Skip to main content

Reflections on The Last Station and Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy died when he was 82 and had been married 48 years. The film The Last Station, now available on cable television,is about the last year of that marriage, about Tolstoy’s differences with his wife, his leaving home to find peace, and his dying in a railway stationhouse. It’s also about a young man’s romance—but more about that later. Having been married 48 years myself, having long been fascinated by Tolstoy, and having written on him and visited his estate in Russia, I thought this film might have special significance for me. But despite some excellent acting by Christopher Plummer (as Tolstoy), Helen Mirren (as his wife Sofya), and others, as well as beautiful cinematography, I was disappointed. It captured little of the greatness of Tolstoy or the depths of his and Sofya’s tragedy.

the last station

The film was adapted from Jay Parini’s novel (The Last Station) and some, but by no means all, of the failings of the film also exist in the novel. A good critique of the latter by a Russian scholar is available. So I shall do little more than occasionally mention how the novel and film differ, but stick mainly to why the film disappointed and how it might have been better. (For more on Parini’s positive thoughts on the film, see his Forward to thefilm’s Shooting Script, which also contains a thoughtful Introduction by director and screen writer Michael Hoffman and some material deleted from the final film.)

First, let us look at Tolstoy’s greatness. At the beginning of the film, lines across the screen tell us that he was then the “most celebrated writer in the world.” But as we know all too well in our own celebrity culture of today, being a famous celebrity is not the same as being great. Text across the screen also mentions that he is the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. And it is true that his greatness lies partly in creating these magnificent novels. They remain superb classics, rediscovered time and again—two weeks after Oprah Winfrey recommended the latter novel some years ago, it climbed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.

But his towering importance for his era goes far beyond these two masterpieces. Prolific writer that he was, he wrote much more. A twenty-first century Russian edition of his complete works (in 100 volumes) contains 35 volumes of literary-artistic works (including variants); 20 volumes of articles, tracts, and collections; 13 volumes of diaries, reminiscences, and miscellaneous materials; and 32 volumes of letters. (The online list indicated here gives some idea of his range, but is by no means complete; it omits, for example, his very brief short story “Alyosha the Pot,”which the Russian literary critic D. S. Mirsky called a “masterpiece of rare perfection.”)

Besides it and his two masterpieces mentioned earlier, a brief mention of a few of his other works is appropriate. I have written elsewhere on the timeless wisdom contained in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich—a few pages from the novella are included at the end of Parini’s novel but not mentioned in the film. And in a reviewof The Cossacks and Other Stories, I have concentrated mainly on Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Stories, a workbased on his own military experiences in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and one of the great fictional portrayals of war. Two other novellas in the same collection, The Cossacks and Hadji Murad, relate to his pre-Crimean years in the military in the Caucasus region and remain relevant to Russia's more recent attempts to squash separatist movements in Chechnya. About the latter of these two novellas, Mirsky wrote, “Hadji Murad is a masterpiece of the highest order.”

As important as many of Tolstoy’s literary works are, his greatness stemmed from more than just his literary ability. As he related in his A Confession (this and many of his other works can be accessed online, often as ebooks), he underwent a spiritual crisis in the 1870s, and emerged from it a changed man. In the years which followed, works such as Critique of Dogmatic Theology, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, What is Religion?, and What Is Art? flowed from his pen. From the 1880s until his death in 1910, he was often regarded as a sage and a prophet, both in Russia and in many other parts of the world. Although opening film lines mention that some people thought of him as “a living saint,” the movie gives us little sense of why.

The main ideas he came to embrace were pacifism, nonviolent anarchism, and the beliefs that the simple agrarian life was preferable to urban existence, that modern concepts of civilization, culture, and progress were all suspect, and that religion should be based on certain basic ethical principles, most of which were common to all the great religions. Film is generally a poor medium for conveying complex ideas, and The Last Station does little more than indicate that he is against social inequality and private property and that he advocated passive resistance and recognized an emphasis on love in all the major religions.

In fact, his ideas regarding pacifism and non-violent resistance became greatly influential in the twentieth century. Among those indebted to him was Mohandas Gandhi, with whom he corresponded as the Indian was developing his non-violent resistance ideas among the Asian community in South Africa. At the time, Gandhi referred to himself as a “humble follower” of Tolstoy. Whereas Parini’s novel devotes a chapter to a Tolstoy “Letter to Gandhi,” there is no mention of Gandhi in the film.

