SLAVA UKRAINI! GLORY TO UKRAINE! - APRIL 7, 2022
April 4, 2022
On the Trail of Tolstoy
To celebrate our impending anniversary, Keith and I wanted to visit Tolstoy's country estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Clear Field, located more than two hundred kilometers south of Moscow. Since both of us admired the great writer, the trip was a good occasion to share a common interest and spend a couple of days together. When I suggested the outing, Keith could not have been more pleased.
Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana and lived there more than half a century. It was at the estate that he produced masterpieces such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace. He cherished this land, acknowledging its influence both on his writing and on his character. During the winter the snow enticed him; in his diary entries, Tolstoy described the power of snowstorms to nurture his soul.
Like a pilgrim, I wanted to honor the source of the author's inspiration, look around with my own eyes. The journey was a way to share Tolstoy's appreciation of the countryside; and, also, a tribute to the landscape that filled him with joy. The birch trees, the old, splendid apple orchard, the meadow close to his study window all seemed within reach. I felt a longing for the oak and the lime forest of which I had only seen pictures.
It was already October, a trip to the estate any later in the year with snow on the ground was out of the question.
Since the Soviet government required that Keith and I get special permission to travel outside of Moscow, I went to the American Embassy's Miscellaneous Services department to make the arrangements. These "mysterious services," as they were often called by the Americans, were handled by UPDK, the office in the Soviet Foreign Ministry in charge of all services for the diplomatic corps. The purpose of the UPDK embassy branch was to facilitate the coexistence between the Americans and the Soviets.
As I entered the large room filled with desks, a young Soviet employee stood by her chair. She was a brunette in late pregnancy, barely nineteen years old, with a pretty face. Her lovely light brown eyes shone with infinite boredom. Somehow, a hint of conceit in the shape of her mouth showed that she did not welcome my presence, and I immediately sensed impending trouble. Laura, I heard myself utter, give this woman a chance.
I addressed the young secretary as politely as I could, "Good morning! How are you?" I paused; there was no reply. "Our car needs a spare part that will only arrive from Finland in two or three weeks. But our anniversary is coming up, and my husband and I would like to rent a car to go to Yasnaya Polyana the weekend after next. Also, we would like to book a hotel in Tula for one night."
The woman stared at me and replied, "Your plans might be difficult to fulfill; with a driver, the trip is going to be costly."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear," I answered back. "We don't need a driver, both my husband and I have drivers' licenses. We only need a car."
"I can't arrange that," she pronounced sternly. "At the moment, all the cars for you—I mean you people affiliated with the American Embassy—come with a driver."
"Why is that, may I ask?"
"This is the way we run things in our country."
"Would you do me a favor, please?" I insisted. "Would you call your boss and explain that we'd like to rent a car without a driver?"
The secretary's eyes turned to the phone on her desk; she sat down and I saw her dialing a number. I also heard her request clearly, she did repeat what I had asked. When the answer came, she placed the gray, old-fashioned receiver back in the stand. She turned to me, her patience seemed endless now.
"Sorry, but it's the way I told you. Also, my supervisor passed on the message that there aren't any cars available for the weekend after next."
"I don't know, that's what he told me," the secretary added.
"Maybe you could call the Intourist travel agency. Since they are a governmental office, they might help!" I tried to sound positive.
"They can't help you. Intourist only goes to Yasnaya Polyana during the week, never on weekends."
The woman must have noticed that I was about to get angry, because she suggested, "Why don't you talk to my colleague over here? My associate might be able to help you with the hotel reservations."
It was unclear why I was supposed to make hotel reservations if Keith and I could not get a car; it seemed the woman was trying to get rid of me. But leaving rationality aside, I addressed the other clerk who had overheard our conversation. I repeated my wish to reserve a night in a hotel in Tula.
"I must tell you upfront, to book a hotel in Tula might be as difficult as renting a car. The booking will cost you six rubles, and, if you cancel, you have to pay another six rubles."
I felt as if floating in outer space―the sensation was common in Moscow―but I only replied with conviction, "With permission to travel, my husband and I don't intend to cancel the reservation."
She stared at me; I decided to turn to the pregnant brunette again.
"You haven't told me yet how much it costs to rent a car, with a driver, for the weekend."
The secretary used the phone and then turned to me again. "My supervisor tells me that you need not only a car and a driver but a guide as well."
"What?" I asked louder than I intended.
"You don't need to get upset," the brunette said coolly. "Can you answer my question: how much will the trip cost?" I was trying hard to keep my composure. "Something like one hundred and twenty rubles a day. And we have a rule: you need to pay either in dollars or in Deutch Marks." She continued matter-of-factly, "You can go now to my other colleague, that one over there, at the far corner. She is the person in charge of filling out forms." She pointed at the clerk. "You need a form asking authorization to travel. If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs grants it, we'll let you know. Good-bye for now."
