As someone who is a huge fan of the writings of Leo Tolstoy – I can boast that I have read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, as well as some of his later writings on Christian anarchism and nonviolent resistance – I was excited to learn that a movie had been made about the last year of his life. While searching for movie theatres and show times on Yahoo Movies, I was shocked to learn that the movie only grossed $130,813 at the U.S. Box Office. How could a movie about a great writer and philosopher who influenced the work of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., dwindle in comparison to a movie about blue men in trees?
Set in 1910, the movie depicts 2 simultaneous love stories – the falling apart marriage of Leo Nikolayevich (Christopher Plummer) and Sofya Andreyevna (Helen Mirren), and the blossoming relationship of Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) and another Tolstoyan follower, Masha. Leo Tolstoy’s views on the rights to own property, poverty, and chastity differ greatly from his materialistic wife’s views, which results in frequent quarrels and Sofya’s repeated attempts at suicide. To add to this, Tolstoy’s most devoted disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), is hastening the process of Tolstoy developing a new will to leave his immense fortune and the rights to his work to the Russian people, rather than his wife and 13 children.
The young virgin, Bulgakov, struggles living at the Telyatinki commune, with a beautiful woman, Masha. According to the teachings of Tolstoy, sexual abstinence is the ideal, although Tolstoy also wrote that the central tenet of Christianity and all world religions is love.
Fortunately, I read Jay Parini’s novel The Last Station prior to watching the movie, because the movie was a bit disappointing. Reflective of the failings of The Passion of the Christ, the movie portrays the long road to death, and says little about the teachings of the person dying. While the multiple first person narrative of the book (based on several actual diaries of the people most close to him) tells the story of Tolstoy’s final year and his quest to continue his work and philosophizing up until the very end, the movie is barely more than a love-story and a battle over his will, and only really develops two of the main characters from the book. Surprisingly, neither of these is Leo Tolstoy himself.
So while I wouldn’t necessarily encourage everyone to run out and see this movie while it is still in the cinemas, Jay Parini’s novel is worth a read. The crazy musings of Tolstoy’s wife, the eager-to-please attitude of his secretary Bulgakov, the lesbian leanings of his daughter Sasha, and the obsessiveness of his Dr. Dushan to document everything Tolstoy says in a small notebook, are intertwined with excerpts from Tolstoy’s diary entries, letters to Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw, and writings from his later years.
To close with an excerpt from Tolstoy’s non-fiction work What Then Must We Do?, which is also featured in the novel and shows Tolstoy’s devout beliefs against violence of any form and structures that create poverty:
Thirty years ago, in Paris, I once saw how, in the presence of thousands of spectators, they cut a man’s head off with a guillotine. I knew he was a horrible criminal, and I knew all the arguments written in defense of that kind of action. I also knew his crime was done deliberately and intentionally. But at the moment the head and the body separated, with the head toppling into the box, I gasped and realized not with my mind but with my heart and my whole soul that all the arguments in favor of capital punishment are wicked nonsense and that however many people may combine to commit murder – the worst of all crimes – and whatever they may call themselves, murder remains murder. I knew that a crime had been committed before my eyes, and that I, by my very presence and nonintervention, had approved and shared in that crime.
In the same way now, at the sight of the hunger, cold, and degradation of thousands of people, I understood not only with my mind or heart but with my very soul that the existence of tens of thousands of such people in Moscow – while I and thousands of others gorge ourselves on beefsteaks and sturgeon and cover our horses and floors with cloth or carpets – no matter what all the learned men in the world may say about its necessity, is a crime, and one committed not once but constantly. I knew that I, with my luxury, shared fully the responsibility for this crime.