On the Trail of Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (1882)
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A century after the death of Russia's greatest novelist, Lisa Grainger finds Moscow and the writer's country home still haunted by powerful literary ghosts.
Nothing, it seemed, could have pleased the young sales assistant in the Moscow bookshop more than me asking for a copy of War and Peace. "I vant to thank you for your passion," she said earnestly, one hand on her heart, pressing an English translation into my hands, before presenting Anna Karenina, Resurrection, Childhood and The Death of Ivan Ilych for my inspection, and then calling over her colleagues to witness my interest. "He is our passion, too. Our Russian genius. So, thank you."
Tolstoy may have died 100 years ago, but the novelist excites more interest now than he ever has. Already this year Mexico and Cuba have organised book fairs dedicated to him. New translations of Anna Karenina will be published in four languages. A 100-volume collection of his works is about to be unveiled, and 22 works are to be translated into English. And The Last Station, an Oscar-nominated film about the last two years of the writer's life, has just opened. Numerous centenary celebrations are planned worldwide.
Strangely, though, in spite of many Russians' passion for his works, celebrations are being held everywhere but his own country. Here, as I've discovered in the past week, trying to learn about the writer in his home city, there are no Tolstoy trails, few English-speaking Tolstoy guides and no visitor information in languages other than Russian.
Why celebrations here are muted is not easy to discover. One explanation is that large-scale tourism to the city is relatively recent. Another is Tolstoy's relationship with the Russian Orthodox church. Near the end of his life, the writer became a spiritual anarchist, a stance that resulted in his formal excommunication in 1901. With the church's current power ("not unlike that of the Communist Party 30 years ago," as one Russian put it to me), being seen as actively pro-Tolstoy today might be viewed by some as being not only anti-government, but anti-Russian.
Not so anti-Russian that museums to the writer have been closed, or discussion curtailed. But, says Tolstoy's great-great-grandson, Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, with whom I have lunch at the writer's former country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where he is the museum director: "The subject of the church is complicated. The authorities are feeling the attitude of the church to Tolstoy. So, although they [the state] support our [family] celebrations, they cannot take part. They are caught."
Arriving at the gates at Yasnaya Polyana, 125 miles south of Moscow, I'm reminded of the scene in Anna Karenina in which the heroine arrives in the countryside to find Vronsky waiting in swirling snow.
It is February, and although the skies are blue, it is 3F (-16C). Sparkling, fresh snow covers every surface. To the left of the long, birch-lined driveway stretches an icy lake. Beyond are snow-covered log-cabin stables. A couple of sleighs (sadly sans bells and bearskins) are half-buried in white near the stables, seats thick with ice. And beyond rises the house in which the writer was born and lived until a couple of weeks before his death: a handsome 19th-century, cream-painted double-storey dwelling, ringed by orchards of icicle-hung apple trees.
It is this house that is portrayed in the film The Last Station; where Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer) and his wife Sophia (Oscar-nominated Helen Mirren) lived with nine of their surviving 13 children until he left home in 1910, caught pneumonia and died at a local station-master's house.
Filming didn't actually take place here ("unfortunately, it was less complicated, less expensive and less bureaucratic to film in Germany," Vladimir Tolstoy says). Having seen the priceless art, fine furniture and delicate wooden floors, that is not necessarily a bad thing. As I walk around the estate with Galina Alexeeva, a Russian Yale-educated academic who has been head of Tolstoy research here for 25 years, the house – left as it was when Tolstoy lived here – becomes a place not just of beautiful objects, but of extraordinary tales.
A black leather sofa is revealed as the place where Tolstoy and then 11 of his children were born. There's the desk at which he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, decorated with paper, pens, candlesticks and a glass paperweight presented by a workers' union. Also here is a little brass dog with which he slept as a child, given to him by a beloved aunt who looked after him from the age of 18 months, after his mother died. By it is a chair, whose legs he trimmed so as to be closer to the desk when he became short-sighted.
Beyond the study is the dining room, which played host to Russian greats such as Prokofiev, Gorky, Chekhov and the Russian painter Repin, whose works adorn the walls. And beyond that, Sophia's bedroom, with its little desk on which she transcribed, in her neat handwriting, Tolstoy's almost illegible manuscripts. Sometimes she would repeat the task 20 times as the writer edited and revised the text.
Seeing the writer's bedroom is as moving as standing by his desk. Although the great-grandson of Prince Sergey Volkonsky, Tolstoy, as he grew older, increasingly identified with Russian serfs, hoeing soil with them, growing food and dressing like a man of the land. While Sophia's room contains the art, fine furniture, tapestries, paintings and gold icons of a 19th-century noblewoman, Tolstoy's room is monastic in its simplicity. On the single bed stretches a blanket knitted by his wife. On the walls are paintings of his children. Two white, coarse-linen shirts and a rough hat hang on hooks (shirts which his followers subsequently wore). Even his shoes are rough, made by the man himself.
What strikes one when visiting this country estate, and his town house in Moscow (to which he reluctantly moved in 1882 so that his children could be better educated), is how much of the man's literature mirrored his life.
The same goes for Moscow's Tolstoy Museum, where one gets a sense of the privileged world into which he was born (and wrote about in Anna Karenina) through the portraits and belongings of his lace-shirted ancestors. A room featuring bullets, battleground soil and medals from Crimea, where he served in the Russian army, helps to explain the power of the battle scenes in War and Peace. Shelves holding the 22,000 books he amassed, in the 15 languages he spoke (including Arabic and Hebrew), help explain his vast knowledge of the world's religions and cultures. Cabinets of letters from Russian tsars or Mahatma Gandhi (with whom he corresponded about non-violent protest) provide an insight into his spiritual and political journey in his later works.
Rather touchingly, in his wooden, country-style Moscow home, where I am guided by a passionate woman, Svetlana Ovsyannikova, who fell in love with the author's works at university and has guided here ever since, there are a number of items that reveal more about the author as a man. In his dressing room are his dumbbells and an English bicycle he bought in his sixties and learnt to ride in the Moscow military horse-riding ring. A bear skin lies beneath the grand piano – a reminder of his younger days as a hunter – and a tape recorder plays the writer's only piano composition. A cloth embroidered with visitors' signatures by his daughter Tatiana covers a table. A rocking horse owned by his beloved youngest son, Alexis, who died at seven, stands unused, alongside a pair of tiny ice-skates. And on walls all over the house hang photographs, many taken and developed by Sophia: of her husband on horses, walking the estate, or sitting tenderly with grandchildren.
As one would expect of such a storyteller, Tolstoy's grave has a tale to tell, too. As he lay dying, he made his family promise that his burial place would be neither adorned nor marked with religious iconography.
"When he was a child, his brother Nikolai told him that in the forest, there was a magical green stick. Whoever found this stick would find eternal happiness," said our guide, Galina, as we shivered in a blizzard, around a simple pine-leaf-covered mound. "His final wish was to be buried there, where his beloved brother said the green stick was found."
So, too, were 72 Nazi soldiers, killed in skirmishes when the house was occupied in the Forties, during what is called here "The Great Patriotic War". Later, the invaders' bodies were moved to the other side of the river. But like all good Tolstoy tales, that's another, more complicated, story.
Article by Lisa Grainger