Although nonviolent anarchism might seem an oxymoron, it is not. The essence of anarchism is the belief that no centralized state should exist, and Tolstoy advocated bringing about the collapse of such states not by violence, but by persuading people not to pay taxes or serve in the government, police force, or military. His main complaint about centralized governments was that they served the interests of the upper classes and not the common people. He also faulted such governments for being imperialistic. And he was a scathing critic of the virulent imperialism of his day, including that of the United States in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.

Although a strong opponent of the Russian government and social order, he did not want Russia to follow the Western model. In 1906, he wrote: “For the Russian people to enter on the path along which the Westerners went, would mean consciously to commit the same acts of violence that the Government demands. . . . More than that, they would be deprived, like the Western nations, of their chief blessing—their accustomed, beloved, agricultural life.”

In regard to civilization, culture, and progress Tolstoy faulted many in the Western world for equating progress with advanced technology and new material goods—his thinking on this subject receives little film treatment other than his doctor’s comment that Tolstoy “is something of a Luddite.” He denounced the “production of the most unnecessary, stupid, depraving products.” He criticized the “belief that those inventions and improvements for increasing the comforts of the wealthy classes and for fighting (that is, slaughtering men). . . are something very important and almost holy, called, in the language of those who uphold such a mode of life, ‘culture,’ or even more grandly ‘civilization.’” Among other considerations, he was concerned about the environmental impact of such “progress.” To Tolstoy, true progress was measured by an overall improvement of well-being, not how many material goods were produced.

Despite his words, the main measure of progress in the 20th century remained increases in GNP or GDP, and only recently have some thinkers (Al Gore among others) concluded that such material gauges are not the best means of measuring human advancement.

Tolstoy’s attitude toward religion was unorthodox to say the least. He called the Orthodox Church “the greatest idolatry,” and was critical of many basic Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, Resurrection, and existence of miracles. Yet he considered Jesus Christ the greatest teacher of religious truths and boiled down Christ’s central teachings to don’t resist evil with evil, don’t be angry, don’t commit adultery, don’t swear or judge your neighbors, and don’t think of any one as your enemy. But he also thought that “the general essence of all religions [including Christianity] is love to your neighbor,” and he had great regard for other religious teachers such as Buddha and Lao-Tzu.

By the last year of his life, Tolstoy was not only the most revered writer of his time, but perhaps the most famous person in Russia. For decades all sorts of Russians had come to visit him, from a tsar’s cousin (Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich) to the lowest peasants. Two visitors were the writers Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, and they left behind perceptive comments about him, especially Gorky in his Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

Even before meeting Tolstoy in 1895, Chekhov had written admiringly of him. After a famine had devastated parts of Russia in 1891 and Tolstoy had become a one-man dynamo helping the famished and shaming the government for its paltry response, Chekhov had written “Tolstoy! ah, Tolstoy! In these days he is not a man but a super-man, a Jupiter. . . . He has published an article about the relief centers [many of which Tolstoy established], and the article consists of advice and practical instructions . . . . [that were] business-like, simple, and sensible.” In another letter three years later, Chekhov confessed, “Tolstoy's philosophy touched me profoundly and took possession of me for six or seven years, and what affected me was not its general propositions, with which I was familiar beforehand, but Tolstoy's manner of expressing it, his reasonableness, and probably a sort of hypnotism.” In 1900 Chekhov wrote, “I am afraid of Tolstoy's death. If he were to die there would be a big empty place in my life. To begin with, because I have never loved any man as much as him. I am not a believing man, but of all beliefs I consider his the nearest and most akin to me. . . . Tolstoy takes a firm stand, he has an immense authority.”

With Tolstoy there was seldom a doubt about where he stood. After revolutionaries had assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Tolstoy had written to his successor, Alexander III, pleading, unsuccessfully as it turned out, with the new tsar to set a Christian example by refraining from hanging the assassins. And for the next three decades, he was a constant critic and a provider of unsolicited advice to two tsars. At times his criticism, sometimes in foreign publications, and his work in behalf of the downtrodden or persecuted had significant results. Such were his efforts for the conscription-resisting Dukhobor believers, thousands of whom he helped emigrate to Canada. If it had not been for his worldwide fame, they would have silenced him long before his death, which is depicted with some dramatic license in The Last Station.

Gorky wrote about Tolstoy, “I know as well as others that no man is more worthy than he of the name of genius; no one was more complicated, contradictory, and great in everything—yes, in everything. Great, in some curious sense, broad, indefinable by words, there is something in him which made me desire to cry aloud to every one: ‘Look what a wonderful man is living on the earth!’ for he is, so to say, universally and above all, a man, a man of mankind.” Both Chekhov and Gorky also identified faults of Tolstoy, but we’ll consider them when we get to the tragedy of his late life.

But it was not just Russians who flocked to see him. So too did visitors from around the world, and the polyglot Tolstoy often spoke with them in their own language. From America alone dozens appeared, most of them coming to his Yasnaya Polyana estate, the chief setting depicted in The Last Station. More than twenty different Americans wrote extensively about their meetings with him. Among the most illustrious, all between 1896 and 1903, were social reformer and suffragist Jane Addams; Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge; and William Jennings Bryan, who was the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Of the three, the imperialist Beveridge differed most with Tolstoy’s ideas, while Bryan remained a long-distance friend of Tolstoy for the rest of the writer’s life.

Besides those who visited him, numerous other Americans came under his strong influence. William Dean Howells, writer, editor, and good friend of Mark Twain, wrote that Tolstoy’s “writings and his life have meant more to me than any other man's.” In addition, between 1868 and Tolstoy’s death, he received over 1800 American letters. One hundred years after his death, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an admiringcolumnon Tolstoy that mentioned his “almost superhuman ability to perceive reality”; at the same time his biography and links to many of his works continued to be featured on a U. S. Anarchy Archives.

Recommended for You

In many other countries, he had a similar impact. In his How Russia Shaped the Modern World, historian Steven Marks devotes much of a chapter to Tolstoy’s global influence. He tells us that Tolstoy was the most translated writer in Japan during the 19th and 20th centuries; that he was also well known in other Asian and Middle Eastern countries including India, China, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon; that “in Germany between the 1880s and 1920s, at least six hundred translations, books, and articles related to Tolstoy were published”; and that he was also greatly admired in other European countries. Marks quotes the Irishman James Joyce as stating that Tolstoy was “a magnificent writer. . . . head and shoulders over the others.” As Marks sums up, he “was one of the first international mass-media celebrities.” Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti in the film, even had a series of postcardsmass produced featuring photographs and sayings of Tolstoy. Although fame and celebrity are not the same as greatness, Tolstoy’s overall impact and the words of someone like Chekhov, never given to overstatement, suggest a grandeur that the film never makes us feel.

Like Karl Marx, Tolstoy was a much better critic of the social and political ills of late nineteenth-century life, including those of capitalist societies, than he was at offering meaningful suggestions for improvement. His greatness lie not in his correctness about all the issues he wrote of—he was often wrong—but in his extensive talents, tremendous energy, constant seeking after truth and wisdom, attempts to reconcile what he believed with how he acted, and his help of others like the famished and Dukhobors.

Although the spiritual crisis he underwent in his late 40s and early 50s produced significant changes in his outlook, Tolstoy the wisdom-seeker was always present. Already as a young officer during the Crimean War, he thought about devoting his life to a new religion, based on Christ, but purged of mysticism and dogmas. Later on is his great novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina he has characters like Pierre Bezukhov and Konstantin Levin agonize over the meaning of life and how they should live.

During the final years of his life, Tolstoy’s main project was collecting, arranging, and mixing in his own ideas with quotes from wise people. The list included famous men such as Marcus Aurelius, Carlyle, Cicero, Confucius, Emerson, Epictetus, Goethe, Kant, Lao Tzu, Mazzini, Pascal, Rousseau, Ruskin, the Persian Muslim poet Saadi, Schopenhauer, Seneca, and Thoreau, but also Buddhist, Indian, Chinese proverbs, and quotes from religious books like the Bible, Koran, and Talmud. This collection took different forms in different editions. Most often, as in Wise Thoughts for Every Day,A Calendar of Wisdom, or For Every Day (1910), quotes and brief thoughts were furnished for each day of the year. But in other instances, like in his Path of Life (1910), he arranged his quotes and own thoughts according to topics. In his final year, he had a new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, to help him with his latest editions. In the film Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy, assumes a central role—in his comments on the screen adaption, the director Hoffman wrote, “it’s the sentimental education of Valentin that provides the structural bones of the screenplay and McAvoy’s subtle, funny, committed performance that makes the film work.” But the only mention of the major task Bulgakov was hired to perform comes when he arrives at Yasnaya Polyana to assume his duties. Tolstoy tells him that he needs his help on a new book, “the compendium,” but we get little sense of what it is about or that it contains the thoughts of many wise people, only that it includes the idea that all the religions are about love.

