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February 2009 Issue [Article]

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.

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 all 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.

We 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 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 enormous 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, replacing it with the phrase “if I am alive.” It occurred to me that ever since 1881 Tolstoy had always known he would be murdered.

At the time of his conversion Tolstoy resolved to give away all his copyrights “to the people.” The decision pitted him in “a struggle to the death” against his wife, Sonya, who managed the household finances and who, over 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, Vladi mir 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 soon gained editorial control over all of 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 to mull over in The Kreutzer Sonata.

That evening at the academicians’ dormitory, I went out 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 a mere 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. Abruptly she turned to me. “Would you be so kind as to give me a light?” she asked.

I fished a matchbook from my pocket, lit a match, cupped my hand around it, 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 shampoo. (There wasn’t any in our bathrooms, and mine was lost somewhere with my suitcase.) But 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 the 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 ophidian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy’s ailurophobic wife, Sophia Andreevna [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 Mandelker, you couldn’t reproach Yasnaya Polyana for 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. Her words actually refer to a rare spotted Indian adder, introduced to the heiress’s 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 International 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 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 suffered 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 riffling 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 Sha mardino, 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 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 ill 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?” He once 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 catarrhal 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 5,000 rubles to have him followed by a private detective.

Tolstoy’s condition worsened. He breathed with great strain, 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 this: there are many people on earth besides Lev Nikolayevich.” He died of respiratory failure on November 7.

On the third day of the International Tolstoy Conference, a professor from Yale read a paper on tennis. In Anna Karenina, he began, Tolstoy represents lawn tennis in a harshly 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.” All summer long, Tolstoy played tennis for three hours every day. No opponent could rival Tolstoy’s indefatigable thirst for the game; 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!

It was also during his sixties that Tolstoy 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 pedaling along the garden paths. “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,” Chertkov noted at thattime. “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 comparison of Tolstoy’s novel to Alice in Wonderland, which provoked controversy, since I had no proof that Tolstoy had read Alice in Wonderland 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—except 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 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 was delivered 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—the very towers depicted on the mug that I had used to solicit shampoo. As the Keebler Elf factory is hidden inside a hollow tree, so was an entire security department concealed within this gatepost. The mug, it seemed, had been a clue. Next to one of the officers’ steel desks, under a framed portrait of Tolstoy, sat my suitcase. It had arrived two days earlier, but the officers hadn’t known whose it was. I signed a form and dragged the suitcase over moss and tree roots back toward the conference hall. It was a good opportunity to examine 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. In this context, Chertkov’s memoir contains a 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 directly into his eyes.” (Italics mine.)

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 fanatical 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,” she wrote in her diary in 1910. “First excitement, then lethargy. No antidote.” Then there were the Tolstoys’ sons. Although the daughters tended to side with Tolstoy, the sons, who were usually short on money, backed their mother. In 1910, Sonya boasted that even if Tolstoy had written a secret will she and the boys 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 furnish grounds to invalidate his will. But in his atropine-induced delirium, Tolstoy had embarked on a 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 later 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.’”

Of all the papers at the conference, the most mysterious was about Tolstoy’s little-read play The Living Corpse. This paper was delivered by a septuagenarian with large, watery gray eyes, an émigré to Canada from somewhere in Northern Europe, well-liked both for his bombastic sociability and for his generosity with the bottle of single-malt scotch he carried in his suitcase. Everyone called him Vanya, though I believe that wasn’t his real name.

The hero of The Living Corpse is a man called Fyodor. Fyodor is married, but he keeps running off with the gypsies. He is chastely in love with a gypsy singer. Meanwhile, his wife, Liza, is chastely in love with his best friend, whose name is, oddly, Karenin. (Karenin’s mother’s name is actually Anna Karenina.) Although Karenin returns Liza’s love, the two are unable to act on their feelings unless Fyodor grants Liza a divorce. Fyodor, for his part, cannot file for divorce without besmirching the honor of the gypsy singer. Fyodor resolves to kill himself and even writes a note, but the gypsy girl intercedes at the last minute, and they adopt a different course: Fyodor leaves his clothes on a riverbank, with the suicide note in one pocket. Everyone believes he has drowned, including Liza and Karenin. They get married. But just at the point when a new life should begin for Fyodor as well—nothing happens. Somehow Fyodor doesn’t change his name. He and the gypsy girl don’t get married. They quarrel and drift apart. Fyodor spends all his time in the tavern. “I am a corpse!” he shouts, slamming his glass on the table. Eventually, Fyodor’s identity comes to light, and Liza is arrested for bigamy. In despair, Fyodor shoots himself. The living corpse becomes just an ordinary corpse.

