Last Station

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Recently I saw two biographical films of religious import. The first was "Creation," a treatment of the conflict between the religious convictions of Charles Darwin's wife Emma and Darwin's struggle to publish "The Origin of Species, amidst a tense and partly hallucinatory recollection of the suffering and death of their oldest daughter Annie.

The film left me largely unaffected and with little room for further reflection.

Despite a remarkably good performance by Paul Bettany as Darwin, this film by Jon Amiel, in my judgment, sidetracked the biologist's intellectual passion into a psychologizing, biographical narrative, while flattening the scientific and ideological drama into a contest of enlightened heroism versus benighted religious naivetÉ.

More rewarding for me spiritually, while leaving room for subsequent meditation, was Michael Hoffman's "The Last Station," a film (now on DVD) about the last year in the life of the Russian novelist and thinker Leo Tolstoy.

Excellent acting by Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's spirited but agonized wife Sophia Tolstaya (Sofya), and Christopher Plummer as the aged count - supported by James McAvoy as the novelist's private secretary Valentin Bulgakov, and the manipulative promoter of Tolstoy's religious and ethical thought, Vladimir Chertkov, played by Paul Giamatti - contributed greatly to the success of this film.

The story centres on the last will of Tolstoy, in which he releases the copyrights for his literary oeuvre to the public domain while his wife attempts to keep them in the family.

Frictions between the couple and Tolstoy's increasing radicalism in divesting himself of all earthly possessions lead to his short-lived final escape from the country estate, Nasyana Polyana, and his death at Astapova railroad station.

The struggle between Tolstoy's wife and the adulating followers of the celebrated writer, the so-called Tolstoyans, is seen through the eyes of the writer's private secretary.

Valentin's emancipation from a blind follower to a more even-handed observer is embedded in a love story that tests the young man's ideology.

Such tension between thought and life, ideology and love, is itself a fundamental aspect of all purposeful living. Internalized ideas often take their own course and even pose a threat to the thought and system that created them.

Here, the expected utter loyalty of a devotee gives way to empathy for Tolstoy's wife and an increasingly critical attitude toward Chertkov, the chief ideologist of the Tolstoyans, for whom even the suffering and death of his master is merely one more opportunity to promote a cause. Even Tolstoy himself admits that he is a poor Tolstoyan.

This period in the author's life casts a light on his role as a radical Christian pacifist and anarchist, who not only questioned institutional religion but many societal institutions, including those that gave rise to his own privileged and aristocratic upbringing and lifestyle.

Unlike the proponents of believers' churches - such as the Anabaptists, who expressed a profound criticism of state-church relationships and erected countercultural communities based on the Bible - the count's strength lay not so much in creating new utopian societies as in ruthlessly exposing the designs of organized oppression and of inspiring other individuals with the seriousness of his ethical appeal.

Thus, the movement of his followers, who pursued a vegetarian and celibate lifestyle in communities, remained relatively insignificant. The individualism that Tolstoy espoused warred against an enforced communalism.

This is well illustrated in the film by the attitude of Masha, played by Kerry Condon, an independent Tolstoyan who not only has disdain for the priggish leadership of the commune she lives in, but also contradicts their demands for celibacy and eventually leaves them.

Tolstoy's idealized proclamation of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and his pacifism of love resonant with the Gospel and letters of John, are at times hard to follow. So is his religious universalism, which eviscerates the concreteness of religious life for the sake of a vague unity.

Nevertheless, Tolstoy's ethical rigor and religious individuality had practical consequences. It led to his active support of persecuted religious minorities, such as the pacifist Doukhobors of Russia. Not only did he intervene on their behalf and offer his advice, but also the proceeds from his serialized novel "Resurrection" supported the relocation of Doukhobors to Canada.

The relationship between the Canadian Doukhobors and the Tolstoy family continues to this day.

Another 20th-century peaceful reformer, Mahatma Gandhi, was directly influenced by Tolstoy's writings. Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy and published his "Letter to a Hindu" with an admiring foreword.

Accepting the nonviolent approach championed by the Russian writer whom he admired, Gandhi wrote: "One need not accept all that Tolstoy says - some of his facts are not accurately stated - to realize the central truth of his indictment of the present system, which is to understand and act upon the irresistible power of the soul over the body, of love, which is an attribute of the soul, over the brute or body force generated by the stirring in us of evil passions."

Two hours in the company of Tolstoy, his family, followers, and contemporaries is time well spent. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to my friends.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by
e-mail: hrollmann@mun.ca.

Organizations: Last Station, Canadian Doukhobors

Geographic location: Russia, Canada

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  • Polly
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    If there existed no external means for dimming their consciences, one-half of the men would at once shoot themselves, because to live contrary to one's reason is a most intolerable state, and all men of our time are in such a state.~ Leo Tolstoy