What concerned Tolstoy most was the meaning of life and how one should act. As he put it in A Calendar of Wisdom, “There are a limitless number of different sciences, but without one basic science, that is, what is the meaning of life and what is good for the people, all other forms of knowledge and art become idle and harmful entertainment. . . .The only real science is the knowledge of how a person should live his life. And this knowledge is open to everyone.”

If Tolstoy’s ardent seeking for wisdom and the meaning of life, plus his strenuous efforts to reconcile his actions with his beliefs, are part of his greatness, they also make his final year all the more tragic. Aristotle observed long agothat tragedy should focus on individuals who are “renowned and of superior attainments.” The film’s failure to make us feel Tolstoy’s greatness, not just realize that he was a celebrity, hinders our appreciation of the great tragedy of his final year and death. All the elements of such a tragedy were there: Tolstoy’s own tragic flaws, evil or unwise actions by others, and circumstances that worked against him. In his comments on adapting the novel to the screen, Hoffman relates how reading Chekhov’s plays helped him realize that his film should be a tragicomedy, as life itself is. And so Hoffman tells us, he "attacked each scene with a clear intention, to find one moment, one little piece of behavior that lived in the gap between comedy and tragedy." But Chekhov’s genius was not so much in finding the gap, but having us feel both the tragedy and comedy of life.

Paul Giamatti, who depicted Chertkov, Sofya’s greatest enemy in the film, also suggests in an interview that tragedy was not the main concern of Hoffman. Giamatti said that when he read the script, he “got the idea that it was meant to be comedic, which I thought was a really good way to do it.” He added, “I think it helps take the whole thing a lot more easily. Not just the historical part of it, it is kind of an intense movie when you think about it and that's a drag."

Tolstoy’s tragic flaws, as well as his virtues, were observed well by Chekhov and Gorky. Both friends criticized his dogmatic, uncompromising belief in his own views. Chekhov was thinking of him and others like him when he wrote, “All the great sages are as despotic as generals . . . . And so to the devil with the philosophy of all the great ones of this world!” Tolstoy was often critical of experts and professionals such as doctors and lawyers, a trait that often angered Chekhov, who was a doctor by training. In a letter of 1890 he criticized Tolstoy’s portrayal of love and sex in the novella The Kreutzer Sonata: “His statements about syphilis, foundling hospitals, the aversion of women for the sexual relation, and so on, are not merely open to dispute, but show him up as an ignoramus who has not, in the course of his long life, taken the trouble to read two or three books written by specialists.” After Tolstoy added an “Afterword,” to his novella in which he stated that “celibacy is preferable to marriage,” and “a Christian will never, therefore, desire marriage, but will always avoid it,” Chekhov wrote in a letter that he considered the “Afterword” fanatical and stupid. Gorky wrote about Tolstoy, “Sometimes he seems to be conceited and intolerant like a Volga preacher, and this is terrible in a man who is the sounding bell of this world.” And, “What always repelled me in him was that stubborn despotic inclination to turn the life of Count Lev Nikolayevich (Tolstoy) into ‘the saintly life of our blessed father . . . Leo.’"

Despite his desire to be simple and humble, Tolstoy shared the fault of many Russian intellectuals, including Lenin, in his penchant for utopian ideas and unwillingness to compromise or see the merits of others’ thinking. Although he sought wisdom, praised humility, and criticized many types of intolerance, including that of religious bigots, racists, and nationalists, he himself lacked the tolerance and humility of the wisest of the wise. In this regard, his friend Chekhov was the wiser of the two. These flaws of Tolstoy were mixed with another: he was too much of a perfectionist, too hard on himself and others for failing to live up to the highest ideals. In his A Calendar of Wisdom he writes and quotes others on perfection time and again, as with his words for February 7th that “everyone should strive for perfection.”

