Figes, Natasha’s Dance 5. 5

Tolstoy vs. Chekhov on Faith and Death (NOTES)

On the 28th of October 1910 Tolstoy crept out of his house at Yasnaya Polyana determined to end his days at the monastery of Optina, whose mystical approach to Christianity, uncluttered as it was by the rituals and institutions of the Church, was very close to Tolstoy’s own religious faith. The monastery was not far from his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and on several occasions over the previous thirty years he had walked there like a peasant to calm his troubled mind by talking about God with the elder Amvrosy. The ascetic life of the Optina hermits and their mystical approach to Christianity, uncluttered as it was by the rituals and institutions of the Church, was very close to Tolstoy’s own religious faith.

To judge from A Confession, Tolstoy’s turn to God was a sudden one - the result of a moral crisis in the latter half of the 1870s, but in fact the search for faith was a constant element of Tolstoy’s life and art from‘Family Happiness’ (1859) to his final novel, Resurrection (1899). For Tolstoy, God is love: where there is love, there is God. He thought that God could not be comprehended by the human mind, but only felt through love and prayer The divine core of every human being is in their compassion and ability to love. Sin is loss of love - a punishment itself - and the only way to find redemption is through love itself through which the spirit is released from the personality and merges with the universe.104

Tolstoy came to reject the doctrines of the Church - the Trinity, the Resurrection, the whole notion of a divine Christ - and instead began to preach a practical religion based on Christ’s example as a living human being. His was a form of Christian socialism that could not be contained by any Church. It went beyond the walls of the monastery to engage directly with the major social issues - of poverty and inequality, cruelty and oppression. His Christian anarchism was hugely appealing to the peasantry, and as such it was perceived as a major threat to the established Church, even to the Tsar.

By 1899, when Tolstoy published Resurrection, he was better known as a social critic and religious dissident than as a writer of fiction. It was the novel’s religious attack on the institutions of the tsarist state -the Church, the government, the judicial and penal systems, private property and the social conventions of the aristocracy - that made it, by a long way, his best-selling novel in his own lifetime. The Church and the state attacked Tolstoy, the greater was the writer’s following, until he was finally excommunicated in 1901.

The Dukhobors were pacifists who rejected the authority of Church and state. All the core elements of ‘Tolstoyism’ - the idea that the Kingdom of God is within oneself, the rejection of the doctrines and rituals of the established Church, the Christian principles of the (imagined) peasant way of life and community - were also part of Dukhobor belief. The number of sectarians had grown dramatically, from somewhere in the region of 3 million members in the eighteenth century to perhaps 30 million in the first decade of the twentieth century.

No other writer wrote so often, or so imaginatively, about the actual moment of dying - his depictions of the deaths of Ivan Ilich and of Prince Andrei in War and Peace are among the best in literature. But these are not just deaths. They are final reckonings - moments when the dying re-evaluate the meaning of their lives and find salvation, or some resolution, in a spiritual truth

The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886)was based upon the death of Tolstoy’s friend, Ivan Ilich Mechnikov.  Gerasim was the only person who recognized the situation of the dying Ivan Ilich and was sorry for him. ‘We shall all of us die, so what’s a little trouble? The Russian upper classes seemed  to draw comfort from their servants’ presence at the moment of their death. From diaries and memoirs it would seem that, far more than the priest who came to take confession and administer last rites, the servants helped the dying overcome their fears with their simple peasant faith which ‘enabled them to look death in the face’. With their serf-like fatalism death was viewed as a release from suffering. When they talked about their lot, the peasants often referred to the afterlife as a ‘kingdom of liberty’.

Others explained such peasant fatalism as a form of self-defence, for nearly half the children born to peasant families died before the age of five. Peasant s believed that the souls of little children go straight up to heaven’. Such thoughts must have been of real comfort. For the peasantry believed in a universe where the earth and spirit worlds were intimately linked in one continuum. There were good and bad spirits in the Russian peasant world, and how a person died determined whether his spirit would also be good or bad. The spirits of the dead led an active life. Their souls ate and slept, they felt cold and pain, and they often came back to the family household, where by custom they took up residence behind the stove. It was important to feed the dead. On  Easter and Pentecost, it was important for the family to give remembrance to the dead and feed their souls, in graveside picnics, with ritual breads and pies and decorated eggs. Breadcrumbs would be scattered on the graves to feed the birds.

Tolstoy once said,  ‘When I am dying I should like to be asked whether I still see life as before, as a progression towards God, an increase of love. If I should not have the strength to speak, and the answer is yes, I shall close my eyes; if it is no, I shall look up.’

When Tolstoy finally died, officials of the government and the Orthodox Church  refused to give him a church funeral, but thousands of mourners made their way to Yasnaya Polyana, where amid scenes of national grief that were not to be found on the death of any Tsar, Tolstoy was buried in his favourite childhood spot.

In 1897 Tolstoy paid a visit to Chekhov who was suffering from a sever attack of tuberculosis at the time. Tolstoy, Chekhov noted with his usual cutting wit, was ‘almost disappointed’ not to find his friend at the point of death. As Chekhov lay there spitting blood, Tolstoy harangued him with a lecture about death and the afterlife. Chekhov listened attentively, but in the end he lost patience and started arguing. He viewed the mysterious force, in which Tolstoy thought the dead would be dissolved, as a ‘formless frozen mass’, and told Tolstoy that he did not really want that kind of eternal life. In fact, Chekhov said, he did not understand life after death. He saw no point in thinking about it, or in comforting oneself, as he put it, with ‘delusions of immortality’.

Even so, Chekhov saw the Church as an ally of the artist, and the artist’s mission as a spiritual one. As he once said to his friend Gruzinsky, ‘the village church is the only place where the peasant can experience something beautiful’. His stories ‘The Bishop’, ‘The Student’, ‘On the Road’ and ‘Ward No. 6’ are all profoundly concerned with the search for faith. Chekhov himself had religious doubts , but he once wrote that he would become a monk if the monasteries took people who were not religious and he did not have to pray. He once said that ‘faith is a gift of the spirit. It is a talent.’ For without faith in a better world to come, life in Chekhov’s Russia would be unendurable. Chekhov believed  in the ability of work and science to improve life for humanity. He thought that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God - that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four.

As his disease worsened and the end drew near, Chekhov announced, ‘I am going away to die. Everything is finished.”