The International Tolstoy Conference lasts four days and is held on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana: the estate where Tolstoy was born, lived most of his life, wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and is buried.
In the summer after my fourth year at Stanford, I presented part of a dissertation chapter at this conference. At the time, the department awarded two kinds of international travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a conference paper or $2,500 for field research. My needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field-research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that could only be solved at Tolstoy’s house?
I rode my bicycle through blinding sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s seven-hundred-page Tolstoy. I read with particular interest the final chapters, ‘Last Will and Testament’ and ‘Flight.’ Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside at the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop.
‘Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of Astapovo, under what can only be described as strange circumstances,’ I typed. ‘The strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy’s life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to drop dead quietly, in some dark corner? And so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination.’
I was rather pleased by my proposal, which I titled ‘Did Tolstoy Die of Natural Causes or Was He Murdered? A Forensic Investigation,’ and which included a historical survey of individuals who had motive and opportunity to effect Tolstoy’s death:
Arguably Russia’s most controversial public figure, Tolstoy was not without powerful enemies. ‘More letters threatening my life,’ he noted in 1897, when his defense of the Dukhobor sect drew loud protests from the Orthodox Church and Tsar Nikolai, who even had Tolstoy followed by the secret police.
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 about 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.
The department was not convinced. They did, however, give me the $1,000 grant to present my paper.
On the day of my flight to Moscow, I was late to the airport. Check-in was already closed. Although I was eventually let onto the plane, my suitcase was not, and it subsequently vanished altogether from the Aeroflot informational system. Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you.
Because there are no clothing stores in Yasnaya Polyana, I was obliged to wear, for four days of the conference, the same clothes in which I had traveled: flip-flops, sweatpants, and a flannel shirt. I had hoped to sleep on the plane and had dressed accordingly. Some International Tolstoy Scholars assumed that I was a Tolstoyan – that like Tolstoy and his followers I had taken a vow to walk around in sandals and wear the same peasant shirt all day and all night.
They were some twenty-five in number, the International Tolstoy Scholars. Together, between talks on Tolstoy, we wandered through Tolstoy’s house and Tolstoy’s garden, sat on Tolstoy’s favorite bench, admired Tolstoy’s beehives, marveled at Tolstoy’s favorite hut, and avoided the vitiated descendants of Tolstoy’s favorite geese: one of these almost feral creatures had bitten a cultural semiotician.
Every morning I called Aeroflot to ask about my suitcase. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ sighed the clerk. ‘Yes, I have your request right here. Address: Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?’
On the first morning of talks, a Malevich scholar read a paper about Tolstoy’s iconoclasm and Malevich’s Red Rectangle. He said that Nikolai Rostov was the Red Rectangle. For the whole rest of the day he sat with his head buried in his hands in a posture of great suffering. Next, an enormous Russian textologist in an enormous gray dress expounded at great length upon a new study of early variants of War and Peace. Fixing her eyes in the middle distance, consulting no notes, she chanted in a half-pleading, half-declaratory tone, like somebody proposing an hour-long toast.
Just when she seemed about to sit down, she bounced back up and added: ‘We will hear more about these very interesting editions on Thursday! . . . if we are still alive.’ It was fashionable among International Tolstoy Scholars to punctuate all statements about the future with this disclaimer: an allusion to Tolstoy’s later diaries. After his religious rebirth in 1881, Tolstoy changed his practice of ending each diary entry with a plan for the next day; now, he simply wrote the phrase: ‘if I am alive.’ It occurred to me that, ever since 1881, Tolstoy had always known he would be murdered.
It was at the time of this conversion that Tolstoy decided to give away all his copyrights ‘to the people.’ This decision pitted him in ‘a struggle to the death’ against his wife, Sonya, who managed the household finances and who, over the course of the years, bore Tolstoy a total of thirteen children. Tolstoy eventually ceded Sonya the copyrights for all his pre-1881 works, but turned the rest over to one of the Dark Ones, Vladimir Chertkov, an aristocrat-turned-Tolstoyan whose name contains the Russian word for ‘devil’ (chert).
A doctrinaire known for his ‘heartless indifference to human contingencies,’ Chertkov made it his mission to bring Tolstoy’s entire life and work into accord with the principles of Tolstoyanism. He became Tolstoy’s constant companion, and eventually gained editorial control over all his new writings – including the diaries, which treated the Tolstoys’ conjugal life in great detail. Sonya never forgave her husband. The Tolstoys began to fight constantly, long into the night. Their shouting and sobbing would make the walls shake. Tolstoy would bellow that he was fleeing to America; Sonya would run screaming into the garden, threatening suicide. According to Tolstoy’s secretary, Chertkov was succeeding in his plan: to achieve ‘the moral destruction of Tolstoy’s wife in order to get control of his manuscripts.’ During this stormy period in his marriage, Tolstoy wrote The Kreutzer Sonata – a novella in which a husband resembling Tolstoy brutally murders a wife resembling Sonya. Anyone investigating foul play in the death of Tolstoy would find much of interest in The Kreutzer Sonata.
