Leo Tolstoy about 1863
Leo Tolstoy about 1863
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THE LAST DAYS OF LEO TOLSTOY

by Vladimir Chertkov

(Moscow, 1911) (1)

First Complete English Translation
by Benjamin Sher


Since it was my joy and consolation to be present during the last days of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, I feel it incumbent upon me, spiritually and personally, to share with others what I heard and saw.

Leo Tolstoy and, all the more so, Leo Tolstoy on his deathbed, commands the interest of a great many people. For this reason it is to be hoped that all those who knew Tolstoy during those momentous days in Astapovo will make public their impressions and recollections.

For my part, I shall endeavor on the following pages to set forth with utter simplicity only that which I witnessed with my own eyes. I shall leave it to others to fill in any gaps with their accounts of what happened during my absence.

I shall be content if I've succeeded in conveying to the reader at least some idea of the inner and outer life of Leo Tolstoy during his last days amongst us.


Still rejoicing in Tolstoy's "flight" from Yasnaya Polyana on October 28, I received two telegrams on November 1, 1910. They arrived almost simultaneously sometime between three and four in the afternoon. The first telegram, sent from Astapovo by Leo Tolstoy, read:

FELL ILL YESTERDAY STOP SEEN BY PASSENGERS STOP LEFT TRAIN FEELING WEAK STOP FEAR PUBLICITY STOP FEELING BETTER NOW STOP TRAVELING ON STOP TAKE MEASURES STOP NOTIFY STOP NIKOLAYEV
(Leo Tolstoy's private "pseudonym").

The second telegram, also from Astapovo, was sent by Alexandra Lvovna Tolstoy [Tolstoy's youngest daughter]. It read:

GOT OFF YESTERDAY AT ASTAPOVO STOP HIGH FEVER STOP SEMI-CONSCIOUS STOP MORNING TEMPERATURE NORMAL STOP CHILLS RETURNED STOP TRAVEL OUT OF QUESTION STOP HE WANTS TO SEE YOU STOP FROLOVA
(Alexandra's private "pseudonym").

From this I inferred that Leo Tolstoy fell ill at the Astapovo Station and that, fearing his whereabouts might be discovered, he had requested that I take measures to notify him if pursuit was imminent.

Learning that Tolstoy wanted to see me, I left Tula by the first night train and arrived in Astapovo at 9 o'clock in the morning on November 2, 1910. I was met at the railway station by Ivan Ivanovich Ozolin, the local station master.

He was a gracious and kind man, devoted body and soul to Leo Tolstoy. At first he ceded two rooms to Tolstoy but eventually he relinquished his entire apartment and relocated with his wife and children elsewhere.

I followed him into the apartment, where I found Tolstoy in bed, very weak but fully conscious.

He was very glad to see me and offered me his hand. I reached out carefully and kissed it. With tears in his eyes, he immediately set about questioning me concerning my family.

As he spoke, Tolstoy was breathing heavily and groaning. He said: "A fainting spell would be a lot easier. You don't feel a thing, then you wake up and everything is fine again." Evidently, his illness caused him much physical suffering.

Shortly afterwards, Tolstoy broached the subject that obviously most troubled him at the moment. Unusually vivacious, he told me that it was necessary to take all possible measures to prevent Sophia Andreyevna Tolstoy [i.e. his wife] from visiting him. Several times he asked me excitedly about her plans. When I reported what she said, namely, that she wouldn't try to oppose his will, he felt a great sense of relief and never again spoke to me of his fears that day.

He questioned me about A. B. Goldenweizer, about his daughter T. L. Sukhotin, and about Yasnaya Polyana, all of which I answered reassuringly, -- insofar as I could. Among other things, he said: "I received a nice letter from Seryozha (2). He agrees very strongly with my decision to leave"...

Then, remembering my last letter to him concerning P. P. Nikolayev's THE CONCEPT OF GOD AS A PERFECT FOUNDATION FOR LIVING, sent to him from Nice, Tolstoy spoke of it very sympathetically. He observed that the author "establishes his idea on a thorough and sound basis."

Tolstoy then asked for news from Ivan Ivanovich (Gorbunov). I told him that, in his published interview, Ivan Ivanovich spoke of his flight from Yasnaya with warm sympathy.

I also told him that Marya Alexandrovna (Schmidt) sends her regards, that she sympathizes with him, and that she understands that he had no choice but to act as he did.

He listened to everything I said with a great deal of attention. He mentioned I. I. [Gorbunov] once more, that he was waiting for his little books (3).

We were silent. He stretched out his hand towards me. When I bent down, he whispered dejectedly:

TOLSTOY: Nothing, really nothing.

CHERTKOV: What, are you in pain?

