The Strange Death of Leo Tolstoy

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:

Leo Tolstoy

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.

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27 Responses to The Strange Death of Leo Tolstoy

  1. harleyrider1978 says:

    Sounds like another Bolshevik to me save the religous part as he wasnt an atheist obviously.
    He would fit right in with the anti-smoking histeria going on at that time in history. In fact it sounds sorta like a fine piece of pro-propaganda for the anti-cigarette league. While other famous authors like hemmingway were smoking and drinking away in europes nite life!

    • beobrigitte says:

      Sounds like another Bolshevik to me save the religous part as he wasnt an atheist obviously.

      Leonid is probably rotating in his grave at supersonic speed – WHO did invent this “Passivrauch” nonsense?

  2. harleyrider1978 says:

    And artists!

  3. beobrigitte says:

    Leonid Tolstoy…… Whilst he was living life (and smoking), indeed, he wrote the most interesting novels. Once he became an ascetic there wasn’t the same energy in his writing. It was his choice. (My opinion)

    It is usually said (and I used to say) that smoking facilitates mental work.
    I can vouch for that. I have been told that the person most benefiting from my recent in-5-minutes-quick-smoke- decision (I had to smoke pretty fast) has been curious…. I will have only one thing to say to this person: ” Be glad I do smoke!!!”.

    • Barry Homan says:

      I’ll add my own bit. I have my own solo cabaret-variety act, a tidy little entertaining piece; but trying to get the “edge” and aesthetic to the whole thing was very difficult for me – you have to generate something as a performer, when you get on stage in front of hundreds of people!

      I worked on it for weeks, but I couldn’t get past the first 30 minutes of my intro – something just wasn’t right. So I’d sit down with my coffee and cigs and puff and gulp and sigh and moan – thinking the whole time: “This is NOT working…dammit, it’s not working, it’s not it’s not, no no no damn…”

      And I kept doing that – thinking, moaning and smoking…over and over again, and I kept it right up until the point that it DID work.

      I went and performed the act a few weeks later at a huge festival in front of 2000 other fellow performers and artistes – and by golly, were they ever enthused!! One of my grander moments in life, I finally got it to worked – thanks to my cigarettes.

  4. harleyrider1978 says:

    So your saying tolstoy wrote his best work while a smoker………….Id agree with that.

  5. harleyrider1978 says:

    UK’s Blair says EU exit would be “monumental error

    LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister David Cameron risks committing a monumental error that would threaten Britain’s status as a world power if he allows rising anti-European Union sentiment to spiral into an EU exit, former leader Tony Blair said on Wednesday.

    Britain’s tortured relations with Europe have shot to the top of the political agenda in recent months, with rebellious anti-EU members of Cameron’s ruling Conservatives pushing for a new role inside the 27-nation bloc – or even leaving altogether.

    But while turning away from Europe may be a vote winner in the short-term, it would isolate Britain, undermine its international standing and damage its economy at a time of shifting global power, Blair said.

    “This is the last moment conceivable that we should start talking about leaving… marginalizing ourselves at the very point at which we should be at the centre of things,” Blair, who won three elections for the Labour Party, said in a speech at the Chatham House thinktank in London.

    Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in parliament on October 31 when rebels sided with Labour to demand EU spending cuts. He also faces a threat from the UK Independence Party, an anti-EU minority group.

    The anti-EU camp sees Brussels as a meddling, wasteful superstate that threatens Britain’s sovereignty. A poll on November 17 suggested 56 percent want to leave, against 30 percent who want to stay.

    Urging politicians to do more to combat the anti-EU mood, Blair said Britain faced a “real and present danger by edging towards the exit”.

  6. Walt says:

    On the topic:
    I’d also imagine the morphine had something to do with it since, if it was pneumonia, morphine depresses respiration as well as any necessary coughing. However, he seems to have gotten his revenge since now it’s the smokers (even the frail elderly) who are forced into the cold, there to get pneumonia. How many times have we had to read articles about old people, sickened, frozen or dead from having to just “step outside” (of hospitals, nursing homes, public housing) for a late night smoke?