That evening at the academicians’ dormitory, I went onto my balcony and lit a cigarette. A few minutes later, the door of the adjacent balcony opened. The balconies were extremely close, the railings separated by some ten inches of black space. An elderly woman stepped outside and stood very still, gazing sternly into the distance, apparently pursuing her own thoughts about Tolstoy. Then she turned to me, quite abruptly. ‘Would you be so kind as to give me a light?’ she asked.
I fished a matchbook from my pocket, lit a match, and held it over her balcony. She leaned over, ignited a Kent Light, and began puffing away. I decided to take advantage of this moment of human contact to ask for some shampoo. (There wasn’t any in the academicians’ bathrooms, and mine was lost somewhere with my suitcase.) When I mentioned shampoo, some strong emotion flickered across the old woman’s face. Fear? Annoyance? Hatred? I consoled myself that I was providing her an opportunity to practice resignation of the soul.
‘Just a minute,’ said my neighbor resignedly, as if she had read my thoughts. She set down her cigarette in a glass ashtray. The thread of smoke climbed up into the windless night. I ducked into my room to find a shampoo receptacle, choosing a ceramic mug with a picture of the historic white gates of Yasnaya Polyana. Under the picture was a quotation from L. N. Tolstoy, about how he was unable to imagine a Russia with no Yasnaya Polyana.
I held this mug over the narrow chasm, and my neighbor poured in some sudsy water from a small plastic bottle. I realized then that she was sharing with me literally her last drops of shampoo, which she had mixed with water in order to make them last longer. I thanked her as warmly as I knew how. She responded with a dignified nod. We stood a moment in silence.
‘Do you have any cats or dogs?’ she asked finally. ‘No,’ I said. ‘And you?’
‘In Moscow, I have a marvelous cat.’
‘There are no cats at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana,’ begins Amy Mandelker’s well-known study, Framing Anna Karenina:
Curled, or rather, coiled in the sunny patches in the Tolstoy house, protecting it from pestilential infestations, instead of the expected feline emblems of domesticity . . . [are] snakes . . . The ancestors of these ophibian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy’s ailurophobic wife, Sofia Andreyevna [Sonya], to rid the house of rodents.
I was contemplating these lines on the second morning of talks, when I counted a total of four cats actually inside the conference room. That said, in fairness to Amy Mandelker, you couldn’t accuse Yasnaya Polyana of a shortage of snakes. At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy’s editions of Kant: he had seen a snake right there in the archive.
‘Were there at least any good marginalia?’ someone asked.
‘No. He didn’t write anything in the margins at all,’ the historian said. He paused, before adding triumphantly: ‘But the books fell open to certain pages!’
‘Yes! Clearly, those were Tolstoy’s favorite pages!’
The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?
‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’
I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.
The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.
‘The most important element of nature, for both Tolstoy and Rousseau, was – air.’
I walked along the birch-lined alleys of Yasnaya Polyana, looking for clues. Snakes were swimming in the pond, making a rippling pattern. Everything here was a museum. The snakes are the genetic snake museum. The flies buzz across generations; I know they know, but they won’t tell me. I walked along the winding path to Tolstoy’s grave: a grassy lump, resembling a Christmas log. I stared at it for three minutes. I thought I saw it move. Later, near Tolstoy’s apiary, I sat on a bench, not Tolstoy’s favorite, and looked in the garbage can. It was full of cigarette butts and cucumber peels.
On a tree stump in these very woods in 1909, Tolstoy signed a secret will. He left all his copyrights in the control of Chertkov and of his own youngest daughter, Sasha, a fervent Tolstoyan. This had long been Sonya’s worst fear – ‘You want to give all your rights to Chertkov and let your grandchildren starve to death!’ – and she addressed it through a rigorous program of espionage and domestic sleuth-work. She once spent an entire afternoon lying in a ditch, watching the entrance to the estate with binoculars.
One afternoon in September 1910, Sonya marched into Tolstoy’s study with a child’s cap pistol and shot Chertkov’s picture, which she then tore into pieces and flushed down the toilet. When Tolstoy came into the room, she fired the pistol again, just to frighten him. Another day, Sonya shrieked, ‘I shall kill Chertkov! I’ll have him poisoned! It’s either him or me!’
On the afternoon of October 3, Tolstoy fell into a fit. His jaws moved spasmodically and he uttered mooing noises, interspersed with words from an article he was writing about socialism: ‘Faith . . . reason . . . religion . . . state.’ He then flew into convulsions so violent that three grown men were unable to restrain him. After five convulsions, Tolstoy fell asleep. He woke up the next morning, seemingly recovered.
