Introduction: Leo Tolstoy and “The Death of Ivan Ilich”

General Historical and Biographical Background

The accession of Tsar Alexander II to the throne of the Russian empire in 1855 followed by three years the appearance of Leo Tolstoy’s first published work and had been celebrated with hopes for a more liberal, more European future for the political life of the nation. These hopes were realized at least in part as Alexander carried through a number of basic reforms in the first half of the 1860s, most notably the emancipation of the serfs (1861). As often happens, a taste of reform became a hunger for reform, a hunger that Alexander in the late 1860s and 1870s was increasingly unwilling to satisfy. Disaffection from the “Tsar-Liberator” culminated in 1881 with his assassination on the streets of St. Petersburg during a royal procession.

Alexander III succeeded his murdered father, determined not to meet a similar fate. Where his father had been educated by the gentle poet Zhukovsky, Alexander III had been tutored by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a theoretician of arch-conservatism, who would become one of the new tsar’s main advisers and the chief architect of Russia’s final renunciation of the liberal promise of the early reign of Alexander II. Many repressive measures were adopted by the government of Alexander III: some university departments were closed for “free- thinking,” the censorship of printed materials was strengthened, school curricula were impoverished. Tolstoy’s younger contemporary, Anton Chekhov, chronicled the effects of these changes in such stories as “Sergeant Prishibeev” and “The Man in a Shell.” He portrays a public life in which the main rule of action is “what is not expressly permitted is forbidden.”

Tolstoy brought himself to the unfavorable attention of the new tsar almost at once by writing him an open letter in which he urged Alexander III to set a radically new example for his nation and the world by pardoning the murderers of his father. The tsar refused to grant Tolstoy’s request, and, in the years that followed, the tsar’s censors refused to permit the publication of works by Tolstoy that expressed in detail the beliefs that had inspired his dramatic plea for royal clemency. These works occupied Tolstoy’s attention as a writer almost exclusively in the late 1870s and the early 1880s, and no example of Tolstoy’s fiction written in the 1880s or later (including The Death of Ivan Il’ich [Smert’ Ivana Il’icha, 1886]) can be fully understood in isolation from the ideas that he presented in them. Tolstoy was by no means the first to hold the ideas of brotherly love, mutual support, and Christian charity that became so precious to him in the second half of his life; in fact, he came to believe that they were none other than the central tenets of a perennially fresh philosophy of life that had been subscribed to throughout history and in every corner of the earth by the great sages from Socrates to Schopenhauer.

No other representative of the “perennial philosophy,”[1] however, has left so clear and vivid an account of the spiritual and psychological travail amidst which his new convictions were born. In A Confession(Ispoved’), written mainly in 1879–80 but not completed until 1882, Tolstoy wrote that the factor that before all others prompted the psychological crisis he endured in the mid-1870s (and which is reflected in the character of Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina) was his inability to find an acceptable meaning in human life. Every formulation of life’s meaning with which he experimented was wrecked by his long-standing and by now almost overwhelming sense of the dreadful inevitability of death. He writes in A Confession: “My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes, the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable.”[2] Tolstoy describes several attempts he made to shake off the feelings of depression and despair from which he had increasingly suffered since his first experience of what he called the “Arzamas terror” in 1868 (vividly described in his unfinished short story “The Notes of a Madman”).[3] His reading of the great philosophers of the past only confirmed the apparent meaninglessness of life that so troubled him. Turning from his library to his friends and acquaintances for help was also of no avail; either his contemporaries did not concern themselves at all with the questions he found so perplexing or their answers were no more comforting than those given by the philosophers.

Finally, he turned to the broad masses of the Russian people, the peasants, for help. It seemed to him that these illiterate and uneducated folk nevertheless possessed a definite conception of the meaning of life. He wrote in A Confession that “it became clear that mankind as a whole had a kind of knowledge, unacknowledged and scorned by me, of the meaning of life… They find this meaning in irrational knowledge. And this irrational knowledge is faith, the very same faith [that is, the theology and cult practices of the Russian Orthodox Church] which I could not but reject” (23:32-33). He saw that the faith of the Russian peasants gave meaning to their lives and protected them from the despair from which he suffered; their faith itself, however, both in its dogma and its cult, had long been abhorrent to him.[4] “Faith still remained for me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives people a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible” (23:35).

