Earlier I wrote that Tolstoy’s aristocratic background is better than that of the Romanovs. This is through his mother, Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya. The Volkonskys supposedly descend from Prince Rurik (830-879), a Viking chieftain who founded the Rurik dynasty that ruled over Russia until 1598.
The Tolstoy family history, however, is also remarkable! In 1686 Andrey Kharitonovich received the nickname Tolstoy (fat) from Vasily, Great Prince of Moscow. He also received a silver or golden cross that is still in possession of the Tolstoy family today. This cross, according to legend, contains relics of Saint Spyridon, who since then has been the patron saint not just of the island of Corfu, but also of the Tolstoy family . Apparently Saint Spyridon has had to rescue more than one Tolstoy from a perilous situation. And last but not least there is a curse that rests upon the family…
The old Russia
Let’s go back to 1353. A certain Indris came to Russia with his three sons. He is believed to be a man of aristocratic background, most likely from the Holy Roman Empire. At that time Russia is much smaller than it is now. It suffers attacks from all sides by the Tatars, Mongols and Lithuanians. In the long, dark winters the temperature drops well below zero and the forests are full of wolves and bears. It is unclear why Indris chose to move to Russia, but the Tolstoy’s claim to descend from him.
Pyotr and Ivan
In 1682 the Tolstoy’s really begin to make Russian history. The sons of ‘fat’ Andrey, great-grandson of Indris, Ivan and Pyotr, work their way into the highest, imperial circles. Both brothers are extremely cunning and ambitious. Especially Pyotr becomes very influential.
Ambassador in Constantinople
Under Ivan The Terrible Russia has grown considerably, and now the Romanovs are the ruling dynasty. Peter the Great is tsar. Both brothers hold a high position close to the tsar. In 1702 Peter sends Pyotr to Constantinople to become ambassador, and there he manages successfully for years to hold of a threatening war with the Turks. In 1711 it does come to a war and Pyotr, who is by now 66, is thrown into jail. He is kept there for 17 months and is ill most of the time. Thanks to either to his extraordinary Tolstoy genes, or to Saint Spyridon, he survives. In 1714 he can finally return to Russia.
The flight of the Tsarevich
But tsar Peter won’t let him retire yet. Tsarevich Aleksey, Peter’s eldest son, refuses to follow into his father’s footsteps. Since his wife Charlotte died in childbirth, Aleksey has been living openly with his mistress, Afrosinya, a Finnish peasant girl, with whom he is obsessed. Scared to death for his father’s wrath he flees with Afrosinya, disguised as a boy, to Naples. Pyotr is sent to Italy to retrieve him. Through Afrosinya Tolstoy eventually manages to convince the Tsarevich to go back. He swears he and Afrosinya will not be harmed.
The curse of the Tsarevich
Once back in Saint Petersburg it soon becomes clear that Peter I cannot cope with the disgrace. He lets everyone suspected of being involved with the flight of the Tsarevich be questioned in a barbaric manner. Afrosinya is also questioned, albeit without torture. The ignorant girl says that her lover often complains about his tyrannical father and wishes him dead. The distrustful tsar suspects a plot against him and wants Pyotr to question the Tsarevich. Aleksey is beaten with the ‘knout’ until he admits. Two days later he dies, but not before cursing the Tolstoy family unto the 25th generation.
Next time we’ll talk about a Tolstoy who fought against Napoleon and kept bears and Eagles as pets…
–The Tolstoys by Nicolai Tolstoy
–Tolstoy, a Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett
–Tolstoy by A. N. Wilson