The Living Corpse was based on the true story of an alcoholic named Gimer who had faked his own suicide and been sentenced to Siberia. The Moscow Art Theater wanted to stage it, but Tolstoy kept making excuses. “It has seventeen acts,” he said. “It needs a revolving stage.” The real reason for Tolstoy’s refusal came to light only much later. Gimer, it seems, had somehow learned that a play had been written about him, and, upon his return from Siberia, he presented himself at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy took the unhappy man in hand, persuaded him to give up drink, and found him a job in the very court that had convicted him. In light of Gimer’s “resurrection,” Tolstoy consigned The Living Corpse to a drawer.

This strange story has an even stranger epilogue. As Tolstoy lay in fever in 1908, a visitor brought him news of Gimer’s death. “The corpse is now really dead,” quipped the visitor—but Tolstoy had completely forgotten not only his former protégé but also the existence of the play. Even when the plot was recounted, Tolstoy had no recollection of having written such a thing: “And I am very, very glad that it escaped my mind to give place to something else.”

The central question of Vanya’s talk was, “Who is the living corpse?” The argument twisted and glinted, like a mobile in the wind. At one moment it seemed that Tolstoy’s Fyodor was actually Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had lived through the firing squad and survived the House of the Dead. Then it turned out that Fyodor was really Fyodorov, the Russian mystic philosopher who believed the common task of mankind was to harness the forces of nature and science in order to achieve the universal resurrection of all the dead. Still later, it seemed the living corpse was actually Anna Karenina, who had died an adulteress in Anna Karenina and returned a mother-in-law in The Living Corpse. Then there was Jesus Christ, whose tomb was found empty after three days and nights: what was Tolstoy’s God if not a living corpse? And what was Tolstoy?

I clapped until my palms stung.

The banquet that night lasted until ten or eleven. Yasnaya Polyana is in Tula province—a famous center of accordion production—and entertainment was provided by students from a local accordion school: boys aged six to fifteen, already able to play the accordion with all the mannerisms of genial, nostalgic old men. Even the tiniest of the boys, playing on the tiniest doll-sized accordion, smiled knowingly, nodded, and even winked at the audience.

Before the banquet, I had stopped at the dormitory, where I took a shower and put on a linen dress. Many of the International Tolstoy Scholars congratulated me on my change of costume. Some of them had really thought that I didn’t own any other clothes. A White Russian from Paris shook my hand. “You should change three times this evening,” he said, “to make up for lost time.”

At dinner, many toasts were proposed. An unknown man in a sports jacket recited a particularly long, pointless toast; later, I learned that he was Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson.

We had to get up early the next morning for the last event of the International Tolstoy Conference: a field trip to Anton Chekhov’s former estate, Melikhovo, which lay directly along the three-hour route from Yasnaya Polyana to Moscow. In this respect, visiting Chekhov’s estate made a certain amount of logistical sense. Nonetheless, after four days of total devotion to Tolstoy, master of the Russian novel, it felt strange to drop in so breezily on Chekhov—master of the Russian short story and an altogether different writer—simply because one happened to be passing through the neighborhood.

And so, after the banquet, when the participants went to their rooms to pack their suitcases—mine, of course, had never been unpacked to begin with—I went onto the balcony to think about Chekhov. The air smelled like plants and cigar smoke, bringing to mind the marvelous story that begins with a young man’s arrival, late one spring night, at the country estate of his former tutor, a famous horticulturalist. There is the nip of frost in the air, and the horticulturalist and his daughter are in a panic that the orchards might freeze. The daughter has resolved to stay up all night, supervising the bonfires. All night long, the young man and the daughter pace, coughing and weeping, through the rows of trees, watching the workers who stoke the smoldering bonfires with manure and damp straw. I tried to remember how the story ends. It does not end well.

Chekhov was nine years old when War and Peace was published. He admired Tolstoy tremendously and longed to meet him; at the same time, the prospect of this meeting filled him with such alarm that he once ran out of a bathhouse in Moscow when he learned that Tolstoy was also there. Chekhov did not want to meet Tolstoy in the bath, but this apparently was his inescapable destiny. When at last he worked up the nerve to go to Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov arrived at the exact moment when Tolstoy was headed to the stream for his daily ablutions. Tolstoy insisted that Chekhov join him; Chekhov later recalled that, as he and Tolstoy sat naked in the chin-deep water, Tolstoy’s beard floated majestically before him.

