Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

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Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docks, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.






Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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DSCN9327I had no idea that this place at 4/5 Plotnikov Lane existed. I had never seen nor heard anything about it. Consider, then, my amazement and excitement when I happened to be walking around the Arbat area a couple of weeks ago and I came upon this  – a marvelous home featuring a myriad of mildly erotic bas reliefs of none less than Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Mild as they may be, they are clearly erotic in nature, and, yes, as I said, they involve the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and, perhaps, Ivan Turgenev, in various suggestive poses with each other or with seemingly faceless others…
It goes without saying that my ignorance is not shared by all. There is plenty on the internet about this structure that is one of several in Moscow called a “Broido home.” Like the one in question here, these were designed by the prominent architect Nikolai Zherikov for the jurist and businessman German Broido. Zherikov, supported by the evidently wealthy Broido, erected several memorable art moderne buildings around the city. Although the main structure of this five-story apartment house (an “income house” in Russian) is not particularly outstanding, the decorations interspersed among the second-floor windows are. It was built in 1907.
A bit of mystery swirls around the bas relief sculptures. Some sources declare the creator is unknown. Others say he is suspected to be Lev Sinaev-Bernshtein, while still others state unequivocally that the works belong to him. I am convinced by the arguments that posit Sinaev-Bernshtein as the author, so I, too, will take that stance.
A few words about the artist before getting to the art. Indeed, Sinaev-Bernshtein specialized in sculptures and bas reliefs of famous cultural figures, and he spent time with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana in the first decade of the 1900s. He was commissioned to create a commemorative medallion of Tolstoy in 1911, a year after the great writer died. Born in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1867, Sinaev-Bernshtein died in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis in the Drancy internment camp near Paris. The Nazis destroyed one of his last works, Youth and Old Age, on which he had worked the last 10 years of his life. He lived primarily in Paris from 1881 on, although he did come to Russia to visit and work from time to time.
Bear with me today. There are a lot of photos below and more text than usual. There was no other way to do this place justice.

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I first did a double take upon seeing that familiar bob cut hairdo on a forlorn figure staring at two lovers over the clumsy inconvenience of a drain pipe. I squinted and moved in closer, and, sure enough, realized I was staring at a pretty good likeness of Nikolai Gogol. (See photo immediately above.) Gogol, his right hand awkwardly inactive at his side, stares at the embracing couple as if trying to figure out what in hell are they doing? Gogol’s sexuality, or his lack of it, has long been the subject of discussion. My acquaintance Simon Karlinsky, the great Russian literature scholar from Berkeley, wrote a book suggesting that Gogol was gay, and I don’t know if anyone has ever successfully refuted that. Or whether it needs refuting. Gogol here does look like an outsider in the feast of heterosexual love going on around him. I wish the figure immediately behind him in the photo above had not literally lost its head. It might give us a few more clues. Gogol here, like Tolstoy and Pushkin elsewhere, is repeated in the same basic pose, no matter what the surroundings. Look, for example, at the photo immediately below. You’ll see Gogol jammed uncomfortably into others’ embraces again, the same limp right arm, the same frozen distance in his eyes. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in tandem with Tolstoy, ever the somewhat distracted and uncomfortable object of the big man’s clearly aggressive attentions. Tolstoy is also repeated in the same basic pose elsewhere in the sculptural ensembles, but, depending on the context, you actually see somewhat different stories unfold.
Tolstoy-Pushkin is a delight to behold. I’ve put up several photos that show the combination from various angles. The great author of War and Peace goes after the great author of Eugene Onegin with gusto and passion. Is that a manuscript Tolstoy is holding, or is it a rocket in his pocket? I think it’s the former, although in a different setting, when the object of attention is not Pushkin, you will see that it looks more phallic than bookish. Tolstoy’s fierce eyes and bold pose, in one case, virtually push Pushkin up against the wall. (See the second photo below.) Tolstoy – and this makes great sense – seems to be smelling Pushkin. Don’t you just know that Tolstoy would have wanted to know everything there is to know about the man who created the language he wrote in! The novelist’s left foot steps in boldly on the poet, giving him no way out of this weird encounter. Tolstoy is everything Tolstoy is – adamant, forceful, overbearing, and damned ready to get to the bottom of things. Pushkin, as would be proper for the founder of the contemporary Russian language and the poetry that is written in it, is almost oblivious. He’s clearly backed up in an awkward position, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. His gaze is smooth and unperturbed. He’s fixed his eyes on something distant, something intriguing – perhaps the perfect iamb? We don’t even know if that right hand is being used to ward Tolstoy off – I rather think not. I think Tolstoy just trapped Pushkin’s arm where it was. Perhaps Pushkin was getting ready to pose for a statue and he had grabbed his lapel. And here comes Tolstoy, all animal, all brain, all body, all curious, and he’s going to pin that damn Pushkin down, once and for all! I stood on the street below these marvelous figures and laughed out loud. How could you not? Tolstoy going after Pushkin, all business, all body! I love it.

