On this day in 1881, Count Leo Tolstoy donned his peasant coat and homemade bark shoes, gathered his walking staff and two bodyguards, and set out from his estate for the Optina Pustyn monastery. Tolstoy was fifty-two, a national hero, and in the grip of the religious-political mania which would dominate his writing and trouble his life over his last three decades. In A Confession, written shortly after his pilgrimage to Optina Pustyn, Tolstoy portrays himself to be doubtful of his accomplishments, troubled by guilt, and ready to be born again:
I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was not a crime I did not commit…Thus I lived for ten years.
Biographer A. N. Wilson may be right that “the progress from artist to sage or holy man, which, to western readers seems embarrassing or a bit of a bore, is a fairly common phenomenon among Russian writers,” but Tolstoy went at it with typical excess. Intellectually, this not only meant a series of books and pamphlets on religious, social, and aesthetic issues but a denunciation of all his other writing. (And not just his own masterpieces: on one famous occasion Tolstoy told his friend Chekhov that his plays were as bad as Shakespeare’s.) In practical terms, all this meant living according to Sermon-on-the Mount austerity and peasant simplicity — abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sex, and agreeing to neither serve in the military nor cast a political vote.
Although many in Russia and around the world regarded Tolstoy as a moral leader and prophet, with his estate becoming a place of pilgrimage itself, his wife and children were less enthusiastic. In the end, the marriage that had been so important to the creation of the great novels was in ruins. At the age of eighty-two, Tolstoy famously “escaped” his wife, Sonya, in the middle of the night, setting off with several attendants to some unclear destination to live in reclusion, his route including one last visit to the Optina Pustyn monastery.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.