William Nickell’s The Death of Tolstoy arrives a century after the event it describes, and shows that our obsession with the deaths of the famous transcends time and place.
The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910Publisher: Cornell University Press
Author: William Nickell
Length: 208 pages
Publication Date: 2010-09
William Nickell’s new book marks the centenary of the death of Tolstoy, an event which he argues is as deserving of examination as the life of the great Russian writer. Tolstoy died of pneumonia on 7 November 1910 at Astapovo station – which in 1918 was renamed Leo Tolstoy station. How he came to be at this location makes up part of the narrative of his death. On 28 October he left the family seat, Yasnaya Polyana, abandoning his family in the dead of night and setting out to take up a life that was far removed from his aristocratic status and international fame.
Perhaps the biggest question that surrounds the event is whether he left Yasnaya Polyana in order to die, or whether his death was a consequence of the dramatic lifestyle change that he decided to undergo, at 82-years-old. Tolstoy had previously agonised at length over whether he ought to lead a simpler life, so perhaps he felt that it was important to set this in motion before his death. On the other hand, he may have hoped for several more years of his newfound asceticism.
Tolstoy’s death was not merely a personal matter. As Nickell reminds us, he was at this time the most famous man in Russia. His disappearance from Yasnaya Polyana was quickly reported by his family, who realised that they had no hope of keeping it private, and when he was discovered by the media at Astapovo station, there were constant reports of his decline.
In our current age of rolling news coverage and unending obsession with celebrity, we can relate to this perhaps too easily. In Nickell’s account, the Russian press come across almost like the paparazzi who stalk today’s stars. The context of death is also pertinent, as the deaths of the famous of course remain big news. Reading about the shockwaves that radiated throughout Russia following the death of Tolstoy, we may be reminded of the news reports that followed the more recent deaths of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson.
A crucial difference is that while Diana and Jackson met untimely deaths, Tolstoy was an old man. Yet he was so revered that the fact of his passing seemed unthinkable and he was mourned in the same way that we might mourn a man much younger. This was to some degree engineered by the media, and Nickell’s focus on the media is this book’s particular strength.
Less successful is his argument that 1910 was a year of significant social change, and his attempt to view the death of Tolstoy as symbolic of the end of a metanarrative that hung over from the 19th century, and the arrival of a newer, more complicated era. It’s true that World War I and the Russian Revolution were both imminent by this time, and there were stirrings of change, but Tolstoy’s death is perhaps best examined in the context of his influence among the media and his followers, rather than as part of something much broader.
Nickell should be lauded, however, for producing a very original work. Much has been written about Tolstoy and, in fact, much has also been written about his death. Any biographer of this moment has a huge amount of material of work through and Nickell’s research has clearly been meticulous. He writes that he had originally intended to base his book around the many telegrams that were sent and received from the station house at Astapovo. He found more valuable sources, however, in the newspaper reports that circulated during Tolstoy’s sojourn in the station house, and following his death.
In addition to this, there is further primary material to work through, and this book’s saturation with quotation and reference is testament to the author’s intense research. There are also the diaries and accounts of Tolstoy’s family and followers; it's as though his eminence as a writer required that he became the subject of many other texts. Nickell continues in that tradition, adding a highly relevant book to the canon of Tolstoyan writing. Although he may overstate the significant of Tolstoy’s death in the context of 1910, he shows that its media coverage is highly pertinent to the world we live in 100 years later.