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‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’ by Rosamund Bartlett

This biography of the multitalented Tolstoy suffers from some factual inaccuracies, translation problems, and uneven pacing, with the dramatic final decade of his life getting short shrift. AFP/Getty Images/file, Hulton Archive/Getty Images (below)

Among the world’s most celebrated novelists, Leo Tolstoy was a man of immense talent, great passions, and boundless curiosity, which drove him to explore every side of life. More than a writer, he was a pedagogue, spiritual leader, and social critic - and as such attained unparalleled authority, equal to that of the czar. His life was bound to Russia, but as Rosamund Bartlett observes in her new biography, Tolstoy lived “more lives than most other Russians.’’

Bartlett relates the over-examined life with abundant fresh detail drawn from Russian sources, such as the comprehensive 90-volume edition of “Tolstoy’s Collected Works.’’ Although not a new source, this collection has been marginally published, and few biographers have used it. The rich material allows detailing Tolstoy’s background to an extent unseen before. Bartlett recreates Tolstoy’s world, introducing the reader to countless people in the writer’s milieu and beyond; their stories are told in endless succession, forming a fascinating tapestry of Russian life.


Despite her sources, Bartlett will disappoint the reader stating, for example, that Tolstoy published “War and Peace’’ “when he was still in his thirties,’’ not at 41, or that he and Sophia had 14 children, instead of 13. Tolstoy’s sexuality has generated many myths, to which Bartlett adds one more by mistranslating his diary entry as a young landowner: Tolstoy supposedly admits that “seducing girls had become a habit.’’ Never mind that the quoted words do not appear in the original entry. Bartlett, who is working on a new translation of “Anna Karenina,’’ provides her own, not always persuasive, translations of Tolstoy’s prose and of his wife Sophia’s diaries.

One also should be wary of apocryphal stories, some of which are given undue credence here. Bartlett tells us that Tolstoy “ordered’’ his wife to hold on and give birth to their first son on June 28, his providential date. While writing “War and Peace,’’ he insisted “that his young wife [be] present, and so Sonya would usually curl up by his feet on the bearskin rug next to his desk.’’ In fact, Sophia came to observe Tolstoy at work, being fascinated with his creativity. Although Bartlett gives Sophia her due for assisting Tolstoy, she also snubs her.


Unlike most other biographers who divide Tolstoy’s life into his literary and religious periods, Bartlett argues that he “was always a religious writer, concerned with seeking the truth.’’ Tolstoy’s religious works remain the least known, while the writer himself believed them the most important. The biographer focuses on the last three decades of his life when he became a social and religious crusader. “He produced a new translation of the Gospels, and set out to follow Christ’s teaching. And then he began protesting loudly in the name of that teaching against the Orthodox Church.’’ Tolstoy’s insistence that religious faith cannot submit to political power made him a moral leader for the nation.

The book is unevenly paced, and Tolstoy’s final decade receives a skimpy account. This was the time when Tolstoy’s religious disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, came to dominate him through a series of intrigues, eventually becoming sole executor of the writer’s literary estate. Bartlett presents Tolstoy’s major relationship the way he himself wanted the public to know it, not realizing that Chertkov’s “unswerving devotion to Tolstoy’’ was a myth.

Believed to be an illegitimate son of Alexander II, Chertkov was despotic and unmatched in his ability to influence others. He was manipulative and ruthless with Tolstoy, not merely tactless with Sophia. Prominent contemporaries describe the man as a source of trouble for Tolstoy. But the writer shielded his friend from all criticism and even called Chertkov “the person closest’’ to him. Bartlett rejects Sophia’s allegation that the two men had a homosexual relationship: “It is a charge that cannot be substantiated.’’ However, the biographer fails to investigate Tolstoy’s voluminous correspondence with Chertkov, which reveals the two were intimate in some ways: Part of their exchange was destroyed by mutual consent.


Bartlett keeps controversy out of her book, presenting Chertkov’s background selectively as if to make him a better match for Tolstoy. The biographer does not inform the reader that his uncle, Peter Shuvalov, was an all-powerful chief of the secret police under Alexander II, at the time when surveillance over Tolstoy was begun. Chertkov was a lifelong friend of Dmitry Trepov, assistant minister of the interior, who controlled the army and political police. In light of such facts, Chertkov promoting Tolstoy’s doctrine of nonviolence becomes a farce.

The last chapter portrays Chertkov as Tolstoy’s spiritual heir after the Revolution. Despite his former closeness to the Russian throne, Chertkov attained influence under the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Stalin endorsed his project of publishing Tolstoy’s comprehensive edition, which even included his religious works. Bartlett naively claims that Chertkov “never deigned to pay obeisance to contemptible Bolshevik ideology.’’ In reality, he became part of the Soviet elite. The archives show Chertkov requested funds from Stalin’s government not only to publish Tolstoy’s works, but for his personal benefit: He demanded and received a bonus pension and special rations. In 1936, at the height of the purges, Chertkov was given a state funeral.


Relaxation of censorship during glasnost opened possibilities to new archival research, but Bartlett basically relies on the published Russian sources, a major weakness in her otherwise well-written book.

Alexandra Popoff is the author of “Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography’’ published in 2010 by Free Press. She is working on a book about Tolstoy and Chertkov. She can be reached at shura@sasktel.net.