Despite his lifelong hostility toward the medical profession, Tolstoy took an instant liking to Chekhov. “He is full of talent, he undoubtedly has a very good heart,” he said, “but thus far he does not seem to have any very definite attitude toward life.” Chekhov had only a poorly defined attitude toward life, this strange process that brought one eye-to-eye with the floating beard of the greatest crank in world literature. Today the stream where they bathed is partly obstructed and full of vegetable life. One of the International Tolstoy Scholars who insisted on sitting in it emerged completely green.

Chekhov, grandson of a serf, never saw the point of Tolstoyanism. Why should educated people lower themselves to the level of peasants? The peasants should be raised to the level of educated people! Nonetheless, Chekhov remained in awe of Tolstoy to the end of his days. “He is almost a perfect man,” Chekhov observed once. And, another time: “I am afraid of Tolstoy’s death. It would leave a great void in my life.” In fact, Tolstoy outlived Chekhov by six years.

Ever since he was a medical student, Chekhov had experienced episodes of coughing blood. He dismissed them as bronchitis or the flu, but everyone knew the real cause. One night in 1897, while dining with his editor in Moscow’s best restaurant, Chekhov suffered a severe lung hemorrhage. Blood poured from his mouth onto the white tablecloth. He was rushed to a private clinic and diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis in both lungs. He survived the attack but was, for some days, extremely weak and unable to speak. Only family members were admitted to see him. Then Tolstoy turned up, wearing an enormous bearskin coat. Nobody had the nerve to tell him to leave, so he sat at Chekhov’s bedside and talked for a long time about the “immortality of the soul.” Chekhov listened silently. Although he did not believe in the immortality of the soul, he was nonetheless touched by Lev Nikolayevich’s solicitude.

The last meetings between Tolstoy and Chekhov took place in Gaspra, the spa town on the Black Sea that Tolstoy frequented. One day in Gaspra, Tolstoy put his arm around Chekhov. “My dear friend, I beg of you,” he said, “do stop writing plays!” Another time, when the two writers were gazing at the sea, Tolstoy demanded, “Were you very profligate in your youth?” Chekhov was speechless with embarrassment. Tolstoy, glaring out at the horizon, announced, “I was insatiable!” How could Chekhov not have sought treatment? How could he not have recognized his symptoms—especially when he spent weeks nursing his own brother Nikolai, who died of tuberculosis in 1889?

I was reminded of a production of Uncle Vanya, the first play I ever saw in Russian, put on some years ago in Moscow. The actor playing Dr. Astrov had been a television star, famous for playing Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes series on Soviet TV. Watching Dr. Astrov smoke a pipe, pore over maps, and rail against deforestation—watching Dr. Astrov fail to notice the really important thing, that Sonya was in love with him—I was struck by his similarity to Dr. Watson. Doctor, I thought, you see but you do not observe! For all your scientific enlightenment, you always misread the signs.

At six o’clock the next morning, the twenty-five International Tolstoy Scholars boarded a chartered bus to Moscow. Nobody seemed to know how far Melikhovo was from Yasnaya Polyana, how long it would take to get there, or whether there would be any stops along the way. Leena, a keen-eyed young woman writing a dissertation about Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, was particularly concerned about the subject of bathroom breaks. “The bus will bump,” she observed. “There is no toilet on this bumping bus.”

Leena and I made a pact: if either of us had to go to the bathroom, we would march to the front of the bus together and request a stop.

The bus raced along the highway to Moscow. Through the birch forests that flickered past my window, I glimpsed the same north-south railway line that had carried Tolstoy from Shamardino toward Astapovo.

About an hour north of Tula, Leena slipped into the seat beside me. “It is time,” she said. “Remember your promise.”

“I remember,” I said, preparing to get up, but Leena didn’t move. “I just got my period,” she said, staring straight ahead. “It’s ten days early. It’s not the right time.” I made some expression of sympathy. “It is the wrong time,” she said firmly, and stood up.

We walked to the front of the bus. The driver didn’t acknowledge our request in any way, but something about his shiny, shaven head indicated that he had heard us. A few minutes later the bus lurched off the road and skidded to a stop at a gas station.