One astute Tolstoy expert, Isaiah Berlin, in his work The Hedgehog and the Fox divided writers into hedgehogs and foxes. He quotes a Greek poet who wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin thought that Tolstoy had all the gifts of a fox but wanted to be a hedgehog. He sought “the single great vision,” and “he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be.”

In addition to his flaws, the predicament in which he found himself helped bring about his tragic end. It is ironic that Tolstoy had once written a work called Family Happiness,and had depicted the family life of the Rostovs and Bolkonskys so beautifully in War and Peace, because it was primarily discord in his family that led Tolstoy to flee from his wife and family at the age of 82. And his tragedy was also, of course, a tragedy for his wife, Sofya (another irony: the name in Greek means wisdom, as Sofya herself recounts in the novel). The basic conflict is clearly enough pointed out in the film. Sofya had never accepted the results of his spiritual transformation of the late 1870s. She loved the husband she had married as a young girl and lived with for more than a decade before this transformation: Count Leo Tolstoy, the great author. For Tolstoy the moralist and prophet, who wished to renounce luxury and wealth and deplete family resources, she had little use, and she cared even less for her husband’s Tolstoyan followers like Chertkov, her arch-enemy. Although in the film few of the children are depicted except Sasha (Anne-Marie Duff), who sided with her father and Chertkov, six of the other thirteen children that Sofya had given birth to were still living, and some of them also took sides.

In his comments on adapting Parini’s novel for the screen, director Hoffman tells us, “I had become extremely interested in the existential problem of marriage. I saw in the novel a story I wanted to tell about our great loves and marriages, the relationships that create us and destroy us and create us again, about the pain and the awkwardness and the communion and devotion, about the secret codes and languages that develop between people who’ve seen too much of each other.” After 48 years of marveling and wondering myself about the mysteries of marriage and love, I had hoped to find some new insights about these subjects, but was again disappointed. I already knew that it’s bad to be too stubborn and uncompromising in a marriage.

When I consider what was put into the film and what was left out, the mix just doesn’t seem right, especially the prominent role given Bulgakov’s (McAvoy’s) romance with Masha (Kerry Condon), a fictional character created by Parini and also given a prominent role in the film—she often seems more reasonable than Tolstoy and his followers, thus also diminishing Tolstoy’s stature. We all understand that female beauty, love, and sex are all powerful magnets to pull in movie audiences—as the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats once wrote:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Yet, our inner beings also require more than physical beauty. Something within us desires to achieve what Tolstoy suggested he had, when after working on collecting the thoughts of wise people he wrote, “I have been elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people.” Our spirits, like his, also require such elevation, and occasionally books and films provide it. Unfortunately, this was not such a film.

This review may seem unduly critical of a film that is certainly superior to the average Hollywood production. The comments of both Parini and Hoffman preceding the Shooting Script speak intelligently to many of the difficulties and restraints facing a screen writer and director, and they should not be minimized. Yet, when I look at Tolstoy’s life and at the source materials available, especially Bulgakov’s valuable The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy, but also all the diaries, letters, and memoirs of the family members and others who participated in Tolstoy’s tragic end, I cannot help regret that the film did not capture more of his greatness or plumb the depths of his tragedy.

It was a tragedy that compares to that of Sophocles’s Oedipus, whom Aristotle recognized as one of drama’s greatest tragic heroes. Berlin ends his insightful The Hedgehog and the Fox with the following image of Tolstoy: “At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded [like Oedipus] at Colonus.”

But the film, unlike the reality, gives us not the depths of tragedy, but even a hint of a happy ending. It matches “the hint of a smile” called for in the Shooting Script at Tolstoy’s deathbed, and delivered artfully by Plummer (Tolstoy). It comes after Mirren (Sofya) expresses her love, also with a smile, and just before his final gasps. Immediately after the final breath, Sofya and daughter Sasha reconcile with an embrace. A minute later (in screen time) the fictional Masha (Kerry Condon) and Bulgakov (McAvoy) also embrace to tender music after she travels to the station. “I came for you,” she tells him. In real life he was not even present at the station. After Sofya and Sasha’s embrace, the Shooting Script also called for Chertkov to say to Sofya, “I am sorry,” and it then adds, “the most unlikely thing, she pats his hand.” Fortunately, the final film spares us this additional bit of schmaltz.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss