Tolstoy's last stop
The Oldie Magazine|December 2020
At 82, the great writer left his wife. He wanted to get hundreds of miles away but only made it to a nearby station.
Sara Wheeler

A hundred and ten years ago, on 20th November 1910, the second-most-famous man in Russia after the Tsar died on a modest cot at Astapovo railway station, 200 miles south of Moscow.

Tolstoy had often written about the moment of death. He must have known it was his turn.

Shortly before, an elderly countess had stepped from a carriage onto the lonely platform leading to the stationmaster’s house. Accompanied by a man and woman, she wore a dark coat with a fur trim, and a black hat.

The dawning sky was aspirin-white, but there was no snow. Puffs of smoke rose above the railway engine. The three walked slowly towards the station house. The countess drew on gloves. As they approached the building, a slim, bearded figure inside slammed the door shut.

I can report these details, as I have watched flickering footage of Countess Tolstoy’s arrival at her husband’s deathbed on YouTube.

Sofia Andreyevna had been married to Tolstoy for 48 years and had given birth to 13 of his children. At four in the morning, a few days before his death, Tolstoy, carrying a candle, entered his live-in doctor’s bedroom on the first floor of his ancestral home and woke the doctor. He told the man softly they had to leave. Tolstoy said, ‘Don’t wake Sofia.’

He was 82 and wished to renounce the world. His wife was of the world. Tolstoy left Sofia a note saying that he could no longer bear ‘the state of luxury in which I have been living’. He wrote, ‘My leaving will grieve you. I’m sorry about that, but please understand and believe me: I cannot do otherwise. My position in the house is becoming – has become – impossible.’

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