Count Alexey Nikolayevich Tolstoy

The Tolstoy family produced three famous writers; Alexey Konstantinovich, Lev Nikolayevich and Alexey Nikolayevich. Nowadays we don't hear much about the third, even though his story is quite remarkable. He was the black sheep of the family.

Youth

On his mother's side he was also a distant relative of Turgenev. So he actually had a double set of writing genes. His mother left his father when she was two months pregnant with him and little Alexey grew up with his stepfather Alexey Bostrom. When he was thirteen he was apparently acknowledged by his father and officially became Count Tolstoy, but he has never been in contact with the Tolstoy side of the family.

From an early age his mother encouraged him to write. He appeared to be talented indeed. In 1901 he moved to St Petersburg to go to university. Soon his first works were being published. Just when he was an established and successful writer the revolution took place, and the circumstances changed. Alexey feared his comfortable lifestyle would change for the worst and fled the country, eventually ending up in Paris, like many Russians.

Paris

Because Paris was suddenly full of unemployed Russians, it wasn't exactly easy to earn a living. He wrote a few books, but the pay was not very good. And if there was one thing that the count loathed it was empty pockets. He decided to move to Berlin. There he met some fellow Russian artists and found out that it is possible to live in Russia in relative comfort if your work fits the communist ideologies (the purpose of art was to underline the political point of view).

Soviet Union

He went back to Russia in 1923. It took him about ten years to find his role, but he succeeded. With his ancestor Peter's shrewdness. He managed to find a way to please both the people wishing to escape from their daily misery and the political leaders. He wrote a play about the murder of Rasputin in which the Romanovs were put in a bad light.

After Stalin came to power the circumstances under which writers (and most other people for that matter) lived become unbearable. People got arrested for no apparent reason. Tolstoy however was not only spared, but he even managed to become Stalin's favourite author and live like a millionaire (yes, in the Soviet Union!). With his play about Peter the Great he took a risk. He made an obvious parallel between the tsar and Stalin. Both leaders 'had' to make (human) sacrifices to make Russia bigger and better. Obviously he didn't forget to mention that his ancestor was Peter's adviser.

Stalin's favourite

He succeeded and Stalin was flattered. It is not unlikely that Stalin liked the idea of having his 'own' Tolstoy, he even called him by his title 'count', and so placed himself in line with the tsars. In 1942 Alexei wrote another play. This time about Ivan the Terrible. Again he emphasised the sacrifices that had to be made and the unavoidable triumph of communism in the course of history. It seemed that he understood precisely what the communist leaders wanted and expected from literature.

From then on Alexey wrote what Stalin wanted him to write and lived a life of luxury. Yes, this Tolstoy too moved in the highest circles. But unlike Alexei Konstantinovich and Lev Nikolayevich, and indeed Turgenev, he didn't use his name and influence for the greater good. When he died in 1945 he got a state funeral and to honour him it was decided that the Spyridonskaya (yes, there he is again, the family patron saint) Street, where Alexey lived, would be renamed Alexey Tolstoy Street.

 

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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

 

The Tolstoy Family History (1)

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.

Saint Spyridon

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

 

A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

As I said in my previous post, I would love to tell you a bit more about Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches. It’s a series of short, separate stories, not about sports (hunting, in this case) but about the narrator’s encounters while out hunting. I read these stories for the first time at university and was immediately sold. They’re such beautiful, humble stories. They have been of literary influence on writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Hemingway. Socially they have contributed to the abolition of serfdom* in Russia.

The serfs

The narrator is a landowner with a passion for hunting. During his roams around the countryside he meets all kinds of people, usually serfs belonging to other landowners. He likes to listen to their stories and encourages them to talk. This is how we hear, almost imperceptibly, about their often deplorable circumstances. The serfs don’t purposely tell the narrator this, it is said between the lines, without them realising it. They don’t want to speak badly of their masters. They have reconciled with their fates and simply remark that that is how things were or should be. The sympathy of the narrator is also merely subtly shown, you can feel it for instance when he calls one of the peasants ‘our poor friend’.

Childhood memories

Turgenev wrote the sketches after his childhood experiences at his mother’s estate Spasskoye. His mother was an evil woman. She owned 5000 souls and didn’t leave those 5000 souls any doubt about who was in charge. She abused them, had them deported to Siberia, controlled their private lives, in short, ruled with an iron fist.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In 1852 the stories are published together. In the same year another book appears that has had an enormous social impact: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both books may not have been the direct cause of the abolition of serfdom / slavery, but they made the public sympathy for the respective causes much bigger. Both books give the slaves a personality, emotions and a face, perhaps for the first time in literary history.

Alexander II

At first the sketches were considered politically dangerous in Russia and Nicholas I banished Turgenev to (by now) his estate Spasskoye. His son Alexander II (tsar from 1855 until 1881) however, appeared to be less narrow minded and lifted the sentence. He liked the stories a lot. In his youth he had made a tour around Russia and saw with his own eyes the sad circumstances under which the serfs often lived. Ever since he was determined to address the issue once he was tsar himself. He understood that it would be better to force it from above than to risk a revolution. In 1861 Alexander II signs the Emancipation Manifest; in 1862 Lincoln signs his Emancipation Proclamation.

Tomb

Turgenev never wanted to be too outspoken politically, a fact that was often held against him by his contemporaries. But he did call the sketches a political manifest later. In any case he was pleased with the result. In 1862 he writes at Goncourt (the Viardot’s country house close to Paris): My only desire for my tomb is that they should engrave upon it what my books accomplished for the emancipation of the serfs. Yes, that’s all I ask.

Alexander II is supposed to have thanked him personally.

*Serfs are usually peasant families that come with a piece of land. Unlike slaves they cannot normally be traded. These Russian peasants belonged to the same families for generations.

If you do only one thing this week… read Raspberry Spring. You can read it online in English or Russian:

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/hunt.htm

http://ilibrary.ru/text/1204/p.3/index.html

My booklist:

Empathy and Morality by Heidi L. Maibom

A Sportman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett