The prophet Tolstoy and his dodgy vicar

In Tolstoy’s False Disciple, Alexandra asks many questions, but doesn’t always answer them

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov Alexandra Popoff

Pegasus, pp.309, £17.99, ISBN: 9781605986401

One fine day in June 1896, a lone Russian nihilist visited Leo Tolstoy on his country estate. Come to hear the master, the stranger questioned Tolstoy about his latest beliefs. Satisfied, he left later that day. But then he returned with a written confession. He was an undercover policeman, sent to check on what Tolstoy was up to. Deeply ashamed of his deception, he begged for forgiveness.

This vignette, recounted by Alexandra Popoff in her new book about Tolstoy’s later life, perfectly captures the author’s power. Whether through his fiction or radical Christianity, Tolstoy could fascinate and compel in equal measure. Though the government spy was dismissed for his bungling, it is hard to imagine his regret at being seen as himself by the literary master turned prophet.

In Tolstoy’s False Disciple, Popoff portrays Tolstoy’s most famous follower: Vladimir Chertkov. Popoff gained access to Chertkov’s archives, closed because considered incomplete, in the Russian State Library (though, strangely, she does not say how she bypassed the typically intransigent Russian bureaucracy). The result is a well-written, polemical view of Tolstoy’s self-appointed vicar on earth.

So who was Chertkov? Wealthy and well-connected, he began his career in the Russian Horse Guards. Proud to be considered Tsar Alexander II’s illegitimate son, he attended the best parties, spoke fluent French (Tolstoy would later be frustrated by his sometimes patchy Russian) and knew everyone who mattered.

Within a few years, however, he felt unsatisfied. He began to consider life as a landlord or Justice of the Peace. Then, meeting Tolstoy through mutual friends in 1883, he was delighted by the latter’s moral seriousness. The two became close and Chert-kov began a decades-long process of editing, translating and publishing Tolstoy. He did not restrict himself to religion, asking for Tolstoy’s diaries (which he got), occasional notes (also supplied) and new fiction (more closely guarded).

The view of Chertkov as a parasitic hypocrite can be traced back to Sophia, Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife. Not unfairly jealous, she noted Chertkov’s continued aristocratic habits, clashing with his supposed asceticism, and his discourtesies to her and the couple’s children.

Following Sophia’s lead, Popoff has nothing positive to say about Chertkov. We see him bullying Tolstoy, feuding with associates and shamelessly presenting himself as more Tolstoyan than Tolstoy. In one memorable passage, Popoff berates Chertkov for getting Tolstoy to buy him a box of asparagus, only to send him back like a servant on discovering they were wilted.

Popoff’s Tolstoy, aware of Chertkov’s limitations (if he had not found religion, he is said to have remarked, he would have become a governor general and hanged people), is paralysed by his Christian self-abnegation and pleasure at having a disciple. The possibility of a genuinely rewarding relationship is not entertained.

Popoff’s new research uncovers Chert-kov’s links to the secret police. The allegation is that he stored Tolstoy’s diaries at an ultra-conservative’s address, giving the government the opportunity to check on Tolstoy without a need for cloak and daggers. This points to an unscrupulous, perhaps genuinely villainous side to Chertkov, but the killer punch — the exposure of him as a paid-up police agent, for example — never comes.

In the end, the most interesting relationship of Tolstoy’s later life has always been between his later and earlier selves. The vehemence with which the thinker rejected the novelist mystified many at the time and since. Popoff’s new book attacking his foremost follower cannot help but feel like a displaced disagreement with Tolstoy, one which avoids meeting him on his own terms. That untold story might make for a more honest, if potentially discomforting endeavour: one sure to find a curious audience.

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  • Alexandra Popoff

    André Van Loon correctly points out that I uncovered Vladimir Chertkov’s links to the tsarist secret police. However, I did not establish this connection merely
    through the fact that Chertkov, the man close to Tolstoy for three decades, stored
    the writer’s papers at “an ultra-conservative address.”

    The ultra-conservative address was that of General Dmitry Trepov, future assistant
    minister of the interior, who was in charge of a special corps of the
    gendarmes. This fact–and Chertkov’s lifelong friendship with Trepov–is bizarre.
    In Russia, Trepov was associated with police brutality and, not incidentally,
    he was the man Tolstoy most despised. However, this event admittedly does not
    establish Chertkov as a member of the secret police; rather it shows his
    influence over Tolstoy.

    According to the reviewer, the book lacks “the killer punch,” or the evidence of Chertkov’s secret police connections. The reader will find it in the chapter about surveillance over Tolstoy, of which Chertkov was part. The vital piece of evidence is a report to the Petersburg Police Department with Chertkov’s handwriting on it. I unearthed it at the Russian State Library in the file of Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, who was Chertkov’s employee and Lenin’s future secretary. This report was compiled in 1897, on the eve of Chertkov’s exile to England for his part in Tolstoy’s major cause on behalf of religious minorities. In it Chertkov reports his own activities and those of other followers.

    Notably, this report was later published in the Tsar’s Leaflet, a secret periodical produced in a single copy to inform the Tsar about political dissent. Contributors to this periodical were members of the secret police, as I tell in the book. I submit that this is the punch line the reviewer was looking for.

    Chertkov’s links to the Okhrana are also apparent from his wife’s correspondence with Vladimir Krivosh, a secret police employee, who photographed Tolstoy with his disciples on the eve of Chertkov’s exile to England, a location he himself had chosen. Chertkov helped arrange for the photo-op, and the police used the picture for further surveillance.

    As for exposing Chertkov as “a paid secret police agent,” it would be naïve to expect that the Okhrana would preserve such evidence, especially about someone so close to the tsars. By the way, there was no need to wonder how I attained
    access to Chertkov’s papers. I mention everyone who helped me in my
    acknowledgements. As Sophia Tolstoy’s biographer, I previously worked at the
    L.N. Tolstoy State Museum, which gave me exclusive access to Sophia’s papers
    and Chertkov’s exchange with Tolstoy.

    • Andre van Loon

      Hi Alexandra – I just read your note here and thanks a lot for it. I enjoyed your book (this is the reviewer, Andre writing) and hope that came across as well as my few critical remarks.

      My main take on the book, and of course this is just my opinion, is that there is little allowance for the fact both individuals liked and learned from each other. I read everything of course about Chertkov’s links to the secret police, which I don’t doubt, but I felt that, even with the evidence, it lacks a killer punch. Others may of course feel you have presented enough to damn Chertkov, but I am not convinced he was as thoroughly cynical as he is presented. But you have of course presented a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise, which other readers may feel to be sufficient.

      The bigger point I made was that to me, the question of Chertkov’s is less of an issue than the enigma, or intense strangeness of Tolstoy in his later years, which I am much more intrigued about. An engagement with Tolstoy on that level would be very valuable, I think, and I had in mind that you might be interested in that.

      Thanks again, and I hope this makes my position a little clearer. I look forward to your future books.

      Kind Regards,

      Andre van Loon

      • Alexandra Popoff

        Thank you for your remarks, André! I’d like to respond to your bigger point, about Tolstoy’s relationship with himself during his later years. The conflict in Tolstoy, between an artist and a religious preacher, is one of the themes in my book. Chertkov influenced Tolstoy to become more dogmatic, and this prolonged the
        writer’s religious phase and took him further away from art. Tolstoy had nothing to learn from Chertkov; the latter proved incapable to learn from Tolstoy. Nonetheless, Tolstoy considered Chertkov to be his alter-ego. The disciple exploited the writer’s fanatical determination to practise his own religious principles. The lasting relationship between the two men shows that in his later years, Tolstoy became blinded by his religion.

        I appreciate your review and this discussion!

        best wishes,

        Alexandra Popoff

        • Andre van Loon

          Many thanks Alexandra.

          Though I would disagree with the conception of Tolstoy being blinded by religion, I accept his later life was sufficiently King Lear-like to be discussed from different angles – including that of his flawed disciples (and I do agree Chertkov had some genuinely odious qualities).

          I recommend your work to all those interested in Tolstoy, who can make up their own minds about what to believe.

          Many thanks for your reply. I have enjoyed this opportunity to discuss your book, and Tolstoy, at greater length.

          Best wishes,