A few days later, Tolstoy received a letter from Chertkov and refused to let Sonya see it. Sonya flew into a rage and renewed her accusations about the secret will. ‘Not only does her behavior toward me fail to express her love,’ Tolstoy wrote of Sonya, ‘but its evident object is to kill me.’ Tolstoy fled to his study and tried to distract himself by reading The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Which of the two families, Karamazov or Tolstoy, was the more horrible?’ he asked. In Tolstoy’s view, The Brothers Karamazov was ‘anti-artistic, superficial, attitudinizing, irrelevant to the great problems.’
At three in the morning on October 28, Tolstoy woke to the sound of Sonya rifling through his desk drawers. His heart began pounding wildly. It was the last straw. The sun had not yet risen when the great writer, gripping an electric flashlight, left Yasnaya Polyana for good. He was accompanied by his doctor, a Tolstoyan called Makovitsky. After a strenuous twenty-six-hour journey, the two arrived in Shamardino, where Tolstoy’s sister Marya was a nun. Tolstoy decided to spend the remainder of his life here, in a rented hut. But the very next day he was joined by Sasha who, together with Dr. Makovitsky, convinced the feverish writer that he really ought to run away to the Caucasus. The little party left on October 31, in a second-class train carriage, purchasing their tickets from station to station to avoid pursuit.
Tolstoy’s fever mounted. He shook with chills. By the time they reached Astapovo, he was too sick to travel. A sickroom was made up for him in the stationmaster’s house. Here Tolstoy suffered fever, delirium, convulsions, loss of consciousness, shooting head pains, ringing in the ears, delusions, difficulty breathing, hiccups, an irregular and elevated pulse, tormenting thirst, thickening of the tongue, disorientation, and memory loss.
During his last days, Tolstoy frequently announced that he had written something new, and wanted to give dictation. Then he would utter either nothing at all, or an inarticulate jumble of words. ‘Read to me what I have said,’ he would order Sasha. ‘What did I write?’ Once he became so angry that he began to wrestle with her, shouting, ‘Let me go; how dare you hold me! Let me go!’
Dr. Makovitsky’s diagnosis was catarrhic pneumonia.
Sonya arrived at Astapovo on November 2. She was not allowed to enter the stationmaster’s house and took up residence in a nearby train car. If Tolstoy recovered and tried to flee abroad, she decided, she would pay five thousand rubles to have him followed by a private detective.
Tolstoy’s condition worsened. He breathed with great difficulty, producing fearsome wheezing sounds. He forgot how to use his pocket watch. In a final period of lucidity on November 6, he said to his daughters, ‘I advise you to remember that there are many people in the world besides Lev Tolstoy.’ He died of respiratory failure on November 7.
On the third day of the Tolstoy conference, a professor from Yale read a paper on tennis. In Anna Karenina, he began, Tolstoy represents lawn tennis in a very negative light. Anna and Vronsky swat futilely at the tiny ball, poised on the edge of a vast spiritual and moral abyss. When he wrote that scene, Tolstoy himself had never played tennis, which he only knew of as an English fad. At the age of sixty-eight, Tolstoy was given a tennis racket and taught the rules of the game. He became an instant tennis addict.
‘No other writer was as prone to great contradictions,’ explained the professor, whose mustache and mobile eyebrows gave him the air of a nineteenth-century philanderer. All summer long, Tolstoy played tennis for three hours every day. No opponent could rival Tolstoy’s indefatigable thirst for the game of tennis; his guests and children would take turns playing against him.
The International Tolstoy Scholars wondered at Tolstoy’s athleticism. He should have lived to see eighty-five – ninety – one hundred!
Tolstoy had also been in his sixties when he learned how to ride a bicycle. He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son. Both the bicycle and an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. ‘Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,’ Chertkov noted at that time. ‘Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?’
On the last day of talks, wearing my Tolstoyan costume and flip-flops, I took my place at the long table and read my paper about the double plot in Anna Karenina. It ended with a brief comparison of Tolstoy’s novel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turned out to be somewhat controversial, since I was unable to prove that Tolstoy had read Alice by the time he wrote Anna Karenina.
‘Well, Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865,’ I said, trying to ignore a romance that was being enacted, just outside the window, by two of the descendants of Tolstoy’s horses. ‘It’s well known that Tolstoy liked to receive all the latest English books by mail.’
‘Tolstoy had a copy of Alice in Wonderland in his personal library,’ said one of the archivists.
‘But it’s an 1893 edition,’ objected the conference organizer. ‘It’s inscribed to his daughter Sasha, and Sasha wasn’t born until 1884.’