TOLSTOY: I am so weak. So very weak.

After a brief pause, he added:

TOLSTOY: Galya(4) -- did she object to your leaving?

CHERTKOV: Of course not. She even said that it'd make her happy if I accompanied you on your journey south.

TOLSTOY: No, what for, please, no!

A little later, he asked me whether the psychiatrist had been by to see Sophia yet. When I replied in the affirmative, he asked:

TOLSTOY: Is it Rossolimo?

CHERTKOV: No, it's not him.

A moment of silence. Then:

TOLSTOY: And your mother, Elizaveta Ivanovna, where is she?

CHERTKOV: In Cannes. She telegraphed, asked about your health.

TOLSTOY: You mean they already know about it there?

Then he said: "See you soon. What about the girls? Are they asleep?"

I went out and called for Alexandra.

I was on duty at Tolstoy's bedside in the afternoon. Noticing that I wasn't wearing my customary gloves, he asked: "So, the eczema is gone?"

It was on this day, too, that I witnessed a characteristic display of Tolstoy's good-natured humor, which, even in moments of deep suffering, never deserted him.

Tolstoy was lying on his side, breathing heavily and groaning. Set off by an incident unsuitable for print , he suddenly broke into a smile as he repeated a joke told by a dying French writer distinguished for her wit. Driven by similar circumstances, she suddenly cracked a joke about herself to the astonishment of all present who thought her in agony. Tolstoy looked at me. He wanted to tell me this anecdote which had somehow entered his head. I interrupted him with my laughter and said:

"I know, Leo Nikolayevich, I know, you've already told me this story once before."

I added that I told this anecdote once to my mother, who, however, was not much amused. It was a pity, she thought, that a dying person should indulge in such trifles. Tolstoy nodded approvingly, showing that he immediately understood my mother's point of view. Then, after a moment of deep concentration, he said: "This Mrs... (he called her by her name, which has since escaped me) was a very dignified, serious-minded woman. She was a friend of Rousseau, which means that she shared his views. That is... " he said slowly, weighing each word, as if formulating something of deep significance to himself, "she was... religious... but she was not strictly orthodox ."(5)

Hoping apparently for some diversion, Tolstoy asked around five the same afternoon to read him something from the newspapers. I picked up a paper lying about on the table and opened it. I began reading aloud from a report discussing the reasons for Tolstoy's flight. In connection with this, I told Tolstoy that, in response to questions pouring in from every corner of the globe, I wrote a letter to the newspapers discussing his flight. Tolstoy took an interest in this letter which had yet to be published. When my friend Alexei Sergeenko, a young man who had come with me, heard this from the adjoining room, he brought me the manuscript copy of this letter. I proceeded to read it to Tolstoy. Someone interrupted us for a moment. When I resumed, I tried to immediately read to him from the newspaper. Tolstoy, however, wanted to know more about my letter: "Is that all?" I said: "No, there is more." "Then finish reading it!" Tolstoy replied. He listened very attentively until I had finished. When I looked up I saw that he was in tears. "Splendid!" he said with emotion. I then read him some of the reports about him which had been dominating the news the last few days. At first, he seemed to be listening attentively, but soon -- as I foresaw, knowing as I did his lack of sympathy for ascribing extraordinary significance to his person -- he asked me to stop and read him something from the paper's political section instead. So I read him several leading articles. He lay still. Although apparently only half-listening, he found in the monotonous concatenation of the ideas read to him a certain respite from the intense exertions of his mind.

In the evening, Tolstoy asked me to bring in Alexei Sergeenko and talked affectionately to him. Tolstoy remembered that he had detained him at Shamardino, causing him to miss his train and travel the remaining 50 verst by carriage. Inquiring sympathetically, Tolstoy asked him how he had managed to reach his destination.

The very first day of my arrival at Astapovo, I took lodgings in the apartment occupied by Tolstoy. In the course of the succeeding days and nights, I took turns caring for him with Alexandra and some others. During this time, I never so much as undressed once. Instead, I slept on the floor or on any available bed, and then only in snatches. Time flowed like one unbroken day. Everything merged into one seamless experience. I cannot tell the days now from each other nor day from night. Every word uttered by Tolstoy in my presence immediately made its way into my notebook. And it is only thanks to these notes and my recording of the corresponding days of the week that I am now able to reconstruct what I had witnessed in those days.

He said little to me, evidently content with my presence. Judging by the way he glanced at me from time to time -- affectionately and tenderly or with deep concentration or again with a luminous smile -- I couldn't help but notice how glad he was to have me by his side during these moments so rich with significance for him.

I remember now how on a number of earlier occasions he had expressed his wish that those closest to him, his daughter Sasha [Alexandra] and I, be present at his deathbed. And, like me, he was fully aware that our bonds were too deep for words.

