Photographs by William Brumfield

Leo Tolstoy is one of the world's best known and most beloved writers. His novels have brought joy and wisdom to the lives of untold millions. Yet his final years were a time of personal turmoil and family discord.

Fleeing what he considered to be an intolerable domestic situation in the fall of 1910, the great writer met death not at his estate of Yasnaya Polyana, but at a distant railway station known as Astapovo, some 250 miles southeast of Moscow in what is now Lipetsk Region.

Much has been written about these final days of the writer's life, but little attention has been given to the physical setting in which these momentous events occurred. The nearby village of Astapovo is known to have existed since the mid-17th century.


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Its name derives from Lake Ostapovo, in turn related to the name "Ostap," pronounced "Astap" in standard Russian. With its small church, Astapovo had little to distinguish it from hundreds of other such villages in south central Russia.

This rural backwater was transformed in 1889-90 with the building of Astapovo Station as part of the new Ryazan-Kozelsk Railway. By the late 1890s, traffic through the station increased significantly with the development of what had become the Ryazan-Urals Railroad system. The station complex underwent a major expansion, which began in 1898 and extended through the next decade.

How to get there

To get to Astapovo take the regular train from Moscow following to Lugansk, take off in Yelets and than take the local train following to the Leo Tolstoy station.

By 1910, Astapovo was hardly the tiny station mentioned in some Tolstoy biographies. Quite the contrary, it could be seen as a model project for provincial stations within the rapid growth of Russia's rail system. 

The Astapovo complex consisted of several buildings, including a substantial two-story brick station constructed in 1903 next to the original wooden station. Behind the station buildings and slightly to the right are two one-story wooden structures: a house for the stationmaster and a first aid station, now used as a pharmacy. Nearby is a low brick building that housed the telegraph.

To the right of these buildings was a railway technical school connected to the Church of the Trinity, both built of brick between 1905-09. Used as a warehouse during the Soviet period, the church has been cleaned and reconsecrated.

Behind the station on the left stand two brick water towers, whose size reflects the rapid expansion of Astapovo Station. At the back of the complex across a small square is an attractively designed row of buildings for railway workers.

A park with an entrance gate was laid out next to the station area. Such was Astapovo Station when Tolstoy arrived on Oct. 31 (according to the Julian calendar, which was still used in Russia at that time. The date was Nov. 13 according to the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere.)

In his latter years, Tolstoy had become increasingly distraught by what he felt was a lack of sympathy for his social and moral views on the part of his devoted wife, Sophia Andreevna (Sonya). This tragic discord was inflamed by some of Tolstoy's closest associates, who encouraged the writer to make a public gesture, such as leaving Yasnaya Polyana.

The most prominent among these associates was Vladimir Chertkov, a controversial figure who gained Tolstoy's trust and engaged in tireless organizational activity to promulgate the writer's late work and teachings.

Adding to the tension was Tolstoy's very public criticism of the Orthodox Church and his rejection of certain basic tenets of the faith. In response the Church excomunicated him in 1901. Although some have claimed that he sought a return toward the end, he died unreconciled with the church.

In the early hours of Oct. 28, Tolstoy arose after a sleepless night, bade farewell to this daughter Alexandra (Sasha), and departed Yasnaya Polyana with his personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky. Fearing discovery, they covered a difficult path to the small station of Shchekino, where they boarded a train to Kozelsk Station (Kaluga Province).

After sending telegrams to Sasha and to Chertkov, they journeyed to the nearby Optina Pustyn monastic retreat, a renowned spiritual center that also played an important role in Fyodor Dostoevsky's life.

On Oct. 29, Tolstoy and Makovitsky journeyed to the Shamardino Convent, just north of Optina Pustyn. There Tolstoy visited his sister, Maria (1830-1912), who entered the convent in 1891. The next day Sasha arrived, and that evening Tolstoy wrote a letter to his wife asking her not to follow him.

Early on the morning of Oct. 31, Tolstoy left Shamardino with Sasha and Makovitsky for a jolting trip back to the Kozelsk station. There they boarded a third-class car in the direction of Rostov-on-Don. Already in fragile health at the age of 82, exhausted by the constant travel, and suffering in the smoke-filled, crowded primitive car, Tolstoy became ill with pneumonia.

Towards evening Makovitsky and Sasha, alarmed by his obvious distress and rising temperature, decided to take him from the train at the nearest station, Astapovo. The efficient stationmaster, Ivan Ozolin, recognized Tolstoy and promptly dealt with the emergency by providing the writer a large room in his house.

It is no exaggeration to say that over the next week Astapovo became an international sensation. Telegraph bulletins went out ceaselessly, reporters flocked to the station, and even a film crew from the French Pathé News Company arrived toward the end.

On Nov. 2 Chertkov appeared (at Tolstoy's request), and that evening Tolstoy's son Sergei arrived. Sophia Andreevna, accompanied by their other children, arrived by the end of the day in a first-class car that remained at the station and housed them for the duration. Those closest to Tolstoy prevented her from entering the stationmaster's house.

A succession of doctors descended on the station, but no expertise could prevent the inevitable. Tolstoy’s wife was allowed into the room only when he had slipped into a coma. On Nov. 7, at 6:05 AM, Tolstoy died without Last Rites.

Ozolin decided to keep the bedroom as it was at the time of the great writer's death. The shadow of Tolstoy's recumbant head and torso cast by the bedside lamp was outlined on the wallpaper and has been preserved. Within a day, a memorial plaque appeared over one of the doors to the room. The station clock was stopped at 6:05.

On Nov. 8, a funeral cortege set off from Astapovo to Yasnaya Polyana. The next day, Tolstoy was buried on the estate in simple grave without a cross. Hundreds attended the burial under the watchful eyes of government agents.

Tolstoy's life spanned two very different eras, from a serf-owning agricultural society to a turbulent period of uneven development and industrialization. It is somehow fitting that his final days should have unfolded along a railroad, the symbol and instrument of rapid social change that he so profoundly observed.

In 1918 Astapovo was renamed "Lev Tolstoy," although the name "Astapovo" remains for the museum and will ever stay in the memory of those who know Tolstoy's work. The shrine established by the good stationmaster Ozolin was maintained after the revolution and is now a national landmark, administered by the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow.

The town has a current population of around 8,000 and is the administrative center of a rich agricultural region. There is no major passenger service at the station, just a small local shuttle. Freight trains, however, still rumble through, past the large clock always set at 6:05.