That evening Keith and I discussed the situation, and we never filled out the form. Keith saw my disappointment but from the way the conversation had gone, he suspected that our outing would not be allowed. Tolstoy would have to wait for our visit; the weekend of our anniversary we flew to London.
Annoyed with the Soviet system, I complained the following day to Evgenya, my Russian teacher at the embassy. I wanted to chat, her interest in Russian grammar was too extreme.
I loved Evgenya, she was such a great teacher that I even forgave her for smelling of disinfectant, not soap. Evgenya was a true believer in the Soviet system, there seemed to be no irony, no double thinking. An American friend, also a student of hers, had mentioned that Evgenya might be a KGB colonel in disguise. What do I care, I thought, as long as I refrain from discussing personal matters with her? It fascinated me to see someone with that level of certainty, so very few misgivings. In the West, only religious fanatics had that kind of conviction. She knew white, black, and very few, if any, shades of gray in between.
When Evgenya heard my complaint, she answered with her usual socialistic fervor that the country had rules, rules with which my husband and I needed to comply.
It just happened that when I crossed the Kremlin that day to attend my lesson at the American Embassy, I had seen a demonstration, just a few dozen people with placards praising the government. I had read one of them, "With enthusiasm, we salute our beloved communist leaders."
I continued with Evgenya, "This is bizarre: I passed the Kremlin on my way here and, as usual, I saw a pro-government demonstration."
"Laura, what's so surprising about that? In this country we respect our superiors," Evgenya exclaimed.
"We respect governments in the West, too, particularly if they deserve it. But we protest when there are abuses of power."
"That doesn't happen here, our leaders know how to watch out for us. They help us, they protect us; in turn, we're thankful."
"They protect you so thoroughly?" I felt like provoking Evgenya just a bit. "Gosh, aren't you scared?"
"Scared of what?"
"Did you ever read George Orwell? Have you ever heard that absolute power can corrupt absolutely?"
"Who is George Orwell?"
"He is a British writer. I think you'd enjoy reading him, he might broaden your horizons."
"Don't you know that I don't speak—or read—any English? Russian and its grammar are enough for me."
I smiled. In my mind Evgenya was afraid of speaking English. She had plenty of opportunities to learn it with her American students, she had been a teacher for over fifteen years. For me, Evgenya suspected that if she made an effort to speak or read English, her fanatical world would crumble in a few minutes.
But Evgenya was smart, and she was determined to save the day. She asked if I would like to read in class one of Tolstoy's short stories; she suggested Master and Man. Keith had the book in our library at home, so I promised to bring it to class the following day. My time had not been wasted. And when we started reading the story, my attraction to the famous Russian author only deepened.
A few weeks later—with me still complaining about the aborted visit to Yasnaya Polyana between pages of Master and Man—Evgenya offered another solution. She suggested a further step in my knowledge of the writer, this time a visit to the Tolstoy literary museum in Moscow, located at Prechistenka Street, No. 11. She mentioned that Tolstoy's complete works were there. Also, that the house was filled with manuscripts, first editions, notes, personal letters, photographs, and even Tolstoy's drawings.
I thanked Evgenya for her new plan. And so, one afternoon after class, I headed over to visit the museum.
Evgenya had not warned me, but it was obvious that the Soviets had adopted Tolstoy as their own writer. The museum was completely structured ideologically, with every word, every detail, politically correct according to Soviet doctrine. At the entrance to each room were small wall labels, both in Russian and English, describing the room's contents. The first room set the tone for the frame of mind to follow—it laid out the Bolshevik assessment of Tolstoy's work. The room displayed not only a huge Bolshevik flag but also several original editions of the newspaper Pravda— Truth in English—praising the author soon after the Revolution. I read the title of the nearest wall label, "Lenin on Tolstoy" which dealt, appropriately, with Lenin's judgment of the author. It read in Russian, "Lenin wrote seven articles on Tolstoy, who was his favorite author...," and continued later on, "Tolstoy, as a mirror of the Russian Revolution, stated that...." The Russian and the English versions of the framed descriptions were very different. Lenin's reviews had been omitted in the English versions.
After a tour of all the rooms I was unable to distinguish between historical fact and communist dogma, but I left the museum, nevertheless, with the feeling of a well-spent afternoon. A touching detail in one of the rooms stayed with me: the original illustrations made in crayon, in 1898-99, by L. O. Pasternak—the father of the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak—for Tolstoy's novel, Resurrection.
Following the visit, I told Evgenya how instructive the museum had been. Pleased with my devotion to Tolstoy, Evgenya gave me yet another idea. She recommended, this time, that I visit Tolstoy's house in Moscow, after all he had lived there for over fifteen years. The house was located in a street that bore the writer's name, and which the Soviets had turned into a museum as early as 1921.
