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Tolstoy: A Russian Life

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So Bartlett – a good, lively writer – introduces the book with an engaging overview of Tolstoy’s life and concludes with an interesting review of his posthumous influence on the Russian Revolution and the consequent Soviet suppression of his followers. Not unusually for a biographer, Bartlett seems to have wearied of her subject by the time she finished assembling her materials and rereading his fiction, and she’s much less taken with Tolstoy as a revelatory artist than she is by his extraordinary and unique social and political influence. While Bartlett’s Tolstoy is less a person than a phenomenon, there are several warm spots in the biography, and several aspects I’d never known or appreciated.

For one, Bartlett presents the long-overlooked sibling, Tolstoy’s sister Masha, who, we learn, left her husband, went abroad, had a baby with another man, and later became a nun. Tolstoy doesn’t seem to have ever scolded her for living Anna Karenina’s life and not throwing herself under a train. He himself was going to see her on his own final train ride. In the wake of Alexandra Popoff’s recent biography of Tolstoy’s wife Sophia and Michael Hoffman’s fine movie of Tolstoy’s painful last year, Bartlett also does a real service in making, of all people, Tolstoy's secretary and disciple Vladimir Chertkov – whom nobody I’ve ever read liked (except Tolstoy) – likable and admirable.

“… it was in Vladimir Chertkov, who came to visit Tolstoy in Moscow in October 1883, that he found his greatest kindred spirit and most devoted disciple. From this point until Tolstoy’s death Chertkov would occupy an ever more important role in his life as his closest friend and partner in their shared mission to disseminate what they saw as true Christianity.” Like Sophia Tolstoy, I had enjoyed despising Chertkov – but now I can’t, and I’m the better for it: “Chertkov had found his messiah and Tolstoy had found the confidant he had longed for.”

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