Yesterday I should have been flying to Moscow with a group of English clients for five days, taking them on a tour of ‘Tolstoy’s Russia’. We were to stay at the Ritz Carlton, visit the writer’s house in Moscow, have a tour of the Tretyakov Gallery, focussing on paintings that tell the story of Leo Tolstoy’s life and beliefs, and of course spend a night at Yasnaya Polyana, his wonderfully romantic country estate, travelling by train to nearby Tula. It is my dream trip – I love Russia for her culture, people and countryside and this trip encapsulates all those elements, not forgetting of course the glamour of Moscow and the city’s incomparable restaurant life!
In mid-June, I was to fly in contrast to Osh, the southern capital of Kyrgyzstan, to lead a group on a horse-riding trip through a hidden corner of the Tien Shan Mountains. From the ancient Silk Road city of Osh, with its bazaar full of exotic spices and beautiful textiles, we were to drive to the magnificent national park of Sary Chelek, teeming with wild flowers – tulips, lupins, hollyhocks – and home to the largest walnut forest in the world. There we would spend six days riding local horses up to twenty kilometres per day through the verdant valleys, and over dramatic mountain passes, camping each night in different spots – in the middle of an alpine meadow, near a waterfall, across a river from a picturesque village. We would swim in the park’s seven lakes, watch a dramatic game of ulak (goat polo) high up on a grassy plateau, eat a delicious homemade fusion of Russian-Kyrgyz food – plov (pilaf), manti (dumplings), borsch, pancakes, watermelons etc – and sit round campfires each evening watching the extraordinarily unpolluted night skies. It is the ultimate escape; a rare opportunity to fuel one’s soul, living for the moment and in complete harmony with God’s creation. In Tolstoy’s words, ‘One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken’.
Neither of these trips is to happen; in the throes of the Coronavirus epidemic we have been in isolation for the last eight weeks at my parents’ home in the English countryside, near Oxford, and have no idea when life will resume any kind of normality, let alone give us the possibility to travel. It is a huge financial worry – this is my work and the means by which I support my children – and also a huge sadness. I have never been attracted to lying on a Mediterranean beach, visiting a purpose-built resort or staying in luxurious hotels for the sake of it, but travel with the aim of discovery seems to me something unbeatably enriching. Last summer I took my children for a seaside holiday in Corfu where we rented someone’s home – a house in which I could have imagined Gerald Durrell enjoying his childhood escapades – and payed homage to our family patron saint, St Spyridon. Of course, we enjoyed swimming in the crystal-clear sea, looking out to the blurred hills of Albania, playing with the local cats, and eating fried halloumi in the local taverna, but we also took home something higher; a cultural and spiritual experience.
Travel is in my blood; I have been riding horses all over Central Asia and Russia for more than twenty years and a thirst for it lies deep inside, leaving me restless and trapped without it. However, it is not all doom and gloom and with the lockdown have come many benefits. So much less air travel has left our planet far cleaner, and there have been wonderful stories of landscapes returning to their natural state without the millions of visitors that invariably spoil them. I have loved being in one place with my children – no rushing to and from school, activities and clubs, always worrying about being late. We live in a more natural rhythm and sleep better, spending much more time outside and without traffic pollution. We are incredibly fortunate to be in the countryside and what’s more, during the season of Spring. The children have watched each flower burst into bloom, discovered nests of baby birds in corners of the old stone walls, and watched the tadpoles in the pond develop through the stages of their life cycle. Life has assumed the slow and measured pace of the ages before the introduction of industrialisation and technology, a state no doubt healthier for mind and body.
I look forward impatiently and with anticipation to the time when we can travel again – for me life without time in Russia and Central Asia is not complete – but I also hope that as we return to our old ways, people can think a little harder about how and why they travel. Travel should be enriching and beneficial to the soul, not merely a way to spend time or money. We need to learn from travel, improve ourselves and contribute to the country we are visiting; without this approach we are on the way to destroying our beautiful, unique planet.
Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day – a day earlier in the UK than in Russia, as Stalin scrambled to claim Prague before accepting peace.
For my family, like all families across Britain, this day has its own personal significance. My handsome English grandfather fought in the Royal Signals at Dunkirk, bravely helping to stretcher out wounded soldiers to a paddleboat to be evacuated to Ramsgate, all the while being ‘Stuka’d’, as he put it in his diary.
