A Canadian biographer examines Leo Tolstoy’s enigmatic love/friendship, which was steeped in shared Christian values.
With access to heretofore unavailable archival material suppressed during the Soviet era due to its problematic Christian and homoerotic elements, Popoff (The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants, 2012, etc.) unearths details of Tolstoy’s relationship with a handsome, younger, manipulative Russian aristocratic, Vladimir Chertkov (1854-1936), who seems to have had a huge influence over the novelist’s final writings. When Tolstoy first met Chertkov, a former officer in the czar’s Horse Guards who became an evangelical Christian during the so-called Petersburg revival of the 1870s, the great novelist, in his mid-50s, had undergone his own conversion and renounced his previous literary work in favor of dogmatic religious texts based on the teachings of Jesus. At 29, Chertkov, whose forebears moved in exalted aristocratic circles and whose father may have been Alexander II, ingratiated himself with Tolstoy through his heartfelt confessions of faith and sin and their like-minded views of Christian faith and nonviolence. Their mutual confessions of “shameful thoughts” and sharing of diary entries (often destroyed) cemented a secretive bond between them, allowing Tolstoy to vent his frustrations about his wife, Sophia, and family. At first, Sophia was taken by the charming aristocrat, though Tolstoy’s decision in 1885 to renounce copyright of his works from then on when he and Chertkov began their evangelical press hurt Sophia’s income from Tolstoy’s earlier collected works. Moreover, notes Popoff, Chertkov steered the direction of the master’s numerous stories and even pressed him to change endings. In the end, Popoff finds only a nefarious influence in Chertkov, although Tolstoy dearly loved him, leading eventually to Tolstoy’s disastrous abandonment of his family and his death.
A work of dogged research helps elucidate Tolstoy’s late-life conversion.