Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910),
as told to Count S. Stakelberg
From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now
The closing pages of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearn Goodwin’s best-selling volume on Abraham Lincoln, assess the aftermath of his death and remark on the “scope of Lincoln’s legacy by the time the new century arrived,” having spread even to a “wild and remote area of the Caucasus.” A reporter for the New York World interviewed Leo Tolstoy for the Lincoln centennial in 1909; the Russian novelist’s response, which was closer to hagiography than analysis, includes a famous anecdote about Lincoln’s outsized reputation among the Circassian people of the Caucasus. The opinions attributed to Tolstoy here—that Lincoln was “Christ in miniature,” that “he overshadows all other national heroes,” that he “was bigger than his country”—contrast sharply with his statement in War and Peace: “In historical events great men—so-called—are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself” (Constance Garrett translation). For Presidents Day—and in honor of Lincoln’s 201st birthday—we present Tolstoy’s commentary in full.
Visiting Leo Tolstoi in Yasnaya with the intention of getting him to write an article on Lincoln, I unfortunately found him not well enough to yield to my request. However, he was willing to give me his opinion of the great American statesman, and this is what he told me:
“Of all the great national heroes and statesmen of history Lincoln is the only real giant. Alexander, Frederick the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Gladstone and even Washington stand in greatness of character, in depth of feeling and in a certain moral power far behind Lincoln. Lincoln was a man of whom a nation has a right to be proud; he was a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity, whose name will live thousands of years in the legends of future generations. We are still too near to his greatness, and so can hardly appreciate his divine power; but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!