Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace?

It won’t have escaped the attention of Russian literature fans that the BBC has made a brand new drama series based on War and Peace, currently airing on BBC1. Immediately after the first episode ended, there was a commotion on Twitter: an incestuous relationship between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène Kurágin?! Surely that wasn’t in the book!

Brother and sister have sex

As I seemed to remember that there was something the matter with them, I decided to investigate. And guess what.. the BBC is right! Obviously there is no sex scene between brother and sister in the book, unlike in the series, where Hélène is lying naked in bed, Anatole gets in bed with her, kisses her and touches her under the sheets, but Tolstoy nonetheless clearly suggests that something is going on.

Why Pierre marries Hélène

One of the main characters, Count Pierre Bezúkhov, is all of a sudden an ideal marriage candidate when he inherits the largest fortune in Russia. Prince Vasili Kurágin is short of money and wants to find a rich marriage partner for his youngest children, the both beautiful and stupid Anatole and Hélène. Obviously Pierre is the perfect candidate for Hélène. Together with his friend Anna Schérer he suggests to Pierre that he should marry his daughter.

Until then Pierre has never seen Hélène as anything else but a beautiful young woman. After the visit to Anna Schérer he suddenly sees her in a different light. Apparently this exquisite beauty could be his, Pierre’s, wife. He tosses and turns in his bed. But she’s stupid. And wasn’t there something wrong with her? He remembers a story he once heard:

“There is something nasty, something wrong in the feeling she excites in me. I have been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, that there was a scandal and that’s why he was sent away.”

Nevertheless he puts his mind to ease. After all if everyone thinks this marriage is a good idea, why should he not marry her? They get married and of course it doesn’t take long before the trouble starts. Hélène doesn’t love Pierre, she’s only interested in her title and money. She has several affairs, with the ambitious Boris, that Natásha was in love with, and also with the notorious scoundrel Dólokhov. When Pierre find out he challenges Dólokhov to a duel. After the duel Hélène is furious with Pierre, why shouldn’t she have affairs, it’s none of his business. And Anatole is still in the picture too:

“Anatole used to come to borrow money from her and used to kiss her naked shoulders. She did not give him the money, but she let herself be kissed.”

There is another hint of incest concerning the brother and sister. Hélène has invited a famous French actress to her house to recite some French verses. About the guilty love of a mother for her son. During this soirée Anatole tries to seduce the confused Natasha again.

Aylmer Maude confirms it

Here translator, biographer and personal friend of Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude, makes the following note: “in the first drafts of the novel, Tolstoy made it plain that Hélène and her brother had been in guilty relations with one another, but afterwards he altered this so that only some hints remain.”.

Clearly Tolstoy really intended the incestuous relationship between Hélène and Anatole, but left only the suggestion because of the strict censure of the time. What makes it particularly peculiar is the fact that it takes place with mutual consent.

*****

-Photo from the BBC

-War and Peace by Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude

 

In the footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris

Ah Paris.. As I’m writing this I look out over the countless roofs of the city. I’m here to walk in the footsteps of two great Russian writers, two favourites of mine: Turgenev and Tolstoy. 150 years ago the journey from Russia to Paris took about ten days; for me it’s just over three hours by train from Amsterdam.

Pauline Viardot

Turgenev came to live in Paris (actually he lived there off and on for 36 years) to be close to his objet d’amour, Pauline Viardot. He had been hopelessly in love with her since 1843, but she was the wife of his good friend Louis Viardot (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R). After staying at the Viardots’ as a ‘family friend’ for a really long time, he decides in 1847 that it’s more appropriate to rent his own apartment, close to the Tuileries Garden.

Depressed

Around 1857, the year that Tolstoy came to visit, Turgenev lives on the Rue the Rivoli 208 or 210 (most sources say 210) with his daughter Paulinette. At that time his relationship with Pauline is not so good, and that depresses him.

50 Rue de Douai

In 1871, however, when he is 53 years old, he moves in with the Viardots at the 50 Rue de Douai. There he occupies four rooms on the third flour. By then he has become some sort of honorary consul of Russia in Paris. Ilya Repin comes to paint his portrait, and he takes part in weekly get togethers with Maupassant, Zola, Flaubert and Georges Sand (to name but a few) in former restaurant Magny on the Rue Mazet.

After his death in 1883 in the Viardots’ country house, his body is transported to Russia to be buried there. But before the coffin gets on the train, it is sent to the Russian Cathedral in the Rue Daru to get censed, even though Ivan was not religious.

