The Tolstoy Family History (2)

We continue our story with two other (in)famous Tolstoys; Count Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy (1770-1857) and Count Fyodor Tolstoy (1782-1846), also known as “the American”. Alexander played an important role in the war against Napoleon, while Fyodor is famous for the large number (even according to Russian standards) of duels that he took part in.

Ostermann-Tolstoy

Alexander descends from a branch of the family that does not have the count title. He receives a military upbringing (as is the custom at the time) and joins the army at the tender age of thirteen. His courage makes him stand out and he quickly makes a dazzling career. When in 1792 his two childless uncles, Fyodor and Ivan Ostermann, have died, they leave him their entire fortune and the count title, with the name Ostermann. As if that isn’t enough he marries one of the richest heiresses of the time, Elizabeth Galitzine.

War against Napoleon

In 1805 Tsar Alexander I starts his campaign against Napoleon. The wealthy and handsome Count Ostermann-Tolstoy eagerly joins his brother-in-law and distant relation General Peter Tolstoy in the Imperial Guard*. Between 1805 and 1813 he fights like a lion and is rewarded order after order. In 1813, by now he is a general, he loses his arm in the deciding Battle of Kulm. His first reaction was “This is my payment for the honour of commanding the Guard, I am quite content!”. The Tsar said “by sacrificing his hand he bought us victory”.

Bears and Eagles

Ostermann-Tolstoy keeps three bears and two eagles as pets. They form a curious part of his entourage when he goes on campaign. Later they are also present at the splendid dinners at his luxurious house in Saint Petersburg. His amputated arm he buries ceremoniously on the estate that he inherited from his uncles. After the death of his beloved Tsar he travels through Europe and settles in Geneva, where he eventually dies and where the rest of his body is buried.

The American

The life of the American is even more impressive. Fyodor also receives a military education. When he is sixteen he enters the Imperial Guard straight from school. Not six months later he is punished for the first time for his behaviour. He drinks, gambles, fights, and womanises. When he is seventeen he fights his first duel with an officer. Probably that would have resulted in Fyodor getting fired from his regiment, but supposedly he escapes his punishment by getting himself onto the Nadezhda, a ship that is about to sail around the world.

Around the world

For more than a year Tolstoy sails around the world, still dressed in his regiment’s uniform. At Nuku Hiva he has his body tattooed from top to toe. On board he is constant trouble. At one time he lets his pet orangutan loose in the captain’s quarters. The captain has had enough of him and leaves him and his ape behind on land in Alaska (hence his nickname).

Saint Spyridon

For a couple of months he stays there with the natives. Later he claims that they wanted to make him tsar. One night he gets lost in the wilderness. Suddenly he sees a clear vision that shows him the way. When he later realises that it was the 12th of December, he is convinced that it must have been Saint Spyridon who saved his life (back in Moscow he has an image of the Saint made, that he always wears on his tattooed chest). But he wants to get back to civilisation and travels back through Kamchatka and Siberia, by boat, on horseback and by foot. Still wearing his uniform.

War and duels

Once back he can’t escape his punishment any more. He is sent to Savonlinna to fight in the Finnish war for the next three years. In Turku he also fought two duels, but as a reward for shown courage he is allowed back with the Guard, and not much later fired again for taking part in another two duels. Later he fights in the Battle of Borodino as a volunteer and is rewarded the cross of St George. After the war he moves to Moscow. By now is regarded as Russia’s most feared duellist. He almost fought a duel once with Pushkin, who knowing his opponent practiced shooting for months. Luckily the duel was called off and the two even became friends. Pushkin made him a character in Eugene Onegin, the daredevil Zaretski. His cousin Lev uses him as inspiration for Dolochov in War and Peace.

Married to a gypsy

In 1821 Fyodor almost kills himself. In spite of his cheating he lost a large sum of money playing cards. At the time he was living for some years with a young gypsy singer, Avdotya. She asked him for the cause of his depressed state and promptly produced the necessary sum. When he asked her where she got the money, she simply replied that it was money he had given her over the years. Fyodor was so touched by her loyalty that he married her. Together they had twelve children, only one makes it to adulthood. Fyodor had written the names of the eleven men he had killed in duels in a notebook and each time one of his children dies he crosses out a name. After the eleventh name is crossed out he writes “Well, thank God, at least my curly-haired gypsy girl (see illustration) will live”. And so it was.

*The Russian Imperial Guard was the pride of the Russian army, only the best of the best were admitted. Their uniforms and equipment were magnificent.

 

Until the 8th of November 2015 in the Hermitage in Amsterdam: Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine. http://www.hermitage.nl/en/

 

The books to read:

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy

Tolstoy, a Russian Life – Rosamund Bartlett

Russia Against Napoleon – Dominic Lieven
Wondering what the Tolsoys are up to nowadays?

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/13/alexandra-tolstoy-interview-sergei-pugachev-planned-his-escape

 

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