11/24/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Tolstoy's Disciple and 'Evil Genius'

Four years ago, I explained in my blog how enduring misconceptions about Sophia Tolstoy's character and marriage prompted me to write her biography. Back then I could not tell the whole story about the Tolstoys' family drama. At the heart of it was the writer's intimate and troubled relationship with a much younger man, his disciple Vladimir Chertkov. Based on previously unavailable documents, Tolstoy's False Disciple tells the story of Leo Tolstoy's unfathomable union with his moral opposite, and of Chertkov's controlling influence over the writer.

When the two met, Tolstoy was 55 and Chertkov 29. A handsome aristocrat, an ex-officer of the Guards, Chertkov came to see the celebrated novelist, whose literature he hadn't read. They discussed religion: it was the subject that interested Tolstoy most. After completing Anna Karenina and suffering a profound spiritual crisis, Tolstoy renounced his literary vocation as futile. Having retranslated the Gospels, he formulated his own practical religion, which he believed contained the blueprint for building the Kingdom of God on earth. Chertkov had a captivating pitch for the writer: he told a story of his own transformation by the Gospels and expressed thoughts, which sounded precisely like Tolstoy's -- mainly, that Christianity was incompatible with war. The coincidence of their beliefs (whether it was genuine or not) inspired Tolstoy's deep trust and love.

Later, Tolstoy had many followers, but only with Chertkov did he form an intimate and non-transparent union. As Tolstoy would admit, their relationship extended beyond Christian brotherly love. During the first two years, when their meetings and correspondence were particularly intense, the two men had each other's permission to destroy occasional letter. Chertkov became Tolstoy's confidante, to whom the writer even told of his marital troubles. He read Tolstoy's diary, in which the writer created a simplified narrative about his sufferings at home and chastised Sophia for refusing to abide by his austere Christian principles. (Living in accord with Tolstoyan principles would involve complete material renunciation.) Chertkov made a copy of that diary, trusted to him alone, and circulated information among Tolstoy's other devotees. Tolstoy was shocked to discover this deception and many more that followed, but never changed his opinion of the man.

The relationship developed on many levels, reflecting Tolstoy's and Chertkov's growing bond. Chertkov's intrusion into the marriage exacerbated the Tolstoys' discord. Despite his moral authority, Tolstoy was looking for Chertkov's approval even in his family life. At the height of his involvement with Chertkov, Tolstoy attempted to leave home and threatened Sophia with divorce. Deeply divided in his heart, he wrote simultaneous letters: to Chertkov -- with love, and to Sophia -- with accusations.

Their intimacy explains Chertkov's meteoric rise as Tolstoy's publishing associate -- the only one who had extraordinary privileges. Tolstoy gave Chertkov carte blanche to revise his fiction and non-fiction alike. The disciple soon instructed Tolstoy on how and what to write, and was zealously watching that the writer's moral message remain consistent.

The union with a dogmatic man, who was pathologically attached to him, had a devastating effect on Tolstoy's creativity. Chertkov meddled in his work and insisted on continuing to receive a copy of Tolstoy's diaries and entire correspondence. He did not relax his control even as Tolstoy explained that all this perennial reading over his shoulder impeded his spiritual activity, "knowing that everything will be copied at once and sent out paralyzes me." Chertkov invented an excuse: he needed information to compile a compendium of Tolstoy's thoughts. This useless project gave him unparalleled access to reading everything the writer produced. It also made it easier to manipulate Tolstoy: if the writer expressed thoughts that disagreed with his own doctrine, he would receive an admonishing letter from Chertkov. The relationship prevented Tolstoy from fully developing his philosophy.

Chertkov was a difficult man, Tolstoy would say. This was a clear understatement: others describe him as an unscrupulous schemer and a tyrant. He used his closeness with Tolstoy for personal gain, demanding privileges and promotions. Faced with Chertkov's relentless pressure, Tolstoy transferred all his public affairs to him, and later promised to release his new works only through Chertkov's enterprise. Chertkov established a monopoly on publishing Tolstoy's most profitable first editions, while remaining unaccountable for the proceeds. This made a mockery of the writer's renunciation of copyright -- permission to all publishers to produce his works on equal terms. Chertkov took away Tolstoy's manuscripts and disturbed his peace with a litany of complaints -- on other disciples, on Tolstoy's daughters, and on Sophia, who was his main rival. His scandals in the publishing world had come in the middle of Tolstoy's work on Resurrection and had jeopardized it. The novel remains unfinished, along with other late fiction, including the masterpiece, Hadji Murat.

Tolstoy loved Chertkov partially and blindly, despite the many troubles he caused, and maintained the relationship for almost three decades. The whole exchange between the two men comprises over two thousand letters, making the obscure Chertkov the writer's largest correspondent.

In 1910, when entirely in Chertkov's power, Tolstoy signed a secret will, which the disciple composed and which appointed him sole executor of the literary estate. In Astapovo, where Sophia was not admitted to see her dying husband, Chertkov emerged as the person "closest" to Tolstoy.

This type of chronic schemer and manipulator is known in psychology and in literature. In David Copperfield (the novel Tolstoy admired), Dickens makes an unforgettable portrayal of Uriah Heep, who "can work his way into the confidence of an experienced man of affairs, gradually get the upper hand of his weaknesses, and reduce him to subservience." This also explains how Chertkov, despite his banality, came to control the writer of genius.

Alexandra Popoff is author of the literary biographies Sophia Tolstoy, The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants, and, most recently, of Tolstoy's False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov. She lives in Canada.