Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana

By Allston Mitchell, December 6, 2010

Tolstoy's country house Yasnaya Polyana Photo Allston Mitchell

Tolstoy’s country house Yasnaya Polyana Photo Allston Mitchell

It doesn't take long before you realize that you have not come for a simple wander through the grounds of Tolstoy's country estate as you might through an English country garden. You have (wilfully or not) undertaken a pilgrimage to pay homage to Leo Tolstoy, who is still today described as “the guardian of Russia's soul”.

Leo Tolstoy’s family estate is 200 kilometres south of Moscow just near the town of Tula. The forests, the orchards and gardens along with the great writer’s country house, its library and its simple rustic design have become a fixed point in the history of Russian culture. This is where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina and where he lived out his long and often tormented life, finally leaving it in a fit of fury to escape from the evils of domesticity and inherited wealth to find peace in a monastery. He found peace, but it was only a few days after the “flight” from his home that he caught pneumonia and died in the waiting room of the Astapovo train station – a hundred years ago.

We visited on a beautiful autumn day and there was a huge crowd waiting at the gates to enter Yasnaya Polyana. The entrance to the estate could not be more idyllic – it is like arriving on the set of a Chekhov play with the sunlight dappling through the leaves. You enter the estate through the main gates and walk down an alley of birch trees that skirts around a large lake. It has a timeless feel – you would not be surprised to stumble across the elderly Tolstoy that Gorky described as “a Russian god sitting on a throne of maple under a golden lime tree”.

The walk to the Tolstoy House takes you down this same birch tree lined prospect. Tolstoy himself described the Preshpekt as he called it, in a letter to his wife Sonia:

In the morning again the play of light and shadow from the big thickly dressed birches along the “preshpekt” over the already tall and dark green grass, and forget-me-nots and the dead nettles and everything – most of all the waving of the birches along the preshpekt – is just as it was sixty years ago, when I noticed this beauty for the fist time and fell in love with it.

On the way up to the main house you walk alongside the lake where the Tolstoy family would skate and toboggan in the winter months when it was frozen over.

The birch-lined Preshpekt Photo Allston Mitchell

The birch-lined Preshpekt Photo Allston Mitchell

The Tolstoy House
Yasnaya Polyana was originally owned by the Kartsevs but the estate was bought at the end of the 18th century by Prince Nikolai Volkonsky, Leo Tolstoy’s grandfather, who built two gardens, one in the French style, the “Wedges Park”, and another in the English style, the English Park, or the “Lower Park” as it was called, as well as the famous birch tree prospect.

When the prince died he left the estate to his daughter, Maria Nikolayevna. She later married Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy and they built a 32-room house, and expanded the estate grounds. Maria Nikolayevna gave birth to Leo Tolstoy on September 9, 1828 in a house which was later demolished at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, and he was brought up by his extended family.

As a young man, after a period of travelling, studying at the University of Kazan and fighting in the Crimean War, Leo Tolstoy returned to live on the estate in 1856, bringing his new wife Sonia with him. Their first house, formerly one wing of the previous mansion, was gradually enlarged to accommodate their numerous children.

At the time, Yasnaya Polyana covered about four thousand acres, spread over a rolling hillside with a forest at the top. The estate employed about 350 peasants who lived and worked there. Leo Tolstoy, commenting on his grandfather’s estate, said, “All he had built here was not only solid and comfortable, but also very elegant. The same is true about the park he laid out near the house”.

The rooms in the Tolstoy house, which is now a museum, are surprisingly small. The high points of the visit are the library, the study and the living room; that is, if the rather officious guardians of Tolstoy’s memory do not shoo you through and out into the park too quickly.

Tolstoy’s study
Tolstoy moved his study to different rooms over the years but the contents were always the same: his black couch, on which Tolstoy and all his children were born and his writing desk of Persian walnut. The drawers in the desk still contain Tolstoy’s personal possessions: pens bearing traces of ink, pencils and a pen-knife. It is here that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina. It is difficult not to be swept away by the myth of the great man. The study and indeed the whole house has been kept intact, exactly as it was in 1910.

