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It is a gorgeous, sunny, warm day in Budapest. But rather than getting up and getting out to enjoy it, I sit here at my computer in my hotel room in order to recall a journey I took a few days ago on a cold, clammy, foggy, uninviting day when I set out to find Leo Tolstoy. Before coming to Budapest I began searching for examples of Russian culture that I might find in the Hungarian capital. The first I found was a famous old restaurant called Tchaikovsky. That sounded like an interesting subject for photos and stories and so I headed out that bone-chilling day to find Tchaikovsky first. When I arrived at the proper address I was chagrined to learn that the venerable old restaurant had been transformed into a strip club. So much for that, and I hit the foot path again. The second destination I had was a bust of Leo Tolstoy that the internet told me had been erected in Budapest City Park in early 2013, rather as a sign of genuflection to Vladimir Putin before he paid the city a visit that year.
Let’s be honest. Russia (and/or the Soviet Union) has often enough had rocky relations with Hungary. Let’s just say “1956” and leave it at that. So I was curious to see what this Tolstoy might tell me.
To paraphrase one of the great bands of all times, The Band, I arrived at the bust feeling ’bout half-past-dead. It was a hell of a trek from the strip club to my next destination. It was made even worse by the weather and the fact I really had no idea where I was going. With the help of a little pocket map I did finally reach the Budapest City Park. I knew it was big; I’d seen it in internet maps and it was clearly large. But when I came upon it in real life I was taken aback. I wonder if it’s bigger than Central Park in New York. If you’re really interested, compare on Google and let me know. My point is that I had very little idea where, exactly, this bust was located. I found no map that pinpointed it, and only a few gave quite vague descriptions of it being located on an “alley” – now called the Leo Tolstoy alley – “just off of” Mihály Zichy street, which runs through the southeast side of the park. But where exactly? No answer. And, as it turned out, the pocket map I was carrying did not name the streets inside the park. So I did what I have learned to do in this life and I just forged on ahead. I went to my “right,” toward the southeast side of the park. I thought I would at least find Mihály Zichy street and could go from there, but, God bless ’em, the makers of this park didn’t see fit to put up street signs anywhere. Okay. I’m okay with this. I just turned on my inner radar and headed across the grass, keeping a fairly large street that I rather suspected, but did not know, was Mihály Zichy to my left. I passed crowds of people exercising their gorgeous borzoi hunting dogs – a whole crew of them – and I took that as a positive sign. Tolstoy writes with great passion about borzoi hunting dogs in various of his works. I headed through a muddy path beneath a balding hill (Bolkonsky’s Bald Hills estate in War and Peace?) and came upon an ornate building that, at one time, appeared to have been a cultural center of some time but now appeared to be abandoned. I saw a statue ahead of me and I walked toward it instinctively. It clearly was not Tolstoy, but at least it was a statue. Having reached it I saw another statue, clearly not Tolstoy, in the distance and I headed to it. From that to another and another until finally across the huge, muddy lawn I saw a gold head almost glisten in the murk. It was too tempting to head straight for it. I rarely allow fate to lure me quite that easily. I appreciate circuitous routes. Instead I headed to see another bust and was well rewarded for my choice. Right next to this bust commemorating Somlyo Zoltan Kolto (1882-1937), about whom I know nothing, I spied a street sign proclaiming the little promenade in front of me as Leo Tolstoy Alley. I looked down in the direction of the golden glare I had seen a few moments before. From here I could now be sure: It was Tolstoy.
He looks a bit forlorn there on his pink marble pedestal. The fact that the trees have not yet recovered from winter don’t help at this given moment in time. I set aside the smug satisfaction of having discovered Tolstoy in the Budapest City Park in relatively short time, almost as if I had found the needle in the haystack by sticking my hand in, rustling it around for a moment and pulling the prize right out. The first thing I noticed is that I do believe the sculptor Vasil Roman is a true fan of Russian literature. So much so, in fact, that he decided to put a bit of Fyodor Dostoevsky into his Tolstoy. Call him Tolstoevsky. Take a look at the en face photo leading the second bunch of images above and let your mind wander just a little. If you know Russian literature’s faces even cursorily, Dostoevsky will surely creep into your mind. It may be the beard, it may be the dark eyes that the gloomy day gave this bust – I don’t know for sure. But as I stood and looked at this image of Tolstoy it started doing tricks with my mind – flipping back and forth between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky rather like a low-budget hologram. The ears are Tolstoy’s, nice and big and ready to hear everything the world has to say, and so the most “Tolstoyan angles” are the ones from the sides.
I have no idea what Hungarians think of Tolstoy appearing here amongst them in this place. He seems a little lost to me. He stands on his pedestal, staring blankly at grungy walls covered with graffiti and also staring at the back of that abandoned, ornate building I mentioned. Folks seemed to walk by him as if he wasn’t there. The sign proclaiming the path Leo Tolstoy Alley was defiled with graffiti on both sides. I have no idea if the scribbles actually say anything. It looks to me like someone gave their two year-old a blue felt marker and said, “Here. Practice.”
But there it is, folks. Leo Tolstoy in Budapest. I had looked forward to finding him ever since I learned in late 2014 that I would be traveling to Hungary. And my nose for Russian culture did sniff him out.
Some facts for the interested. The bust is officially a gift of the Tolstoy Association for Hungarian-Russian Cooperation. It stands 235 centimeters tall and is mounted on a 90-cm by 90-cm base. As Charlotte Alston tells us on the History Today website, the Hungarian philosopher Jenö Henrik Schmitt was a friend of the Russian writer. Tolstoy’s hardscrabble religious views somehow coincided with the beliefs of the Hungarian “religious anarchist.”
Epilogue: The notions of religious anarchy, Vladimir Putin and Russian culture all came together in a bracing, clanking way on this dark, cold, funereal day. This was just 36 hours after the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov had been murdered under the blood-red brick walls of Putin’s Kremlin, and just 24 hours before Mr. Nemtsov was to be buried in the frozen Moscow earth at the Troekurovsky Cemetery. I could not attend the funeral and so internally I dedicated this trek to Tolstoy to Nemtsov. I thought about both at deep length as I wandered around the statue. The current Russian president never entered my mind. He only comes to me now, as an afterthought.
P.S. My friend Michael Nemirsky took my Google challenge and found I was way off. Budapest City Park is spread out over 302 acres. Central Park in N.Y. encompasses 778 acres.