Sonya or Leo Tolstoy – Whose Side Are You On?

In October 1910 the world-renowned author and Christian reformer Leo Tolstoy, age 82, fled his ancestral home at Yasnaya Polyana south of Moscow and boarded a train headed toward the Caucasas Mountains. He did not travel far. What happened next transfixed the attention of the world.

It’s a story mainly about two good, virtuous persons – Leo and his wife Sonya – and a third good, virtuous person named Vladimir Chertkov. The 8 Tolstoy children had their roles to play also, taking largely but not unanimously their mother’s side because of her concern for their welfare.

Leo Tolstoy’s legacy certainly would extend beyond his children. Everyone understood that. His great long and short novels, stories, and even the fairy tales he wrote for the peasant children had been recognized as classics.

He wrote his fictional works mostly before he turned 50. At that late age he experienced a religious conversion, a kind of midlife crisis from which he never escaped. He subsequently concentrated on nonfiction with religious, philosophical, and political themes. Tolstoy’s ideas on pacifism and nonviolence drawn from the Christian gospels, particularly as he expressed them in an 1894 book titled The Kingdom of God Is Within You, profoundly influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others.

The value of Leo Tolstoy’s legacy is not in question. But we might understand that legacy better if we learn something about the persons who mainly gave it birth – not just Leo Tolstoy himself, but also his wife Sonya and his chief disciple Chertkov.

During his youth and young adult years, Leo Tolstoy adhered to Orthodox faith as most of the Russian nobility did, that is to say, infrequently, casually. Shortly before turning 50, he became convicted of his need for a simpler life and an unquestioning faith like that of the muzhiks, or peasants. His wife Sonya and great-aunt Alexandra, both committed Orthodox believers, were delighted with this turn. For nearly 2 years Leo participated regularly in Russian Orthodox services.

However, he began to stumble on compromises that he felt the Orthodox religion made in order to function in a society that veered far from the precepts of Christ. He wrote in his diary,

Went to mass Sunday. I can find a satisfactory explanation for everything that happens during the service. But wishing ‘long life’ [to the tsar] and praying for victory over our enemies are sacrilege. A Christian should pray for his enemies, not against them.[1]

He paid a visit to the bishop in the nearby city of Tula and expressed his desire to become a monk. He spoke about the idea of giving all of his possessions to the poor. The bishop, perhaps recognizing instability in this petitioner, replied that, although noble, such an act would be “a dangerous course.”

What drove Leo Tolstoy’s thinking forward was the chasm he perceived between, on the one hand, the plain words of Jesus about equality of men and nonresistance to evil and, on the other, the brutally enforced, steep hierarchy of existing society.[2] A recurring agony, however, stemmed from the recognition that he himself resided near the top of that hierarchy.

Between 1879 and 1883 he wrote a series of books, the titles of which reveal the religious ferment in his mind: Confession, Criticism of Dogmatic Theology, Union and Translation of the Four Gospels, and What I Believe. These were variously censored in Russia, but printed abroad in Russian, and translated into French and German.

In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was killed beside the Katerina Canal in St. Petersburg by the second of two bombs in a well-planned attack. Tolstoy’s biographer Troyat wrote about it, “This was the Nihilists’ seventh attempt on his life. Their persistence was incomprehensible, especially as Alexander II had abolished slavery [serfdom], recalled the exiled Decembrists, ended the disastrous Crimean War and, at the instigation of General Loris-Melikov, was about to give Russia a sort of constitution as a first step toward more far-reaching structural reforms.”[3]

Leo Tolstoy’s reaction about a week after this event was to send a letter to the new tsar, Alexander III, begging him not to repay evil for evil, but to pardon the 6 young men who had murdered his father. Three weeks later, they were hanged.

Later in the same year, Leo Tolstoy paid a visit to a well-respected religious thinker from a group of the Old Believers, a man named Syutayev, born a peasant, who worked as a herdsman and stonemason. Later Syutayev returned the favor with an extended visit to Moscow, where the Tolstoys had bought a house to facilitate their children’s education. Sonya wrote in a letter to her sister –

These evenings are always dull, but we were saved by the presence of a sectarian named Syutayev, who is now the talk of Moscow and is being introduced everywhere and is spreading his ideas everywhere.[4]

What exactly was Syutayev’s message? His ideas and life are summed up well in this description by Ilya Tolstoy, third child born to Sonya and Leo:

“Everything is within you,” he used to say, “where love is, there is God.” Being a simple man and not understanding compromise, Syutayev repudiated all violence and would not accept it even as a means of resisting evil. He refused to pay taxes on principle because the money was used to support an army. And when the police distrained his property and sold his cattle, he offered no resistance and submitted to his own ruin without demurring. “It’s their sin, let them do it. I won’t open the gates, but if they must, let them go in. I have no locks,” he said when telling about it. His family shared his convictions and they lived in community, not recognizing private property. When his son was conscripted, he refused to take the army oath because the Gospel says “Swear not” and refused to take up a gun because it “smelled of blood.” As a result he was sent to the Schlüsselburg Disciplinary Battalion and suffered great privation.[5]

These are exactly the noble ideals that Leo Tolstoy espoused, but his life, unlike Syutayev’s, failed to reflect them.