Tolstoy's study at Yasnaya Polyana

Tolstoy’s study at Yasnaya Polyana

The Library
Tolstoy’s library contains some 22 thousand books in 39 different languages. In different periods of his life Tolstoy was interested in a variety of subjects, not only literature but philosophy, the natural sciences, religion, education, geography and history of art. There is something almost bohemian about all these books in this cosy house with its creaking wooden floors.

Leo Tolstoy could speak fifteen foreign languages – to varying degrees. He would have learned French as a first language, being an aristocrat in 19th century Russia, but he also learned to speak and read English, German, Italian and Polish. At Kazan University, where he was miserable and indeed left before completing his studies, he studied Turkish and Arabic, and at the age of 50 he took up Hebrew and Ancient Greek so that he could read the Bible.

The Living room
The living room is certainly the most evocative room, with the piano, the chess set and the portraits of Tolstoy by Repin and Kramskoy. Tolstoy entertained almost all the important Russian cultural and artistic figures of his time at Yasnaya Poloyana; his guests included Anton Chekhov, Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, the painters Valentin Serov, and Ilya Repin.
It is here that Tolstoy and his family would meet with his guests and acolytes and converse into the night. There were moments of happiness but also terrible rows, misunderstandings and dreadful acrimony.

The Grave of Leo Tolstoy
Leaving the main house and walking along the path through the orchards past Tolstoy’s favourite bench – a very rickety old thing – you head off into the woods towards his grave, which is no monumental sepulchre by any means but a small earth mound that used to be surrounded by a picket fence. It is here that visitors come to stand in silence to pay their respects to the great man.

Long before he died Tolstoy announced the place where he wanted to be buried: in a small clearing called “the place of the green stick”, next to a long ravine in a part of the woods called the Forest of the Old Order (Stari Zakaz). Cutting trees there had been forbidden since the time of his grandfather, and many of the trees were over a hundred years old. The legend about the green stick was invented by Tolstoy’s beloved brother Nikolai who died young. The green stick was the secret of happiness for all mankind and in his will Leo Tolstoy said: “There should be no ceremonies while burying my body; a wooden coffin, and let anyone, who will be willing to, carry it to the Stary Zakaz Wood, near the ravine, to the place of the little green stick”.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Pilgrimage to which Tolstoy?
It does not take long before your realize that you have not come for a simple wander through the grounds as you might at an English country garden. You have (wilfully or not) undertaken a pilgrimage to pay homage to the man who is still described as “the genius of Russia” and “the guardian of Russia’s soul”. But which Tolstoy are you paying homage to? The sage and prophet of his later years, who dominated the cultural and literary landscape of Russia drawing thousands of acolytes to his doorstep? Or the literary genius of his younger years, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, the hard drinking, whoring and gambling nobleman who flitted between self-loathing and a desire for redemption? The real Tolstoy becomes easily lost behind the cultural phenomenon.

Tolstoy, one hundred years after his death, still maintains his place on the Parnassus of European cultural gods along side Shakespeare, Dante, Homer and Bach but he is a difficult man to gauge. If you look for answers among his contemporaries or even from a contemporary Russian you will get just one standard answer, “He was a great man – he was all Russia!” He is Russia’s broad soul itself! He is too difficult to pin down, he was the final authority on everything!” Tolstoy himself is no real help – he happily played along with his own deification. It is all too easy to be caught up in this Tolstoyan religion and simply give way to the rather simplistic description of Tolstoy as all things to all men. However, the real man was much more interesting.

There is a tendency, encouraged by Tolstoy himself, to divide his life into two parts: the young, drinking, gambling and whoring literary star who, as the poet Afanasy Fet said, had an “automatic opposition to all generally accepted opinions”; and the “converted” (some time in the 1880s) moralist who ordered his life according to the simplicity of the Gospels.

There is a clue almost straight away as to what is at work here. As you wander through the estate you may think you are heading towards the house where Tolstoy was born. You won’t find it, and the guides are of no help. The fact that Tolstoy had to sell that house to pay a gambling debt is not advertised, it does not sit well with the myth of the national sage but it comes almost as a relief that Tolstoy was once somewhat less than god-like.

The estate, is a natural cathedral commanding respect but you cry out for some hint of the philandering, bullying Tolstoy with his cruel streak, the man who would screw the parlour maids in the corridor while exhorting the heavens for redemption. The flawed genius was probably a far more interesting man than the irascible bearded prophet that he became. To find the real man, you have to search behind the religion of Tolstoy-ism.

