Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Visit to Count Tolstoi

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Visit to Count Tolstoi

By George Kennan (1845–1924)

[Born in Norwalk, Huron Co., Ohio, 1845. Died in Medina, N. Y., 1924. The Century Magazine. 1887.]

THE DAY was a warm and sultry one; he had just returned from work in the fields, and his apparel consisted of heavy calfskin shoes, loose, almost shapeless, trousers of the coarse homespun linen of the Russian peasants, and a white cotton undershirt without collar or neckerchief. He wore neither coat nor waistcoat, and everything that he had on seemed to be of domestic manufacture. But even in this coarse peasant garb Count Tolstoi was a striking and impressive figure. The massive proportions of his heavily moulded frame were only rendered the more apparent by the scantiness and plainness of his dress, and his strong, resolute, virile face, deeply sunburned by exposure in the fields, seemed to acquire added strength from the feminine arrangement of his iron-gray hair, which was parted in the middle and brushed back over the temples. Count Tolstoi’s features may be best described in Tuscan phrase as “moulded with the fist and polished with the pickaxe,” and the impression which they convey is that of independence, self-reliance, and unconquerable strength. The face does not seem at first glance to be that of a student or a speculative thinker, but rather that of a man of action accustomed to deal promptly and decisively with perilous emergencies, and to fight fiercely for his own hand, regardless of odds. The rather small eyes deeply set under shaggy brows are of the peculiar gray which lights up in excitement with a flash like that of drawn steel; the nose is large and prominent, with a singular wideness and bluntness at the end; the lips are full and firmly closed; and the outlines of the chin and jaws, so far as they can be seen through the full gray beard, only give additional emphasis to the expression of virile strength which is the distinguishing characteristic of the large, rugged face.

In the book which has been translated into English by Isabel F. Hapgood, and published in New York under the title of “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth,” Count Tolstoi refers to the pain which he felt at the early age of six years, when his mother was obliged to confess that he was a homely boy. “I fancied,” he says, “that there was no happiness on earth for a person with such a wide nose, such thick lips, and such small gray eyes as I had; I besought God to work a miracle, to turn me into a beauty, and all I had in the present or might have in the future I would give in exchange for a handsome face.” But there is something better and higher in Count Tolstoi’s face than mere beauty or regularity of feature, and that is the deep impress of moral, intellectual, and physical power.

He stood for an instant on the threshold as if surprised to see a stranger, but quickly advanced into the room with outstretched hand, and when I had briefly introduced myself he expressed simply but cordially the great pleasure and gratification which he said it gave him to receive a visit from a foreigner, and especially from an American. I explained to him that my call was the result partly of a promise which I had made to some of his friends and admirers in Siberia, and partly of a desire to make the personal acquaintance of an author whose books had given me so much pleasure.

“What books of mine have you read?” he asked quickly. I replied that I had read all of his novels, including “War and Peace,” “Anna Karennina,” and “The Cossacks.”

“Have you seen any of my later writings?” he inquired.

“No,” I said; “they have all, or nearly all, appeared since I went to Siberia.”

“Ah!” he responded, “then you don’t know me at all. We will get acquainted.”

At this moment my ragged and generally unpresentable droshky-driver, whose existence I had wholly forgotten, entered the door. Count Tolstoi at once rose, greeted him cordially as an old acquaintance, shook his hand as warmly as he had shaken mine, and asked him with unaffected interest a number of questions about his domestic affairs and the news of the day in Tula. It was perhaps a trifling incident, but I was not at that time as well acquainted as I now am with Count Tolstoi’s ideas concerning social questions, and to see a wealthy Russian noble, and the greatest of living novelists, shaking hands upon terms of perfect equality with a poor, ragged, and not overclean droshky-driver whom I had picked up in the streets of Tula was the first of the series of surprises which made my visit to Count Tolstoi memorable. When the droshky-driver, after inquiring affectionately with regard to the health of the Countess and of all the children, had taken his departure, Count Tolstoi excused himself for a moment and returned to the apartment out of which he had come, leaving me alone.

