Hoover Daily Report

The Road to the Stationmaster's House

via Wall Street Journal
Friday, July 2, 2010
The Wall Street Journal

JULY 2, 2010

The Road to the Stationmaster's House
Revisiting the chaos at the 'War and Peace' author's death and focusing anew on his devoted, tormented wife


One hundred years ago, in the middle of the night, Lev Tolstoy, 82 years old and in failing health, suddenly fled Yasnaya Polyana, his estate south of Moscow. The disappearance of Russia's most famous man was reported in the press two days later and created a sensation, with excited public speculation about where he was going and why he had left. Was Tolstoy on a spiritual journey, as many wished to believe, or was he in flight from a troubled marriage, as rumor had it?

A few days after departing, Tolstoy fell ill with pneumonia, and his journey ended in the stationmaster's house at the remote railway station of Astapovo, where Tolstoy lay dying. A media circus ensued. Telegraphic reports from Astapovo recording Tolstoy's temperature and pulse, and the comings and goings at the station, made headlines around the world.

A subplot of the story was the fate of Sophia, Tolstoy's abandoned wife of 48 years, who attempted suicide upon learning of her husband's departure. Denied access to him by his disciples, as was his wish, she paced the station platform and tried to peer through the windows of the house, a performance captured by photographers and motion-picture men.

As one reporter described the scene: "She walks beside the house where Lev Nikolaevich is lying and pecks like a bird wanting to fly into the nest where her most beloved being lies." Sophia was allowed entry to her husband's room only after he had slipped into a coma. He died on Nov. 7, 1910.

These events have been described by Tolstoy's many biographers, and they have even been the subject of a recent film, "The Last Station." Now come two compelling works of original scholarship taking up Tolstoy's final days and his tumultuous relations with his wife.

The author of "War and Peace" was the last of the giants of 19th-century Russian literature, yet William Nickell, in his thought-provoking and insightful "The Death of Tolstoy," convincingly casts Tolstoy's exit less as the end of a glorious era than as Russia's "first great modern mass-media event."

Mr. Nickell has researched the more than 1,000 telegrams sent to and from Astapovo during Tolstoy's eight-day stay there, as well as hundreds of newspaper articles. "By the end of the weeklong ordeal at Astapovo," he observes, "Tolstoy and the telegraph had become inextricably wed."

As Tolstoy's family and followers pointed fingers at one another and sought to justify themselves, family diaries and letters were published. They offered, Mr. Nickell says, "shocking intrusions into the realm of the private." The world learned that Tolstoy blamed his wife's late-night snoopings through his papers for his decision to flee, that she had attempted to drown herself in a pond on the estate, and that Tolstoy's daughter Sasha had become an ally of the Tolstoyans against her mother.

One often has the feeling, reading "The Death of Tolstoy," that Mr. Nickell has joined the stakeout at Astapovo, though he is on the lookout for keys to interpretation—tropes, metaphors and "rhetorical strategies." The analytical density can be heavygoing, but the rewards are great. Mr. Nickell is especially good on the attempts of the Russian autocracy, and of the Orthodox Church, to "spin" Tolstoy's departure, death and funeral.

Tolstoy had fallen out with the church in the aftermath of his "spiritual crisis" in the late 1870s, following the publication of "Anna Karenina." He renounced the writing of fiction and embarked on a revisionist study of Christianity, seeking to rectify what he saw as Orthodoxy's distorted view of Christ and his teaching. The result was a series of polemical works, most of which were censored or banned.

The Orthodox Church excommunicated him—though rather gently. The church, like the czar's government, did not want to make a martyr of the man celebrated as the "great citizen of the Russian land." "Tolstoyans" could be exiled to Siberia but not Tolstoy himself.