My father was a young schoolboy who remembers VE Day vividly:
‘I was nearing my tenth birthday. The war had been full of excitements for imaginative schoolboys. Two years earlier we had spent our breaks in a bamboo thicket sharpening our penknives in preparation for a German invasion. Later we were thrilled to watch increasing numbers of American troops and vehicles passing by, including tanks with ‘You’ve had it!’ inscribed on their turrets – we had never encountered the expression before. Now we had won!
My preparatory school in Godalming had been in the line of fire when the VI rockets were launched against London, and a neighbouring house received a direct hit. I was extremely envious of a dayboy who arrived next day bearing the entire jet tailpiece. Peeping through the dormitory blackout, we watched the little red glare of their jet engines passing over. We were told that if we heard the engine cut out we were safe, as the missile glided on for several miles before descending to earth. On VE Day itself there was great excitement when the school was ferried to a neighbouring bonfire celebration. Among the exuberant crowd was a number of Canadian servicemen, which provided the first occasion when I saw men (harmlessly) drunk. A large coffin was set up on a trestle, with ‘Adolf Hitler’ chalked on its side. We each paid a penny to buy a nail to hammer down the lid. Loud singing of ‘Adolf Hitler lies a-mouldering in the grave’ cheered everyone. I remember thinking that a sunlit future lay before us all, with every unhappiness banished forever.’
In these strange, frightening times of Coronavirus and lockdown, it is unifying and heartening to look back at VE Day; the tenacity of the human race and its ability to conquer the most appalling adversity should never be forgotten. As we herald the brave, self-sacrificing soldiers of WWII, we too salute the nurses and doctors of today risking their lives. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’; VE Day encapsulates St John’s Christian message, and reminds us that not one life was lost in vain in this heroic fight for freedom.
Today there sadly cannot be public celebrations but families will celebrate at home; I’ve seen photos of my friends hoisting flags on to their houses, their children playing at being soldiers on parade and baking cakes. My children have built a huge bonfire with my father and we’ll hang bunting in the house, while I bake a huge pavlova and decorate it with blueberries and raspberries to look like a Union Jack. My boys are avid fans of classic war films and have been watching ‘The Battle of Britain’ and ‘The Longest Day’, discussing every detail and dreaming of one day joining the army themselves.
Happy VE Day!
There has been a lot of talk on social media about how isolation is a wonderful opportunity to learn a new skill; maybe embroidery, knitting, a new language or cooking. It’s apparently a time when we can feel particularly ‘zen’ and at one with nature, practise yoga, stare at the blossom, listen to classical music. But for mothers it is the busiest and perhaps most intense time of our lives, with the introduction of home-schooling, especially for those of us who work. We are not trained teachers and most of us are very happy to drop our children off each morning, handing over all educational responsibilities to the school. Now we are under pressure to teach everything from trigonometry to Latin grammar to European history, simultaneously mastering the bewildering technology of google classroom.
My children go to a French school, so I have the added nightmare of teaching in a language that I only read to a basic level. As a single working parent, the burden is overwhelming; two of my three children need to be coaxed and guided through every piece of work set by the school, while at the same time I’m trying to earn a living, cook, wash, clean the house and stay sane. It’s too much and after a few weeks I took the decision to let go of some elements. One of my children is particularly reluctant to do anything academic and seems to learn nothing from a dry document so I give him the art, history and science projects but am ignoring the grammar and maths…as I write it, it makes me feel nervous. There is so much peer group pressure to be keeping up, especially in this world of quick communications. The class What’s App group sends a wave of butterflies through my stomach every time I see a message pop up – inevitably it’s about some piece of work we haven’t even seen or attempted. It has taken a great dash of bravery and testing of my inner confidence to follow this policy, but I reassure myself we have to prioritise and in these extraordinary times we simply cannot achieve everything.