Rue de Rivoli

With Tolstoy, of course, it’s a different story. Not love, but adventure calls him to Paris. He arrives at the Gare du Nord on February 9th 1857. Turgenev and the writer Nekrasov, who he knows well, receive him. The first night he sleeps in the Hôtel Meurice in the Rue de Rivoli, but the next day he rents a furnished apartment in the same street on number 206.

Madness

On the evening of his arrival Tolstoy is taken to a costumed ball in the Opéra by Turgenev. Before he goes to bed that night Tolstoy writes only one word in his diary, that typifies his stay in Paris: “Madness.”.

Turgenev, who knows the city really well, shows him numerous places of interest. But also when Tolstoy is alone he keeps a busy schedule. He goes to lectures at the Sorbonne, to concerts, to evenings with fellow countrymen. Obviously he thinks Napoleon’s grave is a disgusting display of misplaced worship. Through Turgenev he could have met a number of acclaimed French writers, but typically he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

The Guillotine

Tolstoy is enjoying himself tremendously until he decides one unfortunate day to attend an execution by guillotine. But seeing the infamous machine in action with his own eyes terrifies him, it disgusts him, he is disgusted with himself for going, he is disgusted with the French for inventing it and can’t sleep for nights. He leaves Paris soon after.

Love-hate

In Paris too the relationship between the two writers is not always good (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1Y). Their diaries and letters clearly show that:

Turgenev, February 16 – His creaking and groaning have a very bad effect on a man like me, whose nerves are already overstrained.

Tolstoy, February 21 – Spent another pleasant evening with Turgenev and a bottle of wine by the fireside.

Tolstoy, March 4 – Dropped in on Turgenev. He is a cold and useless man, but intelligent and his art is inoffensive.

Turgenev, March 8 – I cannot establish any lasting friendship with Tolstoy, our views are too different.

 

View on the Tuileries from the Rue de Rivoli
This is the building in which Tolstoy rented an apartment
He only stayed six weeks, but he is remembered in Paris
The door at 206-208 is beautiful, and the location in great, but inside it was not as comfortable as Tolstoy was accustomed to..

The Viardots’ house on the Rue de Douai

Turgenev’s rooms were on the third flour

Turgenev must have crossed this doorstep many times

Ici vécut de 1871 à 1883 l’écrivain Russe Ivan Tourguéniev après de ses amis Louis Viardot, historien d’art et hispaniste, et Pauline Viardot-Garcia, cantatrice et compositeur, soeur de la Malibran

On the ground flour there is now an authentic and delicious bakery

The view from the bakery

The Russian Cathedral where Turgenev’s coffin was censed. Incidentally there was also a funeral service being held when I took these photos.

When on February 19th 1871 Russia officially abolished serfdom, Turgenev was so happy (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28) that he went to Russian church to celebrate!

-fin-

—Tous les photos prises par moi-même—

Les livres:

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy and Turgenev, his Life and Times by Henri Troyat

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:

 

Is Hadji Murat the improved version of War and Peace?

Earlier I wrote that Hadji Murat can be seen as a mini version of War and Peace. But did Tolstoy deliberately rewrite War and Peace?

Tolstoy’s final work of fiction

Tolstoy wrote Hadji Murat over the course of eight years at the end of his life, from 1896 until 1904. It is the last piece of fiction that he wrote and his wife Sophia cherished it particularly. Because at that time he also wrote What Is Art? (1897), in which he, among other things, condemns fiction, he felt obliged to write Hadji Murat on the side.

Similarities and oppositions

In both works we find a large number of characters, 580 in War and Peace and 151 in Hadji Murat. Tolstoy uses these characters, from a simple soldier up to the tsar, to illustrate the war from a wide variety of perspectives. Real and fictitious characters and facts are intermingled.

In both works domestic scenes are contrasted with military scenes; in War and Peace the family life plays a bigger part, in Hadji Murat it’s the other way around. The domestic life is often luxurious, whereas at the front things are kept simple.

War can be beautiful too

Tolstoy philosophises in both works about the reasons for warfare. The war is typically started by an ambitious ruler, spirals out of control and before you know it millions of people have lost their lives. But it’s not all evil; there are many cheerful military scenes, particularly in Hadji Murat, even though Tolstoy was a self-proclaimed pacifist around 1900. Perhaps out of nostalgia, having fought in the Caucasian war himself.

