Article — From the February 2009 issue

The Murder of Leo Tolstoy

A forensic investigation

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.

Once, when I was a graduate student, a paper of mine was accepted at the conference. At the time, my department awarded two kinds of travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a paper at an international conference or $2,500 for international 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 summer sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s 700-page biography 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. “But 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 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[1] drew loud protests from the Orthodox Church and Tsar Nikolai II, who even had Tolstoy followed by the secret police.

[1] The Dukhobors—literally, Spirit Wrestlers—were a Russian peasant religious sect whose tenets included egalitarianism, pacifism, 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 emigration to Canada in 1899.

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 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.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 16
is a writer in San Francisco.

More from Elif Batuman:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content