Leo Tolstoy is best known as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. This is how Wikipedia describes his death:
Tolstoy died in 1910, at the age of 82. He died of pneumonia at Astapovo train station, after falling ill when he left home in the middle of winter. 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 station not far from home…
But there is another, rather more illuminating account of his death, which I will recount shortly.
But firstly it is necessary to discover a bit more about this man. From the Guardian:
Drinking, gambling and chasing peasant girls were Tolstoy’s main activities as a very young man, and though he was ashamed of his rakish youth later, some of these habits were difficult to break.
Later in life, he had a crisis:
a spiritual crisis – which caused him to give up meat, hunting and smoking, give away his copyrights, denounce his earlier writings as immoral and preach a pacifist, anarchist, highly personal Christianity.
So here’s a man who, in his youth, lives a bit riotously, and later on regrets it, and becomes a reformed character. In fact, he becomes a Tolstoyian:
They attempt to live an ascetic and simple life, preferring to be vegetarian, non-smoking, teetotal and chaste. Tolstoyans are considered Christian pacifists and advocate nonresistance in all circumstances. Tolstoy’s understanding of what it means to be Christian was defined by the Sermon on the Mount..
He writes a tract against smoking and drinking, the title of which is: Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? In it, he writes:
It is usually said (and I used to say) that smoking facilitates mental work. And that is undoubtedly true if one considers only the quantity of one’s mental output. To a man who smokes, and who consequently ceases strictly to appraise and weigh his thoughts, it seems as if he suddenly had many thoughts. But this is not because he really has many thoughts, but only because he has lost control of his thoughts.
When a man works he is always conscious of two beings in himself: the one works, the other appraises the work. The stricter the appraisement the slower and the better is the work; and vice versa, when the appraiser is under the influence of something that stupefies him, more work gets done, but its quality is poorer.
He further opines:
It is very probable, as a friend remarked to me, that Kant‘s works would not have been written in such a curious and bad style had he not smoked so much.
So here we have a classic example of an ex-smoker who has become an antismoker, and anti all the usual other things that such antis are anti. And he’s also very likely become the hand-waving sort of anti who can’t stand the faintest hint of tobacco smoke.
And, rather late in life, he abandons his aristocratic family estate, and his family, and sets out to live the life of the wandering ascetic.
But he sets off by train, and in the company of his personal doctor, Dushan Petrovich Makovitsky.
I will here produce, as promised, the other, more detailed account of Tolstoy’s last days:
Dr Makovitsky’s journal: “This morning, at 3am (October 28, 1910), LN in his dressing gown, in slippers and bare feet, woke me; his face was full of suffering, agitation and determination. ‘I have decided to leave. You shall come with me. But don’t wake Sofya Andreyevna. We won’t take much, only the essentials.’”
Poor Makovitsky didn’t realise that Tolstoy had decided to leave his house for good. Thinking that they were going to Kochety, the estate of his son-in-law Sukhotin, the doctor did not take all his money with him. He also didn’t know that that night Tolstoy had only 50 roubles in the bank and some coins in a purse…
We travelled from Shchekino to Gorbachevo in a second-class carriage. But from Gorbachevo to Kozyolsk Tolstoy chose to go third class, with the simple folk. When he had taken his place on a wooden bench, he said: ‘How nice and free!’”
All in keeping with the new life of the wandering ascetic. Ascetics don’t carry wads of cash. And they don’t go first class, or even second class, obviously. They go third class.
Except that an unforeseen problem arises:
Makovitsky, however, was the first to sound the alarm. The Sukhinichi-Kozyolsk train was a freight and passenger train combined with one horribly smoky third-class carriage filled to overflowing. Tolstoy soon began gasping for breath. He put on his fur coat and fur hat, his high winter boots and stepped out onto the rear platform. But smokers were standing there too. He then went to the front platform; it was very windy, but deserted except for a woman and her child, and a peasant. Makovitsky would later call the three quarters of an hour that Tolstoy spent on that frigid platform “fateful”. Enough to make him catch cold.
Oh, dear! Tolstoy found himself in a horribly smoky third-class carriage! And soon he was coughing and spluttering, and gasping for breath. And when he got outside onto the rear platform, there were smokers there too! So, presumably after fighting his way back through the smoky carriage, he goes to the front platform, and catches there what will prove to be his death of cold.
The train moved slowly, just over 100 miles in almost six-and-a-half hours. “This slow travel over Russian railroads helped kill LN,” writes Makovitsky.
No doubt the duration of the journey assisted. But the extreme cold and wind outside on the front platform clearly had a hand too. And, last but not least, there are the smokers whom he so reviled, and whose smoke had driven him out into the cold and wind.
Nor did it end there, as various doctors struggled to keep him alive:
In addition to camphor, the doctors injected him with morphine. How Tolstoy hated drugs, how he feared them. Anna Karenina, remember, fell under a train after taking a double dose of opium.
There’s a sort of cosmic justice to this tale. And perhaps also, I can’t help but think, a sort of comic justice too.