H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 10, 1910

Some curious stories about the late Count Leo Tolstoi are told in the new edition of Dr. Edward A. Steiner’s “Tolstoi: The Man and His Message,” just published by the Revells. This interesting work was first printed in 1903, after Dr. Steiner had made a prolonged visit to the celebrated Russian soothsayer, and a new edition was published five years later, on the occasion of Tolstoi’s eightieth birthday. The present edition shows enlargement and revision, but it was ready for the press before Tolstoi’s death, and so the melodramatic circumstances attending that event are not described.

The Tolstois Of Other Days

We learn from Dr. Steiner that the Tolstoi family confesses to a German origin and that the original name was Dickman, of which Tolstoi is the Russian equivalent. The sons of the house were hard fighters and hard drinkers in the old days and played somewhat dubious roles at court. One of them, Peter Andrejevitch, was high in the confidence of Peter the Great, though in the end that royal barbarian turned against him and he was imprisoned in a monastery near Arctic Archangel, where he died mysteriously in 1729.

If Peter Andrejevitch was murdered, as seems likely, he got his just deserts, for he had done some murdering himself, in his time, and one of his victims was no less a personage than the Czarevitch Alexej. When Alexej fled from Moscow, early in the eighteenth century, Tolstoi was sent in pursuit of him, and after a long chase found him near Naples and dragged him home. The Czarevitch, for this adventure, was condemned to death and Tolstoi, it is said, carried out the sentence.

The fine estate of Yasnaya Polyana, upon which the Tolstois have lived for generations, was brought into the family by Maria, the only daughter of Prince Nikolai Sergejevitch Volkinsky, head of a noble family which goes back to the year 1246. Marie made a rich man of the Tolstoi she married, and though later scions of the house dissipated much of her fortune, Yasnaya Polyana was never alienated. Leo Tolstoi’s father—a gay devil, if tradition is to be believed—brought his bride there in the twenties, and there the greatest of all the Tolstois was born on September 9, 1828.

 An Orphan At Nine

Little is known about his mother, save that she did not become a bride until somewhat late in life and was remarkable for a distressing lack of comeliness. When Leo was less than two years old she died, and her husband followed her to the grave seven years later. The orphan children, four boys and a girl, were taken in charge by a relative, the Countess Osten Sacken, and she seems to have given them every care until her own death in 1840. Then they were handed over to another aunt, Pelageya Ilinishna Yushkova, and she took them to her estate at Kazan, where they were brought up.

Tolstoi always remembered this aunt with affection, but she seems to have been a flighty and irresponsible person. It was her fond wish that her foster children should cut a figure at court, and to this end she advised young Leo to cultivate the society of women. The best way for a young man to get on in life, she told him, was at the skirts of some influential charmer. She even seems to have made some effort to find the charmer, but it all went for naught, for Leo developed a great seriousness, and began to study Arabic and Turkish with the aim of shining as an Orientalist. He failed, however, to pass the government examinations, and so gave up these difficult tongues.

The story of Tolstoi’s abandonment of scholarship for an officer’s shoulder-straps and of his first ventures into literature has been told so often that it is familiar. Dr. Steiner, however, throws some new light upon these early years. Tolstoi, it appears, was then a cynical materialist and had a fine scorn for the very ideas he later advocated so ardently. He and Turgenieff, the great Russian novelist, quarreled eternally over such matters, and in the end they parted company.

The final row may be briefly described. The two were guests of a friend in the country and Turgenieff began describing his plans for educating his young daughter. He was eager to make an altruist of her, and to that end had ordered her to devote an hour or two a day to mending the rags of the poor.

“And do you think that will make her an altruist?” demanded Tolstoi.

“Of course I do,” replied Turgenieff. “It will bring the child in touch with the real needs of the people.”

“And I,” said Tolstoi hotly, “believe a finely dressed child mending dirty clothes is merely performing a theatrical scene.”

Tolstoi himself was to perform many such theatrical scenes in later years, but at the moment he was probably sincere enough. At all events he and Turgenieff debated the problem so hotly that their old friendship came to an end, and ever afterward they were enemies.

 The Woman He Married

Countess Tolstoi, who survives her husband and who became his wife in 1862, was scarcely more than 17 years old at the time of their marriage. She was Sophia Andreyevna Baer, daughter of a German doctor, who had married a Russian woman. The mother was but a few years older than Tolstoi, and he had long been one of her admirers and often visited her. One day in 1861 Mme. Baer and her three daughters spent three days at Yasnaya Polyana on their way to the home of the grandparents of the girls, some 50 versts farther on. Before the visit came to an end the young count was floored by Sophia’s gray-blue eyes, and soon he was paying formal court to her.

Dr. Steiner gives an elaborate and romantic account of Tolstoi’s proposal and acceptance—a pretty story, but one which is not to be taken too seriously. The marriage was fixed for September 23, 1862, and the bridegroom, we are informed, was as nervous and abashed as bridegrooms usually are. In order that the marriage might be regular, he had to go to confession first, an enterprise which gave him disquiet, for he was then a violent unbeliever. But he managed it somehow, and so he and his Sophia became one.

The quarter century which followed seems to have been full of happiness. Thirteen children filled Yasnaya Polyana with their clamor; Sophia was a diligent and accomplished housekeeper; the count himself was busy with the great works which brought him fame. Not until the wild yearning to sacrifice himself came to him with old age did he begin those eccentric performances which brought the good Sophia, in the end, so much anguish of mind.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

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