Yet for Tolstoy, earthly power and influence were not enough. Even as a twenty-seven-year-old, Tolstoy came up with a new religion (he noted it in his diary), and he spent his life shaping it, step by step building his image of demigod. In his scheme of things, Christ and Buddha were mere teachers of human wisdom, alongside whom the writer’s “godlike” (in Gorky’s phrase) figure could naturally take its place.

Gorky also made the caustic observation that Tolstoy “considered Christ naive and worthy of pity.” True, Tolstoy felt that he was actually in a better position to interpret the teachings of Christ than Christ himself. Surprisingly, this rather immodest assumption was eagerly shared in the early twentieth century by many enlightened people all over the world—from France, where Romain Rolland became an enthusiastic standard-bearer of Tolstoy’s Christian socialism, to India, where Mahatma Gandhi successfully took up Tolstoy’s concept of nonviolent resistance. In the United States, both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, one the prosecutor and the other the defense attorney in the notorious Scopes trial in 1925, were fervent adherents of Tolstoy’s moral teachings.

Tolstoy’s fame was spread and fanned by the world media, hungry for sensation. Tolstoy, who only pretended to be a hermit in his Yasnaya Polyana and in fact liked giving interviews, manipulated the press masterfully. Consequently, never had a Russian writer enjoyed such fame abroad in his lifetime (the celebrity of Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, who had actually lived in Western Europe, was much more modest). It is telling that Herzen printed his antigovernment booklets in Europe at his own expense, while Tolstoy was endlessly reprinted throughout the world primarily because his books were international best sellers, particularly his new works on religious themes.

Even though Herzen was among the first to produce “tamizdat” (works addressed to Russian readers published first in the West) and “samizdat”(the same works distributed inside Russia illegally, in manuscript copies), Tolstoy undoubtedly took this phenomenon to a new level. His articles, appeals, and open letters, banned by the Russian censors but printed in the West, circulated everywhere almost simultaneously, and the Western attention greatly helped his reputation at home. (Solzhenitsyn’s later situation was similar.) Thus Tolstoy in effect escaped official control.

Unable to subdue him during his lifetime, the Russian government and the Orthodox hierarchy tried to hijack the writer after his death, which became a sorry spectacle when Tolstoy ran away. He had long proclaimed his desire to live according to his teaching, not as a count but as a simple peasant, and abruptly escaped from his estate and his family.

But pneumonia kept him at the small railroad station of Astapovo, which was instantly besieged by journalists and film crews, attending family and close friends (with bitter strife within this group), representatives of the tsar and church, and observers of different political leanings. The family tried to maintain the remnants of decorum in a clearly scandalous situation. The press tried to get as much out of the colossal sensation as they could get away with. And the government tried to prevent any disorder, which it feared greatly, and which the liberals would have loved to exploit.

The media naturally won out: this was one of the first examples of their newfound power in Russia. The world saw the documentary footage showing how Tolstoy’s wife was not permitted to see the dying count. Endless newspaper reports with photographs from Astapovo not only made the private death of a genius uncomfortably public but also revealed the embarrassingly ugly squabble over his will and testament.

Unused to dealing with modern media, the government and the Holy Synod made one clumsy mistake after another. A monk was sent to Tolstoy to persuade him to reconcile himself with the official church. Tolstoy had only to say two words: “I repent.” The attempt failed. Astapovo was filled with police agents who sent long coded telegrams to their higher-ups about the latest contretemps and the comings and goings of the journalists and other suspicious characters.

The police tried to contain Tolstoy’s funeral in Yasnaya Polyana by sharply limiting access to the public from St. Petersburg and Moscow and to control the memorial gatherings all over the country, which in many cases took on markedly oppositionist political overtones. Demonstrators on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg carried posters demanding, in the spirit of Tolstoy’s teaching, the repeal of the death penalty. Suvorin’s Novoye Vremya reported that these “disorders” were provoked by people from the Caucasus and by the Jewish press: “Up to their eyes in dirty politicking, which Tolstoy had abhorred, they turned the memory of the wise man into an excuse for banal banner waving.”13 Thus in 1910 the idea of the undue influence of the Jewish media on Russia’s domestic policies was already promoted, to be resurrected in the late twentieth century. Typically, the alarm was voiced by the camp of the conservative press, which was trying to hang on to its overwhelming political and economic influence.

Mikhail Menshikov, an influential columnist of Novoye Vremya, claimed that the death penalty was one of the foundations of true Christian civilization, and the Jews were merely using Tolstoy’s protests against it in order “to disarm the government.” In turn, the liberal journalists (many of whom were Jewish) pointed at the government and the church as the real conspirators in this story. The noisy polemics turned Tolstoy’s funeral into one of the biggest media circuses of the first decade of the twentieth century.

Was this what the ironic Anton Chekhov had in mind long before Tolstoy’s death in a conversation with Ivan Bunin (who was to be the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature)? “Once Tolstoy dies, everything will go to hell!”14 Tolstoy, however, outlived the reclusive Chekhov by over six years, and Chekhov’s death and funeral in June 1904 were a vivid contrast to the spectacle of Tolstoy’s farewell. In Bunin’s opinion, Tolstoy’s grave drew “people alien to him, admiring only his criticism of the church and government and who experienced even happiness at his funeral: that showy ecstasy that always overwhelms the ‘progressive’ crowd at all the ‘civic’ funerals.”15

Chekhov’s funeral couldn’t have been more different. The only great Russian writer who arguably made no effort to inflate his own image, he died in Badenweiler, a small German resort, at forty-four, of tuberculosis that had been eating away at him for fifteen years. His face, as Bunin sadly noted, had turned yellow and wrinkled like that of a very old Mongol. The coffin was brought from Germany to St. Petersburg in a railroad car labeled in big letters, to the horror of those meeting the body, “For Oysters.” The writer’s widow, Olga Knipper, the famous actress of the Moscow Art Theater, was dismayed that only fifteen or so people had come to the train station. The absurdity of it all belonged in a Chekhov short story.

While Chekhov’s funeral at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow was well attended, it nonetheless depressed Gorky, who lamented to another writer friend, Leonid Andreyev: “I am all splattered by the gray mud of speeches, inscriptions on wreaths, newspaper articles, and various conversations. Involuntarily thinking of my own death, I imagine the ideal funeral in this way: a dray cart carries my coffin and it is followed by one indifferent patrolman. A writer in Russia cannot be buried in a better, more noble, more decent way.”16

If only Gorky could have known how “indecent” his own funeral in 1936 would be by the standards he had defined in 1904: a crowd of one hundred thousand people on Red Square, pompous speeches by Soviet leaders, with police and army on guard. By the end of his life Gorky had been proclaimed by Joseph Stalin to be “the great humanist” and fighter for “all progressive humanity.” Chekhov had been more concerned with the happiness of the individual; in the opinion of many people, he did not fight for anything. He simply sang the mundane—that was how he was perceived by critics and readers. They did not like the fact that Chekhov, unlike Tolstoy (and later Gorky and Solzhenitsyn), did not aspire to be a leader or teacher of life. Contrary to the Russian cultural tradition, he was not a prophet, or a yurodivy (holy fool), or dissident. That is why Chekhov became so popular

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