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I had about five or six hours to photograph everything I could reach in Tula. The city is not huge, so I had high hopes. But it’s not exactly small, either, and many of my hopes were dashed. I also made the mistake of wearing a bad pair of shoes that day and by the time evening fell I was ready to fall into a ditch and be washed away with the daily slop.
I started out as I always do on my photograph hunts with a bold step, a keen eye, and visions of sheer pleasure. By the time I reached the monument to Leo Tolstoy at the far end of the city, I was, as The Band put it so succinctly, “about half-past dead.” If that wasn’t enough, I had lost the light of day. The last few objects I photographed before Tolstoy were done in a murky, grainy gray that makes the photos borderline unusable. They may have to wait to be posted here until I have used up virtually everything else in my huge photo archive. At the rate I’m posting these days, the chances are good I will die before I get to those photos. But I digress.
I was encouraged when I came upon Tolstoy from behind – having worked my way through the Belousov Central Park of Culture and Recreation – because there were lights everywhere. And most of them were there to illuminate Tolstoy. In fact, the results were mixed at best. These photos don’t give an honest, all-around picture of the monument that was sculpted from bronze by Vyacheslav Buyakin in 1973. Most of the details are lost in unnatural sparkles and shadows. The camera couldn’t decide whether to flush Tolstoy in gold or in silver. But my camera did capture something otherworldly in a few of the shots that I find intriguing. In fact, when I did a little research and saw what this hunk of metal looks like in natural light, I began to feel I had lucked out. Buyakin, I’m afraid, was not a sculptor of great subtlety. His well-known monuments of Lenin in Moscow, Syktyvkar and elsewhere seem to have made his fame more than any great personal vision he brought to his work. He is semi-notorious for being the sculptor who in 1967 hammered out a Lenin that replaced a Stalin which had stood in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park for several years.
Buyakin’s Tolstoy is the proverbial peasant-friendly figure in his peasant shirt, the rope for a belt, and the wind blowing his beard as he presumably steps forward through a field of – shall we say – wheat. He’s really big, so that clearly makes us think of Tolstoy, and the rough-hewn facial resemblance, never realistic, leaves no doubt as to who it is.
But there’s the rub. It is virtually impossible to make anything negative stick to Tolstoy. I don’t care if this isn’t the greatest image of him ever done. I don’t care if it blends into the sea of all the other Tolstoy likenesses ever done. I don’t care that they stuck a bathetic quote at his feet – “My writing is all of me,” or, “My writing is all that I am” – something that now seems so Soviet, and so pompous. I don’t care if this is just another of those monumental monuments that can start out in the workshop as Lenin, Stalin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or God for the first half of the job, and then only be turned in one direction or another by a few strokes here and there. None of that matters. What matters is that you’re in Tula, more or less Tolstoy’s hometown, and you have come across something resembling the great man casually striding across a plaza (officially – Tolstoy Square) as if there were nothing curious about that at all. The more I walked around this Tolstoy and photographed him, the more I didn’t want to leave. I had a theater opening to make and it was a good long walk from way out here at the end of Lenin Prospect to where I had to go, but I just kept lingering, looking for one more angle, one more shot. For those of us who never had the opportunity to meet the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this is the about the best we’re ever going to get – to run around his big bronze feet and stare up into his metallic gaze and pretend that we are in attendance at his presence.
I’m not sure why, but in such moments I never waste my time thinking of all the reasons Tolstoy drives me mad – from some of those horrible, misogynistic late stories, to so many of the holier-than-thou passages that increasingly populated his writings as he aged. I love to shake a fist at Tolstoy. I know what a despot he was at home, how he mistreated his wife, and used his servant girls as playthings. That’s all there. It’s part of the package. I don’t forget it. But I never feel as though I have the right to judge this man too harshly. I have never walked a step, let alone a mile, in his shoes. In his presence – the presence of artistic likenesses – I am humbled. Here is what Gary Saul Morson wrote about Tolstoy in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Some viewed Tolstoy as the embodiment of nature and pure vitality, others saw him as the incarnation of the world’s conscience, but for almost all who knew him or read his works, he was not just one of the greatest writers who ever lived but a living symbol of the search for life’s meaning.”