DSCN9315 DSCN9320 DSCN9324 DSCN9325 DSCN9296 DSCN9299Gogol, as I have noted, looks almost virtually the same no matter what configuration the artist puts him in. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in the steamy encounter with Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is given a second encounter, one that looks a little more sinister. (See the third and fourth photos below.) Here Tolstoy is not only paired with a young woman, there is a third figure intruding on the tryst. This individual looks rather like an avenging angel, an angel with an attitude, an angel who does not like what he sees. (I’m assuming that arch over his head is a halo; if it’s not, then my premise falls apart. But I’ll stick with the halo variation.) The muscles in the angel’s left arm are clenched; he is tense. Do his fingers form a fist or are they just beginning to clench into a fist? I see real condemnation in his visage and his stance.
Tolstoy, of course, was famous for his dalliances with peasant women. One might even say he had a compulsion for the women who belonged to him. In his writings he often described men like himself going to “women like that” and it was always a heady intoxication followed by shame and self-loathing. Tolstoy’s attraction to women created enormous problems for his wife Sofya and for himself. One can’t help but think of this as you peruse this trio of figures. Whereas the put-upon Pushkin virtually paid Tolstoy no mind, this young woman, under the old man’s press, appears to be quite ill at ease. She’s been given the same basic pose as Pushkin, but the different circumstances give the whole image a different feel. She is truly trapped. Tolstoy here doesn’t want to know what makes her tick, he’s not sniffing out an ancestor and competitor in the literary game, he quite simply wants this woman. Even the “manuscript” that he holds in his left hand looks much more like a phallus pushing its way up under the writer’s robe as he guides it with his hand.
This one image, more than any of the others, pushes the whole lot over the line from light, humorous eroticism into unabashed, unflinching eroticism – though not without humor.
It is said that Sinaev-Bernshtein’s friezes were originally commissioned by Ivan Tsvetaev (the poet Marina Tsvetaev’s father) for the building in which he planned to open his new Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street in the center of Moscow. The idea, apparently, was to depict the great Russian writers, accompanied by muses, on a procession to see Apollo. According to the story, however, Tsvetaev declined to accept the work when it was completed. It was deemed too risqué, if not downright shocking. So as not to waste good work, the figures were put to use, cut up and moved around, on this building. Over the years the house and the bas reliefs have been dubbed with various names including “the caricature house” and “the house with the naked writers” (although there are no naked figures to be seen). The rumor that this was once a bordello and the sculptures show supposed famous clients is nothing but an urban legend. More reliable – and intriguing to think about – is that this likeness of Tolstoy is apparently the first and only sculptural likeness of the writer created when he was still alive. Tolstoy died three years after this building was erected; Pushkin died in 1837 (70 years before), Gogol in 1852 (55 years before).

DSCN9294 DSCN9314 DSCN9313 DSCN9312 DSCN9322 DSCN9323A few sources suggest that Ivan Turgenev is also depicted among the revelers and onlookers here. I did not see him on my own when I discovered the building (Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy are obvious), and even after going back over my photos, I continue to have doubts that Turgenev is pictured here. However, since most everything is in the eye of the beholder, I offer a couple of shots that may – I say, may – show a young Turgenev in the embraces of a young woman. Look at the final photo below. Is Turgenev the second figure from the right? (He would be the one on the extreme left in the penultimate photo, just parts of his head and right hand visible on the corner behind the female figure/muse.) Something about the hair, the mouth and the eyes here are reminiscent of some images we have of Turgenev early on in his life. Take a gander at this drawing, for instance. Our bas relief lacks the beard and mustache, to be sure, but some of the other details intrigue, even if they don’t convince entirely. Is this the same figure who stands between Gogol and a woman in the photo immediately above? I don’t know. They look different to me, although the overall composition – minus Gogol – is quite similar.
In short, Turgenev remains a question mark here, but everything else about this place gets exclamation points. I am terribly torn between potential favorites – the fierce Tolstoy backing the oblivious Pushkin into a corner, or the somewhat clueless Gogol trying to squeeze into threesomes without quite figuring out how to do it. Whatever the case, unless someone comes up with some money to save these unique bas reliefs soon, they’ll be long gone and we’ll only have these photos to remind us that they ever existed at all. This building is included on the list of protected architectural sites in Moscow, although, as one can see, nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the rot. Is it possible that this place makes the authorities too uncomfortable and they are simply waiting for it to self-destruct? You bet it is. And what a shame it will be to lose this wonderful, unexpected treasure.

