War or peace? What happened when aristocratic Leo Tolstoy met radical upstart Maxim Gorky
In a previously unknown letter to a friend, the revolutionary young writer describes the day he was entertained by the world’s greatest novelist — as well as being photographed with him, above — at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in October 1900
When Leo Tolstoy met Maxim Gorky at the former’s country estate of Yasnaya Polyana in 1900, it was more than just the meeting of two great writers. It represented the coming together of two different Russias and two different centuries.
Tolstoy was in his seventies, Gorky just 32, and their relationship at the time might best be described as uneasy. Speaking of Gorky to their mutual friend and fellow writer, Anton Chekhov, Tolstoy said, ‘He has a nose like a duck’s bill — and only unfortunate and bad-tempered people have those.’
Chekhov assumed that such cattiness was rooted in professional jealousy. Thanks to the popularity of short stories such as Chelkash and Old Izergil, the radical upstart Gorky was suddenly achieving sales figures rivalled only by the august Tolstoy.
There was, however, more to the duo’s relationship than Chekhov thought — as revealed by a letter coming to Exiles and Idealists, an online sale of Russian manuscripts at Christie’s. It was written by Gorky after his aforementioned meeting with Tolstoy in 1900 and was unknown to scholars before this auction.
Born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, Alexei Maximovich Peshkov adopted the literary pseudonym of Gorky (meaning ‘bitter’) to reflect his anger at the plight of Russia’s poor. He knew all about poverty, having lost both parents by the age of 11 and been forced to quit school and take any job he could find.
‘He is 73 years old, and he jumps over ditches like a baby goat, fights like a devil with his fists, and is thinking and thinking all the time’ — Gorky on Tolstoy
He worked as a rag-picker, a mess boy and a watchman on a building site, to name but three jobs — indulging in petty theft, too, whenever the opportunity arose.
If there was an upside to his unceasing labour, it was that he was away a lot from the house of his grandparents. They had become his guardians, and Alexei’s grandfather used to beat him brutally.
Aged 19, Alexei attempted to take his own life, surviving only because the bullet somehow missed his heart. Reading books provided a certain amount of therapy thereafter, and before long his own literary efforts were being published in provincial newspapers.
According to his biographer, Henri Troyat, Gorky’s main aim as a writer was ‘to denounce the flaws of society’. He saw Tsarist Russia as a shameful place, riddled with deprivation and decadence — and he was the first Russian author to tackle the lives of the lower classes with anything like first-hand authenticity.
By the turn of the century, he had also become a friend of Lenin’s and was giving funds regularly to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party — the revolutionary Marxist collective from which the Bolsheviks would later emerge.
The contrast with Tolstoy’s background couldn’t be more marked. Born in 1828, into an aristocratic family that traced its roots back centuries, he was the son of a princess and a count.
Before he got married in his mid-thirties, his early adulthood had been one of dissolution, filled with drinking, gambling and womanising. The characters of Tolstoy’s novels — such as his masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina — chiefly came from the same upper echelons of society as he did.
All of which puts the meeting between Gorky and Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana into context. It marks a fascinating fault-line in their country’s history: Tolstoy, aristocratic chronicler of the imperialist Russia of the 19th century, coming face to face with the would-be revolutionary, Gorky, a writer of humble roots and lowly subjects, who would align with the Communist Russia of the 20th century.
The year was portentous, too: right on the cusp of the two eras in question.
The pair had seen each other twice before — in January and May 1900, both times in Moscow. The meeting described in Gorky’s letter (penned to his friend, the painter Viktor Vasnetsov) took place in October and was their third.
‘I just recently visited Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy],’ he writes. ‘I spent the entire day with him. A great man! He is 73 years old, and he jumps over ditches like a baby goat, fights like a devil with his fists, and is thinking and thinking all the time.’
‘Generally speaking, it’s much more pleasant to look at Lev Nikolayevich than to listen to him’ — Maxim Gorky
It’s unclear who — if anyone specific — Tolstoy was fighting, but the general point is that, despite his advanced years, he was still very physically and mentally active.
Gorky goes on to say that Tolstoy ‘handles God in a casual and easy manner, and defines him rather loosely. “God,” he states, “is… that which I desire.”’
By the end of the 19th century, Tolstoy regarded the Orthodox church’s view of Christianity as false. In the early 1890s, he even wrote his own version of the Gospels, according to which Jesus wasn’t the son of God but a wise man who had arrived at a true account of life.
Tolstoy increasingly gave up fiction at this time to write polemical works on religion such as A Confession, What I Believe and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. (In 1901, the church would excommunicate him.)
Gorky then writes that ‘generally speaking, it’s much more pleasant to look at Lev Nikolayevich than to listen to him’. But he concedes that ‘his inextinguishable formation of ideas — though quite erroneous at times — is still very lively and brave: as alluring as a spring of water’.
Gorky adds that ‘when [Tolstoy] starts to speak about his craft and literature, I could listen endlessly! He imparted to me the summary of the novel he is planning to write — Father Sergius is the title. He not only talks about it, but literally sculpts it, paints it for you! It is all so wonderful!’
‘You can love [Tolstoy] to the point of madness and at the same time dislike him very, very much’ — Maxim Gorky
This is a curious passage, as Father Sergius was actually a short story that Tolstoy had completed (albeit not published) in 1898. Did he pass it off as a work in progress to pretend to his young rival that he was capable of composing a story pretty much on the spot?
Gorky signs off his letter, saying ‘you know, you can love [Tolstoy] to the point of madness and at the same time dislike him very, very much’. Yet it’s the love rather than the dislike that comes across in this correspondence, above all.
It turns out that these two sentries of different Russias had more in common than was suspected. They would meet again on many occasions before Tolstoy’s death in 1910.
In his letter to Vasnetsov, Gorky doesn’t quite say so explicitly, but it seems that he admired Tolstoy’s originality of thought, even if he didn’t agree with much of its content. As mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s had seen the senior writer develop an idiosyncratic form of Christianity, and this affected his entire outlook on life.
His 1897 book, What Is Art?, offers a fine example. Here, Tolstoy dismissed a huge swathe of the Western cultural canon — from Shakespeare to Wagner, as well as pretty much all of his own oeuvre. He argued that art should be judged not on aesthetics, but by how directly and authentically it communicates emotion.
A two-page fragment from Tolstoy’s manuscript for this book (above left) will feature in the forthcoming sale. It comprises about half of chapter nine, in which he advances the theory that art became increasingly impoverished as it ceased to be religious and its range of emotions duly narrowed.
The sale will also include a fragment of Tolstoy’s original manuscript draft for the novella Hadji Murad (above right), his final work of fiction, which was published posthumously in 1912. It tells the tale of the eponymous Chechen chief who, for reasons of personal revenge, forms an uneasy alliance with his Russian foes against his own people. (The fragment captures the story’s tense finale.)
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Ironically, the book wouldn’t have met the exacting standards of the author of What Is Art?. However, it has otherwise met with universal acclaim.
The first reader of Hadji Murad — Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia — said, ‘It’s so good! I simply couldn’t tear myself away from it.’ A slightly more impartial figure, the eminent US literary critic Harold Bloom, called it ‘the best story in the world’.