    Off topic:
    US Judge forces tobacco companies to admit (in expensive and far too ubiquitous ads) to the “truth” of such statements as “there’s no safe level of secondhand smoke.” If this isn’t unconstitutional, then nothing is any more.

    • margo says:

      Walt, this is absolutely appalling. The court might just as well tell car manufacturers they must say, ‘Petrol fumes kill x million people every day.’ We don’t know, and we can’t know, and we’ll never be able to know.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      5th amendment rights

      Self-Incrimination ClauseThe Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination permits an individual to refuse to disclose information that could be used against him or her in a criminal prosecution. The purpose of this right is to inhibit the government from compelling a confession through force, coercion, or deception. The Self-Incrimination Clause applies to any state or federal legal proceeding, whether it is civil, criminal, administrative, or judicial in nature. This privilege is frequently invoked during the trial phase of legal proceedings, where individuals are placed under oath and asked questions on the witness stand.

      Hitler would be proud of Judge Kessler the same judge who ruled on the EPA junk ets study!

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        The purpose of this right is to inhibit the government from compelling a confession through force, coercion, or deception.

        • harleyrider1978 says:

          Judge doesnt accept statistical studies as proof of LC causation!

          It was McTear V Imperial Tobacco. Here is the URL for both my summary and the Judge’s ‘opinion’ (aka ‘decision’):

          (2.14) Prof Sir Richard Doll, Mr Gareth Davies (CEO of ITL). Prof James Friend and
          Prof Gerad Hastings gave oral evidence at a meeting of the Health Committee in
          2000. This event was brought up during the present action as putative evidence that
          ITL had admitted that smoking caused various diseases. Although this section is quite
          long and detailed, I think that we can miss it out. Essentially, for various reasons, Doll
          said that ITL admitted it, but Davies said that ITL had only agreed that smoking might
          cause diseases, but ITL did not know. ITL did not contest the public health messages.
          (2.62) ITL then had the chance to tell the Judge about what it did when the suspicion
          arose of a connection between lung cancer and smoking. Researchers had attempted
          to cause lung cancer in animals from tobacco smoke, without success. It was right,
          therefore, for ITL to ‘withhold judgement’ as to whether or not tobacco smoke caused
          lung cancer.

          [9.10] In any event, the pursuer has failed to prove individual causation.
          Epidemiology cannot be used to establish causation in any individual case, and the
          use of statistics applicable to the general population to determine the likelihood of
          causation in an individual is fallacious. Given that there are possible causes of lung
          cancer other than cigarette smoking, and given that lung cancer can occur in a nonsmoker,
          it is not possible to determine in any individual case whether but for an
          individual’s cigarette smoking he probably would not have contracted lung cancer
          (paras.[6.172] to [6.185]).
          [9.11] In any event there was no lack of reasonable care on the part of ITL at any
          point at which Mr McTear consumed their products, and the pursuer’s negligence
          case fails. There is no breach of a duty of care on the part of a manufacturer, if a
          consumer of the manufacturer’s product is harmed by the product, but the consumer
          knew of the product’s potential for causing harm prior to consumption of it. The
          individual is well enough served if he is given such information as a normally
          intelligent person would include in his assessment of how he wishes to conduct his
          life, thus putting him in the position of making an informed choice (paras.[7.167] to

  7. harleyrider1978 says:

    Thank Junican for the above as it deals Judge kesslers court a death blow if America used it as a precdedent case!

