Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula province, and educated privately. He studied Oriental languages and law at the University of Kazan, then led a life of pleasure until 1851 when he joined an artillery regiment in the Caucasus. He took part in the Crimean War and after the defence of Sebastopol he wrote The Sebastopol Sketches (1855-6), which established his reputation. After a period in St Petersburg and abroad, where he studied educational methods for use in his school for peasant children in Yasnaya Polyana, he married Sofya Andreyevna Behrs in 1862. The next fifteen years was a period of great happiness; they had thirteen children, and Tolstoy managed his vast estates in the Volga Steppes, continued his educational projects, cared for his peasants and wrote War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). A Confession (1879-82) marked a spiritual crisis in his life; he became an extreme moralist and in a series of pamphlets after 1880 expressed his rejection of state and church, indictment of the weaknesses of the flesh and denunciation of private property. His teaching earned him numerous followers at home and abroad, but also much opposition, and in 1901 he was excommuincated by the Russian Holy Synod. He died in 1910, in the course of a dramamtic flight from home, at the small railway station of Astapovo.
I was returning home through the fields. It was the very middle of summer. The meadows had been mowed, and they were just
about to reap the rye.
There is a delightful assortment of flowers at that time of year: red, white, pink, fragrant, fluffy clover; impudent marguerites; milk-white “love-me-love-me-nots” with bright yellow centers and a fusty, spicy stink; yellow wild rape with its honey smell; tall-standing, tulip-shaped campanulas, lilac and white; creeping vetch; neat scabious, yellow, red, pink, and lilac; plantain with its faintly pink down and faintly perceptible, pleasant smell; cornflowers, bright blue in the sun and in youth, and pale blue and reddish in the evening and when old; and the tender, almond-scented, instantly wilting flowers of the bindweed.
I had gathered a big bouquet of various flowers and was walking home, when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a wonderful crimson thistle of the kind which is known among us as a “Tartar” and is carefully mowed around, and, when accidentally mowed down, is removed from the hay by the mowers, so that it will not prick their hands. I took it into my head to pick this thistle and put it in the center of the bouquet. I got down into the ditch and, having chased away a hairy bumblebee that had stuck itself into the center of the flower and sweetly and lazily fallen asleep there, I set about picking the flower. But it was very difficult: not only was the stem prickly on all sides, even through the handkerchief I had wrapped around my hand, but it was so terribly tough that I struggled with it for some five minutes, tearing the fibers one by one. When I finally tore off the flower, the stem was all ragged, and the flower no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Besides, in its coarseness and gaudiness it did not fit in with the delicate flowers of the bouquet. I was sorry that I had vainly destroyed and thrown away a flower that had been beautiful in its place. “But what energy and life force,” I thought, remembering the effort it had cost me to tear off the flower. “How staunchly it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.”
The way home went across a fallow, just-plowed field of black earth. I walked up a gentle slope along a dusty, black-earth road. The plowed field was a landowner’s, a very large one, so that to both sides of the road and up the hill ahead nothing could be seen except the black, evenly furrowed, not yet scarified soil. The plowing had been well done; nowhere on the field was there a single plant or blade of grass to be seen—it was all black. “What a destructive, cruel being man is, how many living beings and plants he annihilates to maintain his own life,” I thought, involuntarily looking for something alive amidst this dead, black field. Ahead of me, to the right of the road, I spied a little bush. When I came closer, I recognized in this bush that same “Tartar” whose flower I had vainly picked and thrown away.
The “Tartar” bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off, and the remainder of the branch stuck out like a cut-off arm. On each of the other two there was a flower. These flowers had once been red, but now they were black. One stem was broken and half of it hung down, with the dirty flower at the end; the other, though all covered with black dirt, still stuck up. It was clear that the whole bush had been run over by a wheel, and afterwards had straightened up and therefore stood tilted, but stood all the same. As if a piece of its flesh had been ripped away, its guts turned inside out, an arm torn off, an eye blinded. But it still stands and
does not surrender to man, who has annihilated all its brothers around it.
“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, destroyed millions of plants, but this one still does not surrender.”
And I remembered an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself. The story, as it shaped itself in my memory and imagination, goes like this.