During this time, Sonya Tolstoy increasingly took charge of family affairs and even the income-producing aspects of the estates and the literary works. Endowed with a temperament neither calm nor lighthearted, Sonya tried to face her challenges with straightforward sincerity. Generally, but not always, she could steer her passion toward effective action.

Ilya Tolstoy reported a description from Aunt Tanya that might help to explain Sonya’s early affinity and perhaps her later difficulty with Leo – “Sonya was always dreamy and always saw the dramatic side of everything.”[6]

Again from Ilya:

She was even jealous of her younger sister, who knew how to enjoy herself and ‘rejoice with all her being.’ We children were not able to analyze so deeply, but we knew that ‘maman can’t understand a joke,’ and if something struck us as funny, we never shared it with her. This is not at all to say that she was of a melancholy nature. On the contrary, she was generally affable, knew how to talk to people, and made a very good impression on everyone who knew her.[7]

After the birth of their 12th child, Alexandra whom they called Sasha, Sonya suffered from pains in the pelvic region for several months. The midwife forbade sex. Sonya stayed in Moscow with the baby and the other children, while Leo went back to their country estate with uncertain plans as to when he might return to her side. In a letter, she included these sentiments:

I see you have stayed on at Yasnaya Polyana to play at Robinson Crusoe, not to do the intellectual work that I value above everything else…. No doubt you will say this is the life that corresponds to your convictions and you enjoy it. That is another matter. All I can say is, ‘Be happy, much good may it do you!’ All the same, though, it makes me sad to see such intellectual power as you have going to waste chopping wood, heating the samovar and making boots. These may be ideal as relaxation after work, but not as occupations in themselves. Ah, well, we’ll speak no more of that!… I comfort myself with the saying, ‘Never mind what game the baby plays, as long as it keeps him from crying.’[8]

She ended the letter on a kinder note:

Farewell, my beloved, I kiss you tenderly. Suddenly I can see you clearly, and I feel my heart swelling with love. There is something wise and good in you, innocent and obstinate, that no one has but you, and it is illuminated by your affectionate solicitude for everyone around you and your look that pierces straight to the depths of every soul.[9]

Painting of Leo Tolstoy doing his own plowing at Yasnaya Polyana

Sonya calculated that the family needed 910 rubles a month to manage food, heat, servants, repairs, transportation, the children’s education, and miscellaneous expenses. Leo had recorded in his notebook just a few months previously that 165 to 250 rubles a month might suffice, if they were to –

keep only those servants who are necessary to teach us their work and transform us, after which, having learned what to do, we will dispense with their services. All live together, the men in one room, the women and girls in another. One room must be a library for intellectual work, another must be a workshop. As an indulgence, we might also provide a separate room for those who cannot resist….[10]

Their finances actually were strained to the limit with maintenance of the Moscow house as well as multiple country estates. Sonya borrowed a plan from the widow of Fyodor Dostoevsky. She would become the new publisher of her husband’s books. She could promote the great works herself and eliminate the steep cuts exacted by the regular publishers. Borrowing 25,000 rubles from her mother and a friend, she opened the “Publishing Office for the Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy” in a pavilion next to their Moscow home. She met the widow Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg and gained business advice. With all 12 volumes of his works selling together for 8 rubles, the venture succeeded. The children’s education would be assured.

In 1883 Leo Tolstoy received a visit from young nobleman, an officer of the horse guards named Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov. The young man’s moral persuasions matched the new religious thought coming from the great author. Chertkov pronounced himself Leo Tolstoy’s “co-thinker.” Shortly after their meeting he resigned from the army.  Leo was enchanted. He wrote about Chertkov in his diary, “He coincides uncannily with me!”[11]

Around 1887 Chertkov married a young woman “who worshiped her husband’s ideas even more fervidly than he himself and dreamed only of becoming his collaborator. She helped Chertkov to transform their estate at Lizinovka into a center for neo-Christian propaganda.”[12]

Members of the Tolstoy Farm established by Gandhi in South Africa, 1910

They developed the prototype for a set of Tolstoyan communities based on the later writings of the master. Leo Tolstoy gave manuscripts, diaries, and the exercise of copyrights to all his work after 1881 to Chertkov, his chief disciple, who established a publishing house called the Intermediary specifically for the movement. It produced small, inexpensive books by Leo Tolstoy, priced at 5 kopecks each (100 kopecks per ruble). These sold astonishingly well, more than 20 million printed over 6 years.


