Russians in the Wilderness, Part VI: Leo Tolstoy’s “Two Old Men”

Beginning with his first story, written from the battlefield during the Crimean War, Leo Tolstoy became one of Russia’s greatest literary figures. The success of his two major novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, distinguished him as an international figure; his readership extended throughout Russia to Western Europe and the United States. In 19th century Russia, Leo Tolstoy was often mentioned in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

During the final decades of his life, Tolstoy became intensely involved in a search for spiritual meaning and significance. His later writings, often in the form of short stories and pamphlets, dealt explicitly with religious and moralistic themes. They are an important part of Russia’s rich cultural heritage, and we will examine one of them here: a short story titled “The Two Old Men.”

The Tale

The two old men were named Efim and Elisha. They were friends for many years. Efim was a pious man, a man who lived a godly life and was a very responsible citizen of his community. He was relatively wealthy, but fiscally cautious, and felt a great responsibility for his family, his children and his grandchildren. Elisha, a former carpenter and now a keeper of bees, was a kind man, cheerful and a little less concerned about the problems of drinking and taking snuff. He drank sometimes and took some snuff, but he was a peaceful man who all his neighbors enjoyed.

Efim and Elisha had long ago promised each other that one day they would travel on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God, but this holy journey had been postponed many times because of the necessities of life. Finally, after much debate about when this pilgrimage should take place, the two friends at last agreed to make their journey to the Holy Land. Each prepared for the trip in his own way. Efim had great concern for leaving thorough instructions with his wife and children about how to manage his estate when he was gone, while Elisha was much more casual about all these details. While Efim left detailed orders for his loved ones, Elisha told his family to “see what to do and how to do it as the needs arise.”

After five weeks of walking, the men came to an area of Russia where the harvest had failed and the local peasant families were struggling to survive. During the first month of their journey, Efim and Elisha had often been fed and housed by local residents at no expense; now the crop shortage meant that food was no longer as a free gift. As they traveled through this area of poverty, the two men agreed to separate and meet up at a later point. Efim wanted to press on with the pilgrimage, but Elisha decided to slow the pace of his journey.

Two Different Paths

Efim’s persistence eventually took him to the Holy Land, where he visited all the sacred sites and contributed generously to the coffers in each location, as any pious pilgrim would do. He was a good man, a committed Christian, a man who wanted to live a responsible life. He cared about his family, worked hard, and was serious about his faith. Elisha never met up with Efim as they had planned, and though Efim thought he caught glimpses of Elisha at several of the sacred sites in Jerusalem, he could never find him in the crowds after the ceremonies were over.

Meanwhile, Elisha’s decision to slow his journey resulted in a very different set of circumstances. Searching for water, he had entered a home where a poor peasant family was starving to death. He quickly realized their desperate plight and decided to help by offering them the bread that he carried with him. He prepared a meal, slowly nurtured them back to health, and eventually decided to invest his trip money in the purchase of agricultural tools and farm animals for the family so that they could get back up on their feet. By the time he felt confident that the family’s health was restored and the parents and children were able to care for themselves and the animals, Elisha knew he had no choice but to go back home. His money was almost gone, and he guessed his partner had already arrived in Jerusalem.

Elisha never doubted what he had done. He was confident that his friend Efim had placed a candle at the shrines in his name. He knew that he would never fulfill his vow to see Jerusalem, but he was grateful that his vow “was made to a merciful Master and to one who pardons sinners.” He did what was right and was completely at peace with his choice.

When Efim returned from his pilgrimage, he came looking for Elisha. The good friends warmly greeted each other and Elisha asked for a report from Efim about his trip. When Efim told Elisha that, on his return trip, he had stopped by the same peasants’ home where Elisha had helped bring restoration, Elisha quickly replied, “God’s business, neighbor, God’s business!”and refused to talk about it any further. For Efim the message was clear: “the best way to keep one’s vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others.”

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Tolstoy’s Two Old Men has been published in a pamphlet format by The Trinity Forum and is available for purchase, along with other Russian literary classics. For further information about these classic readings, contact The Trinity Forum at 703/764-1070.