On Tolstoy's Death : A Young Student's Memoir

The following memoir is dedicated to the memory of my former student, Carrie Taylor, whose mother, a university student in St. Petersburg at the time of LeoTolstoy's death in 1910, vividly and movingly depicted the sentiments of her people in the following journal entries.

Leo Finegold, Publisher

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(From A Young Woman's Diary)

[Note: Leo Tolstoy died on the night of Nov. 7, 1910]

[St. Petersbourg]

Monday, Nov. 8, 1910

It is with heavy sadness if not grief that l begin this new page. How naive and childish is our expectation that the day recorded on this page would be marked by happiness.

Today was not a happy day. It passed like so many others. A little more varied, to be sure, but just like the others.

In the morning I visited the Duma [Russian parliament]. I found everyone there in an anxious, agitated mood. Everyone was waiting for something extraordinary and immense to happen: Something as extraordinary and immense as Tolstoy's death.

Guchkov, the presiding officer that day, called the Duma into session. The chamber, filled to capacity with deputies, instantly fell silent. "I propose that we honor Tolstoy's memory by standing up," he pronounced in a firm but shaking voice.

And the entire Duma, embracing the Right and the Left, the red and the black [the Marxists and the Black Hundreds], and so on, rose as one man. And Guchkov spoke again: "I propose that we adjourn in honor of Tolstoy's death." This motion was met with opposition by one of the rightists. He argued that, as Russians who were loyal subjects to both Crown and Church, they cou1d not, in principle, honor the memory of a man like Tolstoy, who had defied both.

Then Guchkov, without losing his self-control, proposed that the motion be put to a vote.

And to the horror and disgrace of the right wing, an overwhelming majority of the Duma remained in their seats. Several, however, seeking to ingratiate themselves, leaped up. Standing in their places, they felt spurned, shamed and humiliated.

"l declare the Duma adjourned for today," Guchkov said, and everyone left the chamber quietly, almost noiselessly, to their respective homes. "Is that all?" could be read on the faces of all present. This is how Russia in the person of her elected sons had dealt with the dreadful, improbable, inconceivable death of Tolstoy.

Then I went off to attend classes. A meeting had taken place earlier, which I had missed. The female students celebrated a civic requiem, recited poems dedicated to Tolstoy and sent two delegates to the funeral. A civil requiem to be attended by a huge crowd of students is slated for tomorrow at 11 a.m. near Kazan Cathedral. Yes, near the Cathedral, not in it.

I don't know how all of this will turn out. Most likely, serious clashes will take place between the young and the police. A demonstration might flare up. It is hard to believe, though, that our modern student body with its prosasic, vulgar ideals and academic unions is capable of taking clearly independent, much less, heroic action.

But enough of this. There is so much talk making the rounds about Tolstoy that one could confine oneself to this hearsay without adding a word of one's own.

I've now filled out this fateful, "happy" page. There is nothing happy on these lines or between them. I am again overcome by sadness. There is no point in hanging around the yard, and I don't feel like sitting at home, either. I feel instead like going for a walk along the broad avenues of Nevsky Prospect. I feel like mingling with the crowd, merging with it, losing myself in it, forgetting my sorrow. I want to give free rein to the youthful, boisterous laughter within me. I feel like strolling along, brisk and gay, and smiling at passers-by ....

Nov. 9, 1910
2 p.m.

Went to the university. The meeting had been broken up. Somehow or other the police found out about it and demanded that the rector close down the university for the entire day.

Guards and plain-clothes police rushed about the campus, while the Cossacks patrolled the grounds as if they were laying siege to a fortress. Cheerful and full of energy, I walked all over the campus and smiled at the students as if they were my brothers and sisters.

Right now I am on my way to class. A general meeting has been called for 3 p.m., after which Professor Kotlyarevsky will deliver a speech. These are days of life and passion, days of anxiety, days on fire, brimming over with thrilling events.

 Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia, 1894-1917

6 p.m.

My mind is still reeling from the meeting which had just taken place. The mood of those assembled was radiant, reverential, almost as if everyone had come together for prayer.

The wise face of the venerable old man, whose memory we had come to honor, looked down on us younger folk from the wall. The audience consisted entirely of young people, young lives. Professor Kotlyarevsky began his address as follows: "I know of no one who disliked idle talk more than the great Tolstoy. And yet I must begin my address with just such idle talk." Nevertheless, not a single idle word left his lips. He refused to sum up the achievement of Leo Tolstoy. This will take centuries. Only history can do justice to Tolstoy. He compared him to Martin Luther and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. None of their contemporaries knew what their teachings would amount to, nor the place they would win for themselves in the world. Kotlyarevsky named Tolstoy's great precursors: Christ, Mohammed, Luther, Rousseau. But he would not name his successors.

On this occasion, he considered himself capable only of talking about the fascination exercised on the world by Tolstoy's personality. Tolstoy had stood alone against the entire established order. He had not crushed this established order, but neither was he crushed by it. Tolstoy had been open and frank in declaring that he had contempt or scorn for this or that. Yet those who would have never forgiven such an affront from anyone else made a pilgrimage to Tolstoy's place.

How are we to explain this sphinx's riddle? Kotlyaresvky found the answer only in the great fascination which Tolstoy's personality exercised on the world, in the enormous impact produced by the mere mention of his name.

Kotlyarevsky left the podium amid the deathly silence of the audience. It had been stirred to its depths. No applause or noise of any kind greeted the conclusion of his speech. He had said all he could say and then he left. And this was both right and profoundly sincere on his part.

Standing by his desk, I alone blurted out a brief "Thank you!" And he answered just as curtly and excitedly: "Don't mention it!"

This was a good, sad, radiant day. What a terror, therefore, to see the shameless, cynical, swearing Cossacks charge with their hissing whips into a huge crowd of students leaving the Armenian Church, where a memorial service in honor of Tolstoy had just taken place!

Still, it was a good day, and the experiences of that day shall remain in my memory forever. One female student recited a wonderful poem written by her, which I later copied into my own notebook. What a strange mood, as if we were living in the great revolutionary year of 1905. Tomorrow I'm going to see [Tolstoy's] The Power of Darkness. The performance will take place at the Maly theater. And in the morning I'm going to the Duma.

(by an anonymous female student)

[a free translation]

He is dead! For us what a deep loss!
Cold he lies, cold in the frozen ground.
The flame that burned away our dross
Is quenched forever, without a sound. 

Quenched. . . now all is empty and cold
My heart aches, and I feel within a pain.
I cannot believe, though it must be told
And I want to weep but all in vain. 

Farewell, our Tolstoy, our native sun,
Sooner or later, we must yield to fate.
Farewell! Thanks for deeds well done,
For sacred words that have no date. 

You've taught us much, you've left us
As much as life can ever leave.
Your Gospel, your works, shall bless us,
We've much to learn, much to grieve.

Benjamin Sher

* These diary entries are published because of their historical significance. No intrinsic literary merit is claimed for them either in Russian or in translation. They provide a unique perspective on the impact of Tolstoy's death on his contemporaries as recorded by a sympathetic witness. This is, first and foremost, a historical document and must be understood and appreciated as such.

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