Some Wild Creature

James Meek

  • The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910 by William Nickell
    Cornell, 209 pp, £18.95, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 8014 4834 8
  • The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy translated by Cathy Porter
    Alma, 609 pp, £9.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84688 102 2
  • BuyA Confession by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Anthony Briggs
    Hesperus, 146 pp, £7.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84391 190 6
  • Anniversary Essays on Tolstoy by Donna Tussing Orwin
    Cambridge, 268 pp, £55.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 521 51491 0

What are we saying when we say someone has ‘gone out of their mind’? The thing about going out of your mind is that the mind is still there; you can go back. You haven’t lost your mind. You’ve just gone out of it. The Russians use the same phrase. The Russian adjective meaning ‘crazy’, which is the same as the noun for ‘insane person’, is sumasshedshy, literally ‘who was going out of their mind’. Sofia Andreyevna Tolstoy, wife of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, did go out of her mind at the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in 1910. She didn’t lose her mind. She went back to it later, and lived another nine years. But she did lose her husband, who ran away from her and died of pneumonia in a rural stationmaster’s house a few days later.

Although William Nickell and the contemporary Russian journalists whose work he has explored for The Death of Tolstoy try to make an enigma of the 82-year-old writer’s ‘complex and provocative’ nocturnal flight from his ancestral home, the count had been brooding over the possibility of leaving his wife for decades, and there seems no obvious reason to look beyond the letter he wrote to her a few days before he died, explaining why he had to get away and wouldn’t be coming back:

Your overexcited state, anger and illness … your present mood, your desire for and attempts at suicide, show more than anything else your loss of self-control … it’s not a question of you carrying out some wish or command of mine, but just in your stability, in a quiet, sensible relationship to life. And as long as you don’t have that, life with you is senseless for me.

In the months before her husband ran away, Sofia Andreyevna’s jealousy towards his follower Vladimir Chertkov turned to mania. Chertkov was an aristocratic ex-cavalry officer who saw the Tolstoyan light, renounced his privileges, became Tolstoy’s chief confidant and was poised to become his literary executor. He and a group of other Tolstoyans moved into quarters on the estate of the youngest Tolstoy daughter, Sasha, not far from Yasnaya Polyana, and Sofia Andreyevna felt threatened. Her diary during these gruesome months is self-justifying, self-pitying, self-loathing, yet sprinkled with moments of hope that Tolstoy’s tears, kisses and apologies mean all is forgiven.

She writes that Chertkov (the root of whose name is the Russian for ‘devil’) is the embodiment of the Devil. Her husband, she writes, knows the best way to kill her gradually. ‘Everything is a plot against me.’ She decides to kill herself, runs out into the road and lies in a ditch. A coachman fetches her back. She sees her husband and Chertkov sitting on a sofa ‘very close to him … I was beside myself with rage and jealousy.’ Tolstoy promises never to leave her and tells her he loves her. She begins screaming hysterically when she sees ‘the odious figure of Chertkov’ approaching the house on a white horse. She tells her husband she wants to read a letter he has written to Chertkov, then burns it. She is afraid to go swimming in case she drowns herself. She longs to kill herself with an opium overdose, but doesn’t find the courage, and instead lies and tells Tolstoy that she has taken poison. ‘They are out to attack me, condemn me and bring all sorts of malicious evidence against me for daring to defend my conjugal rights.’ She wants to join her husband on the terrace where he is drinking tea with friends; she tries to speak, but instead of her voice hears a sound of ‘some wild creature’. Everyone stares at her. She learns that Chertkov is coming again. She bursts into tears and begins to shake. She hears her husband and Chertkov plotting together. ‘Maybe the sight of me lying dead will open L.N.’s eyes to my enemy and murderer, and he will grow to hate him and repent of his sinful infatuation with the man.’ She starts to believe Tolstoy and Chertkov are having a homosexual relationship. She invites a priest to exorcise Chertkov’s evil spirit from the house. She tears a portrait of Chertkov to pieces and throws it down the toilet. She fires a toy pistol and starts a rumour that she has shot herself. She finds a pair of binoculars and spies on Tolstoy meeting Chertkov. She hears her husband is going to see Chertkov and runs off through the woods, down gulleys, over the fields, binoculars in hand, to a ditch near where Chertkov lives, and there lies in wait. Tolstoy doesn’t come. She hunkers down after dark in the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana and is found, exhausted and frozen, and brought back to the house, where she sits on her bed, still in her hat and galoshes, ‘like a mummy’.

