembering them and then added: "They are so nice!"

Once Dr. Nikitin suggested that he be given an enema. Tolstoy refused. Nikitin pointed out that his hiccups would go away if he were given an enema. Tolstoy answered: "God will provide!" Dr. Nikitin felt his pulse and then left the room, at which point Tolstoy, who seemed to be semi-conscious, calmly said: "Rubbish!"

On the eve of Tolstoy's death, at the request of the doctors, I administered oxygen to Tolstoy from a rubber bag. I did this for some time. When, at long last, I stopped, Tolstoy said: "Completely useless."

There were times during these last days when Tolstoy was apparently perplexed by what the doctors were doing to him. Besides, he was feeling miserable. On these occasions, he would say things like: "What's taking you so long? Why don't you move on?"... When asked what he wanted, he said: "I want to be left alone!"

When it was suggested that he be moved to a new bed, he answered at first with a firm "No!". A little later, though, he said: "All right, go ahead, if it'll make you happy."

About his old friend and personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, who never deserted him all these years, Tolstoy -- with inimitable tenderness -- said, just two days before his death: "Sweet Dushan, my sweet Dushan!"

Once, when Professor Usov, lowering his own head, grasped Tolstoy by his back and held him while the pillow was being adjusted, Tolstoy fell on him, kissed him and hugged him. Usov said under his breath: "Never have I seen such a patient." However, when Usov lifted his head, Tolstoy looked at him very intently, then pushed him away, saying: "Oh, no, it's the wrong one." Tolstoy must have mistaken Usov for Makovitsky, and his extraordinary display of tenderness was clearly meant for the latter.

Did Leo Tolstoy believe that his illness was fatal? If so, then what was his attitude towards this possible outcome?

Tolstoy was constantly preoccupied with thoughts of death. During this last phase of his life, he was well aware, as he often said, of his impending death and was inclined to feel that each new illness would be his last. From this alone one could infer that Tolstoy thought about the possibility of death this time as well. This is corroborated by certain words and comments uttered during this final illness. So, for example, from time to time, he'd say: "Well, finis! It's all over!" Or: "It's the end, and that's all there is to it." Or else in semi-delirium he would jokingly say: "Well, I've been checkmated! Don't feel bad!"

He displayed the same serenity before his impending death, the same wisdom in reconciling himself to it which had characterized him thirty years earlier, when his religious conception first took shape.

Several days before his death, when we were alone, he told me calmly and with complete satisfaction that this illness might be his last. His eyes welled up with tears, but these were not tears of suffering or disquiet but of quiet tenderness.

One night, when I was, once again, sitting alone by his bedside, Tolstoy looked at me affectionately for a long time. I said to him: "Well, Leo Nikolayevich, you look a little better today." He mumbled something in reply. I couldn't, for the life of me, make out what he had said. Yet, judging by his moving, child-like voice, by his tears of tenderness, I understood that he was talking not of recovery but of his impending death. He felt good and spoke joyously about it.

On another occasion, after waking up from a prolonged sleep, our eyes met. He smiled affectionately and said: "My condition is grave. The fever isn't going away." So I said to him: "That's the nature of the illness. It sometimes happens this way." His curiosity aroused, Tolstoy said: "Is that so?" and fell asleep once more.

There was a difference between Tolstoy's attitude towards death this time and on earlier occasions. Before, he had longed for it, or, at least, was utterly indifferent to the outcome of his illness. Now, however, though he contemplated the possibility of death with complete serenity, he seemed to feel no real desire for it.

The reason for this is not hard to come by. Nearly all of Tolstoy's serious illnesses the preceding twenty years were a direct consequence of the prolonged mental strain and suffering which immediately preceded them. These had in turn been brought on by his domestic situation...

During these periods of mental suffering, Tolstoy had entertained doubts as to whether he was doing the right thing in continuing to live under such circumstances. That he did not leave [his estate] at the time was due to his fear of acting on egoistic principles alone, i.e. by acting so as to make it easier on himself. So he'd waver at first, change his mind, and, finally, stay put. He came to see himself doomed to a life of misery.

Naturally, the only way out of this bleak situation was death. Taken ill from complete exhaustion after these spiritual crises, Tolstoy could not help but look upon death as his sole deliveress. This is why he either longed for death or else was indifferent to the outcome of his illness.

This time around, however, illness had found him under entirely different conditions. He had already successfully extricated himself from his hopeless situation. He was about to live his life anew, on his own, surrounded by the simple, working people that he had been drawn to for so long, to share their humble lot and to mingle freely with them. He was brimming over with literary projects. Like a child, he rejoiced in the opportunity of living his new life in accordance with the real inclinations of his soul. Yet, all of a sudden, he was laid low by an unexpected illness. Naturally, Tolstoy first saw this illness as an obstacle on his path to be overcome at all costs. (He did not want to remain in Astapovo and, despite his illness, sought to continue on his journey.)

Of course, under these conditions, so diametrically opposed to those of his earlier illnesses, Leo Tolstoy could not have longed for death. On the contrary, he wanted to get back on his feet as soon as possible in order to implement his plan for a new life.

Yet, it is undeniable, too, that when he became convinced of the gravity of the situation, he quickly reconciled himself to this latest assault on his cherished dreams and submitted humbly to the will of God, -- just as he had done for decades while confined within the orbit of his family.