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Leo Tolstoy estate, Moscow

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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.

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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.

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Tolstoy at the Athenaeum Club, London

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In her book Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett writes, “There is sadly very little documentation about Tolstoy’s only visit to England, but we do know that the well-connected lawyer and journalist Henry Reeve sponsored his honorary membership of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall from 5 March to 6 April 1861.”
This dearth of information about Tolstoy in London, and at the Atheneum in specific, is repeated all over the place. I chose to quote Bartlett’s phrase because it appears to have more information than any other, adding the name of the person who helped Tolstoy join the club, and adding the dates of his membership. These bare shards of tidbits came as a result of Bartlett’s own research at the Club, as her footnote on pg. 466 indicates – the source was Jennie de Protani, the club’s archivist.
Well, here it is, the Athenaeum Club located at the intersection of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall (official address appears to be 107 Pall Mall, but I didn’t see that anywhere). It’s a beautiful place that fairly sparkles in the sunlight, and – thanks to the bronze statue of Athena – in the shade as well. Here is how the official website of the club describes itself, in part:
The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
“Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.”
The frieze surrounding the top of the building is a copy of a marble frieze salvaged (or is that “plundered”?) from the Parthenon in Athens at the time that the club was being built around 1824, four years before Tolstoy was born.

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As I wrote in a previous post about Tolstoy in London (his visit to the Octagon School), he had primarily come to Europe to study school systems. In 1859 (still four years before he would begin writing War and Peace) he had opened his own first schools in Russia. On Sept. 20, 1860 his oldest brother Nikolai died at the age of 37, distressing Leo deeply. It is said he went into a period of depression following that, and one can’t help but assume that the trip abroad was also expected to help bring him out of that.
In fact, the Spring 1861 trip to London finds Tolstoy at a crossroads. Having just lost his brother, he also now nears his marriage to Sofya Behrs in September 1862. He will begin writing War and Peace in 1863 (finishing it in 1869). For a bit of perspective, his first literary publication (the novella Childhood) had taken place in 1852. Furthermore, just as Tolstoy was arriving in London, on March 3, 1861, Russian Emperor Alexander II officially abolished serfdom, an event that was extremely important to Tolstoy. In other words, he was, at the time of this trip, a fledgling, though published, writer, who had just experienced a traumatic loss and was on the verge of great and momentous changes in his personal life, his public life and in his career as a writer. He, of course, would not have been known at all in London at this time. Or, if he was, it could only have been by a handful of people who either might have crossed his path personally, or who would have been impressed by his wealth and aristocratic position. Apparently Londoners have a long tradition of bending the knee before wealthy and powerful Russians coming to town…

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Ivan Turgenev visiting place, London

