cover image Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov

Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov

Alexandra Popoff. Pegasus, $28.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-60598-640-1

Vladimir Chertkov, a heretofore shadowy confidant of Leo Tolstoy, is brought to light in Popoff’s well-researched work. Chertkov’s letters to Tolstoy, which span their 30-year friendship, have long been suppressed by Russian authorities embarrassed by the great writer’s unlikely devotion to an abrasive, domineering aristocrat. Popoff gained special access to their correspondence for her biography of Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, and now offers a deft portrait of the shadowy figure of Chertkov as a “Machiavellian” manipulator gifted at ingratiating himself to powerful men of all ideological stripes—first with the Tsars and later with Lenin and Stalin. Chertkov appealed to Tolstoy by playing the role of dutiful protégé, avowing Tolstoyan principles (poverty, humility, nonresistance) more dogmatically than Tolstoy himself. Popoff proposes that Chertkov exercised a kind of “mind control” over his ostensible master by creating a “compendium” of Tolstoy’s written thoughts and insisting the writer remain consistent with them. Tolstoy was opposed on principle to dealing with commercial practicalities, to the point of renouncing his copyright; Chertkov was thus left, following Tolstoy’s death, to contend (victoriously) with Sophia for executive authority over Tolstoy’s literary properties. Popoff’s account is unavoidably heavy on publishing intrigue, which can be tiring. Otherwise, the book is fascinating—and it fills a gap, providing the first full account of the bizarre relationship between a great man and his “moral antipode.” Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (Nov.)