"Here is my plan," Tolstoy's diary, written in an unsteady hand, reads for November 3: [in French] "Fais ce que dois, adv..." (9) [in Russian] "Everything that happens is for the good of others and, chiefly, for mine own." With these suggestive words, Tolstoy's diary comes to a close.

Despite physical suffering that might appear excruciating to us, Leo Tolstoy continued to live an inner, spiritual life. The extent to which this was so may be gauged from certain remarks made by him at this time. During the last 24 hours of his life, Tolstoy said, among other things, the following: "Well, so that's good, too"; "Everything is simple and good"; "Good... yes, yes..." and so on. He spoke these words when, judging by his heavy breathing, hiccups and groans, one might have supposed him in too much agony to be capable of functioning with a free, let alone happy mind. Evidently, as the master's body was dying, the belief, staunchly held by
Tolstoy that a man who lives by the spirit of God can wrest happiness even from the harshest and most trying conditions, was now being tested on Tolstoy himself. After all, Tolstoy had never tired of repeating this to others. Tolstoy's death-agony could not stifle his awareness of this spiritual principle, which he saw as the essence of human life. On the contrary, this death-agony purified it and made it more sharply defined.

In letters which I received from Yasnaya Polyana during the last months of his life, Tolstoy repeatedly takes up the question of his death. So, two days before his flight, he wrote:

"... I've had some thought-feelings today. One thought was about -- (I felt a heart tremor today which woke me up, and, waking up, I remembered a long dream. I found myself walking downhill, grabbed some branches but, just the same, slid and fell, i.e. I woke up. This whole dream, seemingly out of the past, rose up instantly before me) -- here is my thought: that at the moment of death there is this one supra-temporal instant analogous to the heart tremor when asleep, and all of life becomes that retrospective dream. Right now, we are at the very peak of this retrospective dream. There are times when this seems to me true. At other times, it seems nonsense..."

At the beginning of August, he wrote:

"The closer we come to death, or rather, the more vividly we remember it (and to remember it means to remember our true life, that is, a life independent of death), the more important becomes this single indispensable thing called life..."

In another letter written to me at that time, Tolstoy said:

"... I feel... even if I am tired, I feel good... It is getting closer and closer -- the sure unfolding of the blessed mystery (of death), which we've been groping towards. This closing-in of death cannot but draw me towards it and fill me with happiness..."

On October 17, three weeks before his death, he wrote to me:

" I'm in a mood for a heart-to-heart talk, my good friend. There is no one I can talk so freely with as with you, -- and I know that no one understands me as well as you do, no matter how confusing or incoherent I may sound.

"Yesterday was a very significant day for me. Others will give you the facts, but I want to tell you what's in my heart, i.e. the inner sense of things.

"My body feels weak today. But deep down I feel fine. And I want to share with you my thoughts, and, especially, my feelings, on this matter.

"Until yesterday I thought little of my [heart] attacks or, rather, I never thought about them at all. But yesterday I vividly imagined myself dying during one of them. I realize that such a painless death might be a good thing. Still, spiritually speaking, it would deprive me of those precious,beautiful minutes of dying. So I considered that if I am deprived of these final moments of consciousness, it'd still be within my power to stretch these moments out over all the hours, days, perhaps months and years (hardly), which shall precede my death. I could then experience these days and months just as intensely, just as solemnly (with the inner, not the outer, sense) as if I were experiencing the last moments of death while still conscious.

"And so this thought, this feeling which came over me yesterday, which is with me even now and which I shall strive to cling to till my death, especially gladdens my heart. And this is what I wanted to tell you.

"This is old stuff, but it was revealed to me in a new light.

"It is this feeling that sheds light on my life in these circumstances and transforms the pain that was and the pain that might have been into a joy."


Immobile on his back, eyes closed and breathing heavily, Tolstoy -- to the amazement of his doctors -- continued to show signs of consciousness to the very end (for instance, by pushing the doctor's hand away when they attempted to give him an injection or by turning away from the light that was shining directly into his eyes, etc.). Judging by all this, one may
infer that in these last hours and minutes of his life, he was preparing himself for an imminent "change," i.e. that he was in that spiritual state prior to death which he so longed to experience.

Tostoy's grave

Leo Tolstoy's actual death was so quiet and so peaceful that I felt a certain sense of relief.

After many hours, Tolstoy's heavy breathing suddenly became slight and superficial. Several minutes later, even this weak breathing came to an end. Then an interval of complete silence. No strain, no struggle. Then a barely audible, very deep, protracted, final sigh...

Looking at the shell of what was once Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, I recalled overhearing the night before some of the workings of his inner life. I was sitting alone with him by his bed. He was lying on his back, breathing heavily. Evidently giving expression to the thread of thoughts that occupied him, Tolstoy all of a sudden -- as if arguing with himself -- broke out in a loud voice: "We all re [-veal]... our manifestations... This manifestation is over ... That's all... (10)"

I remembered Tolstoy's conception of human life, namely, that man is a manifestation of the spirit of God temporarily imprisoned within the confines of his individual existence and seeking to break out and merge with the souls of others and with God. And I felt with especial force that life, understood in this way, was a blessing, that was absolutely inviolate. In short, death was no more.

And this conviction of mine cannot be shaken by the pain I feel in having lost Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy both as a man and as a friend.

If you wish to hear a recording of Tolstoy's voice, please consult the
following website:

Vladimir Chertkov
Dec. 27, 1910

Translated into English by :

Benjamin Sher
Russian Literary Translator
The Road to Terror
(Yale University Press, 1999)
Sher's Russian Web




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