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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:



(Leo Tolstoy's private "pseudonym").

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



(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."


How deeply moving and how characteristic of Leo Tolstoy that, to the very last instant of consciousness, he never ceased to be troubled by pangs of conscience and by shame for the material advantages and comforts which he had enjoyed throughout his life. He never forgot that this luxury of his, denied to the toiling masses, was made possible only by their labor.


So, for instance, a day before his death, his daughter Tanya left his bedside to join us in the common room. We were taking a break. In a state of shock, she spoke through her tears. "He just told me -- write this down!" -- in a loud voice: "Let me give you a piece of advice: Leo Tolstoy is not the only human being on this planet. Yet all I ever hear you talking about is Leo Tolstoy..."


On that same day, November 3, 1910, Tolstoy asked me once again to read him something from the papers. I picked up a newspaper and asked him whether I should read what has been written about him. He inquired who the author was. As luck would have it, the newspaper gave my letter top billing, i.e. the very letter I read to Tolstoy from the manuscript copy the night before. I told him that I would skip this letter, since we had already read it. Yet, apparently due to failing memory, Tolstoy had forgotten its contents. He asked me to read him my letter once more. Deeply moved, he listened attentively, as if he were hearing it for the first time. When it was over, he said through his tears: "Very, very good!"


In view of such complete agreement on Tolstoy's part with the contents of my letter, I shall take the liberty of presenting here a brief excerpt. So much bad copy has been written about Tolstoy's flight from Yasnaya lately that it would not be inadvisable for me, in the interest of truth, to direct the reader's attention once again to Tolstoy's own explanation, which he himself happened to confirm twice on his deathbed (see above):


"It is, of course, inappropriate to enlarge upon the purely personal, domestic reasons for his flight...


"For my part, I can say only that Leo Tolstoy had pondered taking this step long before actually doing so. If, at last, he took the plunge, then this was because he felt that his conscience left him no other alternative. And all those who know and understand the guiding principle of his life do not doubt but that in making critical decisions, he'll strive to be guided in the future, as he has been in the past, by that selfsame desire to act in accordance with God's will rather than his own.


"Moreover, there is nothing surprising in the fact that a man of his age should seek a life of quiet, inner meditation in order to prepare himself for death, whose coming he cannot help but feel...


"... We can only hope that in the solitude of modest surroundings and in the company of simple folk so dear to his heart, Tolstoy will find the solitude and inner concentration his soul has yearned for and that he has earned by his indefatigable, fearless work on behalf of a suffering and enslaved humanity."


When I finished, Tolstoy asked me to read him something from the "political" section. So I read him the feuilleton and the leading article from RECH'. I then asked him what I should read next. He suddenly remembered that he was still receiving mail. So he asked me who was in charge. I told him that, in accordance with his own instructions, his mail had at first been collected by Alexandra, and that, after she left Yasnaya, I took over this job from her. I told him that letters arriving on his behalf were all being examined by us: that is, letters from petitioners were, as was his custom, left unanswered, orders for books were being filled and letters of an intellectual import were brought with me to Astapovo so that, if he asks for them, they may be read to him as the occasion arises. He was delighted when he heard this and asked me to read some of these letters to him, which I did. I managed to read to him four letters and to record his replies or comments on their envelopes. These were the last letters Tolstoy ever heard or read.


One letter came from his friend, the peasant Mikhail Petrovich Novikov, who had recently visited him. In an earlier letter to him, Tolstoy inquired if, in the event he was forced to leave Yasnaya, he could take temporary lodgings with him in his peasant hut. Novikov replied very warmly that he would be delighted to offer Tolstoy the hospitality of his home. Here is an excerpt from his letter:


"I've always been frank with you and have always said what was in my heart. I've decided, here and now, to tell you only how I feel about your request, as expressed in your letter, whether you like it or not... Your life is setting like the twilight sun. Yet, to me and to all those who feel kinship with you, it is still precious. Our only wish is that it last as long as possible. And this is possible only under those conditions which you have been accustomed to and in which you have lived these past eighty-two years. Much as I may wish to see you unconfined, free with all simple folk, yet I cannot wish this seriously because the relationship which is so dear to all of us will come to an end unless you conserve the life flowing in your ancient body. I only hope that no external circumstances constrain or hinder you, during the remainder of your life amongst us, from mingling with those who love you. And, yes, if you are thinking of visiting your friends for a short time, say, for a day, a week or two or a month, my hut may prove very convenient. It has a lighted room, which my family will gladly relinquish to you. And they will serve you with love in their hearts... That's what I think. However, if you feel differently, then let it be not as I see it, but as you see it. In that case, my room is available to you for as long as you wish..."


