From Russia, with Love: Countess Alexandra Tolstoy on revisiting her famous relative’s home for Tatler
15th August 2018
OOne memorable day in Leo Tolstoy’s childhood his elder brother Nikolai solemnly announced to his siblings that he possessed a wonderful secret that could make all men happy. If it became generally known, a kind of golden age would exist on earth: all would love one another and become ‘Ant Brothers’. The children adopted the idea with enthusiasm, forming their own Ant Brotherhood in a camp made of chairs and boxes. However, the chief secret, Nikolai revealed, was written on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a ravine in the Zakaz forest on their beloved Yasnaya Polyana estate.
The other children soon forgot about the green stick but Tolstoy’s first childhood experience of love (not love of a particular person, but love of love) can be traced back to the Ant Brotherhood gathered under the shawl-covered chairs. Two years before his death, Tolstoy noted that he wished to be buried ‘opposite the ravine at the place of the “green stick”’.
“I wanted to show them the good side of Russia and her rich culture and history, as well as the beautiful, unspoilt countryside, still so evocative of the nineteenth century”
This summer, after a long absence from Russia, my children and I paid homage to our relative at the simple green mound on the edge of the ravine that contains his grave. My children are more Russian than me with a Russian father, and speak the language fluently, having grown up on a diet of Pushkin fairy tales and both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy’s stories for children, but have not been able to visit the country since they were born because of their father’s conflict with Putin (he is a Russian oligarch called Sergei Pugachev). I wanted to show them the good side of Russia and her rich culture and history, as well as the beautiful, unspoilt countryside, still so evocative of the nineteenth century.
We were attending the biennial gathering of Tolstoys from all over the world at Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s beloved estate and the source of inspiration for much of his writing, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Three hours south of Moscow, near the ancient Kremlin city of Tula, we spent five days not only visiting Tolstoy’s perfectly preserved house, full of the most touching possessions, notes and paintings, but also swimming in the lake, riding in the forest, picking wild strawberries from the enormous cottage garden and wandering through the little wooden village on the edge of the estate, where Tolstoy established a school for peasant children. We even attended a ball at the nineteenth century Hall of the Nobility in Tula, making amusing attempts to dance the mazurka and drinking sweet Russian champagne from the Crimea. The evenings were spent dining outside looking on to the sprawling countryside and silver birch trees, so essential to Russia and her psyche, talking and drinking vodka with our relatives from Denmark, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and America…