Twelve days later, in the middle of the night, the patriarch did a runner. As he described it in his diary, he woke up and heard his wife rummaging through the drawers in his study. An hour later, she came into his room and asked about his health. ‘Day and night my every word and action have to be made known to her and are under her control,’ he wrote, and he packed and sneaked out, with the help of Sasha and his doctor. He picked his way through the darkness with the help of an electric torch that he kept switching off, not wanting to waste the labour of the workers who’d toiled to make it.

Sofia Andreyevna grew up in a flat in the Kremlin compound in Moscow, where her father, Andrei Behrs, was the court doctor. She was eight in 1852 when the 24-year-old Tolstoy published Childhood, the fictionalised memoir that made him famous, and 18 in 1862 when he proposed to her. A week later, they got married and settled at Yasnaya Polyana. Of the next 25 years, Sofia Andreyevna was pregnant for ten. She had 13 children, five of whom didn’t make it to their tenth birthday. There was happiness and love between the couple, particularly in the early years; despite his increasingly Talibanic public stance about even conjugal sex, they kept making love into old age. But from the beginning their marriage was punctuated by mutual jealousy, by fights, by a sense that they were suffocating each other, by Sofia Andreyevna’s fear that he was withholding both his mind and his heart from her, and that, if she withheld her mind and heart from him, he wouldn’t care.

‘If I could kill him and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily,’ she wrote a few months after they were married. The following year, a teenager being steadily impregnated by a man in his mid-thirties who was writing War and Peace, she wrote:

In a moment of grief, which I now regret, when nothing seemed to matter but the fact that I had lost his love, I thought even his writing was pointless. What did I care what Countess So-and-So in his novel said to Princess So-and-So? Afterwards I despised myself. My life is so mundane. But he has such a rich internal life …

The age difference weighed on her. ‘At this moment I should love to go to a dance or do something amusing. He is old and self-absorbed, and I am young and long to do something wild. I’d like to turn somersaults instead of going to bed. But with whom?’

As well as bearing Tolstoy a baker’s dozen of children, she midwifed his books, hand-copying and, she claims, correcting and editing them. The intensely autobiographical content of his work as it emerged from his study into her hands brought her joy and misery. She loved the portrayal in Anna Karenina of the Lev-like Levin, the earnest, lonely, driven aristocrat searching for the meaning of life and a way to be virtuous, and his Sofia-like young bride, Kitty; their quarrels and jealousies are wrapped comfortably in a protective blanket of happiness, goodness and old-money prosperity, in contrast to the pejorative portrayal of a self-indulgent couple of cheaters, Anna and Vronsky.

Yet as time went on Sofia Andreyevna feared she was turning into Anna, in the sense of being nudged towards suicide. Indeed, if you’re inclined to read Anna Karenina, the greater of Tolstoy’s two great novels, through a biographical prism, the conventional formula of Levin = Lev Tolstoy looks inadequate. It’s also true that Vronsky = Lev Tolstoy as Tolstoy thought he once was: a gambler, a debauchee, yearning to show himself off in battle and in society, a man for whom morality was nothing and propriety was everything. Of all the scenes in the book the one most resembling the later life of the Tolstoys is not a Levin-Kitty scene, but the final row between Vronsky and Anna just before she goes out to throw herself under a train. Tolstoy’s mastery of the feat of simultaneously putting the reader inside the heads of both characters as well as his own, as if the ball is being tossed from Anna to Vronsky to the narrator at high speed without ever being dropped, is one of the supreme moments of craft in all fiction, and evidence that Tolstoy was quite capable of imagining what his wife was feeling at any moment, had he been inclined to. The fact that Tolstoy later described Anna Karenina and War and Peace as ‘negligible work’ was the final touch of genius and, from Sofia Andreyevna’s point of view, cruelty. It’s no wonder that in her diaries she raised the eternal cry of artists’ lovers down the ages: if he is so sensitive, why is he so insensitive? ‘My tears embarrassed him,’ she wrote in 1891. ‘If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through. “I feel sorry for you,” he said. “I see you suffering but I don’t know how to help you.”’

