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I have a heck of a time visiting Leo Tolstoy. This is the third Tolstoy home/museum that has been closed when I came to visit. In the case of this estate where Tolstoy and much of his family wintered from 1882 to 1901, I picked the one day in the month when it was closed. Consequently, I ended up sneaking around taking whatever photos I could from the outside. To get some shots of the inside grounds I either stuck my hand through the gate slats (second and third photos in the block immediately below) or shimmied up a narrow space between two walls on the property’s south side. From there I got a bit of a view down into the back yard (the last two photos at the bottom). It was here among the trees that Tolstoy would set up a skating rink for the family during the months of ice and snow.
None of my walk-around left me with much of a feeling that I had encountered the writer in any meaningful way. Everything seemed to have its back turned to me that day – walls, gates, fences, houses, ghosts… But with a little help from Tolstoy’s diaries – and the copious annotations done by Tolstoy scholars – we can slip back the curtain on life here, if only ever so slightly.
Tolstoy purchased this home and plot of land in the Khamovniki district west of central Moscow on July 14, 1882, from Collegiate Assessor Ivan Arnautov. The street name at the time was Dolgo-Khamovnichesky Lane. Today, not surprisingly, it is Leo Tolstoy Street. The Tolstoys actually moved into the house only three months later, on October 8, 1882. Among other things, the house and its fences and various wings were among the very few structures to survive the great Moscow fire of 1812 when Napoleon invaded the city. Later, it was one of the first major literary museums created in the Soviet period. It has had that status since 1921. That’s quite an event when you consider that the young Soviet state was still bogged down in a Civil War and was struggling seriously financially.
The State Tolstoy Museum website tells us that of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy’s 13 children, 10 spent at least some time living in this house. They were Tatyana, Maria, Alexandra, Sergei, Ilya, Lev, Andrei, Mikhail, Alexei and the couple’s last son, little Vanechka, who died of scarlet fever at the age of seven.
Vanechka was born here at the Khamovniki house in 1888. He went down in the memories of his parents as an angel of love who came to bless them before he left. The stories are legion and they are touching. Vanya was a handsome boy (see a photo here), who had a lasting effect on everyone who encountered him. There was an asylum on the other side of the wall where a man came to live when he had a nervous breakdown after his own son died. In a turn of events that might strike us as prescient if not miraculous, he befriended Vanya and was cured of his illness. Here is an account of that transformation from Tolstoy.ru:
“In a clinic for the mentally ill that stood next to the garden of the Khamovniki house there lived a patient who fell ill after the death of his only child. He found comfort in spending time with Vanechka. They often communicated over the fence. But the conversations were of the most serious kind. The boy assured the sick man that there was still much love in the world, and that one must love everyone. After these conversations the desire to live again awakened in the sick man’s soul. In a thank you note to Sofya Tolstoy, he wrote: ‘It wasn’t the doctor who cured me, but God sent your Vanechka, that angel, for my comfort. He gave me the happiness of a new love for him, and through him, for all children and all people.”
The Tolstoys lost another child here. Alexei was born in 1881, the year before they moved in, but died January 18, 1886, before reaching the age of five. This terrible event would have happened when the family was at the Khamovniki house.
The only child, aside from Vanechka, who was born during the Tolstoys tenure in Khamovniki was the last daughter Alexandra (1884-1979). However, she was born in Yasnaya Polyana on June 18, in the dead of the summer when the family was always together at that country estate near Tula.
Men and women, great and otherwise, made pilgrimages to meet and greet with Tolstoy at his home. We see evidence of this in some of the writer’s diaries, all of which are available online. Because of the nature of diaries, we don’t always get more than a barebones report, and we obviously get nothing more than what Tolstoy jotted down. But, for the record, we know that the writer Vsevolod Garshin paid Tolstoy a visit at his home in Khamovniki on January 31 (or thereabouts), 1885, “but did not find him home.” Anatoly Alexandrov, a tutor of one of Tolstoy’s sons and later a well-known literary editor, actually lived in the wing of the main house in 1988 and 1989. At some point in 1891-92, the Serb Giuseppe Modrich stopped by, later describing his talks with Tolstoy in a chapter called “Visiting Count Tolstoy. His Social Catechism” in his book, Russia: Notes and Memories of Travels (Rome, 1892). The French literary historian and translator Jules Legras visited in 1893.
One of the best known visits to Khamovniki was paid by Maxim Gorky on January 16, 1900. It was the first meeting ever of the two writers. In part because Gorky was with the journalist Vladimir Posse, and in part because the event made such an impression on Gorky, there has been quite a bit written about it. Posse recalled that Tolstoy was very animated during the meeting, speaking with Gorky openly and freely. Tolstoy told Gorky that he hadn’t been able to slog through his novel Foma Gordeev. “Everything in it is artificial,” he told his young visitor. He did, however, name other works that made a good impression on him – “Varenka Olesova” and “26 Men and a Girl,” among them. Still, the initial criticism apparently blinded Gorky so that he didn’t fully hear Tolstoy tell him how much he enjoyed meeting him, that he would do well as a writer, and that he was a “real man.” What better praise could a Russian male give a Russian male?!
At first blush, Gorky wrote to Posse that the visit had not made much of an impression. He compared it to Finland: “nothing familiar, nothing alien, but quite cold.” However, as a sign that Gorky did have a conscience, he seemed to warm up to the experience the more distant it grew in time. On January 18 or 19 he wrote an almost gushing letter to Tolstoy: “I’m very happy that I saw you and I’m very proud of having done so. In general I knew that you are very straight and kind with people, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to be so kind to me!”
If you’re interested, there’s a fairly detailed description of the visit and later comments by all concerned on the site that publishes Tolstoy’s complete works.
In all, Tolstoy wrote some 100 works at the estate in Khamovniki. Among them were the novel Resurrection, and the stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” (one of the most odious pieces of literature ever committed to paper), and “Father Sergius.” The very last thing he wrote here was “My Reply to the Synod,” after the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for breaking with its teachings. It is a rift that continues even today, as the Church continues to claim Tolstoy cannot be reinstated because he never renounced his heretical views.