We had been reading Master and Man at a fast pace once a week and were close to the end. I told Evgenya that I wanted to visit Tolstoy's house only under heavy snowfall; she answered that I would not have long to wait, the depths of winter were drawing close.
One day in early January, I watched snowflakes filling the streets, inch by inch, from the crack of dawn. By early afternoon, the atmosphere seemed most conducive for my much delayed meeting with Tolstoy's domestic surroundings. I quickly consulted a map of the city and found the location of the house. Soon after, I got into the car and drove carefully through a Moscow blizzard in full power. The streets had not been plowed yet and the car zigzagged as if on skates. The wind was strong, pulling the car left and right as I went along.
Tolstoy's wooden mansion emerged on a quiet side street off a major intersection on the Sadovoye Koltso. I parked by the garden's low fence, there was not a soul in sight on the street. A small plaque by the main entrance indicated my arrival at Tolstoy's home. The house was brown with green shutters, surrounded by a few birch trees, and exuded a peaceful feeling of rustic simplicity.
It was virtually dark in the entrance hall. The attendant at the front door took my fur coat and sold me a ticket. She asked me to leave my backpack with her. Since a book was a permanent companion on my expeditions in Moscow, Master and Man was sticking out of one pocket. Another woman had arrived a few minutes earlier, a bureaucratic type; she was very slim and tall, with very short hair, and she wore a two-piece dark gray suit. With a beam in her eyes she noticed my book and soon withdrew to a nearby corridor.
"I really wanted to come here today," I told the attendant while paying for the ticket.
"It's getting late," she answered.
"I know, but I wanted to see Tolstoy's house in the middle of a storm."
"You chose the right day. The house is nearly empty, it's all yours." She continued in an officious manner, "Today is grounds inspection day, the clerk you just saw—the woman who went inside—is our government superintendent."
"She did look like an inspector!" I said half-amused.
"Hurry up," she continued seriously, not seeming to enjoy my remark. "Soon you won't be able to see anything― the house doesn't have electricity."
"Is that so?" I was surprised.
"As much as possible, we try to keep the house as it was in Tolstoy's time. Let the snow's light be your guide."
"How's that possible?"
"You'll see, the snow outside throws light into the rooms inside."
"I didn't know that!"
"You know now." The woman hurried me on while gesticulating with her arms, "Hush, hush, don't lose time talking, during the winter we close early, at 3:00."
I started to walk around slowly, meeting Tolstoy at one of his houses had taken quite a long time. I passed through the old-fashioned kitchen; then the dinning room, where the British china that the family used every day was on display. It was as if the family was about to return for the evening meal. The children's playroom, near the kitchen, had a child's colorful wooden horse and a doll's sled. The rooms were all packed with furniture and various objects; they were cozy, warm, and radiated intimacy.
The public part of the house was located upstairs and I climbed the stairway after admiring a few more details downstairs. On display was a huge, embalmed bear's head that Tolstoy had hunted himself before his religious conversion; and Tolstoy's bicycle, a present from the Moscow Society of Velocipede Lovers that, according to the wall label, the author had learned to ride at age sixty-seven.
The renowned ballroom was located on the second floor. Snow swirled around the windows, heavier than ever before that day. A grand piano stood at one end of the room. The furniture was refined, the sofas covered with red brocade; oriental rugs, silver, vases, lace, and many other delicate ornaments decorated the large room. Many pictures of family members accompanied by writers and artists were on display. Copies of originals at Yasnaya Polyana of Ilya Repin's family portraits were on the walls.
The attendant in the ballroom noticed how attentively I studied the decoration. She said, "It'll be dark soon. Why did you arrive so late?"
"It was my dream to visit the house in a snowstorm; I didn't know there was no electricity here," I answered.
"You studied every object in detail, as if you were a detective."
"The decor is so superb! Also, I must confess, I have a fascination for interiors."
"It's Count Tolstoy's house, after all," she said, pride filling her voice.
"The house is grand, but not opulent, not ostentatious," I added.
"Like all great men, Tolstoy liked to live simply," she replied.
"Still, there's an aristocratic feeling here. The house is simple and elegant at the same time."
"It was Tolstoy's wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna, who wanted it that way. If Tolstoy had lived here alone, the house would have been even simpler."
The living room was next door. The attendant there was talking softly to the superintendent, as if they were in a sanctuary. The inspector turned in my direction and sized me up.
Again, I observed the room meticulously, taking my time. I noticed the old-fashioned clock, the mirrors framed by elaborate carved wood, the corners filled with stylish round tables; the candelabra, the small, decorated boxes, and the statuettes. It was gettting darker with each step I took, and indeed, as the entrance attendant had mentioned, it was the snow's brightness entering the windows that illuminated the room. A peculiar shade upon the objects multiplied them by now, as if they were not one, but many; they appeared dim, mysterious, enigmatic. It was as if the furnishings were wrapped up in the most voluptuous of shadows.