The letter continues with household matters.


Tolstoy asked me to express his deep thanks to Novikov and to tell him that he, Leo Nikolayevich, is following a different path entirely.


The second letter begins with the words: "Exalted Teacher!" In it a young woman tells of her love for a man who reciprocates her love, but who is married and has two children. "We do not have the strength to call it quits," she writes. "If only I could bring myself to end it all by leaving this world which has become repugnant to me..." Tolstoy cut me off with the words: "You don't have to go on. What can anyone say to that?!"


The third letter came from a man whose personal life was, as he put it, in ruins. He "had lost his taste for living." He said that "the religious life of the masses is bound up with Church ritual," that "among its worshippers are ... not a few who are truly religious," that "like it or not, the Church has not ceased to preach words of life," and so on. At the same time, he acknowledged that "the modern Church is made up of people yoked together against their will," that "it crudely and pitilessly tortures the soul of every sensitive person," and that he, the author of this letter "has been disenchanted with the Church as with nothing else." Listening to this letter to the bitter end, Tolstoy remarked that there was no need to answer it. When I asked him why, he said: "It's too vague: the Church is good and, then again, the Church is not so good..."


The fourth letter, with ten 7-kopeck stamps enclosed for return postage, came from a "profound admirer" who requested that the "great thinker" autograph the photo that was sent out concurrently under separate cover. Since the photo had not yet arrived, we filed the letter away under REQUESTS FOR AUTOGRAPHS. It was Tolstoy's practice to fulfill these requests at one sitting, when a sufficient number of them had accumulated on his desk.


Dushan Petrovich asked me not to take up too much of Tolstoy's time with these readings from his mail-bag. I brought this activity gradually to an end and let the remaining letters which I had brought with me go unread.


On the following day, November 4, 1910, Tolstoy's parched, pale lips indicated that his condition had become very grave. These symptoms disappeared on subsequent days. Yet, on the whole, with each passing day, his cheeks shrank further, his lips became pale and thin, and his entire face seemed to speak of agony. No doubt this attested to the physical suffering which he had to endure. This was especially noticeable on the lips as well as around the mouth which, due to Tolstoy's labored breathing, remained mostly half-open and slightly twisted.


He showed almost no other signs of physical pain. The groans and loud sighs which accompanied his every breath and every hiccup for hours on end were so regular and so monotonous that they failed to evoke any special or acute sense of suffering. Once or twice, when asked whether he was suffering, he answered in the negative. Only a few times during the entire illness was Tolstoy wracked by paroxysms of pain. On such occasions, he'd rise convulsively to a sitting position and, his legs dangling, toss anguishedly from side to side. All the while, he'd complain how agonizing this was for him. Yet, soon he'd lower himself onto his pillow once more and lie silently as if reconciled meekly to the inevitable ordeal.


Tolstoy evidently recognized the fact that the immediate task before him at this juncture was to endure patiently and meekly the physical pain that was becoming ever more intense. Judging by Tolstoy's conduct, he approached this task with the same conscientious and firm resolve with which he habitually performed any duty. When he woke up in the morning, he recognized me. Though apparently in great pain, he said with unusual kindness in his voice: "Looks like I am dying. And, then again, perhaps I'm not. We must keep on trying..." And tears welled up in his eyes. Evidently, even the night before his death, he wanted to do what's right. In deep agony, he looked at me and said: "I don't know what to do."


On those days, lying quietly on his back, Tolstoy often stroked his blanket with the fingers of his right hand. He'd do this often and at some length. He was to all appearances jotting down the thoughts streaming into his head on an imaginary pad.


In order to air Tolstoy's bedroom, the doctors and I carried him in his bed to an adjoining room, where a variety of commonly used and auxiliary instruments and medications were stored. Seeing a table with these -- for him -- unusual objects, Tolstoy began bombarding me with questions concerning individual vials, etc. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to an attractive, pink vial. I picked it up. It read: "Eau dentifrice" [i.e. mouthwash]. "And do I have any 'dents'? [i.e. teeth]," he asked. "Not at all," he observed playfully. "And what is this?" he continued. "This is olive oil. It was sent to you by Galya at Alexandra's request," I answered. "And what is it for?" he inquired. "It is used for enemas and things of that sort," I said. "Aha!" he exclaimed.