One time I was sitting by his bedside. We were alone. He was lying on his back, his head raised slightly on his pillow. And he was breathing heavily. Catching my glance, he stretched out his hand and asked: "Well, my good man, what? ... my good man?" -- "Nothing, dear Leo Nikolayevich," I answered, "be strong!" "Yes, yes," he shot back and again looked out into the distance. And he groaned evenly with each breath.


On the following day, November 3, 1910, Tolstoy asked how Sytin was coming along with the printing of his newly revised edition of A CYCLE OF READINGS, which had been significantly held up. This was partly due to censorship restrictions. He also asked me whether the manuscript of his article on socialism had by chance fallen into my hands. It had disappeared during his precipitous flight from Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy had recently been at work on this manuscript for a group of Czechs who had taken an interest in this subject. I had to tell him that this manuscript was not in my possession. As I later saw, he made the following entry in his diary: "My article on socialism has vanished without a trace. Too bad. No, it's not too bad." (After Tolstoy's death, this manuscript was found in Yasnaya on one of the desks in his study.)

The doctors attending Tolstoy asked me to talk him into taking food. But when I suggested that he eat something, he replied: "I don't want to. The way I see it, if you don't want to -- don't do it."

On this day as on the previous evening, I observed in Tolstoy a minor feature characteristic of patients who are seriously ill, namely, that he was often just as fascinated by the minutiae of his surroundings as by the most solemn thoughts. In this respect he was like a child. For instance, he'd watch as the floor was being mopped nearby. A minute later, noticing some slight flaw in the floor, he'd suddenly ask that the floor be mopped. Or, observing that the doctors were taking his temperature, he started, like a child, taking an interest in what they were doing. Pleading repeatedly for the thermometer -- at the most inconvenient times, to boot -- he'd thrust it under armpit, remove it, then scrutinize it. He'd try to read his temperature, but he rarely succeeded without someone's help.

On this day, Tolstoy was especially animated. He was even excited and in a communicative mood. Beaming with satisfaction, he said that his fever had subsided. The doctors examined him thoroughly, then left the room. Tolstoy turned to me. With deep feeling, he said that doctors waste too much time on frivolous things like bacteria. "Instead," he went on, his voice rising, "they should be studying the principles of good hygiene..." Noticing that he was becoming impassioned, I stopped him by saying that he shouldn't be talking so much just then, that it would be better for him to finish what he wanted to say later. I then left his bedside and took position behind the screens.

A little later, Tolstoy called for me and said: "I would like to ask your opinion about a certain matter, but only if it won't upset you. So if it does, say so." Noticing apparently by my countenance that I was perplexed by this prefatory remark, he smiled and added: "Don't you worry!" He then asked me how, in my opinion, he should respond to Maude. The English translator of RESURRECTION has offered to send 500 rubles from the profits accruing from the sales of the English edition for the relief of the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana... I knew that Tolstoy very much wanted to accept this money offer in order to install a grain-collecting station for the local peasantry. So, I told him that, in my opinion, he ought to gratefully accept the money. Rejoicing, Tolstoy said: "Now, you go ahead and answer Maude on my behalf." I observed that it would be better for Alexandra to respond... "Fine," said Tolstoy, "but I want you to help her. Tell him that we have just the right project for it, i.e. the money will be used for the installation of a grain-collecting station." After a brief silence, he began dictating the text of this letter to Maude in English: [in English] "On my way to the place where I wished to be alone, I was ..." [in Russian] "You know, how do you say?..." I continued: [in English] "taken ill." Tolstoy commented [in Russian]: "Yes, yes, please write the letter for me."

A little later, he asked me if I had seen Tanya [Tatyana Lvovna Tolstoy -- his eldest daughter]. He had learned of her arrival in Astapovo from Makovitsky. (6) "I want to ask her," he went on, "about Sophia's health. How did Tanya manage to leave Yasnaya? I suppose she told Sophia that she was going to see her relatives and then came here."

"I really feel like crying today," he said to me. And, in fact, when I told him that I was moved by the love and respect shown to him on all sides, tears came to his eyes. I again withdrew behind the screens. Sometime later, returning to his bedside, I saw that he was wiping away his tears with his handkerchief.

In the afternoon, Tolstoy sent for Tatyana. Their meeting was deeply moving both because of Tolstoy's joy at the sight of his eldest daughter as well as because of his heartfelt concern for Sophia's health, as revealed in his questions. Tolstoy thought that Sophia had stayed behind in Yasnaya, when, as a matter of fact, she was at this very moment only a stone's throw away from him in a train-car at the Astapovo train station. Tatyana didn't want to upset her father by disclosing her mother's whereabouts. Therefore, when Tolstoy's questions became too embarrassing, she told him that it would be better not to discuss the matter just then. Later, she said, when he is stronger, she'd tell him everything. Failing to understand why she was incommunicative, Tolstoy objected: "But you do realize, don't you, how much I need to know this, -- for my sake, for the sake of my soul!" And tears welled up in his eyes.

