It's 1910 in Russia, Leo Tolstoy is dying in the remote town of Astapovo, and the modern media apparatus is waiting to be born. In chronicling the novelist's death, young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin discovers elation in both the tricks of his trade and his presence at the center of history. (His creator, an acclaimed short-story writer, also gets carried away by the sweep of the events, sometimes to jarring effect. One comrade to another on young Stalin: ''He's the most reckless, untrustworthy, impudent revolutionist that there ever was!'') While Nikolai seems to evolve into one Comrade Astapov, a bureaucrat charged with ''conquering the Russian imagination,'' his cool appraisals of propagandistic intrigue remain dry and precise.