It was on this day that Leo Tolstoy first showed symptoms of delirium as well as -- however insignificantly -- that unconscious irritability which so often afflicts people suffering from extreme exhaustion. He gave instructions, not without a certain impatience, on how to make his bed. He then insistently tried to use his watch, which he had been holding in his hand, in a way thoroughly incompatible with its nature. For a long time, he refused to allow Dushan to rectify the situation. Finally, we took the watch away from him, replaced it with a worthy substitute and put it on a little night table by his bed. On three occasions Tolstoy whispered: "I feel so sick." He then added firmly: "I can't understand it... what did you do with my 'wosh'?" The meaning of this word, pronounced emphatically and somewhat unnaturally by Tolstoy, escaped both Dushan and me. He kept repeating: "What did you do with my 'wosh'?" At last, it occurred to me that he might be looking for his "watch". I picked it up and gave it to him. He took it in his hand and calmed down, contented at last.


... A little later, looking at the bed before him, Tolstoy asked Dushan: "What's that?" Dushan replied: "That's a blanket, Leo Nikolayevich." "And what's that over there?" "That's the bed." "Well, now it's all right," Tolstoy concluded, relieved.


Tolstoy would often crumple the blanket while running his hand over his bare chest, as if clutching at it. These actions, taken customarily for signs of imminent death, alarmed some of us. Yet, we consoled each other by recalling that he had behaved similarly during previous grave illnesses. Speaking for myself, let me say that I continued to hope till the very end. I recalled the astonishing vitality of Tolstoy's body, and how this vitality had rescued him so many times before when those around him had given up all hope. I observed happily that Tolstoy's organism was still carrying out its normal functions. And I applauded the strength and unexpected abruptness of some of his bodily movements and the firm sonority of his voice. I even rejoiced -- along with the doctors -- at the irritability which kept cropping up unconsciously in Tolstoy. But, mainly, my hope was sustained by my faith in the indispensability of his life, that is, in the indispensability of his mind, which, I well knew, brimmed over with wonderful artistic projects and other ventures. This belief so permeated every pore of my being that I could not entertain the thought that this time Tolstoy's illness might well be a fatal one.


There was one thing that I had failed to realize at the time, namely, that the vitality of his body had been fundamentally undermined by the unbelievable mental agony which he had been subjected to during his last months at Yasnaya Polyana. I was kept from seeing him during these last three months by those very circumstances which eventually sapped his strength. In his letters to me, Tolstoy tried to keep up his morale, as was his wont. Consequently, he did not elaborate on his health. That is why, arriving in Astapovo, I was quite ignorant of the extent to which his heart, nerves, indeed, his whole body had already been worn down and totally emaciated by the mental anguish which he had endured even before his flight. Well before leaving Yasnaya, he had "laid down his life" by making a heroic gesture of love and self-renunciation. There simply wasn't any life left in him. I, of course, did not know this at the time.


On November 5, 1910, at 2:30 in the morning, Alexandra woke me up. "Papa is not well," she said. I leapt out of bed. As I put on my shoes and jacket, I heard Tolstoy's loud, excited voice coming from a room twice removed from mine. Rushing to his bedside, I found him sitting sideways on the bed. I drew near. When he told me that he wanted to dictate something, I took out my notebook. He was just about to expound on something when he asked me to read back to him what he had already dictated. I explained that I had just entered his room and that I had not had time as yet to write down anything. Tolstoy then asked me to read back to him what Dr. Semenovsky had written down in his notebook. The doctor, sitting nearby, gave me a knowing look and pointed his notebook in my direction so that I could see that his notebook was blank. Only then did I realize that Tolstoy was having a fit of delirium. He now demanded even more insistently that I read to him from Semenovsky's notebook. Semenovsky got up and quietly left the room.


TOLSTOY: Well, go on and read it to me, please.

CHERTKOV: He hasn't written down a thing in his notebook. Tell me, what would you like me to write?


TOLSTOY (more insistently): But no, read it! Why won't you read it to me?


CHERTKOV: But his notebook is blank.


TOLSTOY (reproachfully): Oh, how strange. Come on, you're a good man. Why won't you read to me!?