The room where I sat was small and nearly square, and seemed to serve a double purpose as a reception-room and a hall. Two of its walls were of white plaster; the third consisted of one side of a large oven covered with glazed tiles, and the fourth was formed by an unpainted wooden partition pierced by a door which opened apparently into Count Tolstoi’s library or work-room. The floor was bare; the furniture, which was old-fashioned in form, consisted of two or three plain chairs, a deep sofa, or settle, upholstered with worn green morocco, and a small cheap table without a cloth. Three pairs of antlers were fastened against the walls, and upon one of them hung an old slouch hat and a white cotton shirt similar to that which Count Tolstoi had on. There was a marble bust in a niche behind the settle, but the only pictures which the room contained were a small engraved portrait of Dickens and another of Schopenhauer. It would be impossible to imagine anything plainer or simpler than the room and its contents. More evidences of wealth and luxury might be found in many a peasant’s cabin in Eastern Siberia.

Before I had had time to do more than glance hastily about me, Count Tolstoi reappeared in the act of belting around his waist, with a wide black strap, a coarse gray blouse, or tunic, of homespun linen, which he had put on in the adjoining room. Then seating himself beside me, he began to question me about the journey to Siberia from which I had just returned, and I—mindful of my promise to the exiles—began to tell him what I knew about Russian administration and the treatment of political convicts. It soon became evident that he was not to be surprised, or shocked, or aroused by any such information as I had to give him. He listened attentively, but without any manifestation of emotion, to my descriptions of exile life, and drew from the storehouse of his own experience as many cases of administrative injustice and oppression that were new to me as I could give that were new to him. He was evidently familiar with the whole subject, and had with regard to it well-settled views which were not to be shaken by a few additional facts not differing essentially from those that he had previously considered. I finally asked him whether he did not think that resistance to such oppression was justifiable.

“That depends,” he replied, “upon what you mean by resistance; if you mean persuasion, argument, protest, I answer yes; if you mean violence—no. I do not believe that violent resistance to evil is ever justifiable under any circumstances.”

He then set forth clearly, eloquently, and with more feeling than he had yet shown, the views with regard to man’s duty as a member of society which are contained in his book entitled “My Religion,” and which are further explained and illustrated in a number of his recently published tracts for the people. He laid particular stress upon the doctrine of non-resistance to evil, which, he said, is in accordance both with the teachings of Christ and the results of human experience. He declared that violence, as a means of redressing wrongs, is not only futile, but an aggravation of the original evil, since it is the nature of violence to multiply and reproduce itself in all directions. “The revolutionists,” he said, “whom you have seen in Siberia, undertook to resist evil by violence, and what has been the result? Bitterness, and misery, and hatred, and bloodshed! The evils against which they took up arms still exist, and to them has been added a mass of previously non-existent human suffering. It is not in that way that the kingdom of God is to be realized on earth.”

I cannot now repeat from memory all the arguments and illustrations with which Count Tolstoi enforced his views and fortified his position; but I still remember the eloquence and earnestness with which they were presented, and the deep impression made upon me by the personality of the speaker. The ideas themselves were not new to me; I had repeatedly heard them discussed in literary circles in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tver, and Kazan; but they never appealed to me with any real force until they came from the lips of a strong, sensitive, and earnest man who believed in them with passionate fervor.

For a long time I did not suggest any difficulties or raise any objections; but at last I made an effort to escape from the enthralment of Count Tolstoi’s strong personal influence by proposing to him questions which would necessitate the application of his general principles to specific cases. It is one thing to ask a man in a general way whether he would use violence to resist evil, and quite another thing to ask him specifically whether he would knock down a burglar who was about to cut the throat of his mother. Many men would say yes to the first question who would hesitate at the second. Count Tolstoi, however, was consistent. I related to him many cases of cruelty, brutality, and oppression which had come to my knowledge in Siberia, and at the end of every recital I said to him, “Count Tolstoi, if you had been there and had witnessed that transaction, would you not have interfered with violence?” He invariably answered, “No.” I asked him the direct question whether he would kill a highwayman who was about to murder an innocent traveller, provided there were no other way to save the traveller’s life. He replied, “If I should see a bear about to kill a peasant in the forest, I would sink an axe in the bear’s head; but I would not kill a man who was about to do the same thing.” There finally came into my mind a case which, although really not worse than many that I had already presented to him, would, I thought, appeal with peculiar force to a brave, sensitive, chivalrous man.