Nicholas II and his officials sought to separate Tolstoy the aristocratic novelist from the rogue patriarch of his last three decades. At the time of his modest funeral at Yasnaya Polyana, the government issued expressions of sympathy but took police measures behind the scenes to ensure that no mass outpouring of sympathy could erupt and possibly ignite the kind of unrest that had almost toppled the regime in the Revolution of 1905. The church, for its part, portrayed Tolstoy as a repentant sinner who had sought to return to the fold but who, in the end, was prevented from making his peace with God.

Tolstoy's last years were tragic and difficult for his wife, the subject of Alexandra Popoff's spirited biography. "Sophia Tolstoy" draws heavily on Sophia's unpublished memoirs, the Tolstoys' separate diaries and the correspondence between husband and wife. Ms. Popoff presents Sophia as Tolstoy's selfless and vital collaborator, serving as his copyist, editor and archivist. "She created the best conditions for his writing and her support was indispensable to Tolstoy, who constantly struggled with depression." Sophia eventually became his publisher and would produce eight editions of his collected works, personally involving herself in every stage of the process.

In the course of Sophia's life with Tolstoy—when they married in 1862, she was 18 and he was 34—she endured 16 pregnancies. In all, 13 children were born to the couple, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Not that Sophia's responsibilities were confined to child-rearing. She once made a list of her duties. It included "business affairs" and "keeping the family peace."

Her life was greatly complicated by Tolstoy's spiritual crisis, when he not only renounced tobacco and meat (and violence) but began to portray sex, even sex within marriage, as sinful—though his beliefs did not stop him from making love to his wife.

Tolstoy neglected his children's education and their financial security, preferring to preach about the evils of money and property. He criticized his wife's publishing operations because, he said, they supported a life of "luxury." In fact, her tireless industry was essential to sustaining the family's well-being.

Not least among her concerns was providing for her husband, who continued to reside on the estate—although he did acquire a new look: the peasant shirt and bast sandals that became his trademark late in life. A painting by Ilya Repin of Tolstoy plowing his fields became an iconic image of the era.

Russians near and far questioned the contradiction between Tolstoy's renunciatory teachings and the privileged, aristocratic lifestyle he refused to abandon. The blame tended to fall on the enterprising Sophia, who grew exasperated with her husband's hypocrisy. "In the eyes of the world he can do no wrong for he is a great writer," she wrote bitterly in her diary.

The Tolstoys made it a practice to read their diaries to each other, so each entry became part of a painful marital self-examination. "I often said to myself," Tolsoy wrote on one occasion, "if not for my wife and children I would have lived a saintly life." The only solution was to leave, if he had any hope of bringing his life into line with his ideals. He told his diary that it would be "such a desirable and joyous thing to go away and be a beggar, thanking and loving everyone." He left for the first time in 1884, on the night of the birth of his daughter Sasha. In later years he wrote more and more frequently about his desire to abandon his home.

In that final summer of 1910, as the family split into factions and Tolstoy's followers exerted increasing influence, Sophia resorted to acts of desperation to get her husband's attention, claiming to have taken opium and firing a pistol loaded with blanks. Her nemesis in this struggle was Vladimir Chertkov, the acolyte who eventually became the executor of Tolstoy's will. In her diary she recorded suicidal thoughts, including a desire to throw herself under a train in the manner of Anna Karenina.

Ms. Popoff makes no secret that she is herself an advocate for Sophia, seeking to rescue her reputation from the slanders of the Tolstoyans. She succeeds in this effort, although her labor of love would have benefitted from some critical distance. Mr. Nickell, with more even-handedness, perceives the "strange mixture of love, fear, and paranoia" that drove Sophia to extremes on the eve of Tolstoy's flight.

It is heartbreaking to read how this tormented woman was prevented from approaching her dying husband's bedside at the Astapovo station, forced to remain three steps distant as she whispered her good-byes. Ms. Popoff quotes the novelist Maxim Gorky, who gave a hard-headed assessment of Sophia and her place in Tolstoy's life: "She was his close, faithful, and I think, his only real friend."

Mr. Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of "Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary."