The Death of Tolstoy

The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Death of Tolstoy
    Book Description:

    In the middle of the night of October 28, 1910, Leo Tolstoy, the most famous man in Russia, vanished. A secular saint revered for his literary genius, pacificism, and dedication to the earth and the poor, Tolstoy had left his home in secret to embark on a final journey. His disappearance immediately became a national sensation. Two days later he was located at a monastery, but was soon gone again. When he turned up next at Astapovo, a small, remote railway station, all of Russia was following the story. As he lay dying of pneumonia, he became the hero of a national narrative of immense significance.

    In The Death of Tolstoy, William Nickell describes a Russia engaged in a war of words over how this story should be told. The Orthodox Church, which had excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, first argued that he had returned to the fold and then came out against his beliefs more vehemently than ever. Police spies sent by the state tracked his every move, fearing that his death would embolden his millions of supporters among the young, the peasantry, and the intelligentsia. Representatives of the press converged on the stationhouse at Astapovo where Tolstoy lay ill, turning his death into a feverish media event that strikingly anticipated today's no-limits coverage of celebrity lives-and deaths.

    Drawing on newspaper accounts, personal correspondence, police reports, secret circulars, telegrams, letters, and memoirs, Nickell shows the public spectacle of Tolstoy's last days to be a vivid reflection of a fragile, anxious empire on the eve of war and revolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6255-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the middle of the night of October 28, 1910, Lev Tolstoy closed the door to the room where his wife of forty-eight years was sleeping, packed his things and left his home, never to return. At the age of eighty-two, the most famous living Russian embarked on a final journey that would become one of the great legends of the twentieth century.

    Tolstoy had already been assigned literary immortality by his contemporaries, been called the “second tsar” because of his political influence, and given rise to a worldwide religious movement; now, in the last ten days of his life,...

  5. 1 The Family Crisis as a Public Event
    (pp. 13-54)

    When Lev Tolstoy left his house in October 1910, he had no destination in mind. His immediate objective was to go somewhere where he would not be found for a few days, then to head further into the “great world,” as he called it. At the nearby railway station he purchased tickets for two different destinations, hoping to cover his tracks. He had arranged to keep his daughter Aleksandra informed of his journey, on condition that she tell no one else where he was, and had told her that any telegrams received from him would be signed not with his...

  6. 2 Narrative Transfigurations of Tolstoy’s Final Journey
    (pp. 55-88)

    On the evening of November 4, 1910, in a state of delirium as his condition worsened, Tolstoy began to make motions on his blanket with his hands. Though he was only semiconscious at the time, those at his bedside interpreted the movements as an attempt to write—the “great writer of the Russian land” was reflexively repeating the motions that had filled so much of his life, setting forth the meditations that issued from his approaching death. This moment epitomizes the narrative dynamic of Tolstoy’s last days, when his every movement was recorded and vigorously interpreted in the Russian media....

  7. 3 The Media at Astapovo and the Creation of a Modern Pastoral
    (pp. 89-114)

    The first reports of Tolstoy’s departure from Yasnaya Polyana appeared in newspapers throughout Russia on October 30, 1910: “A messenger sent from Yasnaya Polyana said that yesterday, October 28, at 5:00 in the morning, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy left his home with Doctor Makovitskii; his whereabouts have for two days been unknown.”¹ This news, first appearing as a small item, by the next day had become a national sensation; already a tremendous media celebrity, Tolstoy had given the press a story brimming with drama and mystery. Russia’s most famous person, at the age of eighty-two, had secretly left his home in...

  8. 4 Tolstoyan Violence upon the Funeral Rites of the State
    (pp. 115-142)

    On the morning of November 9, watching the beginning of Tolstoy’s funeral, the governor of Tula and a special agent from Petersburg were alarmed to notice the flash of a large red cloth in the crowd. The two had been placed in charge of overseeing the funeral and were spying on the procession as Tolstoy’s body was carried from the train station at Zaseka to Yasnaya Polyana, to be certain that no “antigovernment” demonstrations accompanied it. An undercover officer was quickly dispatched to determine what the offending red material was. As it turned out, it was only a piece of...

  9. 5 On or About November 1910
    (pp. 143-158)

    In 1910 the first Russian Futurist collection, Little Garden of Judges, appeared, with the participation of Kamenskii, Khlebnikov, Burlyuk, Guro, and others; two years later, in the authors’ second, more successful compilation, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, they made their famous appeal to throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy overboard from the steamship of contemporary life. At the time of Tolstoy’s death, it appeared that he had quite willingly abandoned that ship. But contemporary life would not let him go. In March 1912, the Moscow courts heard a case against the Ding chocolate company, attempting to halt its...

  10. Conclusion: The Posthumous Notes of Fyodor Kuzmich
    (pp. 159-164)

    In the months following Tolstoy’s death, interest in the writer remained at a peak.¹ Publications poured off the press in response, including numerous editions of previously unpublished letters and works by Tolstoy. The most significant of these was the three-volume collection of his posthumous works edited and published by Chertkov between 1911 and 1912. Some of Tolstoy’s best work, including “Hadji Murad,” appeared for the fi rst time in these volumes. Among them was a lesser known but fascinating piece—an unfi nished frame tale entitled “The Posthumous Notes of Fyodor Kuzmich.”² It is a Tolstoyan palimpsest of sorts, with...

  11. A Word on My Sources
    (pp. 165-166)

    In writing this book two sources were of immense value. The first was a 1928 publication of more than one thousand telegrams sent to and from Astapovo during Tolstoy’s eight-day stay there. This Soviet publication was overtly intended to portray the prerevolutionary excesses of church and state, which were revealed in the encrypted correspondence of security agents with their superiors. But the reproduction on the book’s inside cover of the pattern from the wallpaper in the room in which Tolstoy died demonstrated the publication’s participation in the most typical “cult” behavior, in which any relic of Tolstoy’s death might be...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 167-202)
  13. Index
    (pp. 203-210)