The Death of Lev Nikolayevich

The clock at the train station of the small Russian town Lev Tolstoy has stopped at five past six ever since the famous writer died there 105 years ago. When on the 31st of October 1910 an ill Tolstoy was put to bed at the station master’s house, the quiet town of Astapovo, as it was known then, suddenly became the stage of an epic media circus.

Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana!

In the early morning of the 28th of October 1910 Tolstoy had left his beloved Yasnaya Polyana in secret. The situation at his home had become unbearable. His wife Sophia argued non stop with him about his friendship with Chertkov, a devoted Tolstoy follower, who according to Sophia had too much influence. Also Tolstoy wanted to finally act according to his principles, live a simple life, become a wanderer and give up his worldly possessions.

Together with his physician Makovitsky he traveled to the station where he bought two tickets with different destinations, to make it more difficult for Sophia to track him down. Once on board the train he is immediately recognised and people from the whole train flock to his compartment to see and hear the famous writer. Within hours a newspaper headline reads “Lev Tolstoy leaves Yasnaya Polyana”. When Sophia, who is rather paranoid and jealous, finds out that her husband has left her, she runs to the garden pond and tries to drown herself (as she well knows it’s not very deep).

How Tolstoy ended up in Astapovo

On the first day of his travels Tolstoy visits the famous Optina Monastery, where he talks with the elders and spends the night. The second day he visits his sister in the Shamardino monastery. He then continues his travels and buys a third class ticket in the direction of the Caucasus.

On the 31st however, he develops pneumonia and in the evening he has deteriorated so much that Makovitsky decides to take him of the train at the next station. And that happens to be Astapovo. The station master Ivan Ozolin recognises the writer and offers him a room in his house.

Tolstoy’s illness attracts the world press

It’s not long before the whole world knows that Tolstoy is seriously ill. Press from all over the world gathers in Astapovo. Every detail, even the tea he drinks, is news. Around 1000 telegrams are dispatched from Astapovo in the week that follows. Mister Pathė has sent a camera crew and has given them orders to film everything. When Sophia arrives on the the scene, her husband does not wish to see her. That painful marriage drama too is cause for the wildest speculations in the papers.

The peace and quiet Tolstoy longed for is nowhere near. Luckily he doesn’t notice the extent of the sensation he has caused, but he does sense that his wife wants to see him and that upsets him. Sophia and the children on her side are staying in the first class train wagon that they arrived in, and Chertkov, the doctor and the children on their father’s side are staying in the station master’s house (who by now has given up his whole house and is staying elsewhere with his family).

 

Well, this is the end. That is all…

 

Tolstoy’s health deteriorates rapidly and he loses consciousness more frequently. The last words he speaks to his daughter Sasha are “Well, this is the end. That is all”. When Sophia is finally admitted to her husband he is already unconscious. In the presence of his wife and children Tolstoy dies at five past six in the morning on November the 7th 1910.

Those who are present in Astapovo pay their last respects. On November the 9th Tolstoy shall be buried, without the church, as he has been excommunicated, at Yasnaya Polyana. There is an enormous interest for his funeral, but the government has decided not to run any extra trains to accommodate all who want to go. Once again the Russian authorities find it difficult to deal with the death of a controversial writer.

A special train brings the coffin to Zasyeka station, where thousands are waiting in the morning frost and fog. From there it is a three hour walk to Yasnaya Polyana. The coffin is carried first by Tolstoy’s sons and later by the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia walks behind the coffin with her children as the crowd quietly sings Eternal Memory, the song that is always sung at orthodox funerals. At home Tolsoy lies on a table in the hall for another three hours and during that time approximately 5000 people walk past him, many of them crying. Finally he is buried on his estate, in a favourite childhood spot.

And so the first non-religious funeral in Russia is a fact.

 

 

Books read:

Tolstoy, a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

 

Thanks to the Pathé film crew we can watch footage from Tolstoy’s funeral:

 

The Artist Fyodor Tolstoy

Actually I intended not to write about the illustrious Tolstoy clan for a while, but a recent visit to the Hermitage in Amsterdam changed my mind. On the Alexander, Napoleon & Joséphine exhibition there I discovered to my delight seven beautiful medallions by Fyodor Tolstoy.

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy

Count Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy was a first cousin of Fyodor, the 'American' Tolstoy and great uncle of our well known Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His great-great-grandfather was Peter Tolstoy, the trustee of Peter the Great. He was born in 1753 and had, like apparently most Tolstoys, an idyllic childhood, even though his family was not wealthy. His artistic talents were discovered early, but according to tradition he was given a military upbringing.

Artistic

In 1802 he went to study at the the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg and there he was much happier than at the Naval Academy. It may not have been entirely appropriate for a Count Tolstoy, but his parents let him go. Fyodor dedicated the rest of his life to art. As a result he spent his life in relative poverty, even though he was quite successful as an artist.

Fyodor was an extremely talented painter, illustrator (of among others Dushenka by Bogdanovich), sculptor, and, if unemployed for a few moments, he cut out clever silhouettes. Later he also designed costumes and background scenery for the ballet.

Magnus Opus

His Magnus Opus is a series of 24 medallions depicting the war against Napoleon. After extensive research he decided to make them in the neoclassical style. In 1814, just after the Russians took Paris, he made the first one. It shows a bust of Alexander I. Making the medallions was an extremely laborious precision job, that required great craftsmanship. With this first one he managed to secure a grant that would allow him to finish the other 23. That was necessary because he made them to express his patriotic feelings and not on an assignment. In 1836 he made the last one.

Tolstoy gained international fame with these medallions. In Vienna they wrote that nothing finer had been made in the past centuries and Goethe was so impressed that he wanted to meet him. The British government asked if he could also make a series about British victories. An offer he declined on patriotic grounds.

Hermitage Amsterdam

And now seven of the twenty four medals are on display in the Hermitage in Amsterdam, where they can be admired until the 8th of November 2015.

http://www.hermitage.nl/en/tentoonstellingen/alexander_napoleon_josephine/index.htm

 

 

The Tolstoys – Nikolai Tolstoy

 

 

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.

 

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