Sofia Andreyevna’s chaste infatuation with the composer Sergei Taneyev – a late chance, as she saw it, to enjoy the wider, richer social life she had been deprived of by decades of pregnancy and child-rearing – provoked Tolstoy to paroxysms of jealousy. When, in 1889, with his ascetic, born-again philosopher-prophet personality ablaze, he published The Kreutzer Sonata, about a jealous husband who murders his wife because he believes she is having an affair with a musician, the gossips of St Petersburg and Moscow society assumed the wife was Sofia Andreyevna, and pitied her. She felt obliged to see the tsar to plead personally for it to be taken off the list of banned books. ‘If that story had been about me and my relations with Lyovochka’ – her pet name for Tolstoy – ‘I would hardly have begged him to let it be published.’

The Kreutzer Sonata has passages – notably the murder scene – in which Tolstoy’s most unusual skill, his ability to take time and divide it into a series of discrete moments that are perfectly sequential and yet do not look forward or back to each other, is deployed with as much brilliance as ever. When the husband takes down an ornamental dagger to kill his wife, the sheath falls behind a sofa and he thinks: ‘I’ll have to get it out afterwards, otherwise I’ll never find it again.’ The moment has no narrative lead-in and no explicit consequence, yet by breaking with the narrative conventions of contingency, it produces the perfect simulacrum of actual time. But Tolstoy’s greatest weakness, his tendency to preach, is evident in the space given over to the murderer’s sermons on the evils of sexual love. Tolstoy, as he confirmed later, agreed with the murderer that his mistake wasn’t so much killing his wife as getting married and having sex; in a sinful society, he would have been better off remaining a virgin. Two specific consequences of Tolstoy’s preaching in this case were recorded by Sofia Andreyevna in her diary. On 31 August 1909, she wrote: ‘This morning we had a visit from a 30-year-old Romanian who had castrated himself at the age of 18 after reading The Kreutzer Sonata. He then took to working on his land – just 19 acres – and was terribly disillusioned today to see that Tolstoy writes one thing but lives in luxury.’ (Tolstoy himself wrote in his diary: ‘An exceedingly interesting man.’)

The other consequence was that it gave Sofia Andreyevna exclusive opportunities to portray her husband as a hypocrite. ‘Lyovochka is in an extraordinarily sweet, affectionate mood at the moment – for the usual reason, alas,’ she wrote in 1891, ‘the usual reason’ being that they had had sex. ‘If only the people who read The Kreutzer Sonata so reverently had an inkling of the voluptuous life he leads, and realised it was only this that made him happy and good-natured, then they would cast this deity from the pedestal where they have placed him! Yet I love him when he is kind and normal and full of human weaknesses.’

Sofia Andreyevna’s voice as she writes about the Kreutzer episode indicates the evolution of her idea of her audience; that she might be addressing posterity, or her husband’s audience, as well as herself and her descendants. From the beginning, she was addressing Tolstoy. As a prelude to their marriage, Tolstoy asked if she kept a diary and, when she said she had kept one since she was 11, asked if he could read it. She refused, and let him read a short story she had written instead. In the week between his proposal and their wedding, he gave her his diaries to read. She read of his drinking, gambling and sexual adventures and of the child he’d fathered with a peasant woman. She was, she wrote later, ‘shattered’ by his ‘excess of honesty’.

