I am publishing my answers to questions about my book, “Tolstoy’s False Disciple,” that I have received through social media and during the book’s launch at McNally Robinson Bookstore in Saskatoon.
Q. How intimate were Tolstoy and Chertkov?
A. Tolstoy’s contemporary biographer and translator, Aylmer Maude, describes the relationship as intimate and non-transparent. Chertkov was at the center of events that generated lasting controversy––Tolstoy’s signing of the secret will, his flight from home at eighty-two, and his pathetic death at Astapovo. This is when Chertkov was first brought into the public eye. But it remains little known that he was Tolstoy’s companion and confidante for three decades.
Tolstoy’s personal doctor, Makovitsky, describes Chertkov’s influence over the writer as “tremendous and despotic.” Sophia alleged that her husband’s relationship with Chertkov was homosexual in nature. She implied this in her diary (not all her entries are published to this day) and spoke her mind with Makovitsky and the writer’s secretary, Bulgakov. Because of Tolstoy’s moral authority, her allegations were dismissed. But this doesn’t mean that Sophia’s suspicion was unfounded.
In fact, it’s hard to explain Tolstoy’s attachment otherwise. The only thing they shared was Tolstoy’s religion. But this doesn’t justify the exclusive relationship: Tolstoy had other followers and a dogmatic Chertkov could not contribute any ideas to him.
Tolstoy referred to Chertkov as the man he “most needed,” the “person closest” to him, and frequently wrote him about his love. The two had secrets, and some of their early exchange was destroyed by mutual consent. The writer’s son-in-law, Mikhail Sukhotin (his full diary also remains unpublished) has remarked that Tolstoy loved Chertkov “with exceptional tenderness, partially and blindly” and this love drove him “to become completely subordinated to Chertkov’s will.”
Tolstoy did have homosexual leanings, having admitted in his youthful diary, that he had been in love with men.
Q. What do you think about Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Chertkov in The Last Station?
A. Giamatti portrays Chertkov as a conniving adviser to Tolstoy, and I think he got it right.
Actually, the most surprising thing about Chertkov was his banality. He did not value Tolstoy’s talent and time and was manipulative and rude with him.
Q. Did Chertkov ever marry?
A. Chertkov had homosexual relationships, and married through Tolstoy’s insistence. His wife was a semi-invalid, who spent much of her life in a wheelchair.
Q. Was Chertkov an agent of the secret police? And if so, did he spy on Tolstoy from the very beginning?
A. Tolstoy lived under surveillance for fifty years. Chertkov met him in the fall of 1883, soon after the police watch was intensified. This was because Tolstoy in his new writings began to challenge the Orthodox Church and the authoritarian state. The secret police collected information about Tolstoy’s causes, writing, and private life. During his last decades Tolstoy lived under double surveillance: in addition to the police scrutiny Chertkov arranged to keep a copy of his entire correspondence and diaries. The disciple insisted on this privilege despite Tolstoy’s objections. Over the years, Chertkov employed secretaries who aside from helping Tolstoy copied for Chertkov. He was obsessed with Tolstoy, but his method of collecting intelligence resembles that of the secret police.
Chertkov’s family was close to the tsars and to the interior ministry, and he maintained close ties to the establishment. His lifelong friend, Dmitry Trepov, was the chief of the gendarmes, and later an assistant minister of the interior. Trepov is infamous for organizing Jewish pogroms and shooting student demonstrators. Chertkov called him “a decent man.” Chertkov’s other friend was a member of the secret police. While it is unknown what role Chertkov played in surveillance over Tolstoy, his handwriting was identified on one of the reports to the Petersburg Police Department.
Chertkov was a chronic manipulator and schemer with a knack for conspiracy. These traits would make him ideally suited for clandestine activity.
Q. Was Chertkov a psychopath?
A. Chertkov’s intricate plots and a secret will he imposed on Tolstoy suggest he had a psychopathic mind. His exaggerated sense of self-worth, emotional shallowness, superficial charm, and persuasiveness would make him a case study. He was also quarrelsome and despotic and, as Maude writes, had an unmatched ability to impose his will on other people: “Everybody connected with him became his instrument, quarreled with him, or had to escape.” Tolstoy admitted that Chertkov was “a difficult man.”
Q. Why did Tolstoy maintain a lasting relationship with such a man?
A. This question drives my book. Tolstoy’s contemporaries, including Bulgakov, were unable to fathom the relationship. In his marginally published memoir Bulgakov asks, rhetorically, how could such a man as Tolstoy love such a man as Chertkov? There is no rational answer to this.
I think that Tolstoy maintained the relationship because he loved Chertkov and also because he was afraid that Chertkov would not spare him if they broke up. So, he tried to appease his companion by satisfying all his demands for privileges and promotions. But this only inspired Chertkov to demand more. His ultimate goal was to become the executor of Tolstoy’s literary estate, and to possess the writer’s manuscripts. This is why Chertkov imposed a secret will on the writer. When, after signing it, Tolstoy attempted to change his mind, Chertkov threatened him with a scandal. Later, Chertkov composed a persuasive, but entirely false account of Tolstoy’s final year, misleading biographers and the public for a century.
Q. How does your book affect what we know about Tolstoy?
A. The book tells about Tolstoy’s behind-the-scenes relationship, which impacted his private and public lives. Chertkov was responsible for Tolstoy’s marital conflicts and eventual alienation from his wife. He also aspired to the role of Tolstoy’s editor and censor. As such, he meddled in Tolstoy’s work, took his energy and time, and nipped many of his ideas in the bud.
Chertkov introduced secrecy into Tolstoy’s life. It’s disappointing that Tolstoy preached high morals, despite his involvement with a cad. Tolstoy used his authority to promote Chertkov and to silence his scandals, all of which was against his beliefs. This shows that Tolstoy was inconsistent and weak in private life, unable to defend his own privacy and peace, let alone such benefits for his family.
Tags: Tolstoy, Chertkov, homosexuality, Paul Giamatti, psychopaths, Russian secret police, The Last Station