21 April 2010

St Sebastian of Optina on Tolstoy's Last Days, Part 2

Continued from this post.

After his departure from Optina on 29 October 1910, Tolstoy’s next stop was the women’s monastery at Shamordino, which was under the guidance of the Optina Elders and where his sister, Mother Maria, lived. According to Stanton, upon arrival Tolstoy immediately spoke to his sister about his inability to continue living at Yasnaya Polyana and his wife’s suicide attempt. Mother Maria seems to have sympathised with this, concluding that his wife was an unbalanced person. Then, according to Stanton, Tolstoy related ‘his intention to rent a small cottage near Shamordino where he could settle into a life of quiet contemplation until the end of his days’. Apparently he had been thinking about doing something like this prior to the flight as well, having written to ‘a peasant admirer’ just five days earlier asking for help finding a ‘small cottage’ in his village. [1] Stanton speculates that Tolstoy may have been trying to get away from both his wife and his ‘followers’, both of whom were vieing for control over him and his wealth. Stanton writes:

Tolstoy’s letters and diaries reveal occasional impatience with the ‘Tolstoyans’ and in particular with the idea of Tolstoyan colonies. Could the prospect of a simple life in the shadow of Shamordino’s and Optina’s walls have held forth the hope of liberation from the clutches of both of the camps that competed for his love and allegiance? [2]

The evidence is inconclusive, though Stanton is not persuaded that Tolstoy was seeking reconciliation with the Church at this time.

But the idea of staying at Shamordino was abandoned when Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra, a zealous disciple, arrived, ‘bringing news that raised her father’s fear that he would be pursued by his wife and possibly the police’. On the morning of 31 October, they boarded a train south, debarking that afternoon when Tolstoy became sick with fever. For an entire week, Alexandra and the other ‘Tolstoyans’ prevented anyone, including Tolstoy’s wife, from seeing him. St Barsanuphius, the skete superior at Optina, was among those who arrived (on 5 November), only to be denied access. According to Stanton:

Most commentators have portrayed Elder Varsanofii as an emissary of the Holy Synod, commissioned to receive Tolstoy back into the Church on his deathbed. This view has not been documented by any telegrams or letters from the Holy Synod to Optina. Elder Varsanofii, who died in 1912, did not leave any verifiable confirmation or denial of the Synod’s having entrusted him with any duties at Astapovo. Still, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence indicates that Varsanofii’s presence at Astapovo came to assume at least a semi-official character, whatever his original stimulus to go to Tolstoy might have been. [3]

But then Stanton continues:

It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that Varsanofii went to Astapovo in a pastoral role, rather than as a representative of the Holy Synod. Tolstoy, it could be argued, had made an overture to the Church in having visited Optina just several days past—and this without any prompting by the Synod. Nor is it difficult to entertain the possibility that someone at Astapovo, or even Mariia Nikolaevna at Shamordino, might have sent a message to Optina requesting an elder be sent. The Tolstoyans at Astapovo, and Aleksandra in particular, were genuinely concerned to shelter Tolstoy from any conversations he might have found stressful or unpleasant; that is why his wife and sons were barred until the last few minutes before his death. Moreover, the Tolstoyans clearly had an interest in preventing any reconciliation between their hero and the Orthodox Church, and they made sure that Tolstoy had no chance to give Varsanofii either a deathbed testimony of conversion or even a word of repentance. Finally, after the dust of the events had settled, it would also be in the interest of the more cynical of the Tolstoyans to obscure, if possible, the true nature of Varsanofii’s visit to Tolstoy at Astapovo, if his mission was truly pastoral. [4]

Now, apart from the debatability of the notion that St Barsanuphius was either sent by the Synod, or came out of pastoral concern, but both could not have been true simultaneously, this account is still rather incomplete. True, Stanton adds a lengthy endnote mentioning the views on the matter of Prof. Ivan M. Kontsevich, who, in Optina Pustyn’ i eia vremia, offers testimony from a couple of other sources that St Barsanuphius had been summoned by a telegram from Astapovo [presumably sent by Tolstoy himself] requesting an Elder, and that a report that the Elder was sent by the Holy Synod had been deliberately falsified. Concerning Kontsevich’s account, Stanton writes:

Although Kontsevich’s coloration of his reprise of the events at Astapovo is highly speculative, it is not altogether implausible. It is consisten with the minority view that Tolstoy’s appearance at Optina in October 1910 resulted from more than an accidental decision made in the haste of his flight. [5]

But let us now consider St Sebastian’s testimony, which because of their separation by the Iron Curtain, even Kontsevich would not likely have known. St Sebastian takes up the story after Tolstoy’s departure from Optina:

Later there was a message to the Elder [Joseph] from Tolstoy’s sister, the Nun Maria, that he had left her from Shamordino. Then from the Astapovo railroad station a telegram arrived for us concerning the illness of Leo Nikolaevich in which, in his name, the Elder was asked to come to him. Fr Barsanuphius immediately left, but those who surrounded Tolstoy would not let him see Leo Nikolaevich. Fr Barsanuphius passed a letter in to his daughter Alexandra.

He wrote to her that ‘it was, in fact, the will of your father that I come.’ All the same, they didn’t let him in. Nor would they allow Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreyevna. She had come in her own train-carriage and lived at the station in it. This was a very difficult experience for Fr Barsanuphius; he returned nearly ill and always became upset when he recalled it. And he said, ‘Though he was a lion [alluding to Tolstoy’s Christian name], yet he could not break the chains. It’s a pity, a great pity.’ Elder Joseph also felt deeply sorry for him.

Fr Barsanuphius said that it was not true that someone had sent him. ‘It was solely because of the desire of Leo Nikolaevich himself that I went to Astapovo,’ he affirmed. [6]

Although Mother Maria did not think Tolstoy had gone to Optina with the intention of returning to the Church, this does not mean that he didn’t either change his mind when finally facing the prospect of death, or at least desire something short of full reconciliation—perhaps even just some kind of prayer or reassurance. it seems to me that if Ss Barsanuphius and Sebastian say that there was a telegram from Astapovo, then they are to be believed over those who had motives, including mercenary ones, to lie about the issue. Prof. Kontsevich reports the testimony of Sergei Morevich, a ‘buffet attendant at Astapovo’. As Morevich apparently told it, ‘The fact of Tolstoy’s having visited Optina Pustyn and the summoning of the elder was like a bomb exploding in the Tolstoyan circle, which couldn’t withstand the blow and fell to pieces.’ [7]

[1] 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. 211.

[2] Ibid., p. 213.

[3] Ibid., pp. 213-4.

[4] Ibid., p. 214.

[5] Ibid., p. 227, n. 23.

[6] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), pp. 79-80.

[7] Stanton, p. 227, n. 23.


David.R said...

This story is both frightening and fascinating.
The workings of God's providence are truly
a mystery. So is the terrifying freedom of the
human heart.

Matthew said...

A while ago I read a very interesting article on Tolstoy by the Roman Catholic Psychiatrist Karl Stern, written in the 50s. Although he admitted he was speculating and he had much less knowledge of it than we do, he seemed to believe, if I remembered correctly, that Tolstoy was seeking reconciliation with the Church, arguing for it from a psychological perspective. The human mind (to say nothing of the heart) doesn’t follow cause-affect logic.

Matthew said...

I just read the comments from Part 1. It seems someone thought of Stern before I did! Ignore my comment.

Thanks for the information about St. Sebastian again. I had the grand plan of reading all the Optina books (in English) this year, and your post reminded me that I need to get back on track.

aaronandbrighid said...

David> You are quite right.

Matthew> Well, great minds think alike, apparently!

Good luck with your plan of reading all of the Optina books. I think it's a splendid idea, and would like to do it myself at some point. As it is I've only read 3 of them all the way through.

Becoming said...

The Elder Barsanuphius volume sheds no light on the “cell attendant question.” The section relating to Tolstoy begins with a conversation between S.A. Nilus and the Elder. The exchange is in relation to a dream spoken to the Elder by the Count’s sister, Maria (in schema) of the darkness that overshadowed the Count. The following section is a response to those who believed that the Elder was sent to the dying Leo by order of the synod and that this was a fabrication by the Tolstoyites and especially a V.M. Maklakov. To repudiate these fabrications the author cites Ivan Kontzevitch’s, The Sources of the Spiritual Catastrohpy of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (Munich, Germany, 1962), Alexi Ksyunin’s The Departure of Tolstoy (1911), Ivan Alekseevich Bunin’s, The Liberation of Tolstoy as well as articles from The Vladimir Herald (1956), Orthodox Russia (no. 11, 1956). He concludes this section with a long quotation from Elder Barsanuphius about this event which ends with him saying, “But the idea that I was sent to Astapovo by Petersburg – that is not true. I wanted to send Tolstoy on his way – after all, he himself had come to Optina – no one dragged him.”

Matthew II

Extollager said...

Amazon still offers Stanton's Optina book for about $60, but I think the book might be out of print; at least that was my guess as to why some sources charge more, even quite a lot more, for a copy.

aaronandbrighid said...

Extollager> Yes, it was never a cheap book (mine was a gift from my Russian professor), but I'm sure you're right that it's gone out of print.

Extollager said...

I thank you for putting me on to this book, which deals with things that I've wondered about for years!

By the way, here's a topic for you. I am a Lutheran (conservative Missouri Synod-type) with many years' interest in Orthodoxy. I've read that Clement Sederholm, author of the biography of Elder Leonid, was a convert from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. That's a story I'm curious about. Of course I have a theory about why he might have made this decision. But if you have access to the story, I'd enjoy seeing it. Stanton (who refers to him as Kliment Zedergol'm) seems merely to note the conversion but doesn't seem to have the story. Perhaps it left no accessible written record....

aaronandbrighid said...

Extollager> Yes, a couple of other bloggers (at Orrologion and Incendiary) posted some things on Fr Clement last year, which I reposted on the Orthodox Church in Germany blog, along with the relevant passage from Stanton. The blogger at Incendiary started translation Fr Clement's letters to his father, though apparently they contain little specifically about Lutheranism. There is also a passage on Fr Clement in Fr Sergius Chetverikov's biography of St Ambrose of Optina. Perhaps I could do a post combining the latter with bits of and links to these various other things.