Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment.

Jordan Smith

In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he described it in his unfinished story Notes of a Madman (so titled because Tolstoy was convinced his readers would find the tale implausible), a few hours after midnight he awakened “seized by despair, fear and terror such as [he had] never before experienced.” After asking himself what there was to be afraid of, none other than Death himself answered, “I am here.” Tolstoy, confronting the inescapability of his own death, panicked and raged against its power.

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