  8. Steve Kelly says:

    The health crusading mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, Thomas Menino, who said upon initiating Boston’s draconian smoking ban in 2004 that the spectacle of smokers exiled to the area’s freezing weather would be an excellent example to children of the utter contempt they would deserve if they ever smoked, is presently in a rehabilitation hospital. He just got out of one of Boston’s largest hospitals where he spent more than a month. The mayor, who also has crusaded against “junk food” and removed access to it from Boston’s schools, is chronically obese. He was previously hospitalized for extreme gastric distress, a few years back, after attending A Boston Red Sox baseball game, where he reportedly gorged on hot dogs, beer, and Crackerjacks (popcorn and peanuts slathered with caramel). His disintegration over the past couple of months has included internal infections, weakening of the backbone, and a diagnosis of diabetes. Doctors say he must remain in rehabilitation until stabilized. I recommend that Mayor Menino be banned from all “public places” (such as bars, restaurants, and, for instance, City Hall) as an example to children of the utter contempt they will deserve if they grow up to be hateful hypocritical proselytizing “second hand smoke” fearing asses. I’m not mean but I hate hateful crusaders. Tolstoy, apart from once being a great writer, was also evidently an ass who was ready to dump his wife and kids, at age 82, for what sounds like a vainglorious ascetic “binge”. It’s as well he had denounced the good writing he’d accomplished back when he still smoked. He deserves to lose a lot of credit. Thomas Menino was never even good at anything. He may be getting what’s coming and he’s not somebody I can cry for.

  9. John Gray says:

    I didn’t know that Tolstoy had criticised Kant or that Kant had been a smoker although Kant was remarkably self-disciplined. The fact stands, however, that Kant remains Germany’s greatest philosopher, head and shoulders above the rest, and straddling both the empiricist and rationalist traditions. However quirky some may find Kant’ style, it never ceased to amaze me how it so frequently afforded the reader new insight after new insight. Many people have found L N Tolstoy to be a great writer and producer of deep thought – however, I doubt he was ever as great as Kant in his ability to provide not just depth of thought but a continual renewal of the reader’s perspective all coupled with an incredible abilty to analyse data to the most meticulous degree.
    Of course, as a writer, Tolstoy is a more entertaining read than Kant…

  10. garyk30 says:

    Tolstoy had his conversion in the 1870’s; just maybe, he was persuaded by the anti-smoker propaganda of the time.

    1855: “Annual Report of the New York Anti-Tobacco Society for 1855” calls tobacco a “fashionable poison,” warns against addiction and claims half of all deaths of smokers between 35 and 50 were caused by smoking.
    (Note:at that time, the average age of death was much less than 50-GK)

    Doll makes that same 50% of deaths claim in his ‘Doctors Study’ about 150 years later.

    Many smokers hope that the antis will implode and go away; but, zealot’s causes die hard.

  11. garyk30 says:

    The antis’ lies and bogus statements have not changed.
    Here is a recent examp

    U of Wis-Stevens Point anti-smoker calls for a total smoking ban on campus for health reasons.

    He talks about the cost to Wisc from smoking and then states that 46,000 adults die from heart attacks per year due to SHS.
    One might think that was 46,000 Wisc citizens; but, that is a national claim.

    Wisc has only 1.8% of the nat’l pop and it’s possible toll would be 628 deaths.

    U-Wis at SP has about 9,500 students and that is 0.17% of the state pop.
    It’s possible claimed heart attack death toll would be 1!
    CDC says there are no SHS deaths below the age of 35 and that would include most of the students.
    Possible death toll has become ZERO.
    The 46,000 actually is ZERO!!!

  12. garyk30 says:

    Here are some figures for comparison.
    It has been shown that 100,000 American people die every year from infections picked-up in hospitals.

    The U-WISC SP could expect to have 3 students die every year from those infections.

    Being hospitalized is AT LEAST 3 times as deadly as being exposed to SHS.

  13. mikef317 says:

    Tolstoy the writer. Many people consider Anna Karenina the greatest novel ever written. War and Peace is equally impressive. For anyone who has read neither, give the first a try. Tolstoy was a genius at fiction writing.

    Tolstoy the intellectual. Born to privilege (how many people have a doctor accompany them on a trip and expect the doctor to pay the bills?) Tolstoy could live his life however he saw fit.

    In my opinion he developed the “truth” disease.

    I am a very smart person who has spent decades pondering the human condition. I have developed a philosophy, a theory, a religion, and now I know ALL answers to ALL questions.

    Having discovered TRUTH, I reject my earlier life. Billions of people may disagree, but ALL are wrong. Only I know the TRUTH. Inferior others must be taught the wisdom of my ideas.

    The TRUTH is no one should smoke – or EVERYONE should smoke. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that people follow my teachings. Because I am very smart and I know the TRUTH.

  14. Pingback: A New Smokers’ Blog | Frank Davis

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