He first attempted to renew his connection with the church of his childhood. For a time he carefully and conscientiously observed all the Orthodox rites, but the superstition he detected in that faith, especially as practiced by the peasants whose life he declared otherwise so admirable, soon proved fatal to his resolve. He abandoned the attempt to find a place for himself within the existing system of religion and determined to develop a system of his own. This task occupied him intensively for about four years (1878–1882) and resulted in the preparation of four works that Tolstoy thereafter considered to be his most important achievement. After A Confession, which is a brief account and interpretation of his life and moral struggle through the mid-1870s, he wrote A Critique of Dogmatic Theology (Issledovanie dogmaticheskogo bogosloviia); A Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels (Soedinenie i perevod chetyrekh evangelii), and What I Believe(V chem moia vera). Once completed, these works formed the conscious intellectual center of his thought and action for his remaining 30 years of life.

The central, indeed the only, article of Tolstoy’s faith was a belief in the existence of a creator God: “But here I examined myself, examined what was taking place within me; and I recalled all those hundreds of dyings and quickenings which had taken place within me. I recalled that I lived only when I believed in God. As before, so now, I said to myself: ‘I need only to know about God, and I live; I need only forget, disbelieve in God, and I die.’ I am alive, really alive, only when I sense God and search for God. ‘Then for what should I look further?’ cried a voice within me. ‘That is God. God is that without which it is impossible to live. To know God and to live are one and the same. God is life'” (23:45-46).

Tolstoy’s ideas may be seen as one aspect of the turn in Russian intellectual life away from the materialism that had dominated the late 1850s and 1860s and toward a renewed emphasis on spiritual and religious values. The old materialism, however, continued to be philosophically viable, while the renewed spiritualism was sharply fractionated, particularly as between proponents of the traditional religious values and practices of the Orthodox faith and those who, like Tolstoy, rebelled against the teachings of the church. In art and literature the movement away from realism was particularly sharp. The leading trend in literature from about 1890 is called “modernism,” a catchall term that subsumes the work of the so-called decadents, the symbolists, and a variety of other groups, which, despite their diversity, shared a distaste for traditional realism. It is interesting that while Tolstoy bitterly attacked the artistic practices of the modernists in his What Is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo?, 1898), The Death of Ivan Ilich is profoundly symbolic and may be seen as a harbinger of the symbolist art that followed in the 1890s and later.


  1. I use this term, apparently first coined by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, following the example of Guy de Mallac, who has been kind enough to share with me his unpublished monograph on Tolstoy's philosophy.
  2. Lev Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow and Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel'stvo Khudozhestvennoi Literatury, 1928-58), vol. 23, 32. References to the Russian originals of Tolstoy's works, including letters, are to those works as published in this, the "Jubilee Edition" of Tolstoy's complete collected works. All translations from the Russian are my own, except those from the text of The Death of Ivan Ilich. Hereafter, all references to the Russian originals of Tolstoy's works will be given parenthetically in the text in the form (volume number:page number); thus, the present reference would be (23:32).
  3. On a business trip in that year to the small town of Arzamas Tolstoy was obliged to pass the night in a hotel and was there, in the wee hours of the morning, overcome by a profound and  personal sense of the futility of life and the dreadful inevitability of death.
  4. As early as the middle of the 1850s Tolstoy had expressed the belief that Christianity would provide a viable philosophy of life were it relieved of the insupportable weight of its theology and dogma. Still earlier, as he later recalled, he had dramatically thrown away the icon that the Orthodox commonly wore upon their necks in favor of a medallion engraved with the face of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He seemed to face a choice between a saving, but irrational, faith and the meaningless despair his reason showed him. In the end he reconciled himself to the irrational.