We’re on our way to Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, about 30 minutes drive outside the city of Tula. It’s a hot morning in May and my host, Iosif, has told me that the temperature is likely to get up to 28 degrees today.
One of the things that continually surprises me here is how consistent the weather is. I used to find it strange when Belarusian and Russian visitors complained how changeable British weather is: “When we go out in the morning, it’s warm and the sun is shining. But, Peter, later on it rains and we don’t have a coat. Then the sun comes out again and when we’re going home it starts to snow. We don’t where we are.” Welcome to my world!
Of course Tula is in the middle of a great land mass, unlike Britain whose weather is determined by the surrounding seas and oceans. One of the side effects of being a buffeted little island is that we get amazing cloud formations. I’m very fond of clouds and their ever-changing variety. It never struck me that our Russian friends didn’t seem to have such similar displays – again until they came to England and noticed ours. I told my friend, Vasily, that it is the greatest free art exhibition in the world – a comment that he frequently quotes back to me now that he too has become a cloud watcher.
Our journey has been slightly delayed because our organiser, Natasha (a Russian married to an Englishman), has had problems with her Russian passport. Apparently it had expired, so the authorities wanted to take it away from her. She explained that if they did that and destroyed it, she would not be able to get back into England. The answer is Russian bureaucracy at its most inflexible: fill in this form and stand in a queue in order to appeal to the Head of Department. At this point, Natasha is so upset, she breaks into floods of tears and goes into the Head of Department’s office ahead of the queue, telling him she can’t wait because she’s got a bus full of people waiting for her. Amazingly, he gives her passport back.
On the way to Yasnaya Polyana we make a couple of additional stops. The first is at the railway station at Kozlova Zaseka. In the Middle Ages this was on the borders of the Russian state (Rus) and was a defence point against the Mongol invaders. ‘Kozlova Zaseka’ means ‘Goat’s Abatis’ – an abatis being a ‘defence made of felled trees with the branches pointing outward’ (OED).
This was Tolstoy’s local railway station and the station has been re-built in the old style, by his grateful descendants to look (approximately) as it would have looked in his day. Inside there are pictures of him standing on the platform, no doubt on his way to Moscow, St Petersburg or Oryol (perhaps to visit Turgenev on his estate).
Tolstoy died at Astapovo railway station south-east of here, as he was attempting to flee from his wife. A plaque on the outside of Kozlova Zaseka station commemorates the fact that at 6.30 am on 22 November (9 November Old Style) 1910 a train arrived bearing his body on its way back for the last time to Yasnaya Polyana.
Our second stop is at the church of Nikolskoye Slovo, Yasnaya Polyana’s local church where many of Tolstoy’s family were buried and where he was baptised.
The church has been beautifully restored, though the only original feature in it today is the wood block floor. The inside of the church is quite unremarkable, but I get carried away photographing fresco icons.
I am just taking one of Constantine and Helena when the priest rushes in, tells me to stop and virtually ushers us out into the churchyard. Nearly getting thrown out of Orthodox churches is becoming a bit of an uncomfortable habit.
In the churchyard are the graves of Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna, who died in 1919, their children who died in infancy, his favourite daughter, Masha, his parents (who both died when he was young) and his brothers. Also buried here is the poet Esenin’s wife, who was a Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was brought up by an aunt, Pelageya Iliynichna Yushkova (known as ‘Polina’), also buried here, and there is an interesting story about how that came about. Tolstoy’s father, Nikolai, liked Pelageya very much when he was young and indeed proposed to her and they got engaged. His family however were not at all happy at the proposed marriage as they wanted him to make a good marriage for the sake of the family’s fortune. So, Pelageya released him from the engagement and he married a really wealthy woman instead. Later, when his wife died, Nikolai proposed again to Pelageya and this time she turned him down. No one knew why. After Pelageya’s death a note in French was found amongst her effects which said that Nikolai had proposed to her twice: the first time she had accepted him, the second she had rejected him, but told him that she would look after his children to the day she died.
I note on Pelageya’s gravestone above that she died in November 1875, but Rosamund Bartlett’s recent biography (Tolstoy – A Russian Life) states that she died on 22 December of that year. A minor discrepancy in an otherwise excellent life of the writer.