Family group at Yasnaya Polyana

Family group at Yasnaya Polyana

A man of contradiction
Here was a man who was desperate to get married but who hated the institution of marriage – a man who derided women in general for their pernicious effect on men. Tolstoy wanted to free his serfs and have them educated but never quite got over his own aristocratic instincts, (nor the serfs their own subservience), not trusting Tolstoy for a minute and presuming that he was about to pull a fast one on them by offering them land. Here was a man who proclaimed the benefits of chastity but who quite clearly could not get enough sex. He hated inherited wealth and privilege but was defined by just those two things. Tolstoy was the brave defender of Sebastopol in the Crimean War who later became the world’s greatest exponent of non-violence and pacifism. Here was the greatest writer of all time who criticized his own works of genius as just so many soap operas and “lordly pastimes”. Even Tolstoy’s prose has this dual character: on the one hand he was famous throughout the world for his polished undigested prose and his “beautiful types “ as Dostoevsky called them, which were to be found alongside his rather contrived and overworked passages – namely when he was pontificating (at length) on his theory of history.

He was pulled by extremes which may have been what made him the man he was and I imagine it is that tug of war of contradictions that dragged him out of bed at the age of 82 to run away from home to the peace of a monastery – only to meet an untimely death in a railway station waiting room. He seemed to have an undaunted courage for some things and a terrible fear of taking the definitive step in other spheres. That is no doubt where the magic is and it not in his baronial manners masquerading behind a peasant’s beard.

Slavophiles and Radicals
Nineteenth century Russia was a time of intense intellectual discussion. The cultural scene was dominated by two factions, the Slavophiles and the Liberals. In short it was a battle between adherents to liberal pro-western attitudes (traced back to soldiers returning from the invasion of Paris who had been “infected” with new European ideas), and those Russians who held conservative, reactionary and patriotic views. There was a strong reaction against the intrusion of western culture. The Slavophiles fought back against this mechanical rationalism that touted progress, using mysticism, patriotism, and a championing of the undifferentiated soul of Russia. It was the authentic godly peasant pitted against the degenerate yet enlightened liberal.

Tolstoy was his own man and it would be difficult to see him as a follower of either of these schools of thought, but clearly in his youth, prior to his spiritual conversion in the 1880s, he would have been a clear liberal, fascinated by European culture, French literature and German philosophy. However, in his later life he became disenchanted with reason and self-serving culture which he saw as degenerate. He seemed to become more reactionary in his dotage but with elements of the unpredictable that led his peers to call him an anarchist and the Orthodox Church to excommunicate him.

Tolstoy may have had a touch of the reactionary Slavophile about him, seeing in his serfs a natural moral perfection. The ignorance of the serfs was merely an advantage as it meant they went unpolluted by pointless reasoning and culture which were mere irritants to the soul.

The Slavophiles wanted to protect the soul and very identity of the Russian people and not see it diluted or subject to disintegration from an effete civilization. Russians have always seen their nationality, not as mere geography, but as a mystical condition that demands a commitment to the country’s spiritual and historic destiny. These rather extreme, almost mystical views, were not so far off from what Tolstoy came to believe. Better to leave a Russian serf as he is, as he is already nearer perfection than the rest of us, who have lost our way seeking truth through rational enlightenment.

Tolstoy was no “superfluous man”, that strange new social phenomenon of late 19th century Russia, described by Turgenev; the alienated (middle-class) thinking man with no place in a society that was still basically undefined and somewhat tribal. Tolstoy was an aristocrat through and through. His place in life and society was well defined.

However, in this period, there were huge social tensions building up partly due to the increasing number of these “Raznochintsi”, (men of undefined background), who were basically educated but not noble. They were challenging the privileges of the nobility which were denied them. This sense of alienation and disaffection was not limited to these lost souls of Russian society, and some aristocrats immersed themselves in a sort of mystical (ill thought out) anarchism like Bakunin, Prince Kropotkin and, some say, Tolstoy himself, or so he stood accused. Society was in a state of upheaval. The serfs had been emancipated, the middle classes were frustrated and demanding change. Society was changing from the bottom up and Tolstoy was a huge island of stability, an invaluable cultural reference point.