The women’s bathroom was located fifty yards behind the gas pumps, in a little hut on the edge of the woods. The door appeared to have been boarded over, but the boards were decayed and hanging from their nails. The enormous textologist went in first. She reemerged almost immediately, preceded by a kind of muffled splintering sound.

“Into the woods, girls,” the textologist announced. We dispersed into the scraggly woods behind the gas station. The woods were full of garbage. Why am I here? I thought, looking at a vodka bottle that lay on the ground. It’s because of Chekhov.

Back on the bus, the driver was cleaning his nails with a pocketknife. Leena came back after a minute or two. She said that she had been bitten by one of God’s creatures.

“He made a lot of them,” I observed of God and his creatures.

I don’t know how long we had been waiting in our seats when it began to seem odd that the bus hadn’t moved. I became aware of some external commotion. Just outside my window, the conference organizer—a brisk Canadian, who had written a well-received book about Tolstoy’s representation of peasant life—was opening the luggage compartment. Her round, bespectacled face was set in a resolute expression as she dragged out a suitcase and began carrying it away.

Looking around, I suddenly noticed the absence of several International Tolstoy Scholars: a military historian and his wife, the tennis scholar from Yale, and the expert on The Living Corpse. Leena and I got off the bus to investigate.

“I told him just to throw them out,” the conference organizer was saying. “He insists on taking them with him. I’m at least going to find double bags.” She strode off in the direction of the gas station, carrying a big plastic bag that appeared to contain some heavy object.

“It’s going to be so awful when he opens the suitcase,” said the military historian’s wife.

It emerged that Vanya had had an accident and was refusing to throw out his pants. He wanted them to be put into his suitcase, in a plastic bag. The military historian and the tennis scholar were in the men’s toilet, trying to reason with him. Leena had turned completely pale. “It’s the tyranny of the body,” she said.

The conference organizer came back with her double bags.

“We must not go to Melikhovo,” Leena told her. “It is not the right time.”

The conference organizer looked Leena in the eye. “We planned to go, so we are going to go.”

Back on the bus, the driver was complaining about how he was going to be late. Instead of dropping us off in Moscow, he was going to leave us at the outermost metro stop of the outermost suburbs.

“He is a bandit!” someone shouted of the bus driver. There were murmurs of agreement. One by one, the remaining passengers returned to the bus. Last was Vanya, whose pale eyes wandered over the two aisles of International Tolstoy Scholars. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, clinging to the handrail, as if climbing out of a swimming pool. “Ladies and gentlemen, I must apologize for the delay. I am an old man, you see. A very old man.”

When the bus started again, a wave of sleepiness passed over me. I had stayed up late the previous night, reading a biography of Chekhov. I had wanted to prepare my soul for the visit to Melikhovo, but Yasnaya Polyana was like a haunted house: no matter how hard you tried to think about Chekhov, you kept tripping over Tolstoy. There was no way around it; it all seemed to have been fated before they were born. In 1841, Chekhov’s serf grandfather purchased his family’s freedom from their master, a nobleman called Chertkov—who was none other than the future father of Vladimir Chertkov, the Dark One, the beneficiary of Tolstoy’s secret will! (Chekhov’s grandfather paid Chertkov’s father 220 rubles per soul; Chertkov père, apparently not a bad guy, threw in one of Chekhov’s aunts for free.) No wonder Chekhov didn’t believe in immortality. In the moment the money changed hands, his own grandfather had become a Gogolian “dead soul”: a serf who had been paid for, though he no longer existed.

I also learned that night that Tolstoy had seen Uncle Vanya during its first run in Moscow, when the role of Astrov was played by Stanislavsky himself. The only positive impression retained by Tolstoy from this production was of the sound of a cricket chirping in the final act. A well-known actor had spent an entire month acquiring precisely this skill, from a cricket in the Sandunov public baths. Nevertheless, his masterful chirping was not enough to counterbalance the overall terrible impression left on Tolstoy by Uncle Vanya. “Where is the drama?” Tolstoy once shouted when the play was mentioned. He even harangued the actors, telling them that Astrov and Vanya had best marry peasant girls and leave the professor’s wife in peace.

Tolstoy’s diary entry for January 27, 1900, reads, “I went to see Uncle Vanya and became incensed. Decided to write a drama, Corpse.” Tolstoy started work on The Living Corpse that month.

I dreamed I was playing tennis against Tolstoy. As Alice in Wonderland plays croquet with a flamingo for a mallet, I was playing tennis with a goose for a racket. Lev Nikolayevich had a normal racket. I served the ball, producing a flurry of fluffy gray down. Tolstoy’s mighty backhand projected the ball far beyond the outermost limits of the tennis lawn, into the infinite dimension of total knowledge and human understanding. Match point.

