The Decembrists
Leo Tolstoy
Novels
2:29 h
Level 9
The Decembrists (Russian: Декабристы) is an unfinished novel by Leo Tolstoy, who finished three chapters. Its hero was to have been a participant in the abortive Decembrist Uprising of 1825, released from Siberian exile after 1856. It was intended as a sequel to War and Peace, and the second part of a planned trilogy, whose third part would be set in 1856.

The Decembrists

Fragments of a Novel

by
Leo Tolstoy


First Fragment

I

This happened not long ago, in the reign of Alexander II., in our days of civilization, progress, questions, regeneration of Russia, and so forth, and so forth; at a time when the victorious Russian army was returning from Sevastopol, surrendered to the enemy; when all of Russia celebrated the annihilation of the Black Sea fleet, and white-stoned Moscow received and congratulated with this happy event the remainders of the crews of that fleet, offering them a good Russian cup of vódka, and bread and salt, according to the good Russian custom, and bowing down to their feet. It was that time when Russia, in the person of far-sighted virgin politicians, lamented the shattered dream of a Te Deum in the Cathedral of St. Sophia, and the loss of two great men, so painful for the country, who had perished during the war (one, who had been carried away by the desire to celebrate the Te Deum in the above-mentioned cathedral at the earliest time possible, and who fell in the fields of Wallachia, but who, at least, left two squadrons of hussars in the same fields, and the other, an unappreciated man, who had distributed tea, other people’s money, and bed-sheets to the wounded, without stealing any of these things); that time, when on all sides, in all branches of human activities, great men—generals, administrators, economists, writers, orators, and simply great men, without any especial calling or purpose—sprang up in Russia like mushrooms; that time, when, at the jubilee of a Moscow actor, there appeared the public opinion, confirmed by a toast, which began to rebuke all the criminals,—when menacing commissions galloped south from St. Petersburg, to convict and punish the evil-doers of the commissariat,—when in all the cities dinners with speeches were given to the heroes of Sevastopol, and when to them, with arms and legs torn off, toasts were drunk, on meeting them on the bridges and on the highways; that time, when oratorical talents developed so rapidly in the nation that a certain dram-shopkeeper everywhere and upon all occasions wrote and printed and recited by rote at dinners such strong speeches, that the guardians of the peace had to take repressive measures against the dram-shopkeeper’s eloquence,—when in the very English club a special room was set aside for the discussion of public matters,—when periodicals sprang up under the most diversified standards,—periodicals that evolved European principles on a European basis, but with a Russian world conception, and periodicals on an exclusively Russian basis, but with a European world conception,—when suddenly there appeared so many periodicals that all names seemed to be exhausted,—“The Messenger,” and “The Word,” and “The Speaker,” and “The Observer,” and “The Star,” and “The Eagle,” and many more, and, in spite of it, there appeared ever new names; that time, when the constellation of philosophic writers made its appearance to prove that science was national, and not national, and non-national, and so forth, and the constellation of artistic writers, who described a grove, and the sunrise, and a storm, and the love of a Russian maiden, and the indolence of a certain official, and the bad conduct of many officials; that time, when on all sides appeared questions (as in the year ’56 they called every concourse of circumstances, of which no one could make any sense), questions of cadet corps, universities, censorship, oral judicature, finance, banking, police, emancipation, and many more:—everybody tried to discover ever new questions, everybody tried to solve them, wrote, read, spoke, made projects, wanted to mend everything, destroy, change, and all Russians, like one man, were in indescribable ecstasy.

That is a state of affairs which has been twice repeated in the Russia of the nineteenth century,—the first time, when in the year ’12 we repulsed Napoleon I., and the second time, when in the year ‘56 we were repulsed by Napoleon III. Great, unforgettable time of the regeneration of the Russian people! Like the Frenchman who said that he has not lived who has not lived through the great French Revolution, I venture to say that he who has not lived through the year ‘56 in Russia does not know what life is. The writer of these lines not only lived through that time, but was one of the actors of that period. Not only did he pass several weeks in one of the blindages of Sevastopol, but he also wrote a work on the Crimean War, which brought him great fame, and in which he described clearly and minutely how the soldiers fired their guns from the bastions, how the wounds were dressed at the ambulance, and how they buried people in the cemetery. Having achieved these deeds, the writer of these lines arrived in the centre of the empire,—a rocket establishment,—where he cut the laurels for his deeds. He saw the transports of the two capitals and of the whole nation, and experienced in his person to what extent Russia knew how to reward real deserts. The mighty of this world sought his friendship, pressed his hands, gave him dinners, urged him to come to their houses, and, in order to learn the details of the war from him, informed him of their own sentimentalities. Consequently the writer of these lines can appreciate that great and memorable time. But that is another matter.

At that very time, two vehicles on wheels and a sleigh were standing at the entrance of the best Moscow hotel. A young man ran through the door, to find out about quarters. In one of the vehicles sat an old man with two ladies. He was talking about the condition of Blacksmith Bridge in the days of the French. It was the continuation of a conversation started as they entered Moscow, and now the old man with the white beard, in his unbuttoned fur coat, calmly continued his conversation in the vehicle, as though he intended to stay in it overnight. His wife and daughter listened to him, but kept looking at the door with some impatience. The young man emerged from the door with the porter and room servant.

“Well, Sergyéy,” asked the mother, thrusting her emaciated face out into the glare of the lamplight.

Either because it was his habit, or because he did not wish the porter to take him for a lackey on account of the short fur coat which he wore, Sergyéy replied in French that there were rooms to be had, and opened the carriage door. The old man looked for a moment at his son, and again turned to the dark corner of the vehicle, as though nothing else concerned him:

“There was no theatre then.”

“Pierre!” said his wife, lifting her cloak; but he continued:

“Madame Chalmé was in Tverskáya Street—”

Deep in the vehicle could be heard a youthful, sonorous laugh.

“Papa, step out! You are forgetting where we are.”

The old man only then seemed to recall that they had arrived, and looked around him.

“Do step out!”

He pulled his cap down, and submissively passed through the door. The porter took him under his arm, but, seeing that the old man was walking well, he at once offered his services to the lady. Judging from the sable cloak, and from the time it took for her to emerge, and from the way she pressed down on his arm, and from the way she, leaning on her son’s arm, walked straight toward the porch, without looking to either side, Natálya Nikoláevna, his wife, seemed to the porter to be an important personage. He did not even separate the young lady from the maids, who climbed out from the other vehicle; like them, she carried a bundle and a pipe, and walked behind. He recognized her only by her laughing and by her calling the old man father.