Tolstoy with Gorky at Yasnaya Polyana

Tolstoy with Gorky at Yasnaya Polyana

Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky
The end result of all this upheaval was the Russian Revolution but Tolstoy’s aristocratic lineage did not prevent him from being put to good use by the Bolsheviks. Tolstoy was a special case as both Lenin and Trotsky explained in their various essays on the author.

Lenin tried to relegate Tolstoy to a mere chronicler of events of a specific period of time, a chronicler of genius, but just a chronicler. Lenin was more tolerant of Tolstoy than one would have imagined from such a single minded man but he sucked the life blood out of him and relegated him to being a mere “mirror of the revolution”. Trotsky was more articulate but equally cold blooded in his slightly begrudging praise of the saturnine genius. Both of them saw the literary genius as fundamentally feeble-minded (the Bolshevik’s favourite put down) but dared not try to consign him to the scrap heap of history so instead tried to enrol him in the revolution as a sort of proto-socialist. He was after all a solid rock in an age of upheaval and as such could be useful and by 1917 Tolstoy was long dead. Indeed, Lenin’s critique of Tolstoy set the tone for all Soviet literary criticism for decades to come but even Lenin and Trotsky had to tread carefully around the old man. Tolstoy had too much of a command over people’s hearts, even from the grave.

Identifying the real Tolstoy is no easy matter, and it is unclear which Tolstoy you are coming to pay homage to at Yasnaya Polyana, the literary genius, the prophet, the anarchist, the cruel husband, the radical social reformist, the excommunicated conservative anarchist, the playful and adoring grandfather, the young boozing and whoring arrogant youth, the lost soul who throws himself into a war for no good reason. Finding the real man is virtually impossible, as Tolstoy-ism gets firmly in the way.

Gorky, a friend of Tolstoy’s, cuts through all the false hagiography and gets to the spirit of the man using an almost untranslatable word to describe Tolstoy and that was ozorstvo, meaning a combination of mischief, wily provocation and impudence. Gorky met with Tolstoy on numerous occasions at Yasnaya Polyana and even though their friendship was not exceptional (Gorky complained that Tolstoy was just curious about him as one would be about an unknown species), Gorky was distraught upon hearing of Tolstoy’s death. Gorky later wrote his reminiscences of Tolstoy which are still today considered the most accurate portrait of Tolstoy in his later years.

Gorky concludes by giving us his vision of the mischievous, impish, slightly cruel yet jolly character who was constantly trying to play with the expectations of his friends and guests. He would ask them out of the blue if they believed in God followed soon after by some of the crudest language on earth. A saint he was not. But perhaps his mischief may well have been a way of masking a dreadful melancholy. He would amuse himself by accusing his guests and acolytes of being terrible frauds and then be terrifically charming to them and then descend into earthy crudeness again. He would often not converse but would interrogate, not out of curiosity, but to see if he was given the right answer. Gorky said he saw Tolstoy as a Pan cavorting in his forests at Yasnaya Polyana, with his terrific energy and elemental urges that he spent his life trying to dominate through religion, chastity, vegetarianism and pacifism – but at heart he was a rowdy god of the woods.

It was said that Tolstoy “Arranged his silences impressively”. He was part-actor with a streak of pointless cruelty (as his wife frequently complained) and he could be uncharitable and vain when it was least necessary but the final effect that he had on people’s lives was to change them for the better which was his mark of genius. Who does not recognise their better self in one of Tolstoy’s characters?

Now that one hundred years have passed since his death many were expecting massive celebrations to mark the occasion by the Russian state. Many have seen some political design in the fact that the occasion was not officially celebrated but as many Russians will tell you, “We do not celebrate death – a birth, yes, perhaps”. But beyond the cultural differences it would be difficult, under any circumstances to use Tolstoy as political propaganda. Tolstoy, when alive, would no doubt eventually tell you that you were a fraud and an ungodly soul, perhaps with a mischievous and charming grin, but he would have said it and such bitter sweet truths are with difficulty turned to advantage by politicking ministers or a Church from which he is still excommunicated.

Tolstoy by Ilya Repin (1901) Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tolstoy by Ilya Repin (1901) Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons


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