However, I am not sure I would have felt the confidence to take this leap of faith if I hadn’t invested many, many hours from my children’s earliest years reading literature to them; not just any books, but very carefully chosen classics in English, French and Russian. I have followed Einstein’s advice, ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,’ to the absolute letter. Andrew Lang, Hans Christian Anderson, Pushkin, Perault, the Brothers Grimm, The Arabian Nights, Nordic tales…my children have absorbed the world’s finest fairy tales in their original forms – no adaptations or simplifications and often in the most flowery or ornate language, well beyond their years. Children are often not given enough credence for their intelligence; mine are not particularly academic, certainly not the best at spelling and arithmetic, but they are completely transported by these stories, always begging for more, and never showing a lack of concentration. I believe that any child is capable of this, as long as he or she has been introduced at the earliest age to literature of quality, and not the sadly impoverished, superficial and silly offerings we see in most bookshops today.
Not only have I seen first-hand how these fairy tales develop children’s memories and intelligence – mine often amaze me with their sophisticated cross-references between all the stories they have heard over the years, as well as their understanding of complicated and multi-dimensional themes – but also their imaginations and self-sufficiency. I have never, ever heard my children say they are bored, even in these strange times of quarantine when they see no friends. They have no screens, play no computer games but are able to play for hours and hours, indoors and outdoors. We are extremely fortunate to be in the countryside, staying with my parents who have a large garden and pond. The children spend hours making camps, playing in our gypsy caravan, digging a WWI ‘trench’, tending to their vegetables and rowing their boat, pretending to be ‘Swallows and Amazons’. They’ve even braved the cold murky waters of the pond and swum amongst the lilies and tadpoles. My middle son loves anything creative and is outside right now making me a flower crown (venok!) for May Day; traditionally in England this holiday was celebrated with dancing round a May pole, the girls decked out in these charming gems of nature.
My mother, a keen and experienced gardener, has taught my eldest son to grow vegetables, and often I glance out of the kitchen window to see him of his own volition carefully tending his sprouting beans, strawberries and tulips. Each evening before bed my father takes the children on a walk around the village with our dog Coco, and then reads from one of his favourite childhood books aloud to the children; at the moment it’s the perhaps wittiest English books of all time, ‘Just William’, which we adults enjoy just as much as them, often laughing out loud. We have done embroidery, painted designs for stained glass windows, baked hundreds and hundreds of biscuits and my seven-year-old daughter can now thrash me at backgammon. I insist the children read to themselves each night and after all these years of being read to my eldest is now galloping through Jules Verne in French, while the other two a little less enthusiastically read Comtesse de Ségur.
Of course we need our children to be following the academic syllabus as much as possible, but if we have to let some tasks go in order to work, stay sane and not destroy relationships with our children (!) then I think we should take solace in the many other, hugely constructive activities they can be doing. Even staring out of the window is useful – it’s important to be bored sometimes and if screens can be avoided as much as possible, we are giving our children a wonderful slice of freedom from the overly controlled, stimulating and micro-managed culture of the twenty-first century. I often think of the early educations of some of the great writers of the nineteenth century, which consisted mostly of reading and running free outside…to create an original and independent mind, children need freedom and a deep foundation of literature.
Leo Tolstoy cherished ‘that splendid, innocent, joyful, poetic period of childhood, up to fourteen’, and held that ‘the impressions of early childhood, preserved in one’s memory, grow in some unfathomable depth of the soul, like seeds thrown on good ground, until after many years they thrust their bright green shoots into God’s world’.
Today, wearing a floral Austrian pinafore by Lena Hoschek that could have featured in ‘The Sound of Music’, a frilled shirt made by my mother in the 1980s, and a pair of scruffy plimsolls, it’s almost inconceivable to think that ten years ago I was shopping in Barvikha, Bond Street and the Avenue de Montaigne for glamorous pieces by Chanel, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana, Chloe etc. My wardrobe, filled with structured dresses, silk blouses, expensive trainers and towering heels, all carefully managed by housekeepers, moved around the world with us from Rublyovka to the Cote d’Azur to Chelsea to St Barths. Just like my peers, the girlfriends and wives of oligarchs, I faithfully followed the fashion pages of Vogue, seduced by the latest styles and labels, and addicted to buying the latest thing, whether it was a Chanel graffiti boy bag or Louboutin spiked heels.
