Leo Tolstoy and Father John: The rivalry of an age
The memoirs of Ivan Zakhar’in, playwright and author appearing under the pseudonym Yakunin, chronicle a curious conversation. It arose between Russian Emperor Alexander III and the Countess Alexandra Andreyevna Tolstaya, the renowned Alexandrine, first cousin once removed of Leo Tolstoy, lady-in-waiting and governess of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna.
At the imperial court, Alexandrine had acquired a reputation for her impeccable piety, philanthropic leanings, exceptional intellect and literary taste, and for her independence of character, that most distinctive trait of the Tolstovian line.
The Emperor was able to reach the lady-in-waiting’s chambers via a separate elevated glass gallery connecting the Winter Palace with the Hermitage. One day, he paid her a visit to discuss the possible publication of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which had been banned by the Church censors.
“I allowed myself to express my support for the idea, and told the Emperor that the whole of Russia had already read it or was in the process of doing so. Therefore, allowing publication would merely reduce the scope of those readers who so avidly sought out forbidden fruit,” she recounted.
Russian women often proved to be shrewder than the men. “The Kreutzer Sonata” was accepted for printing, but only as a part of a subsequent volume of the collected writings of Tolstoy. Even then, in 1891, these already attested to the writer’s huge appeal across the country.
“Tell me, who do you consider to be the most remarkable and popular persons in Russia?” the Emperor asked. “Knowing of your honesty, I am confident that you will tell me the truth. Do not of course think of mentioning me...”
Editor’s Note: Many readers know about Russians’ love for Leo Tolstoy during the reign of Alexander III—a rough-cut emperor who in his own way protected the literary and spiritual giant from exile. The people also genuinely loved John of Kronstadt, who lived a parallel life to the master of the modern novel. Millions believed in the priest, who was canonized, and revered him as a saint, even while he was still alive. Chekhov said that in every log house he visited in Sakhalin he had seen portraits of Father John hung next to the icons. Leo Tolstoy and St. John enjoyed the greatest rivalry of the age.
Pavel Basinky’s book “Saint versus Leo” was recently published in Russian by Elena Shubina Editorial of ACT publishing house.