‘So Tolstoy hadn’t read Alice in 1873!’ an old man called from the back of the room.
‘Well, you never know,’ said the archivist. ‘He might have read it earlier, and then bought a new copy to give to Sasha.’
‘And there might be mushrooms growing in my mouth – but then it wouldn’t be a mouth, but a whole garden!’ retorted the old man.
One of the Rousseau experts raised her hand. ‘If Anna represents Alice, and Levin represents the White Rabbit,’ she said, ‘then who is Vronsky?’
I tried to explain that I wasn’t suggesting a one-to-one correspondence between every character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Anna Karenina. The Rousseau expert stared at me. ‘Anyway,’ I concluded, ‘it’s Oblonsky whom I was comparing to the White Rabbit – not Levin.’
She frowned. ‘So Vronsky is the White Rabbit?’
‘Vronsky is the Mad Hatter!’ someone shouted.
The conference organizer rose to her feet. ‘I think we can continue this interesting discussion over tea.’
In the crush at the tea table, I was approached by the archivist, who patted my shoulder. ‘I’m sure Tolstoy read Alice in Wonderland before 1873,’ she said. ‘Also, we received a police report today. A certain suitcase has been received and is being held in security.’
She directed me to the security holding area, which was inside one of the historic white gate-towers of Yasnaya Polyana – one of the very towers depicted on the mug that I had used to solicit shampoo. The mug had been a clue. As the Keebler Elf factory is hidden inside a hollow tree, so was an entire security office concealed within a gatepost. Next to one of the officers’ steel desks, under a framed portrait of Tolstoy, sat my suitcase. It had arrived two days ago, but the officers hadn’t known whose it was. I signed a form and dragged my suitcase over moss and tree roots, back toward the conference hall. It was a good opportunity to look at the ground. I was looking for Hyoscyamus niger, a toxic plant known as henbane or stinking nightshade that is native to Eurasia.
Henbane contains the toxin atropine, which is associated with nearly all of Tolstoy’s symptoms, including fever, intense thirst, delirium, delusions, disorientation, rapid pulse, convulsions, difficulty breathing, combativeness, incoherence, inability to speak, memory loss, disturbances of vision, respiratory failure, and cardiopulmonary arrest. A particularly distinctive feature of atropine poisoning is that it dilates the pupils and causes sensitivity to light. I had no information about Tolstoy’s pupils, but Chertkov’s diary does contain one suggestive observation: ‘Tolstoy – to the amazement of his doctors – continued to show signs of consciousness to the very end . . . by turning away from the light that was shining into his eyes.’
Nearly anyone might have slipped henbane into Tolstoy’s tea (of which he drank large quantities). Chertkov, for example, in concert with Dr. Makovitsky. They, the fervent Tolstoyans, had motive enough: What if Tolstoy repented and changed his will again? What if, in his dotage, by some new weakness, he contradicted the principles of Tolstoyanism?
Sonya had, in addition to motive, a known interest in poisons. ‘I have consulted Florinsky’s book on medicine to see what the effects of opium poisoning would be,’ wrote Sonya in her diary in 1910. ‘First excitement, then lethargy. No antidote.’ Then there were the Tolstoys’ sons: though the daughters tended to side with Tolstoy, the sons, who were usually short on money, sided with their mother. In 1910, Sonya boasted that, even if Tolstoy had written a secret will, she and their sons would have it thrown out: ‘We shall prove that he had become feeble-minded toward the end and had a series of strokes . . . We will prove that he was forced into writing that will in a moment of mental incapacity.’
Perhaps Sonya had used atropine to simulate the effects of a stroke. She might not have intended to kill her husband – just to provide grounds to invalidate his will. But, in his atropine-induced delirium, Tolstoy had embarked on his bizarre and fatal flight.
After Tolstoy’s death, Sonya, supported by a pension from the tsar, tried to fight Sasha and Chertkov for the copyrights. History opposed her in the form of the Great War, followed by the 1917 revolution. Sonya and Sasha were finally reconciled during the famine of 1918–19. Of her mother at this time Sasha recalled: ‘She seemed strangely indifferent to money, luxury, things she liked so much before.’ On her deathbed, Sonya made a strange confession: ‘I want to tell you,’ she said, breathing heavily and interrupted by spasms of coughing, ‘I know that I was the cause of your father’s death.’
 The Dukhobors – literally, ‘Spirit Wrestlers’ – were a Russian peasant religious sect, whose tenets included egalitarianism, pacificism, worship through prayer meet- ings, and the rejection of all written scripture in favor of an oral body of knowledge called the ‘Living Book.’ When they were persecuted for their refusal to fight in the Russo-Turkish war, Tolstoy donated all the proceeds from his novel Resurrection to finance their immigration to Canada in 1899.
The above is an extract from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. Order your copy here.