The Talented Mr. Chertkov: Leo Tolstoy’s False Disciple

Editor's Note: Alexandra Popoff is the author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography and The Wives: The Women Behind Russian Literary Giants. She is most recently the author of Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov. Alexandra joins Signature to discuss the life of Vladimir Chertkov, an ex-officer who ingratiated his way into Tolstoy's life, influencing Tolstoy's life and career even more so than Sophia, his own wife.

In 1904, Tolstoy recorded ideas for a historical novel about the despotic Nicholas I, remarking that he wanted to write about the tsar’s “ignorance and self-assurance, and about what a terrible thing it is that people of inferior spiritual strength can influence and even control people of superior strength.” These words can describe not only Russia’s predicament, but also Tolstoy’s own. His final decades were marked with a close and troubled relationship with Vladimir Chertkov, a much younger man who was incomparably inferior to him intellectually and morally, but who came to dominate and control his life and legacy.

They met in 1883, when Chertkov, a handsome ex-officer of the Guards, came to see the celebrated novelist. A man of imposing personality, Chertkov belonged to a family close to the tsars: he was even believed to be an offspring of Alexander II. This privileged upbringing could not appeal to Tolstoy, since it represented the very things he renounced -- power, privilege, and wealth. But Chertkov inspired his exceptional trust. What brought them together was Tolstoy’s religion, his brand of Christianity, in which Chertkov expressed avid interest.

In the late 1870s, soon after completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual change. Formerly an agnostic, he sought a deeper meaning of life in religious faith, becoming immersed in the Gospels, of which he made his own interpretation. At the time he met Chertkov, Tolstoy was completing his book What I Believe, in which he renounced not only violence and war, but also contemporary social institutions as coercive. Chertkov, who grew up among Russia’s first evangelicals, was steeped in the Gospels and struck Tolstoy as a like-minded man.

Their immeasurable differences (in intellect, character, age, etc.) only strengthened mutual attraction. Chertkov soon became Tolstoy’s confidante, trusted to read even the writer’s private diary. Their correspondence was intense and intimate, especially during the first year when the two men had each other’s permission to destroy the occasional letter. Later, Tolstoy had many followers, but only with Chertkov did he form an intimate and non-transparent union. In one letter, Tolstoy wrote Chertkov that they loved each other "unlawfully, more than brotherly."

Although not an intellectual, Chertkov claimed a prominent role in Tolstoy’s life. He became the writer’s major correspondent. Tolstoy had written him 930 letters, even more than to his wife of forty-eight years -- despite writing to Sophia almost daily when apart. During Tolstoy’s religious phase, Chertkov was “the person closest” to him. He replaced Sophia as Tolstoy’s first reader, collector of his archive, photographer, publisher, and biographer.

Unlike Tolstoy’s wife, who inspired his literary achievement, Chertkov exploited his talent and fame. His rise was meteoric and unjustified: Tolstoy turned over all his public affairs to his disciple. Chertkov used his intimacy with Tolstoy to attain privileges for himself. Thus, he received exclusive right to produce the writer’s most profitable first editions. Eventually, he established a monopoly on publishing Tolstoy’s new works, while being unaccountable for the proceeds. This made a mockery of Tolstoy’s renunciation of copyright which permitted all publishers to produce his works on equal terms. By the end of Tolstoy’s life, Chertkov alone decided who could publish and translate his works, disregarding even the writer’s wishes.

The secret will, which Chertkov imposed on the writer, appointed him sole executor. This same document stripped Sophia from her husband’s posthumous copyright, even to the novels she had helped him produce. Tolstoy backed his friend in all conflicts and remained loyal to him to the end, writing to his children in the last letter from Astapovo that Chertkov "occupies a special position in relation to me."

Contemporaries describe Chertkov’s influence over Tolstoy as “tremendous” and “despotic.” The writer’s biographer and translator, Aylmer Maude, has remarked that Chertkov possessed “an unmatched ability” for enforcing his will on others. Sophia’s brother-in-law, Alexander Kuzminsky, quipped that if Chertkov were on the throne, “it would be disastrous for the people.” The calamitous relationship affected mostly Tolstoy’s life and work, becoming responsible for his deteriorating marriage. More important, it stifled Tolstoy’s creativity. With his disciple around, Tolstoy felt ashamed to produce fiction, describing his art as a “frivolous” occupation.

Tolstoy’s plot for the novel about Nicholas I was never realized, not in the least because Chertkov pressed him to lessen his criticism of the Tsars.