Only two years before this I had been dressed in jeans and Ugg boots, filming for a month in minus 50C with a group of horse herders in northern Yakutia for the BBC. This followed a decade of riding horses all over Central Asia, Russia, Siberia and Mongolia, wearing two pairs of jodhpurs and a torn sweatshirt for months on end. My life has been one of contrasts and adventure, and my style has mirrored this, although it took me some years to adapt to the latest chapter.
In 2015 the ‘oligarch’ phase of my life came to an abrupt end when my ex-partner and father of my three children, the businessman and senator Sergei Pugachev, fled London overnight, abandoning us to fend for ourselves. It was a huge shock – I hadn’t been allowed to work for years and I had three very young children to feed and educate, while I was simultaneously fighting a legal battle with the Russian government to retain our home, which I subsequently lost. The stress and anxiety nearly broke me, but I persevered, each day making small steps to rebuild my career – the travel business I had had before I met Sergei, leading riding trips to Kyrgyzstan and ‘Tolstoy’ tours to Moscow, as well as writing for magazines and newspapers. Initially my style didn’t reflect this adaptation and I continued to dress in the ‘bling’ of Chanel and Gucci, not realising what a lack of harmony it was creating in my life.
Last year was seminal for me; my travel business bloomed, I was writing a lot and I had cured myself of the panic attacks and anxiety of the previous years. Once more I felt pride in who I was and the amazing adventures of my younger years – Sergei had been so dismissive of them that I had been taught not to see their value, and my aspirations had dwindled to nothing more than emulating the other oligarch girls in their superficial quest to look good. Along with this regained confidence, my eyes were opened to my style and how far I had lost myself aesthetically in the destructive abuse of this relationship. I realised that I didn’t actually like the clothes I was wearing – their urban, homogenous identity was so incongruous with my life, much of it spent in the countryside and based on traditional values and habits. I wanted to go back to my true self – individual and reflecting my path through life – and with this came a decision to sell all my designer clothes, handbags and shoes. Not only could I shed the skin of this unhappy phase of my life, but I could raise money for a charity – St Gregory’s Foundation (www.stgregorysfoundation.org.uk) – giving something back to Russia, from where all this excess had arisen.
So it was that I organised a sale at my home last autumn, simultaneously selling on Instagram. Somehow it went viral and within a couple of days I hadsold almost everything, raising over £5000 for St Gregory’s in the process. Other people started asking me to sell their pieces and a new business was born – Preloved by Alexandra Tolstoy (prelovedbyalexandratolstoy.com) – offering my curated edit of vintage and preloved pieces from notable names in the fashion industry such as Martha Ward and Alex Eagle.
In today’s world, designer fashion seems to have lost its place. With the frightening reality of global warming and now Coronavirus, it feels frivolous and inappropriate to be slavishly buying the latest Chanel jacket, however rich you are. Recycling and slow trends are the new zeitgeist, also allowing for more individual identity and a return to traditional communities and less emphasis on globalism, with a greater connection to nature. I feel passionately about history and heritage – without them I do not believe it is possible to feel pride in oneself – and for me, these should be reflected in the way I dress. In this vein, I have also created a ‘Brands I Love’ page on my website, offering customers a discount on the small, independent designers that I love to wear. Often continuing hand-crafted traditions like embroidery, fair isle or smocking, I love them because they feel reassuring and a connection to my childhood and travels.
Nowadays we should be shopping closer to home and throwaway fashion is a trend of the past, so I hope that my Preloved items can offer a new and exciting choice to discerning, informed buyers, and of course some great bargains!
Despite bearing such a Russian sounding name, I grew up with the most English of childhoods, deep in the Somerset countryside, riding my pony and playing with my siblings in the woods and fields. My mother is English and we didn’t speak Russian as children – it was only when I was eighteen that I first travelled to Moscow and learned the language. We were christened Orthodox but went to the Protestant village church and knew nothing more of Russian traditions than pascha and kulich, as taught to my mother by my father’s great-aunt, who had escaped Russia during the Revolution.
After boarding school and before university, my father sent me to live with the famous actor Vasily Livanov and his family in Moscow for six months. It was here that my love affair with Russia began. Not only did I learn to speak the language, but I travelled all over Russia – to the Caucusus, Lake Baikal, Yalta etc… I made Russian friends and over the years I really became who I am; half English and half Russian. With the awakening of my heritage, I also began going to the Russian Orthodox Church where I found a more profound and resonating faith than in the English churches of my childhood.
