Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity

Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity

August 15, 2010


Leo Tolstoy

After seeing several months ago the movie “The Last Station,” by the director Michael Hoffman, based on Leo Tolstoy’s final year of life and his death at the train station of Astapovo in 1910, I found my thoughts often turning to him. I’ve had a long interest in Tolstoy and his work, having spent considerable time as a student reading large swaths of his journals and other more obscure books during the early 1970s and repeatedly going back to him during intervening years. While the acting of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer was superb, the latter of whom I admire having seen Plummer perform live a couple of times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the movie left me with an uneasy feeling regarding the interpretation of Tolstoy. The film script was based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station, which may be part of the problem, in turn perhaps tracing back to the unsympathetic biographies by Henry Troyat and R. N. Wilson, both derisively presenting Tolstoy as a religious crank and fanatic. Neither biography understands the full weight of who Tolstoy was and what he actually believed and why. Touching on the problem, fearing other biographers would repeat the errors of Troyat, Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra wrote in 1968, in The Real Tolstoy, that “Troyat . . . shows no respect for Tolstoy’s inner life. He speaks about it in vulgar, cynical expressions…. I fear that the errors in Troyat’s book will be repeated in other works.” Beyond the biographies, skewing also the movie, lies the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of modernity that has no respect or appreciation for any spiritual vision of life, including even a highly universal one, such as Tolstoy’s, for he had embraced, by the last decade of his life, the universal principles and teachings, not only of Christianity, but of all the great religions. To see or set him in a more limited context is to fail to understand him within his own stated terms and the plenitude and scope of his work….

Now available in

The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.

Frederick Glaysher



Filed under Universality

3 Responses to Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity

  1. Tarun Tapas Mukherjee

    From eReading. Submitted on 2010/09/23 at 2:57 am

    Read the article on Leo Tolstoy. So enlightening for me!

  2. FG

    From eReading. Submitted on 2010/11/02 at 12:49 pm

    Tarun, Sorry to have taken sssooooo long to find and respond to this message. I had accidentally had notification turned off!

    Glad you found this piece on Tolstoy “enlightening,” as we discussed through Facebook. Unfortunately, there are many dimensions of Tolstoy that have been lost from view for many current readers. Many of the concerns he gave his life to remain crucial still for modern global culture.

  3. FG

    From eReading. Submitted on 2011/01/24 at 7:48 am

    As a footnote, my recent reading of Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom led me to see new meaning in a passage that he himself wrote for May 26:

    “When you get ready to die, do not worry about the usual things, like following rituals or taking care of everyday business. Be prepared so that you can die in the best way possible. Use all the mighty influence of those powerful strong minutes of death, when a person exists partially in the other world, and his words and deeds have special power over those who remain in this world.”

    That thinking must also played a part in his decision to leave Yasnaya Polyana. A hundred years later it is undeniable that his words and actions continue to exercise a “special power.”

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