This painful scene continued for some time until Alexandra advised me to read him something from the book lying on the table nearby. It turned out to be A CYCLE OF READINGS, which he always kept by his side. It was his custom to read the daily passage without fail. I found the chapter for November 5.


I began reading aloud. Tolstoy listened with rapt attention. From time to time, he'd ask me to repeat some word that he had not quite caught. Yet, never once did he try to interrupt me in order to dictate something of his own. "And who wrote that?" he'd ask concerning this or that thought in A CYCLE OF READINGS. A little later, supposing him tired, I stopped reading. After first waiting to see if I'd go on, Tolstoy said: "Now, as I was saying..." He was about to resume his dictation. Fearing renewed excitement on his part, I hastily resumed my reading and Tolstoy obediently resumed his listening. We went through this a second time. After a long time, I lowered my voice and finally quit reading altogether. Tolstoy, who must have been weary, said with satisfaction: "All right..." and he fell completely silent.


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.


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.


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.



Vladimir Chertkov




Dec. 27, 1910






Footnotes to the English Translation


  1. Permission to reprint is hereby granted. [In this respect, Chertkov follows his master Leo Tolstoy, who renounced his copyright as part of the spiritual transformation of his later years -- Tr.] Back


  2. Tolstoy's eldest son: Sergei Lvovich. Back


  3. Miscellanies of thoughts on diverse subjects. Tolstoy worked long and hard on their composition during the last year of his life. Back


  4. My wife Anna Konstantinovna Chertkova. Back


  5. ["Religiozna... no ne pravoverna" ] Back


  6. Dushan Petrovich Makovitsky, Leo Tolstoy's family doctor and close friend. Back


  7. Doctor D. V. Nikitin. He arrived in Astapovo as soon as he heard of Tolstoy's illness. Back


  8. V. M. Feokritova, a friend of Alexandra Tolstoy. She was present in Astapovo with the latter throughout Tolstoy's last days. Back


  9. "Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra". French proverb meaning: "Always do your duty, come what may!" Back


  10. ["Vsye ya... svoi proyavleniya... Dovol'no proyavleniya... Vot i vsye..." The elliptical nature of this fragment seems to make possible a number of readings.

    Tolstoy's belief that each of us is a manifestation of God is clear enough. But what do we make, grammatically speaking, of "ya..."? It would appear, on the surface, to be the first person "I". This "I" could refer to a single ego or many egos. Thus, the phrase might read: "Everything is I," "I am everything," "I am always." It could also mean: "All egos ..." The subsequent phrase "svoi proyavleniya" could therefore be read as "my" (or "your" or "our" or "their") manifestations."

    My own conjecture is that "Vsye ya..." is elliptical for "Vsye yavlyayut...," that is, " (We) -- all of us -- reveal," where "vsye" is the 1st, 2nd or 3rd person plural pronoun and "ya..." is the first syllable of "yavlyayut," that is, of the imperfective verb "yavlyat'", that is, "to show or manifest." If my conjecture is right, then this intriguing utterance by Tolstoy on his deathbed finally makes sense. -- Translator] Back




Benjamin Sher

Russian Literary Translator


(Yale University Press, 1997)


A Confession ] What I Believe ] Gospel In Brief ] Kingdom of God ] A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology ] An Examination of The Gospels ] A Harmony, Translation, and Examination of The Four Gospels ] 23 Tales ] Hadji Murad ] Resurrection ] His Life and Work ] Count Tolstoi and the Public Censor ] The Devil ] Last Days of Tolstoy ] First Recollections ] Father Sergious ] The Forged Coupon ] The Death of Ivan Ilych ] The Kreutzer Sonata ] Tolstoi's Kreutzer Sonata ] How Much Land Does A Man Need? ] What to do - On the Census in Moscow ] To A Kind Youth ] Master and Man ] Patriotism and Government ] Thou shall not kill ] To the Tsar and His Assistants ] A Letter to Russian Liberals ] A Letter to a Hindu ] Letter to Gandhi ] Letter to A Noncommissioned Officer ] To The Working People ] On Non-Resistance ] Last Message to Mankind ] The Slavery of Our Times ] Reminiscences Of Tolstoy ] Semenov's Peaseant Stories ] Strider ] The Works of Guy De Maupassant ] [ The Last Days of Leo Tolstoy ] The Tragedy of Tolstoy ]

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