I have brought my three children up as practising Orthodox believers, and part of this is of course following all the wonderful customs that the Russian Church possesses. It is these traditions that keep us connected to our forefathers and nature, and in difficult times such as these, I feel are more important than ever in order to feel grounded and close to God. Holy Week is of course the most important week of the Church calendar and in my family it is full of traditions, mostly Russian, but also melded with English.
My mother is one of seven children and my grandmother was very creative, bringing them up to do everything themselves, from baking to embroidery to knitting to gardening. I grew up in a home full of antiques and a huge appreciation for the handmade and individual, which has heavily influenced my own style. I always prefer to do things myself rather than buy it, even if the result isn’t so perfect!
On Palm Sunday it is the tradition in England to bring home palm crosses from church but in our home we have adopted the Russian custom of surrounding our icons with vases of pussy willow – actually more appropriate because it grows in my parents’ garden so it feels natural and authentic. Each morning of Holy Week I read my children the Bible readings for the day and try to print them off pictures of the events that they love to paint with watercolours.
Last year we started a new tradition, now our favourite, introduced to me ironically by one of my mother’s very English sisters, of decorating eggs with the Ukrainian pysanka method. Involving melted wax and layers of dye, it is skilful but can be done by children and adults alike and we have so much fun doing it and competing to create the most intricate patterns! After we have decorated the eggs we blow them, using a pin to pierce holes at the top and bottom, so that we can keep them forever. This year we are in isolation at my parents, in the home that I grew up in, and in this glorious weather have done it on a table outside. Surrounded by cherry blossom and birdsong, the children barefoot and carefree of school, it feels like we could be in the nineteenth century, a scene from Oblomov’s idyllic childhood.
As we can’t go to church this year for the immensely moving services of Holy Week we are listening to some online – I especially love the choir of Sretensky Monastery. On Good Friday the children will make a replica of the Crucifixion in the garden, using moss, stones and little wooden crosses. This is an English tradition often used in schools to teach children the story of Easter.
Easter Day itself is of course the day filled with most traditions. The day before, I bake kulich, according to my Russian great-aunt’s recipe. A friend gave me one of the tall, cylindrical tins that are used in Russia but impossible to find in England, and my children love to make the icing, licking most of it in the process. I also have the most delicious family recipe for pascha. Until some years ago it was impossible to find tvorog in the UK but nowadays I buy a Polish brand online from Tesco’s, although this year with all the difficulties it has become impossible and I have had to compromise with cream cheese. I have a wooden pascha form that I bought in Moscow and we use raisins to print out the letters XB on the sides.
I was brought up to eat three meals a day together as a family – my parents and my two sisters and brother. These times were all important and when we would discuss all sorts of things from politics to literature to the daily goings on in our lives. On feast days these occasions are even more special, and my mother and I love paying huge attention to every detail from what we eat, to how the table is laid.
On Easter Day the big meal is at lunchtime; after weeks of fasting we’ll eat roast lamb, traditionally associated in Britain with Easter because Jesus is the Lamb of God, and seasoned with rosemary grown in our herb garden. My mother is a wonderful cook and uses an Aga, the stove loved by so many old families across the UK, and which produces the most tender meat. For pudding we eat our pascha and kulich, while the table is covered in a Volga Linen tablecloth – the finest Russian linen – and hemstitched napkins. I am not a fan of ‘tablescaping’, which has become so fashionable – I find it too contrived – but we love to cover the table in our collection of eggs, ranging from Gzhel to wooden to those decorated by the children, as well as flowers from the garden; daffodils, cherry blossom and all the beautiful blooms so associated with spring and the Resurrection. The table will be dotted with chocolate eggs, from no doubt the children’s favourite English tradition – the Easter Hare, a folkloric figure who deposits eggs all around the garden while we are at church. Before lunch we go out with baskets and hunt high and low, finding eggs on branches and under flowers, and often missing some, only to find them later in the year half-eaten by birds!
I feel most fortunate to be bringing my children up in the way that I was, and yet having added the Russian Orthodox faith and traditions. I hope that they in their turn will want to pass them on to their children and so forth. Happy Easter!
Christ is Risen!