Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy has undergone a change.  He has come to believe that lasting happiness can only be attained by striving for inner self-perfection through renunciation, non violent resistance, altruism and denial of the ego.   In a statement that presages the revolution, Tolstoy concludes that the aristocracy are a burden on the poor, and we must live together in a state of anarchy.  So he has eschewed the life of a Count, adopted the dress and behaviour of a simple Russian peasant and lives  in an agrarian commune,  where he and his acolytes and disciples adopt an ascetic, vegetarian, self sacrificing life style.  He opposes private property and has been  giving away his wealth to his serfs.   

He has even challenged the institution of marriage and espouses notions of chastity and sexual abstinence.  No wonder his wife of nearly 50 years, Sofya Andreevna, is alarmed. She does not welcome her husband’s asceticism and self sacrifice;  it demands too much self sacrifice from her.   Hadn’t she borne him 13 children and painstakingly ploughed through the proofs of all his novels?  Wasn’t she entitled to enjoy the sophistication and attention her position had brought her?

 And now her husband is plotting with his entourage to make a secret revision to leave the copyright of his work to the Russian people!  She is furious!   So it’s war and not much peace in the Tolstoy house, as various factions battle for the author’s attention and favour.

Theirs’ has been a marriage of great passion, albeit requiring  much understanding from Sofya.  On the eve of their marriage, Lev presented his young wife with his diaries, which chronicled his sexual adventures.   But now  he is tired.  He just desires peace and  craves the life of a wandering ascetic while Sofya, much younger than her husband, still needs to feel adored and desired.    

In her sixties, Sofia still has the energy to be wilful, charming and seductive.  And if this doesn’t provide her with the attention she felt was her due, then she will sulk, act out and is quite prepared to destroy Tolstoy’s purpose and mission. This is what the disciples are afraid of.  They have invested too much in the Tolstoy brand to risk the Countess’s ire.  Vladimir Chertkov  regards himself as the guardian of the great man’s reputation and wants the money from War and Peace to be used to advance the cause of universal love and passive resistance.  It is 1910 and the rumblings of the revolution can be heard in the distance.  

 It is not that Sophia is bad; a hundred years later we can all too clearly understand her indignation.  But she is dangerous; impulsive, histrionic, dramatic, suspicious –  the epitome of what has come to be regarded in psychoanalytic terminology as the borderline hysteric.  Attention and love is her life blood and if she doesn’t get it, she will cause trouble.  Tolstoy’s entourage are accustomed to her histrionics and don’t take too much notice of them.  Their mission is protect the great man from her,  to allow him the peace he needs to think and work and to record the last of his life for posterity.  So Sofya is conveniently regarded as mad, but the situation is such to bring out the worst in her.   

Things come to a head late in 1910.  Not in the most robust health and tired of Sofya’s histrionics,  Tolstoy gathers up the courage to abandon his family and wealth and heads south.  True to form, Sofia reacts with a hysterical fit, tumbling off the  landing stage into the lake.  When Lev Nikolayevich leans of it, he just rolls his eyes.  But he does love his wife.  They had shared a passion, allowed to few and still have the understanding that prolonged love and companionship bring.   It is just that her suspicion, impulsiveness and neediness make her very difficult to live with.

Lev had been speaking and writing of his own death in the days preceding his departure.  So it was half expected and feared that he would fall ill.  Within three days he has a high fever and succumbs to pneumonia at the remote station at Astropovo.  Sofya is prevented from talking to her husband.   

As a counterpoint for the dwindling love between Tolstoy and his wife is the burgeoning passion  between Valentin, Tolstoy’s new secretary and the feisty Masha, who seduces the celibate Valentin.  In a way, the couples are similar; the menn ascetic and high principled, the woman passionate, inspirational and dangerous.  Although Christian ethics tended to blame women for distracting such men from the path of true devotion,  surely Sofya and others who devote themselves to great men (Gandhi’s wife for example), have a right to feel betrayed by their husbands devotion to the self and the divine.           

Based on a novel by Jay Parini, directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as his wife and John McAvoy as Valentin, ‘The Last Station’ (2009) is an intelligent look at the Tolstoyan dream of freedom through frugality and the tensions this creates for the family.  ‘All the performances are perfect, but Mirren stands out. Her Sofia is a wonderful, minx-like mix of Lady Macbeth and Machiavelli: loathsome and lovable, she exposes with great wit the hypocrisy of the sycophants who surround her husband.’

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