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“Innocent Holy Foolishness”: How Leo Tolstoy Dealt with Grief by Cycling

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As Rosamund Bartlett explores in Tolstoy: A Russian Life (2011), Tolstoy was sixty-five when he took up bicycling on a British-made “safety bicycle” just coming into fashion in Russia.

He began taking lessons held in the Moscow Manège, a long classical building used for parades (where he’d also learned to fence). After showing the police his proficiency, he obtained a license that let him cycle around the city as he pleased.

He would cycle with an intense look of concentration on his face, and would generally cycle alone.

The grief of Leo Tolstoy

In the days before his seventeenth birthday, Tolstoy’s adored son Vanechka had died of scarlet fever. His daughter Masha wrote to a friend,

“Mama is grief-stricken […] Her whole life was in [Vanechka], she gave him all her love. Papa is the only one who can help her, he’s the only one who can do that. But he is suffering terribly himself, and keeps crying all of the time.”

It hit him as hard as his brother Nikolay’s death in 1860, and Tolstoy saw cycling as a kind of “innocent holy foolishness” that allowed him to deal with his grief. He took his bicycle to Yasnaya Polyana – the family estate – during the summer, and would exhaust himself cycling to Tula and back (a fourteen-mile trip).

Was it innocent, foolishness, or both?

A Cycling Notes entry in Scientific American for April 18, 1896, included the following:

Count Leo Tolstoi, the Russian novelist, now rides the wheel, much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate.

One can only imagine what his wife Sonya thought of this new obsession, but it was surely preferable to the deep depression he often fell into between novels. Tolstoy once wrote,

“I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped.” 

A reflection on Tolstoy’s new hobby

I guess I’m like Tolstoy in that I need to keep busy. I like being alone, but I don’t like having too much time alone with my thoughts: it only seems to get me down and makes me over-analyse. Journaling does help, but I don’t like to dwell too much on a problem. Having something to work and improve upon keeps your mind occupied and provides entertainment, and I can absolutely empathise with a sixty-year-old Russian on a bicycle.

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