Tolstoy's Guiding Light

The philosophical writings of the author of War and Peace inspired followers from Moscow to Croydon and led to the creation of a Christian anarchist reform movement. Charlotte Alston examines the activities and influence of Tolstoy’s disciples.

Leo Tolstoy, c.1905
Leo Tolstoy

In October 1910 Leo Tolstoy left his home at Yasnaya Polyana, 120 miles south of Moscow, in a final attempt to separate himself from his wealth, possessions and family. Just over a week after his departure he died of pneumonia in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo railway station. While his journey lasted, the drama held the attention of the media in Russia and beyond and sparked a momentary revival of interest in Tolstoy’s religious and philosophical teachings, which had receded since the high tide of his influence in the last decades of the 19th century.

2010 is the centenary of Tolstoy’s death. The anniversary was marked by the UK release of the film The Last Station, based on the novel of the same name by Jay Parini, which depicts the last months of Tolstoy’s life as the chronic tensions in his relationship with his wife Sophia came to a head. The hero of the film is the writer’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, who lives for a time at Teliatinki, a settlement where enthusiasts devote themselves to agricultural work and theorists discuss the tenets of Tolstoyism. Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s closest disciple and one of the leaders of the Russian movement, battles with Sophia Tolstoy for control of the writer’s legacy, while Tolstoy’s personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, furiously scribbles down everything that Tolstoy has to say.

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