I handed my goose over to Chekhov, who was next in the line of Tolstoy’s opponents. Sitting on the edge of the lawn, watching the Tolstoy-Chekhov game, I suddenly realized, with a shiver, the identity of the living corpse. It was Chekhov. Tolstoy had written that play about Chekhov, whom he had always intended to outlive.

I woke to the crunching of gravel. We had reached Melikhovo, where we were offered the choice of a full or an abridged tour. “We want the full tour,” the conference organizer said grimly, pulling out her video camera. Our tour guide, a pensioner with chemically tangerine-colored hair, took twenty minutes to guide us from the ticket booth to the front door. “Respected guests!” she shouted. “We are now located in the back yard of the neighbor of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov!”

Inside the house, I felt nothing. Yasnaya Polyana was Tolstoy’s ancestral estate and the center of his universe; it makes sense to visit Yasnaya Polyana. Chekhov had no ancestral estate. He bought Melikhovo, a house infested at that time by bedbugs and roaches, from a destitute artist. Seven years later, when tuberculosis obliged him to seek a milder climate, he sold the land to a timber merchant and moved to Yalta. Melikhovo was just a stage for Chekhov—almost a stage set. The neighboring estates were owned by social outcasts: the body-building grandson of a Decembrist rebel; a fallen countess and her much younger lover.

No single room in Chekhov’s house was large enough to contain the entire body of International Tolstoy Scholars. We shuffled along a dark corridor. The guide gestured toward various rooms, too small to enter.

We passed on to a tiny “parloir”: “the scene of in-ter-minable, interesting conversations.”

“Did Chekhov play the piano?” someone asked.

“No!” the guide exclaimed, with great emphasis. “He absolutely did not play!”

I noticed a pocket of space around Vanya, who looked a bit forlorn. I approached him but inadvertently stepped back, because of the smell.

Somewhere in the shadows that lay ahead, the guide was shouting, “Here is the beloved inkwell of the great writer!”

I extricated myself from the dark forest of shoulders, hurried down the narrow hallway, and exited into Chekhov’s garden. The garden was empty but for the conference organizer, who was making a video recording of Chekhov’s apple trees, and the Malevich scholar, who stooped to pick up an apple, stared at it, and took an enormous, yawning bite.I walked quickly, trying to recapture the spark of mystery. Perhaps, I thought, Tolstoy had been killed by the “corpse”—by Gimer, who was supposedly dead two years at this time, but had anyone actually seen the body? “Now who’s the corpse!” I imagined Gimer muttering, setting down the teaspoon—all I had to do was think of a motive. But somehow this time the motive wasn’t forthcoming. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. I found myself remembering “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” the first and last story in which Watson has no trouble and no fun applying Holmes’s method: “It was, alas, only too easy to do.” Two sets of prints lead to the waterfall, and none lead back; nearby lies the alpenstock of the best and wisest man he has ever known.

Later, of course, Conan Doyle recants. Holmes’s death and Watson’s bereavement turn out to be a temporary illusion, and real life starts again: the late nights, the hansom rides, the peat bogs, the thrill of the chase.

But can things ever really be the same between the doctor and the “living corpse”? Will there not come a time when Holmes has to tell his friend that all the murderers they apprehended were but the pawns of a far greater force, untouchable by human justice—a force even capable of acting independently, with no human agent?

Watson will be utterly confused. “A criminal act, without a criminal actor—my dear Holmes, surely you cannot have gone over to the supernaturalists!”

Holmes will smile sadly. “Nay, my old friend—I fear that, of all forces, it is the most natural.”

Call it Professor Moriarty or Madame la Mort, call it the black monk, or use its Latin name: this killer has infinite means and unfathomable motives.

And still life goes on in Chekhov’s garden, where it’s always a fine day for hanging yourself, and somebody somewhere is playing the guitar. In a hotel in Kharkov, the old professor is deducing the identity of his future murderer: “I will be killed by… that abominable wallpaper!” Interior decoration is so often the Final Problem; Ivan Ilyich was done in by some drapes. Now the samovar has almost gone cold, and frost has touched the cherry blossoms. Dr. Chekhov, loyal custodian of the human body, you who could look in the ear of an idle man and see an entire universe—where are you now?

is a writer in San Francisco.

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September 2011

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