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I think I first learned about this little house in Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett’s book Literary Russia: A Guide. It’s a wonderful travel tool if you want to walk up and down Russia’s streets doing what I do in this blog – hunt for cool cultural connections between the world in which we live and a world that once existed. I’ve had these photos lying around for awhile, waiting for an impulse to put them up (you don’t make posts just to make posts – you do it when you’re compelled). Well, I found the reason yesterday. As I was wandering the grounds of one of my favorite places outside of Moscow – Anton Chekhov’s Melikhovo estate museum – I ran into a woman I began to chat with. Turned out it was Anna Benn. How’s that for a cool coincidence? Hence, my Leo Tolstoy photos taken at 34 Sivtsev Vrazhek quickly raced up the waiting list to the top.
Benn and Bartlett inform us that Tolstoy arrived at this tiny little house for an extended stay in 1850. He came up from his huge estate at Yasnaya Polyana. He was 22 years old. I pick up their narrative verbatim:
“[Tolstoy] had left Kazan University in the middle of his course, his agricultural and educational experiments at Yasnaya Polyana had not led anywhere, and he now came to Moscow to play cards, go into high society and find someone to marry. He was also beginning to read a great deal, however, particularly the writings of Sterne and Rousseau, and it was while he was living here that he made his first attempts at writing fiction. The house makes a fictional appearance in War and Peace: it is where Nikolay Rostov and his mother and Sonya move after the French invasion of Moscow. Tolstoy stayed here until April 1851, when he set off for the Caucasus with his brother.”
A walking tour website in Russian tells very much the same story, but with some nice, added details. Here we learn that Tolstoy arrived at this home with “five windows” on Dec. 5, 1850, which actually indicates that Tolstoy spent little more than four months here. Let me quote further from the site:
“Sofya Andreevna Tolstaya [Tolstoy’s wife] later jotted down Lev Nikolaevich’s words about how he took up the pen: ‘He had the notion of describing something for the first time when he lived in Moscow. Having read Sterne’s Sentimental Voyage, excited and entranced by this reading, he sat down one day by a window and, after giving it some thought, he looked at everything that was happening on the street.’ ‘There goes a street policeman on his beat. Who is he? What is his life like? Now there goes a carriage – who is in it and where are they going, what are they thinking of? And who lives in that house, what kind of inner life do they have? How interesting it would be to describe all that…’ Thus arose the idea for ‘Stories of Yesterday,’ Tolstoy’s first tale which augured much for the history of world literature.”
Ah, but which of the five windows? (There are actually six these days, so one must assume that the left side of the building was added after Tolstoy lived there.) Now we’ll have people lining up at these windows peering in to try to imagine Tolstoy peering back out.
(For the record, Russian Wikipedia tells us that the first story Tolstoy wrote here was “Tales from Gypsy Life.”)
In fact, this little house’s role in War and Peace is just about as thin as paper. It appears once in Epilogue One, Chapter Five; while the street on which it is located – Sivtsev Vrazhek – is mentioned one other time, in Book Eight, Chapter One (using the usual chapter numbering in English, not Russian).
The street’s first appearance (without the house) actually throws us back to Sofya Tolstaya’s little tale about young Tolstoy looking out his window. One can’t help but wonder if Tolstoy, as he wrote this little chunk of his greatest novel (yes, it’s better than Anna Karenina, regardless of what U.S. TV talk show hosts may claim), wasn’t thinking back to the impressions he had that first time he sat down by the window to look at the world outside and describe it. Here is the text offered in a dubious translation on the internet:
“In Moscow as soon as he [Pierre] entered his huge house in which the faded and fading princesses still lived, with its enormous retinue; as soon as, driving through the town, he saw the Iberian shrine, with innumerable tapers burning before the golden settings of the icons, the Kremlin Square with its snow undisturbed by vehicles, the sledgedrivers and hovels of the Sivtsek Vrazhok [sic], those old Muscovites who desired nothing, hurried nowhere, and were ending their days leisurely, when he saw those old Moscow ladies, the Moscow balls and the English Club, he felt himself at home in a quiet haven. In Moscow he felt at peace, at home, warm and dirty as in an old dressing-gown.”
The second and final appearance of Sivtsev Vrazhek comes as the novel winds down, everyone’s great hopes for the future have given way to reality, and the former future “star” Nikolai (Nicholas) Rostov is seriously downsizing his dreams. Again, I provide the excerpt by way of a questionable internet translation of the novel:
“Not one of the plans Nicholas tried succeeded… He could not rejoin the army, where he would have been made colonel at the next vacancy, for his mother now clung to him as her one hold on life; and so despite his reluctance to remain in Moscow among people who had known him before , and despite his abhorrence of the civil service, he accepted a post in Moscow in that service, doffed the uniform of which he was so fond, and moved with his mother and Sonya to a small house on the [sic] Sivtsev Vrazhek.”
So, this small house which bore witness to Leo Tolstoy’s first inclination to write, serves in his imagination many years later as the end of the line for Nikolai Rostov and his family. Isn’t that like a writer to turn the beginning into an end?