So the idea was set in motion of the mutual reading of supposedly personal diaries, and at times the entries in the diaries of husband and wife reflect the fact that they are speaking to each other while pretending to have secret thoughts. As relations between the couple became stale and formal, Sofia Andreyevna valued free, exclusive and continuous access to Tolstoy’s diaries as a surrogate for the great man’s love and friendship. The crisis of 1910 was fundamentally about the struggle for control of his diaries between her, on one side, and Tolstoy, Chertkov and Sasha on the other. At one point, as a compromise, they were deposited in a bank vault in Tula. Sofia Andreyevna went out of her mind in 1910 not because she had lost her mind but because she thought she was losing her husband’s.

The new edition of Sofia Andreyevna’s diaries, brought out to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, is gripping to read, but it does provoke a question: if there are duelling diarists, if one spouse’s diary entry plays off or contradicts or enlarges on the other’s, surely the book we want is one that puts both Tolstoys’ records of events side by side? In February 1895, for instance, the Tolstoys had a ferocious row about his decision to give the copyright of his story ‘Master and Man’ to a journal called the Northern Herald. According to Sofia Andreyevna’s diary, he threatened to leave home; she became convinced he was in love with the magazine’s editor and ran out of the house into the snow in her dressing-gown and slippers; he came loping after her in long johns and waistcoat and dragged her back into the house, soaked and frozen. Tolstoy’s version of the same events makes no mention of threatening to leave or of his trying to get her back. ‘She was fairly close to going out of her mind and to suicide,’ he wrote.

The children went and rode after her and brought her back. She was suffering terribly. It was the demon of anger, insane, baseless anger. I just had to love her again, and I understood her motives, and having understood her motives, it wasn’t so much that I forgave her as that it was made so that there was nothing to forgive.

Two days later, Vanechka, their youngest son, died aged six. Sofia Andreyevna never got over it. All she wrote in her diary was: ‘My darling little Vanechka died this evening at 11 o’clock. My God, and I am still alive!’ There are no more entries for two years. Tolstoy’s first mention of his son’s death in his diaries was: ‘We buried Vanechka. Terrible – no, not terrible, rather a great spiritual event. Thank you, Father. Thank you.’ Two weeks later, he wrote: ‘Vanechka’s death was for me … a manifestation of God, a drawing towards him. And so I can’t only not say this was a sad, heavy event, but I say directly that this was joyful – not joyful, that’s a stupid word, but a merciful event, untangling the lie of life, bringing us closer to Him. Sonya can’t look at it that way. For her the pain, almost physical, of the separation, hides the spiritual importance of the event.’

People who, like Sofia Andreyevna, couldn’t look at things in the right way had always been a source of frustration to Tolstoy, but his judgments became more categorical after he returned to Christianity – though not, emphatically, to the Russian Orthodox Church – in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Since he was a young man he’d been laying down rules for himself and denouncing himself if he didn’t live up to them, and the crystallisation of his transition from worldly, hedonistic, materialistic author, as he saw it, to moral, holy exemplar, with a new set of Christian rules, was his 1882 memoir, A Confession.

It was according to these rules that Tolstoy took the death of his son as a blessing. In A Confession, he runs through a version of his past: he pursued fame, money and pleasure, killed men in war, married, had children, and at the moment when he was at the height of his powers and had everything a man could seem to want, he lost interest in life and had to take measures to avoid the temptation of suicide. He began an intellectual quest for meaning, but found meaning instead in the Christian faith of the narod, the common folk, who accepted whatever happened to them as the will of God:

These people accept sickness and grief without question or resistance but calmly, in full certainty that this had to happen and could not be otherwise, it was all for the good … these people live, suffer and approach death with a tranquil spirit, more often than not with joy … a difficult, complaining and unhappy death is the ultimate rarity among the common people.

We don’t have 19th-century Russian peasants to hand to check this with, but Tolstoy did. He spent much of his life in close proximity to Russian peasants, first as a conscience-stricken slave owner and seigneurial lover and then, after the emancipation, in various conscience-stricken relationships: master-servant, landlord-tenant, listener-storyteller, patron-beneficiary, idealiser-idealised. He would appear to be well placed to say what the narod really thought. But in A Confession he idealises too far. It is not credible to say that the attitude of the narod to death and illness, even if he portrays it accurately, was based entirely on faith, and that fatalism played no part. There is no more implicit connection between acceptance of illness and faith in God than there is between acceptance of illness and not having the money to pay for a doctor.