In the beginning of Hadji Murat a small scale gun fight takes place between Russian and Chechen soldiers, in which one soldier is killed. This fight is described as “… the incessant, merry, stirring rattle of our rifles began, accompanied by pretty dissolving cloudlets of smoke.”. In War and Peace there are similar battle scenes; on the morning of the Battle of Borodino, for instance, Pierre is mesmerised by the battlefield scene in front of him: “… these puffs of smoke and (strange to say) the sound of the firing produced the chief beauty of the spectacle.”.

The eyes are the mirror of the soul

One of the most beautiful scenes in War and Peace is the reunion of Nicholas, returning home on leave, and his youth love Sonya. Because this reunion takes place in the drawing room in front of the whole family, Nicholas keeps it formal. He kisses Sonya’s hands and addresses her with you in stead of thou, but “глаза их, встретившись, сказали друг другу “ты” и нежно поцеловались”, their eyes met and said thou and exchanged tender kisses.

Tolstoy uses the exact same construction in Hadji Murat: a formal meeting takes place between the hero of the story and the Commander-in-Chief Vorontsov. Hadji Murat is formally surrendering himself to the Russians. “Глаза этих двух людей, встретившись, говорили друг другу многое, невыразимое словами, и уж совсем не то, что говорил переводчик.”,the eyes of the two men met, and expressed to each other much that could not have been put into words and that was not at all what the interpreter said.

Thanks to those two sentences the reader now knows much, much more about the characters. Although Nicholas ends up being happily married to Mary, the reader cannot help but think that he would have been happier with Sonya. In the case of Hadji Murat we now know, already in the beginning of the story, that Hadji Murat’s surrender was not sincere, but motivated by the hope that with the help of the Russians he could free his family and that Vorontsov knew this too. And Vorontsov knowingly agreed, probably because it was a matter of prestige for the Russians to have the great naïb on their side. And so Tolstoy cleverly lets the reader draw their own conclusions and actively involves them into the story.

Conclusion

All these similarities can lead only to one conclusion: Tolstoy deliberately rewrote War and Peace, probably to convey his current outspoken ideas about pacifism, and perhaps to write one more final work of fiction before he died, in order to close off his literary career once and for all.

Louis Lejeune – Battle of Moscow (Wikipedia)

 

Reading list: War and Peace and Hadji Murat

For a review on Hadji Murat  https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/hadji-murat-by-leo-tolstoy/


 

Tolstoy and the Caucasus

Unlike Pushkin and Lermontov Tolstoy (1828-1910) went to the Caucasus voluntarily. He had accumulated considerable gambling debts in Moscow. Gambling addiction was a big problem with the Russian aristocracy, and the stakes could get really high. The Tolstoy family was no exception. Remember the American( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n )? When he couldn’t pay his debts anymore, he contemplated suicide, but his gypsy girlfriend gave him the money and saved him. The wild stories about Leo’s illustrious great uncle circulated in Moscow for years after his death in 1846.

Good intentions

In order to escape from his troubles in Moscow, Leo decided to join his brother Nikolay, who was positioned with the Russian army in the Caucasus. In their enthusiasm the brothers forgot to take into consideration the well known fact that the average Russian officer loves a game of cards. In no time at all Tolstoy was 850 roubles in debt again and was forced to sell off more of his inheritance. His other good intentions didn’t come to much either; he had gypsy girl after Cossack girl.

The start of his writing career

Tolstoy stayed in the Cossack village Starogladkovskaya for two and a half years. This period turned out to have a positive influence on his writing at least. He even started his writing career in the Caucasus. His war experiences there were used for War and Peace and several of his stories, like The Cossacks and Hadji Murad are situated in the Caucasus.

“He admired the Cossacks”

The novella The Cossacks (1862) is Tolstoy’s first masterpiece and it was Turgenev’s favourite. It starts like any Romantic story. The hero Olenin leaves his troubled past behind to start a new life in the Caucasus. Tolstoy himself, having read Pushkin and Lermontov, must have felt like that too when he made that journey. Tolstoy, however, is not a Romantic writer and Olenin is no Pechorin. Where Pechorin left a trail of destruction behind him, Olenin leaves no impression at all, he doesn’t get the girl and before he’s even out of sight he’s forgotten. This is a technique that Tolstoy uses frequently, making the familiar strange. Ironically Tolstoy needed the proceeds from this work to pay off more gambling debts.

Tolstoy’s final piece of fiction

At the end of his life, between 1896 and 1904, Tolstoy wrote his last masterpiece: Hadji Murad. At that time he wrote mainly religious and pacifist texts and had already declared that literature was a waste of time. As a result he felt guilty working on it. Perhaps we owe it to Turgenev’s deathbed plea that Tolstoy did once more what he was so extraordinarily good at: writing superb fiction. The story is based on a piece of Caucasian history from 1851, precisely the year that Tolstoy went to the Caucasus.