The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy in 1901 for the cumulative effect of his writings denying most of its theology as well as its authority.[13] Sonya, who remained committed to Orthodox faith, nevertheless wrote a letter of protest to the head of the church in St. Petersburg.

By 1910 Leo Tolstoy had threatened many times to leave his home, give away the royalties to all his writings, and live by his own physical labor as a peasant – that is, to follow exactly the precepts he had written about so fervently. The impact of such a decision on his family’s very survival appeared less important than allegiance to the truth he had discovered. Quarrels between husband and wife occurred more and more frequently. Sonya several times walked out of the house at Yasnaya Polyana with ostensible plans to commit suicide, once in a bathrobe and slippers treading through the snow until daughter Masha found her and persuaded her to return.

Ilya Tolstoy later wrote about his father’s dilemma:

He suddenly found himself in the tragic position of a man who was living in a way that was patently counter to all of his convictions, the position of a repentant sinner who continues to abide in his sin, the position of a teacher whose own life is a denial of his precepts.

He talked about the criminality of wealth and the evil of money, yet he himself possessed half a million; he talked about the simple workman’s life, yet he himself lived in a fine manor house, slept on an expensive mattress, and ate tasty, satisfying food; he condemned private property and talked of six feet of land, yet he himself possessed over twenty thousand acres; his family spent more in a week than any peasant family could spend in a year, living as they did in a house with footmen, housemaids, a cook, coachman, gardeners, and laundresses. Did he have the right to preach his ideas when he himself did not practice them? What a wealth of material he offered his enemies to accuse him of hypocrisy! Would it not be the ruination of the idea itself were he to continue to live in these conditions of comfort and luxury with his family? What to do? Go away?[14]

At age 82 he finally made the break. Traveling with a devoted doctor, a Tolstoyan named Makovitsky, he went by rail as far as the small town of Astapovo, where pneumonia led him to seek a bed in the stationmaster’s home. He sent for Chertkov to come immediately. Sonya convinced the railway authorities at Tula to form a special train which carried her, the children, and her own doctor-psychiatrist to Astapovo. When they arrived, the children went in to see him, and their daughters stayed by his side. However, Sonya was denied all access to her husband for fear that the emotion of seeing her would make his survival impossible. She was allowed to sit with him only after he was unconscious in his final hours.

Leo Tolstoy’s emancipation occurred assuredly and with finality just 9 days after he left home. Yet he had been thinking about giving away his possessions and leaving home to live in a manner consistent with his convictions since at least age 51. Ilya wrote these reflections about that time in his father life:

This might appear to have been the simplest and perhaps even the sole solution to the problem, but it raised another series of questions that were even more complex and subtle. Did he have the right to give away all his property and leave his wife and children indigent, perhaps even hungry? The way he had raised them they were not accustomed to privation. Give his property to his wife? But if this property was a burden to him, and if he considered it a sin, did he have the right to shift this burden and sin onto her shoulders? Did he have the right to leave his…wife alone with a big family, to deprive her of his moral support and love? He was everything to her, her whole life, the focal point of her concentration. Moreover, he loved her with his whole being. If he were to go away and sacrifice the lives of his wife and children to escape the accusation of hypocrisy, would this not be vanity on his part?[15]

What do you think? Whose side are you on? Or perhaps did everyone play his or her role in the only way they could, giving us a story that provokes, compels, inspires as much as the novels of a great author?


Added note:  A recent movie called “The Last Station” is now available on DVD. Starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, it tells the story described in this blog.

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Featured image: Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons. Tolstoy ploughing, 1887, by Ilya Repin. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons. Tolstoy Farm, 1910, photographer unknown,, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy. Transl. from the French by Amphoux, N. Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1963, transl. 1967, p. 410.

[2] Despite his sensitive portrayal of women in the great early novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in his later years Tolstoy evidenced scant support for equality between the sexes. In his late short novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, the first-person male narrator voices the opinion that society favors women over men. The story ends with the narrator describing how he killed his wife, whom he had surprised sitting in the dining room of his room with a violinist, inciting in him a presumption of adultery.

[3] Troyat, p. 421.

[4] Ibid., p. 443.

[5] Tolstoy, Ilya. Tolstoy, My Father: Reminiscences. Transl. by Ann Dunnagin, Cowles, Chicago, 1971, p. 183.

[6] Ibid., p. 266.

[7] Ibid., pp. 266-267.

[8] Troyat, p. 466.

[9] Ibid., p. 467.

[10] Ibid., p. 468.

[11] Ibid., p. 465.

[12] Ibid. P. 496.

[13] An attempt to restore his standing with Russian Orthodox Church was rejected in 2001.

[14] Ilya Tolstoy, pp. 178-179.

[15] Ilya Tolstoy, pp. 178-179.


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