Sofia Andreyevna recorded a comment by Boris Chicherin, a professor of philosophy at Moscow University and an old friend of Tolstoy’s, who said that there were two men in him: ‘a writer of genius and a mediocre philosopher who impresses people by talking in paradoxes and contradictions’. Nikolai Strakhov, the critic and thinker Tolstoy used as his interlocutor in the epistolary dialogue that led to the writing of A Confession, said something similar, though he put it more tactfully. ‘You are trying,’ he told Tolstoy, ‘to contain your views in the formulas of general knowledge. I am certain that the results you receive will be one hundred times more impoverished than the content of your poetic meditations.’ In her moving essay on the Tolstoy-Strakhov correspondence in CUP’s anniversary collection, Irina Paperno shows that Tolstoy winced at Strakhov’s hints that he was reinventing the wheel of moral philosophy, and recoiled from Strakhov’s urging him to finish Anna Karenina, then being serialised. Tolstoy told him it was ‘dreary, vulgar’. Tolstoy wanted Strakhov to write his own confession: a precise, unambiguous summary of his life to date that would stand alongside his own. ‘Write your life story; I still want to do the same thing. But we just need to set this up so as to arouse disgust for our lives in all our readers,’ he wrote. Strakhov squirmed and evaded, saying that he had no life, that he didn’t understand his life, and that since it already disgusted him, he didn’t see why he should disgust others with it.

Strakhov didn’t seem ready to convert to Tolstoyism, but that is what happened – not because he followed Tolstoy’s arguments or was persuaded by his teaching but because he met him. He became a Tolstoyan because of what Tolstoy was, not because of what Tolstoy did. ‘Everything Tolstoy writes concerning his abstract interpretation of Christianity is very poorly written,’ he told another correspondent,

but his feelings, which he is entirely unable to express but of which I have direct knowledge through his facial expression, his tone of voice, his conversations, are imbued with exceptional beauty. There is so much of everything in him; but I am struck, and forever will be struck by his nature, the Christian traits of his nature.

Tolstoy’s thinking never stopped evolving, but as the religious, philosophical and way-of-life tracts poured from his pen and his short stories became didactic, Russians and foreigners began to treat him as a guide and teacher, and to create the precepts that came to be called Tolstoyan. The oppositional character of his thinking towards the great poles of authority – the military (he became a pacifist), the aristocracy (he followed the American writer Henry George in believing in common ownership of land) and the Orthodox Church (which excommunicated him) – increased his stature in revolutionary times, as did the government’s hostility towards him and the fact that he was sufficiently engaged in reality to throw time and money into pragmatic efforts to help people in trouble. He set up field kitchens to feed famine victims; he helped members of a persecuted Christian sect, the Dukhobors, emigrate to Canada.

Tolstoyan pilgrims streamed towards Yasnaya Polyana from all over the world to sit at the master’s feet, yet Tolstoy never managed to convert or much alter his own wife’s worldview. She initially mocked his famine relief attempts as an attempt to make himself more famous. She resented his expensive support for the Dukhobors, which she saw as taking money from her own children. Years after his death, Sofia Andreyevna looked around the congregation at her local church and concluded: ‘This great mass of peasants is still foreign to me, even though I have lived with them for almost 52 years. There’s something wild and incomprehensible about them.’

In a sympathetic yet sceptical essay about the evolution of Tolstoy’s spirituality, Gary Hamburg points to his insistence on the primacy of Christian love, and the six sins against it that the good person must avoid: drunkenness, sloth, lust, greed, love of power and fornication. Hamburg describes Tolstoy’s decision to drop anger and pride from the list of deadly sins and to make fornication the gravest offence as ‘curious deviations from the eastern Christian tradition’.

