The last days of Tolstoy – a defense brief, a video, and a murder mystery

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The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, about 1905, before the nutters took over.

We’re rather on a Leo Tolstoy kick over here, aren’t we? But how can we help ourselves? We just found these two film clips of the author’s last days.  Lots of snow and horses, as you’d expect – then Tolstoy in death, laid out on a bed with flowers, and the funeral procession, with what looks like thousands of peasants.

Sophia and daughter Alexandra in a portrait by Nikolai Gay

The first clip is taken from 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, and the longer, Russian clip is second (it includes earlier footage from 1908).  The 82-year-old writer died at the out-of-the-way rural train station in Astapova, weakened by his sudden decision to renounce everything and hit the road.  According to Sir Kenneth Clark in the video, “He left his wife, his comfortable estate and his wealth and traveled 26 hours to Sharmardino, where Tolstoy’s sister Marya lived, and where he planned to live the remainder of his life in a small, rented hut.”  (Thanks, Open Culture, for bringing the clip to our attention.)

Comfortable?  We think not.

Of particular note is the first clip’s comments on Tolstoy’s “demented” wife Sophia.  She’s taken a lot of bad press over the years, but she finally has a champion:  Alexandra Popoff, author of 2010’s Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, writes on her Sophia Tolstoy website: “She was central to his creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.”  According to the biographer:

Sophia was judged by her final year with Tolstoy and by people hostile to her — the great man’s disciples, particularly Vladimir Chertkov, a vain man who wanted to establish himself as the person closest to Tolstoy. He led a smear campaign against Sophia and described Tolstoy’s marriage as martyrdom.

To understand why there are still many misconceptions about Sophia and her role we need to know that for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish essential documents in her favor. …

The character of this remarkable woman was unlike the portrayals. She handled Tolstoy’s publishing affairs and their family’s business affairs, while also raising a large family. I was impressed with her capacity for hard work: a mother of 13, who herself nursed and educated their children, she was also a successful publisher, translator, and photographer. A lot of her labor went into Tolstoy’s novels, which she copied and produced. She also worked alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief.

The comment rather puts the lie to this one, by James Meek in a Guardian article giving Anna Karenina another reading: “I’m not sure Tolstoy ever worked out how he actually felt about love and desire, or how he should feel about it. He was torn between compassion and moral rigour, between lust and self-denial, between loving his wife and being bored by her. His uncertainty is reflected in the dual portrayal of his wife in Anna Karenina – as the virtuous, somewhat frumpy Dolly, worn out by childbearing, like the woman his wife was when he was writing the book, and as the feisty, pretty teenager Kitty, like the woman his wife was when he married her. They must have seemed to contradict each other, yet each was true to her time; and Tolstoy, for all that he was a master of time, was only a slave to truth.”

Surely if he were a slave to truth he would have noted that frumpy older wives hadn’t necessarily bargained for paunchiness, baldness, flatulence, snoring, and flourishing mid-life nose hair.

Meanwhile, way back in 2009, Elif Batuman wrote a riveting piece for Harper’s about the murder of Leo Tolstoy:

A literary Sherlock

As is often the case, Tolstoy’s enemies were no more alarming than his so-called friends, for instance, the pilgrims who swarmed Yasnaya Polyana: a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and desperados, collectively referred to by the domestic staff as “the Dark Ones.” These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity; a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial “simplicity” and who eventually had to be driven away “because he was beginning to be indecent”; and a blind Old Believer who pursued the sound of Tolstoy’s footsteps, shouting, “Liar! Hypocrite!”

Meanwhile, within the family circle, Tolstoy’s will was the subject of bitter contention…

“You are certainly my most entertaining student,” said my adviser when I told her my theory. “Tolstoy— murdered! Ha! Ha! Ha! The man was eighty-two years old, with a history of stroke!”

“That’s exactly what would make it the perfect crime,” I explained patiently.

Read the rest here. It’s marvelous, of course.

 


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One Response to “The last days of Tolstoy – a defense brief, a video, and a murder mystery”

  1. Shelley Says:

    These two videos are endlessly fascinating.

    That videographer knew what he was doing, too: filming a writer.

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