20 April 2010

St Sebastian of Optina on Tolstoy's Last Days, Part 1

Until quite recently, when I began tutoring a grad student working on an independent study course on Tolstoy, I had only recalled vague circumstances of the author’s last days. I knew something about a flight from Yasnaya Polyana, something about Optina Pustyn monastery, and something about a train station, and that was about all, literally. But in the course of discussing the possibility of my student doing a paper on the Confession which would focus on death (as it turned out, this idea was largely abandoned), I reread with special attentiveness the account of Tolstoy’s last days in Leonard Stanton’s fascinating The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination. Then, while looking through the Platina translation of the life of St Sebastian the Confessor, Elder Sebastian of Optina, I was very excited to learn even more about this fascinating story. To begin with, here is a typical account, this one taken from Wikipedia (here).

Tolstoy died of pneumonia at Astapovo station in 1910 after leaving home in the middle of winter at the age of 82. His death came only days after gathering the nerve to abandon his family and wealth and take up the path of a wandering ascetic; a path that he had agonized over pursuing for decades. He had not been at the peak of health before leaving home, his wife and daughters were all actively engaged in caring for him daily. He had been speaking and writing of his own death in the days preceding his departure from home, but fell ill at the train station not far from home. The station master took Tolstoy to his apartment, where his personal doctors were called to the scene. He was given injections of morphine and camphor. The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral. Still, some peasants were heard to say that, other than knowing that ‘some nobleman had died’, they knew little else about Tolstoy.

But this account leaves out so much as to seem almost deliberately misleading. Noting the statement that the great writer ‘fell ill at the train station not far from home’, one would think he had only just left and had as yet been nowhere to speak of before falling sick. But from the time of his flight to the time of his sickness—28 October to 31 October 1910—nearly four full days had lapsed. During that time, he had visited two places: Optina Pustyn and its womens’ dependency, Shamordino, where Tolstoy’s sister, Mother Maria, was living the monastic life.

According to Stanton, Tolstoy had been to Optina at least four other times, beginning in 1877, and had visited Elder Ambrose on three of those occasions. The latter said very little about their final conversation (in 1890), but told Constantine Leontiev:

‘When Tolstoy came into my cell, I blessed him, and he kissed my hand. But when he came to leave, in order to avoid a blessing, he kissed me on the cheek.’ When he was saying this, the elder was barely breathing—he was so worn out from his conversation with the Count. ‘He is very proud,’ added Father Amvrosii. [1]

While it is impossible to be sure of his plans prior to the morning of 28 October 1910, it is clear that Tolstoy had had Optina on the mind, if not as a destination, then as a sort of spiritual symbol or choice lying before him. According to Stanton:

We must wonder if thoughts of Optina prompted him to read Dostoevsky in the troubled month prior to his flight from home, or if his reading of The Brothers Karamazov turned his thoughts to Optina. Whatever the case, Tolstoy read the first part of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in October 1910. He mentioned Elder Zosima in a diary entry of 19 October, and nine days later, on the 28th, he was at Optina. On 26 October, only two days before his flight, Tolstoy had a dream in which Grushenka, Dostoevsky’s heroine, was involved in a romance with Nikolai Strakhov, the critic who had accompanied Tolstoy to Optina in 1877. [2]

Stanton concludes that the flight to Optina ‘was, if not unpredictable, made suddenly and in haste’, but that nevertheless ‘he did go to Optina, and he did so of his own free will’. At this point, Stanton gives the account of this visit:

While at Optina, Tolstoy did not visit either Iosif or Varsanofii, the two elders then in residence. Tolstoy and Dr Makovitskii [‘his follower and personal physician’] arrived at Optina in the early evening of 28 October. They were given a comfortable room at the monastery’s hostel. Tolstoy had some tea, and by eight o’clock he was making a comparatively long journal entry, describing the previous night’s disturbance, his flight, and the wearying trip to Optina. That night Tolstoy slept uneasily. He awoke on the morning of the 29th to hear news brought from Yasnaya Polyana by Chertkov’s assistant, Alyosha Sergeenko. Some of it was bad. Sofiia Andreevna [Tolstoy’s wife] had attempted suicide by drowning, and the family had given some consideration to having Tolstoy seized by the police and declared mentally incompetent by the court. Other news brought Tolstoy some comfort. Letters from [his disciple] Chertkov and [his daughter and follower] Aleksandra applauded his departure and reassured him that all was for the best.

Later in the day, Tolstoy, who walked regularly for exercise, took a stroll about Optina’s grounds, pausing here and there to exchange a few inconsequential words with some ordinary monks. He never spoke with Elder Iosif, though; he ventured up to the hermitage, lingering for a time at Iosif’s door, but he left after a discomfiting interchange with the Elder’s cell attendant.

That afternoon, the old novelist and his physician left Optina to continue their journey. Although Tolstoy expressed an intention to return to Optina, he did not live to do so. [3]

I shall take up the story after their departure in another post. For now, I’d like to relate the story of the visit to Optina from another perspective—that of St Sebastian, who claims to have been the cell attendant at the time of Tolstoy’s visit. According to St Sebastian:

When Leo Tolstoy came to the Skete on one of the last days of October, 1910, I was serving as Elder Joseph’s cell attendant [an obedience St Sebastian fulfilled from his entrance to the monastery in January of 1909 until St Joseph’s death in April of 1911]. Leo Tolstoy had arrived in Optina from Kozelsk the day before, late in the evening, and had spent the night in the monastery guesthouse. The guest master, Fr Michael, later related that, after tea, Tolstoy had questioned him about the Elders and asked which of them was receiving people, and if Elder Joseph might receive him, saying that he had come to visit and have a chat with the Elders. [4]

Torstensen then relates the testimony of the guestmaster, Fr Michael:

They came—there were two of them. They knocked. I opened the door. Leo Nikolaevich asked, ‘May I enter?’

I said, ‘Please do.’

But he said, ‘Perhaps it’s not possible for me; I’m Tolstoy.’

‘Why not?’ I said, ‘we’re happy to receive everyone who has a desire to see us.’

Then he said, ‘Well, greetings, brother.’

I answered, ‘Greetings, your Excellency.’

He said, ‘You weren’t offended that I called you brother? All men are brothers.’

I replied, ‘Not in the least; and it’s true that all are brothers.’

Well, that’s how things stood between us. I conducted him into the best room. Early in the morning I sent an assistant to the skete Superior, Fr Barsanuphius, to warn him that Tolstoy was coming to the Skete to see him. [5]

At this point, Torstensen returns to St Sebastian’s testimony:

Elder Joseph was ill, and I was sitting beside him. Elder Barsanuphius called on us and related that Fr Michael had sent to warn him that Tolstoy was coming to see him. Elder Barsanuphius said, ‘I asked him, “Who told you?” and he replied that Tolstoy himself had said so.’

Hearing this, Elder Joseph said, ‘If he comes, we’ll receive him with affection, respect and joy, even though he’s been excommunicated. This time he came on his own—no one indeed forced him to come, otherwise we couldn’t receive him.’ Then they sent me to look outside the skete enclosure. I saw Leo Nikolaevich and reported to the Elders that he was walking close alongside the house, at first approaching, then stepping back.

Elder Joseph said, ‘It’s hard for him. He’s surely come to us for living water. Go and invite him in, if he’s come to see us. Go ask him.’ I went out, but he was no longer there; he had left. He could only have just gone off but, after all, he would have been on a horse, so I couldn’t have caught up with him. . . . [6]

And so the final visit to Optina ended. From his words to Fr Michael about having ‘a chat with the Elders’, it does not sound as though Tolstoy was quite ready to reconcile with the Church. But that he wanted to speak with them seems significant, and that he did not seems a great tragedy. Based on St Sebastian’s testimony, it does not seem likely that Tolstoy really did have ‘a discomfiting interchange with the Elder’s cell attendant’, since according to St Sebastian he didn’t speak with him at all. One wonders if this supposed ‘cell attendant’ was simply some other monk who recognised Tolstoy and disapproved of his being there.

But the entire story is not quite done. I shall tell the rest—continuing to place Stanton’s and St Sebastian’s accounts in juxtaposition—in a subsequent post or posts.

Continued here.

[1] Qtd. in Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 206.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Ibid., pp. 210-1.

[4] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), p. 78.

[5] Ibid., pp. 78-9.

[6] Ibid., p. 79.


Matthew said...

Thanks for posting this. I was thinking about this subject, as well, because there is a new movie out about the Tolstoys called The Last Station, and I was wondering how they handled the Optina and Shamordino.

I just read Stanton's book recently (one of the local University libraries had it). The part where he boasts to Leontiev about his 'Gospel' version was one of the most unattractive anecdotes I've heard about Tolstoy. And I thought it was interesting that Leontiev apparently asked him to start writing belletristic works again, as Turgenev pleaded with Tolstoy for the same thing.

orrologion said...

There's also a section on this same event in the Platina text on St. Barsanuphius, too.

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew> Yes, my student informed me about that movie. I'd like to see it as well.

I'm glad to hear you found (& read) Stanton. That book is just so original. It's one of my favourites, of course.

I too thought the exchange with Leontiev was disappointing, but very interesting & revealing.

Orr> I assumed there probably was, but I unfortunately lack that volume. Who was the source for the story there? And did it shed any light on the 'cell attendant' question?

Extollager said...

Thank you. I look forward to reading more about this.

Incidentally, I was delighted to learn recently that Dostoevsky wrote a letter, 16 years after the fact, in which he told of a conversation he had, during a visit to London, with Charles Dickens. For me, it is wonderful to think of these two conversing -- though I wish I knew how they did so: perhaps both spoke in French? Or did Dostoevsky bring along an interpreter? I don't think he knew English...

orrologion said...

I can't remember who the compiler of that section of the book was, but it was St. Barsanuphius himself speaking about his experience going to the station where Tolstoy lay. I believe he was sent in place of the Elder Ambrose who was too sick to make the trip. It's towards the back of the book. I'll try to remember and find it this weekend (when I am reunited with my library).

Felix Culpa had a little something tangential but pertinent about St. B and Tolstoy here:


I have always found the St. Barsanuphius volume to be the best!

The cell attendant question may be answered via the Life of St. Joseph of Optina (who is sort of my second angel as his feast is also that of St. Christopher, my patron, and my middle name is Joseph). However, I never really liked his Life as published, but I have always chalked that up to simply not liking the tone of much that came out of HTM.

aaronandbrighid said...

Extollager> That's neat! I'm sure they could have spoken French, but I thought D did know English. All of my books on D (as opposed to his novels) are still in a box at my parents' house, or I'd check in Joseph Frank or something.

Orr> It was Elder Joseph who was too sick to go--Elder Ambrose was long reposed by that time.

I need that St Barsanuphius volume!

orrologion said...

Yes, Elder Joseph, sorry, getting all mixed up.

I highly recommend the the Elder Barsanuphius of Optina volume, and not just because it is by far the biggest book in the series. When Fr. Seraphim speaks about reading more modern saints because they are closer to our time but can act as a bridge to the tradition that preceded them, I always think of this volume. Maybe it's because the Saint spent so much time in the world as a military man and only later joined the monastery, maybe it's because he lived at the end of the Tsarist age without being caught up in the Revolution and is thus the full flowering of 'Holy Russia' in its spiritual, cultural and intellectual arenas. Then again, maybe he simply had better compilers or translators.

I also think it's just the coolest name. I just know that if I was ever tonsured a monk I'd end up being given this name. :) We're planning on at least one more child, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that the wife will consider a little Barsanuphius or Varsanuf (we'd have to go with the latter because my last name turns any first name into some odd-sounding dinosaur name; same with Fergus, Cyrus, etc.)

Taylor said...

Thank you for the fascinating post! There is a very penetrating account of Tolstoy's life and work, with special reference to his last days, in a book by a German Jewish convert to Catholicism, Karl Stern. The book is 'Flight from Woman'. He connects Tolstoy's difficult marriage (for which Stern considers Tolstoy's 'conversion' to blame), with his turn away from belleslettres to moralistic fables, and with his rejection of the church. Stern manages to do this in such a way that is not reductive, even though he was a Freudian psychoanalyst, but shows that, essentially, these three elements of Tolstoy's life were interconnected. At its root, Stern maintains, Tolstoy's mind was infected by a reductive, exclusively masculine rationalism which is endemic of Western culture and philosophy since Descartes. Such a sweeping generalisation about Western society may seem too unsubstantiated, but If you read the whole book, I think Stern does a good job of connecting philosophy and psychology in a convincing way. He sees the whole problem - the disease of Western culture - as one of an unbalanced masculinity within the two 'poles' of the human soul, characterized by masculine and feminine ways of knowing.

Once you are able to finish the story of Tolstoy's death, Aaron, it would be interesting to see what light, if any, Stern is able to shed on the account.

aaronandbrighid said...

Taylor> The Stern book sounds very interesting, and he may well be on to something. I think he is undoubtedly right that these things are connected. I hesitate a bit, however, at a simple charge of rationalism. Though Stern's approach may take this into account, I see T's rationalism as a sort of alibi or defensive tool wielded by his proud, egocentric will. He uses rationalism to do away with anything that makes him uncomfortable, and then claims that it is precisely the excesses of reason that alienated the upper classes from the peasants & introduced all sort of artificialities & anxieties, as manifested in the disorderly & fearful ways of dying among his class. T is not consistent in his rationalism, but has recourse to it as it is convenient. I always come back to St Ambrose's judgement, 'He is very proud.' Fr Florovsky suggests something very similar in Ways of Russian Theology.

River Cocytus said...

A dovetail here to a previos post, Aaron:


It's Chesterton on William Morris. He makes some very delightful points!

The Ochlophobist said...


Great post.

Did you happen to see this review:


of this book:


It seems that the incompetence Tolstoy paints of the Russian Army officers was not entirely accurate.

aaronandbrighid said...

River> Great! I can't wait to check it out. I actually asked a presenter on GKC at the conference last week if he knew of any connections between Chesterton's & Morris's views or writings. How very fortuitous!

Owen> Thanks. No, I had not read either the book or the review, but it sounds great! It will be something to keep in mind as we read War & Peace.

River Cocytus said...

By the by, that book I referenced (I'm in the process of reading it,) 'Twelve Types' contains other bits of Chesterton's opinions on Morris in it. It takes a bit of excavation, but it is a happy sort of mining if you like 'ol Gilbert's prose.