It remained for Tatyana only to bid a hasty farewell and to withdraw. During this entire conversation, which I was a witness to, Tolstoy never so much as hinted that he wanted to see Sophia.

On this day, when we were alone, Tolstoy whispered to me that his pocket notebook was on his desk. This notebook contained his intimate, secret diary at one end and a record of his thoughts at the other end. The latter were to be transferred afterwards to his big diary, as was his custom. Tolstoy asked me to remove the pages from this intimate diary (the little book came with detachable pages) and to put them away for safekeeping next to similar pages given earlier to Alexandra and to me. As for his thoughts recorded at the other end of the little book, Tolstoy instructed me to enter them later into his diary. He then asked that this big diary be brought to him, and he began making notes. I proceeded to carry out his instructions pertaining to the pocket notebook.

The following thoughts entered in Tolstoy's diary had been dictated by him to Alexandra at Astapovo on November 1, 1910:

"God is the infinite ALL. Man is only a finite manifestation of Him.

"Or better yet:

"God is that infinite All of which man knows himself to be a finite part.

"God alone exists truly. Man manifests Him in time, space and matter. The more God's manifestation in man (life) unites with the manifestations (lives) of other beings, the more man exists. This union with the lives of other beings is accomplished through love.

"God is not love, but the more there is of love, the more man manifests God, and the more he truly exists...

"We acknowledge God only when we are conscious of His manifestation in us. All conclusions and guidelines based on this consciousness should fully satisfy both our desire to know God as such as well as our desire to live a life based on this recognition."


On that same afternoon, learning from me that I. I. Gorbunov and A. B. Goldenweizer had arrived in Astapovo, Tolstoy told me of his desire to see them. Speaking with each of them in turn, he showed his customary, heartfelt, sympathetic attitude towards them and his serene state of mind in the face of an illness which, he well knew, might prove to be his last. The two men were greatly perturbed by this final conversation with Tolstoy.

At five o'clock in the evening, Tolstoy called for me. I drew near his bed. He asked: "Where is Nikitin? (7) I asked him to come, too." I called Nikitin in. With both of us bent over him, he said that he was disturbed that Sophia might find out about his illness and come to Astapovo. For this reason he asked us to send a telegram to his children in Yasnaya. "Tell them that I am very weak and that it would be calamitous for me to meet her." Nikitin left to pass on the instructions. When Tolstoy and I were alone, he told me, his voice shaking with emotion: "You understand, don't you, that if she comes here, I won't be able to turn her down... and if I meet her, it would be calamitous for me." And he wept. Clearly, he was in great pain. A little later, he sent for me again and told me playfully: "Like all great writers, I prize accuracy above all else,-- even in this telegram. So, write it as follows: FEELING BETTER BUT EXTREMELY WEAK, etc. Conclude with the following: A MEETING WOULD BE CALAMITOUS."

I later found out that, while I was out, Tolstoy, still thinking of this same telegram, told Varvara Mikhailovna (8): "Tell Sasha [i.e. Alexandra] to send the telegram at her own expense. It would be a shame if Vladimir Grigorievich [Chertkov] had to pay for each and every one of them." Varvara left the room, but Tolstoy called her back: "You see my purse on that little desk? Take it! You'll find around ten rubles in small bills inside. And there is another fifty rubles in my notebook. That should cover the cost..." Pleased with his instructions, Tolstoy finally let her go.

Tolstoy could still take two or three steps across the room at a time as necessity dictated but only if supported on both sides. When he sat down, though, his head would tilt forward, and I remember how he'd thank me with deep feeling whenever I'd hold his head in the palm of my hand. We had to hold him once again as he walked back to his bed. Then we'd put him to bed, lift his legs carefully and cover them with a blanket . Once, when the two doctors and I had finished doing so, Tolstoy, who was on his back breathing heavily, said in a feeble and pitiful voice: "The peasants! Can you imagine how they die!" And tears came to his eyes. When the doctors left his room, I asked him: "Leo Nikolayevich, you must be remembering the sick and dying peasants you recently met in the villages, aren't you?" (I had in mind the scenes depicted by him in the essays THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY.) "Yes, yes," he replied through his tears. "As you can see, I'm fated to die with my sins still on me." "No, Leo Nikolayevich," I objected, "now you are surrounded by love and not by sin. And you've done everything in your power to put sin behind you."


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