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London gave me my Turgenev comeuppance. Awhile ago I wrote in this space that, for all my respect, Turgenev underwhelms me. Shortly after that I ran into him in Greece, which surprised and pleased me unexpectedly, and recently, when in London, I ran into him all over the place. I even found myself seeking him out. Not him, you obviously understand, but his traces, his places, his ghost. And there are many of those in London. Actually, there are many of them throughout England. I had no idea. How could I possibly have known that Turgenev spent time on the Isle of Wight over a century before Bob Dylan made his famous appearance there with The Band? Or, to be more exact and detailed, that Turgenev began writing his most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, a work that continues to define the Russian psyche today, while living in Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight? Well, I could have known, of course; you can know anything. And one day we may be able to know everything. I, personally, am not quite there, yet, however. So all this came as a surprise to me. And a pleasant one, at that.
I rather suspect that of all the great Russian writers, Turgenev would have been one of the easiest to sit down with and share a meal or a drink. Don’t you rather imagine Tolstoy or Dostoevsky taking a bite out of you? Each in their own way, of course! Tolstoy would do it without thinking or even noticing. He would be so preoccupied with himself at the time he would probably eat you whole. (Tolstoy once challenged Turgenev to a duel, you know… Turgenev winced and refused.) Dostoevsky would be conducting an experiment of some kind – either on himself or on you… He’d leave part of you unchewed to see what would happen. Or Gogol slinking around darkly and weirdly and then slinking out of the room without saying anything? Or Pushkin brightly playing games with you behind your back and over your head?
Anyway, Turgenev. Turgenev and London. Thanks to a very cool blog by Sarah J. Young, we have a lot of information about Turgenev’s many visits to London, the first coming in July 1847, the last occurring in Oct. 1881. He hung out with Russian emigres, most of them exiles for political reasons, and he hung out with the hoity-toity of literary London. Young writes, “Turgenev cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances among English writers and politicians. In 1857, he met Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray and the philosopher William Whewell…”  One might have added, “in 1957 alone…” Turgenev was a jet-setter long before there were jets. He was all over the place, often chasing after the love of his life, the French opera singer Pauline Viardot (and her husband), but oftentimes not. He was easily the most mobile, cosmopolitan, travel-experienced Russian writer of the 19th century.

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The address we study today is 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington, although, technically speaking, there is no such address today. The numbers at doors of entrance jump from 32 to 38. I didn’t have much doubt that the colonnaded window right next to 38 was the place I was seeking. There is a similar unnumbered window where 34 would be, and then comes 32, with its door. As bad as I am at mathematics, I felt sure I was okay photographing this portal as an entrance that would have existed in the mid-19th century. But it’s one thing to have a good hunch and some good evidence, and it’s another to actually know. So when a mailman walked out of No. 38 I asked him if, indeed, this is where No. 36 would have been. Yes, he said, this building took direct hits during the Nazi bombings in WWII and, when it was reconstructed, the configurations inside, as well as the outside entrances, were redone entirely. They did not renumber anything, but simply omitted those numbers where there were no longer entrances. I didn’t even realize it until I got home, but I caught the mailman in one of my photos – that is he walking past the former No. 36 in the second photo immediately below.
Another reason I felt quite sure I had found my place is a plaque informing us of the fact that William Makepeace Thackeray lived here from 1854 to 1862 (I have seen other dates for his residence, including 1853 to 1861, and 1860 for the end date). The plaque hangs down low, just to the left of the former entrance (see photo immediately below). Here is what Young writes about this address: “…on 9th May [1858], [Turgenev] visited Thackeray at his home at 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (another address to which he would become a regular visitor), where we have the tantalizing prospect that he may have met Dickens. Thackeray’s diary states that they both called on that date, but there is no information about whether the visits coincided.”
To get a bit of a glimpse of what the property might have looked like when Turgenev was here, you can go to the Victorian Web site, which has a sketch of the building from 1913. Obviously at this time the square was still open to the public. These days it is fenced off and there is no public access.
I have no idea how close Turgenev was to Thackeray. In a link to Leonard Schapiro’s Ivan Turgenev: His Life and Times, the internet coughs up a phrase suggesting that Turgenev “did not much like” Thackeray, but Google will not open that particular page for me, so, until I get around to buying the book for myself, I can’t be sure of what Schapiro actually wrote. I do find the following quote from Alexander Melikhov in Russia Behind the Headlines: when Turgenev told Thackeray that the Russians had a writer named Gogol who was every bit as good as he, “the Englishman laughed. Later, Turgenev would write that ‘the author of Vanity Fair is himself infected with the vice he so mocks.'”

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Leo Tolstoy visits school, London