He suggests that the character of the person who converted Strakhov to his belief system was much less reconstructed than the belief system itself. ‘Perhaps, as a Russian aristocrat with an imperious character, Tolstoy preferred not to confront his own pride,’ he writes. ‘Although he insisted on wearing peasant clothes, performing manual labour, and learning from peasant wisdom, he retained to the end many traits of the wilful lord. The importance he attached to avoiding fornication reflected his deep fascination with and perplexity over women, not to mention deep shame at his own sensuality.’

Tolstoy’s worldwide fame at his death is off the scale by which such things are normally measured. It was as if Picasso, after painting Guernica, had mutated into Gandhi, without losing any of his artistic reputation. He loomed so psychically large as an opponent of the Russian establishment that he made it difficult for them, and for foreigners, to see the real agents of doom creeping towards them. In his essay on Tolstoy’s image during the Russian revolution, Michael Denner points out that in 1917 – seven years after he died – the New York Times blamed Tolstoy’s pacifism for the collapse of the Russian front in Galicia. Nobody knew who the Bolsheviks were; everyone knew Tolstoy. Many foreign commentators visualised the Bolsheviks as holy vegetarians, sternly gentle, with long beards, smocks and baggy trousers.

William Nickell describes the death drama itself as Russia’s first great mass media event. The room in the stationmaster’s house in Astapovo where the dying Tolstoy was lodged was the eye of a news hurricane. A horde of reporters elbowing their way through crowds of onlookers sent out their despatches in thousands of telegrams to hundreds of newspapers, some of which gave over half their editorial space to a kind of frozen proto-blog. ‘Please delete that Tolstoy ate two eggs, incorrect: drank only milk tea,’ one telegram reads. The cameras were there, and the cinematograph. You can see Tolstoy on YouTube. The essential modern corollary of a media feeding frenzy, the self-flagellating analysis by the media of its own actions, was rampant, as reporters masochistically savoured the irony that they were trying to grab and sell a piece of the great anti-materialist. ‘We’re shams!’ wailed Sergei Yablonovsky, correspondent of the Voronezh Telegraph. ‘With counterfeit bodies, counterfeit souls.’

The result of the public scrutiny of Tolstoy’s death was that all those closest to him at the end, even those he bumped into by chance, came out with their own versions of events. Six doctors kept separate medical records of his last days. Government spies sent secret reports back to St Petersburg. Before Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana, he was one of eight people keeping supposedly private diaries of life there. Dushan Makovitsky, Tolstoy’s personal physician, was a doctor and a diarist. Even when, during Tolstoy’s break for freedom, he left his side for a moment, random Russians were available to monitor the writer’s every word for posterity, as if the whole country were some enormous Big Brother house with cameras covering every square foot. ‘At Kozelsk [Makovitsky] went to check on the timing of the train stop and returned to find Tolstoy speaking with a student on the platform,’ Nickell writes. ‘The young woman with whom he spoke subsequently wrote an account of their conversation, which was duly printed in the Moscow newspapers.’

It comes through from Nickell’s account that Russians believed something died for ever at Astapovo. It was vanity, perhaps, for Tolstoy to believe that he was an original thinker rather than a synthesiser of previous ideas, or to believe that because he had, in his words, ‘discovered the law of Christ as something new’, the rest of Russia could, should and must too. Many believed in him, not just as a great artist, but as the last Christian guru. Even before it happened, Alexander Blok seemed to be anticipating Tolstoy’s death as the end of an era of ideas, an era when, for better or worse, an idea could fall on a small town on the steppe or prairie, like a cinder from an explosion far away, and engulf it in an inferno of enthusiasm. ‘While Tolstoy is alive, and going along the furrows behind a plough, behind his white horse, the morning is still fresh and dewy, unthreatening, the vampires sleep, and – thank God,’ Blok wrote when Tolstoy was 80. ‘Here comes Tolstoy – indeed, it is the sun coming up. But if the sun sets, Tolstoy dies, the last genius leaves – what then?’