Tolstoy's False Disciple by Alexandra Popoff

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov
Alexandra Popoff
Pegasus Book 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60598-640-1

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“. . . writing flows with narrative ease . . .”

Alexandra Popoff’s exclusive access to Russian archives, the basis of her new biography, offers a most disturbing revelation about Leo Tolstoy: His intimate relationship with a handsome ex-officer of the Imperial Guards, Vladimir Chertkov, who claimed to share in Tolstoy’s religious beliefs of non-violence and social justice but as the book title implies, was in fact “Tolstoy’s False Disciple.”

Tolstoy’s affection for Chertkov “went beyond Christian love,” Popoff suggests, noting Tolstoy’s letters to Chertkov, 26 years younger. In one letter, Tolstoy writes, “I love you—that’s all I wanted to say to you.” In a follow-up he adds, “You also love me unlawfully, more than brotherly, like I love you.” For Chertkov, the connection was a literary gold mine. During their three-decades-long relationship, he was given unfettered access to Tolstoy’s writing, including personal diaries. Chertkov even had blank pieces of paper with Tolstoy’s signatures that he used freely to sell Tolstoy’s work. Chertkov, a much inferior writer, edited Tolstoy’s work, changed plots and deleted passages. But although Tolstoy was annoyed with the changes, he never contradicted Chertkov.

Other disciples and friends, including Tolstoy’s wife, failed to convince Tolstoy that “Chertkov’s Tolstoyism” was a facade. Popoff’s research uncovered materials that disclose Chertkov’s many deceptions. Once, for example, Tolstoy assisted the Doukhobors, a pacifist religious sect that shared his beliefs, in their flight from Russia to Canada. Tolstoy raised money from friends to help while at the same time Chertkov harassed Tolstoy to write more to finance the exodus. But then Chertkov pocketed much of the money to pay for his lavish lifestyle.

Chertkov sent Tolstoy’s papers and diaries to a secret police-connected friend, “… a bizarre occurrence, but one that demonstrates Chertkov’s duplicitous role, his lack of loyalty to Tolstoy, and his continued ties to the establishment,” Popoff writes. The extent of Chertkov’s relationship with Russia’s interior ministry and police will have to wait until Russia releases closely-guarded 250 boxes of Chertkov’s personal papers.

Popoff’s writing flows with narrative ease, smoothly integrating historical data including information from memoirs written by friends, along with brief summaries of Tolstoy’s original writings alongside Chertkov’s alterations. Thanks to scholars and researchers like Popoff, much of Tolstoy’s original works can now be restored.


Reviewer: Kate Padilla