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When I think of this place I think about that fabulous story about how Bob Dylan used to go into his grandkids’ kindergarten classes to sing them folk songs. It’s not exactly the same, of course, the biggest difference is that Dylan was in his 60s or more when he did that, and Leo Tolstoy was 32 when he visited this Chelsea, London, building, a school called the Octagon, in 1861. Another difference is that Dylan was going to school to teach kids a little bit about their heritage, whereas Tolstoy was on a European journey to educate himself about education. What is similar are the thoughts one can’t help but have about the unsuspecting kids involved. What did they make of their encounter with greatness? Honestly? The chances are: nothing. But these meetings did and do leave us with some fun stories that fill out the more obscure corners of biographies well combed.
There has actually been quite a bit written about Tolstoy’s trip to the Octagon. I certainly am in no position to offer up anything truly new. I first ran across the topic in Phoebe Taplin’s piece on the Russia Behind the Headlines website. She pulled a good deal from a post on a blog run by Sarah J. Young. It’s a shame that Young stopped after doing only about a half-dozen detailed posts about Russian cultural figures in London. She was very good at it. In any case, if this topic interests you, definitely check out her post. Several Russian sources have added their details to the topic, including this one about Tolstoy’s European trips, this detailed article by M.V. Boguslavsky and K.Ye. Sumnitelny about Tolstoy and eduction, and this post about Tolstoy’s ultimately aborted thoughts about emigrating to England in 1872. There are tons more; most contain variant versions of the same basic facts.
Tolstoy established his first schools in and around Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, south of Moscow, in 1859. His interest in education was not fleeting. He wrote stories for children; he wrote ABCs, he created schools himself, and supported and lobbied for the creation of schools by others; he studied the topic seriously and in-depth. His European journey in 1861 – the second of two he made to Europe in his life – took him to (at least) Rome, Florence, Paris and London, where he arrived  March 2, 1861 (he left March 17). Matthew Arnold, poet and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, gave Tolstoy letters of recommendation that the latter apparently took to various schools in the city, where he would sit in on classes to observe, and also to step in to engage the pupils, too. According to Young, Tolstoy visited the Octagon, a part of St. Mark’s College, on Tuesday, March 12, 1861. Young writes:
It was established in 1841 by the National Society, with the Reverend Derwent Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as its head – a position he still held at the time of Tolstoy’s visit (he retired in 1864). Tolstoy met class 3B, and took away with him short compositions on what the boys had done that day. These compositions, which are reproduced in Lucas’s book (Victor Lucas, Tolstoy in London [1979], pp. 54-79), resurfaced in Britain in 1976, loaned from the USSR, at the British Library’s Tolstoy Exhibition (p. 9). They are, it must be said, not the most exciting essays I’ve ever read, but perhaps one shouldn’t expect much from a group of young teenage boys forced to write something at the behest of a strange foreigner.”
Following is a comment Tolstoy made himself about the trip to the school in Chelsea:
“You should have seen the quiet self-assurance of the director, when he and the teacher posed questions about what kind of a plant cotton is. How is it processed? Where is it treated? How does it reach us and how is it manufactured in the factories? Students gave good responses, obviously memorized. I asked permission to pose some questions myself. I asked what class the cotton plant belongs to; I asked what type of soil does it require; I asked how much does a cubic foot of cotton weight when packed? I asked how is cotton packed; how much does it cost to transport it; to load and unload it; what is its chemical make-up; what do you do if it gets wet?… All these issues, it would seem, relate to the subject of cotton, but, of course, the pupils could not respond to me.”
It’s hard to say at such a historical remove, of course. Maybe Russian kids routinely knew the answers to all these questions at that time. But I can’t help but imagine a picture of a rather demanding visitor, no less “quietly self-assured” than the school director, expecting more from folks than, perhaps, he should have.

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In the end it turned out not so difficult to find this place, although none of the sources provide an exact address. (Sarah J. Young, for all her great information, rarely provides actual street addresses.) It is on Fulham Road and the gate, in very small figures, bears the address of 459B. Just above the number on the left are the tiny words “The Octagon.” However, there is something weird with Google maps. When you put 459B Fulham Road into Google maps, it does not take you to the proper location. To make it a bit easier, I photographed a building across the street, the Chelsea Pensioner at 358. This does show up properly on Google maps. And if you click on the small image of the roundish building across the way, it does show 459. In any case, right next to the Octagon is St. Mark’s Chapel, which is located at 459A. It is not visible in any of my photos because it is under major reconstruction and is covered in white tarps and plywood that bleached out entirely in my shots taken on a bright, sunny, chilly day.
My understanding is that the Octagon is now a private residence, or, at least, a private building. It is surrounded by walls only someone as tall as I am can get above on tip-toe and with outstretched arm. There is a forbidding double black gate protecting the place from the Fulham Road side. It borders on the opposite side on a nice little green. (See the top photo.)
Of all the places Tolstoy frequented during his time in London, this is the one, about which the most information has come down to us. Tolstoy also spent a good deal of time at the home of Alexander Herzen (about which I will write later), and, apparently, the South Kensington Museum, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I did not get around to photographing. Next time on that.

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