“This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naïb”

It’s a typical Tolstoy story, actually a mini version of War and Peace. It tells the story of the dilemma that Hadji Murad, Chechen rebel leader and hero, faced in the final year of his restless life. We see Hadji Murad through the eyes of the Russians, who admire but also distrust him. We see him through the eyes of his own people, through women’s eyes and finally as a father whose family is being held hostage. It’s a bloody war story and to clear his conscience Tolstoy warns us at regular intervals: war is evil. Feel free to skip these passages and enjoy the great Tolstoy at his best. Tolstoy knew very well why people wage wars and why people like reading fiction. After all he was only human himself.

Hadji Murad in 1851 (Wikipedia)

The quotes are from The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

The books I used were:

Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

A blog about Pushkin in the Caucasus

“Pushkin discovered the Caucasus.” – Vissarion Belinsky

Recently someone asked me on Twitter which book by Tolstoy he should read first. I don’t know the man and I haven’t got a clue about his preferences, but I unhesitatingly advised The Cossacks. It’s a short novella, and it was Turgenev’s favourite. Obviously I immediately read it again myself. And that’s how I got the idea to write about the 19th century Russian Literature featuring the Caucasus* here on my blog.

Banned to the Caucasus

As we know, Pushkin has been banned to the south and visited the Caucasus. The writer Lermontov was banned to the Caucasus and Tolstoy volunteered in military service there. For all three of them the incomparable beauty of the landscape and their colourful inhabitants, the Circassians, were a source of inspiration. Pushkin wrote The Prisoner of the Caucasus while he was there, Lermontov wrote A Hero of Our Time and Tolstoy wrote three stories about the Caucasus; The Cossacks, The Prisoner of the Caucasus and Hadji Murat.

Pushkin

We shall start with Pushkin, as he was the first to introduce the theme. Of course, you can read the rest perfectly well without reading Pushkin first, but we know that his influence was such, that the rest becomes better and more interesting if we start with him. No self respecting writer in Russia would even dream of putting a word on paper without having read Pushkin first.

The prisoner of the Caucasus

The Prisoner of the Caucasus is a long poem in the Romantic style. At first sight it’s an adventurous story with famous descriptions of the mountain landscape. The Circassians are described as heroes. The mountains are breathtaking, the men brave and quick, well dressed and they have the best horses. The vibrantly dressed women are attractive with their dark hair and eyes and they sing beautifully. Even the prisoner can’t help admiring them.
One would almost forget, but the story is told from the perspective of a Russian Prisoner of war, who was dragged into the Circassian village and is almost died. His rescue was a young Circassian beauty who regularly brings him food and drink in secret. She falls in love with the prisoner, but he, a true Romantic hero, has been disappointed in love and rejects her. Nonetheless she later helps him to escape and the prisoner, who by now loves her back, asks her to come along. Now she rejects him and commits suicide by jumping into the river in front of his eyes.

The story is followed by a rather surprising epilogue in which Pushkin suddenly announces that he hopes that the Russians will conquer the Caucasus, putting an end to the free lifestyle and culture of the Circassians. This patriotic epilogue can be explained as an attempt by Pushkin to get the poem through the strict censure, that put him there in the first place after all, or as an attempt to get his banishment lifted. But that would be underestimating Pushkin’s genius and self righteousness.

They recall the former days

Of raids that could not be repulsed,

Of the treachery of sly leaders,

Of the blows of their cruel sabers,

And of the accuracy of their arrows that could not be outrun,

And of the ash of destroyed villages,

And of the caresses of black-eyed woman prisoners.”

Violent people

If we take another close look at the poem, we notice how the free and romantic life of the Circassians is full of violence. When they are not fighting, they talk and sing about war. They play extremely violent games in which serfs are beheaded while little children watch excitedly. There is talk of sex slaves. They are one with their weapons and horses, and the horses are also seen as a weapon. Without Russian supremacy it is dangerous to travel there and difficult for Russia to trade with the countries behind the Caucasus.

Russia would benefit from a victory in the Caucasus and in this case Pushkin agrees with the government.

*During the Caucasian Wars from 1817 until 1864 Russia tried, eventually with success, to conquer the Caucasus.

Credit to John Lyles’ Bloody Verses and Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus


Next time we’ll talk about the works of Lermontov and Tolstoy about the Caucasus.

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