Now I wanted to see Tolstoy's studio and asked the attendant for directions. She said, "Our writer liked to work far from the noises of the house; he had many children, also many servants. Go through that corridor, over there," she indicated the far end of the house with her chin. "You'll find it at the end of the narrow hallway, on the right."
The superintendent realized that I was a foreigner when I asked the question. With a half smile, she started up a conversation, "You seem to enjoy our revered Lev Nikolayevich." In the Russian fashion, she used Tolstoy's first name and patronymic.
"Oh, I love him! For a long time I've wanted to come here."
"At the entrance, I noticed that you're reading a favorite story of ours, Master and Man. Good, isn't it?"
"The description of the blizzard is one of the best things I've read in my life. This is why I decided to come here today, with a snowstorm at its heights."
"There's nothing special about the storm in the story; in this country we have blizzards all the time," she continued with a disdainful smile. "What's special is how the master, Brekhunov, dies to save Nikita, his servant," she concluded.
I was having too good a time to debate the inspector. A bit of humor would have come in handy, but I felt too awed by Tolstoy's surroundings. So I asked instead, while returning the inspector's half smile, "Well, isn't that a matter of interpretation?"
"You foreigners don't understand us." The inspector's eyes were now as overcast as her dark gray suit. "Brekhunov made his money taking advantage of others, he was a merchant all his life. But, at the verge of death, he saw how empty his life had been. This is why Tolstoy wrote the story: to remind us that he, himself, discovered the emptiness of his wealth later in life."
I imagined that the inspector was a Slavophile, filled with the official truth, those people did not welcome foreigners. Feeling provocative, I added like a dissident, "Maybe what Brekhunov did can be seen as the most Christian of virtues, charity."
"Nonsense!" My words were an heresy to the official's ear.
"Let's reason together," I tried to keep the dialogue going. "Tolstoy had already gone through his religious conversion when he wrote the story. Isn't it possible that he's describing a virtue of Christian life, 'Help thy neighbor'? "
"Outsiders always feel entitled to an opinion!" The inspector continued in the same tone, "I'm telling you: Brekhunov decided to save his servant, Nikita, because he felt the peasant's life was worth more than his own. This is why he used his body to cover Nikita's. He knew that only one of them, not both, had a chance to survive the blizzard."
"I know that. But don't you think his gesture can have more than one meaning?"
"No, the gesture has only one meaning." The inspector's pitch rose, I feared Tolstoy's house might come down with its thunder. "At the time, our Lev Nikolayevich had already developed a strong class consciousness, he was already an early socialist. He had Brekhunov save Nikita as his ultimate moment of truth. The great Tolstoy revered his own country roots, the peasantry. Above all, he was an admirer of 'natural man.' And Nikita, the peasant, epitomized all that."
"What about Tolstoy's Christian conversion later in life?"
"You need guidance." The inspector did not answer my question. "It's not here in Moscow, but only at Yasnaya Polyana, the place where the writer was born, that you can see—really see—what I'm talking about. You should visit the estate one day."
"Believe me, I've tried," I uttered ironically, waving a quick good-bye.
I turned around and followed the attendant's directions to the far end of the house. And, there, at the end of the narrow corridor, was Tolstoy's studio. Resurrection, a work of fiction dealing with spiritual regeneration, had been written here. The room was small and sober, the furniture sparse. To the right stood the wooden desk where the writer worked. Opposite were a couple of armchairs; the rug on the floor had seen better days. The heavy snow falling against the tiny window directly across from the door illuminated the room. Tolstoy's desk was enveloped by the most seductive of twilights.
When I left the house a few minutes later, the snow seemed about to wipe out the city of Moscow. I drove back home slowly, my car still skating through the streets. Once, I had to pull over because the wind was so strong. The stop gave me a chance to pull Master and Man from my backpack and find the passage I wanted. It was an old verse by Pushkin that Petrukha, one of the peasants, had evoked when Brekhunov and Nikita stopped at his grandfather's house to get warm along the way. It read:
The storm be darkling over the sky,
It spins the whirling snow,
Now like a beast it roars out wild,
Now like a babe sobs low.
I felt gratified that Tolstoy's spirit—in the voice of a peasant reciting Russian poetry—had prevailed in my mind well above the inspector's words.
Keith and I shared a moment of togetherness over dinner that evening, engaging in one of those literary discussions we so much enjoyed. I told him yet again about the alluring power of nature; how enchanted I had been by the snow spinning against the windows, the shadow cast over the objects in the grand rooms upstairs, the twilight on Tolstoy's desk. Keith suggested we visit the house together.
After dinner, with the help of a dictionary, I finished Master and Man in a single stretch.