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.


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.


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 story of Doctor Zhivago

In 1958 Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel Doctor Zhivago. He initially intended to travel to Sweden to receive it and wrote to the committee that he was “immensely grateful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed”. Unfortunately Pasternak lived in the Soviet Union and the KGB forced him to refuse the prize.

Soviet censorship

Why was the Soviet government so opposed against the idea of Pasternak receiving the Nobel Prize? The whole affair embarrassed them; Doctor Zhivago had not made it through the strict censorship and was not published in the Soviet Union. But it had been smuggled abroad and was widely published in several countries, causing a worldwide sensation. In the novel Pasternak expresses some criticism, but mostly disappointment, with the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

At the time Pasternak was an extremely popular poet, he enjoyed a rather privileged position in the Soviet Union. Writers were employed by the government. They were expected to help spread communistic ideologies. In return they received a government salary and were able to live in Peredelkino, a quiet town outside of Moscow where most writers lived.

“This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.”

Pasternak spent years writing Doctor Zhivago. It was to be his life’s work, something like Tolstoy ‘s War and Peace. He knew very well that it would never make it through the strict censorship. Once it was finished he was so proud of his brainchild, that he could not resist the temptation to have it published abroad, knowing that this would endanger himself and his family.

Love triangles

However, Doctor Zhivago is much more than a controversial complaint against the communistic regime. That merely forms the background of this beautiful love story. A love triangle even! Yuri (Zhivago) is married to Tonya. During World War I he meets a friend from his youth, Lara. He feels very attracted to her, can’t choose between two his loves and has a lenghty affair with her. Pasternak describes the love between Yuri and Lara in the most beautiful words. For instance: “They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.”

In reality Pasternak found himself in a similar situation. He was married to Zinaida, and had a family with her, but at the same time he openly had a relationship with Olga. The KGB even used Olga to ‘convince’ Pasternak that he’d better refuse the Nobel Prize. In 1960 Pasternak died at his dacha in Peredelkino. Both his wife Zinaida and his mistress Olga cried over his coffin. Against the government’s wishes hundreds of people came to the funeral, throwing flowers on the casket and reciting Pasternak’s poems.

“To be a woman is a great adventure; To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”


Additional reading suggestions:

-Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

-The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée; very interesting, nicely written. I found it at least as enjoyable as the novel itself.

Or why not watch the 1965 film that won six Oscars, starring Omar Shariff, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin?

And for those planning to visit New York later this year, there is now also Doctor Zhivago, the Broadway musical.