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Alexei Tolstoy monument, Moscow

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Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945) will always be a controversial figure in Russian letters. Here is the brief intro to a long, fascinating, highly-respected article-length biography of Tolstoy, originally published by the political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya in 2008:
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy lies farther from grace than even Sholokhov. He was the Bolshevik’s greatest acquisition. A man of impeccable, brilliant talent. Fantastic imagination that playfully, with his left foot, created entire worlds. The gift of a glossarian and reflector of history. A rich, precious style, pictures that cut into your memory forever.”
But, at least in Novodvorskaya’s interpretation, Tolstoy was a man that hungered – perhaps a bit too much – for success and acceptance. He was quite surely an illegitimate child, born into the family of Count Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo), but not the product of true Tolstoyan blood lineage. His mother was a bit of a free-thinking, free-living individual and, by the time she gave birth to little Alyosha, she had long been spending her days and nights with a man by the name of Alexei Bostrom. However, in a gesture of largesse, when the official father died in 1900 he conferred legitimacy and the title of Count upon the son that was not his (and whom he never saw). This put the young man in line to receive a fine inheritance, although Alexei’s mother was already hip to her son’s appetites. She put his inheritance under lock and key and the newly-created count had to live a life much more frugal life than he wished.
Still, Tolstoy found ways to feed his desires. He was a womanizer, he traveled when he could, and – as Novodvorskaya tells us – when his mother sent him money to buy a baby carriage for his new child, he used the money to buy a fancy suit. Once, while visiting his in-laws and his wife (who had taken their child and run from him), he bragged about trying to seduce a local lawyer’s wife, nearly getting whipped for his audacity, which was enough for his in-laws to send him packing.
Tolstoy’s need to be “taken seriously,” to be revered not only for his shaky noble heritage, but for his literature and his so-called social activism, often made him the butt of jokes over the decades. Maybe there was a good dose of jealousy in that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I don’t present these attitudes as proof of their legitimacy, but rather as a picture of what you inevitably get if and when you delve into the Tolstoy story.
I remember being quite surprised by a different attitude when working one day in what was then still called TsGALI, the Central State Archive of Literature, in Moscow. This was back in 1988-89. I was devouring the Nikolai Erdman documents being brought to me daily, and one morning I received a whole pack of letters. In one of them, Erdman went off into dithyrambs about the brilliance of Tolstoy’s new novel, Peter the First.  (It was one of the biggest works of Tolstoy’s prolific career. It came out in two parts – the second never finished – starting in 1929 and running until after his death, as his notebooks were edited to finish the work.) Erdman was not one to say much of anything (let alone praise) other writers. I rarely saw that in his letters (although he loved Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). Erdman saw Peter the First as a major work of Russian literature, sufficient to put its author on a level with all the other greats. I don’t know how the novel would read today, but I was surprised to see such lavish praise coming from Erdman back then.

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Whatever history will end up saying about Peter the First, Tolstoy’s place in Russian culture will always be safe for another reason. He was the first to write a major science fiction work Aelita (1923), which was picked up almost immediately and made into one of the biggest cinematic hits in the young Soviet Union by the future great director Yakov Protazanov (with memorable, influential futuristic costumes by the great designer Alexandra Ekster). He followed that with another successful sci-fi novel, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Gagarin (1927). But there was much more to Tolstoy than that. He wrote some 40 plays in his career. He wrote eight novels, including one of the most popular – actually a trilogy of novels – of the Soviet era, The Road to Calvary (1921-40).
The uncomfortable caveats you hear shining through almost everything I have written up to now come about because of Tolstoy’s apparent need to be accepted at all costs. At a certain point, he began to put his work at the service of individuals and a state that were interested in using him to serve their own purposes. He apparently had no qualms about doing that. As the Soviet government began flushing out “undesirable” elements in the world of culture, Tolstoy took up positions and took on tasks that helped them do that. What makes this especially paradoxical is that Tolstoy ran from the Civil War in Russian in 1920, professing his hatred for the Bolsheviks and Lenin. But he was lured back just a few years later with promises of immortality (of the mortal kind – awards, titles, riches and monuments). Here is how Novodvorskaya describes this turn of events: “He would walk over corpses and bones. He would lose the ability to have pity. He would not undermine anyone, would not denounce anyone, would not demand anyone’s head. But he wouldn’t defend anyone either. Not Mandelshtam. Not Meyerhold. He would play the fool for Stalin…” Gleb Struve, the great figure of Russian literature in exile, wrote similarly about Tolstoy as early as 1941. Confirming Tolstoy’s high level of literary talent, even calling him one of the “most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century,” Struve put a stake through Tolstoy’s reputation by stating that he lacked “one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist.” Throughout the 1930s, Tolstoy was an important Soviet functionary, praising the prisoner-built White Sea Chanel in 1934, acting as chairman of the by-now-repressive Writers Union from 1936 to 1938), becoming a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (1937) and so on.
The Moscow monument to Tolstoy stands just a few hundred meters from the home in which he lived at the end of his life. We’ll come to that someday. He sits, quite contentedly, it would appear, staring at the church where Alexander Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova. That, folks, is one of the most revered little plots of land in Russia. You wonder if he was told in advance that he would get that spot when the time would come. Designed by sculptor Georgy Motovilov and architect Leonid Polyakov, the monument was unveiled July 3, 1957.

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Ivan Shmelyov plaque and home, Moscow

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This, I presume, is precisely why someone once came up with the idea of putting memorial plaques on buildings: To help keep us from slipping entirely into ignorance. I’ve lived in the neighborhood of this building at 7 Malaya Polyanka, Bldg. 7, for a decade and a half now (it’s right at the corner of Malaya Polyanka and 1st Khvostov Lane), but only recently came to realize its significance. One day as I was snooping around with my camera I, for the first time, pushed my way past the old yellow two-story building on Malaya Polyanka and took a look at the imposing red building that rises behind it. It’s one of those odd examples of the way Moscow sometimes crams large buildings into small former courtyards, creating congestion and claustrophobia when you think maybe they really shouldn’t have done that. I usually blame benighted Soviet architects for doing that – there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this being done in the Soviet period – but this is another case entirely. This building went up before the Revolution, and it surely must have stood out at the time as a remarkable, if overbearing, addition to the neighborhood.
So I slipped back to look at what this building looked like and I was greeted by two different plaques. One is one of those generic types indicating when the building was erected (1915 by prominent architect Vladimir Shervud), and that the building was occupied in its first seven years by the writer Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950). A second plaque devoted to Shmelyov alone hangs on the wall on the other side of the entrance to the building.
I had only vaguely heard the name Shmelyov. So cursorily, in fact, that it meant virtually nothing to me. I went back to my encyclopedias and history books and was fascinated to find that Shmelyov was a major writer of his time. In fact, I knew perfectly well a film adaptation of one of his early and most successful novellas, The Man from the Restaurant. Published in 1911, it was made into a famous film in 1927 starring Mikhail Chekhov by Yakov Protazanov. Shmelyov was a fascinating man with a rich, very Russian family history. His father was a merchant who kept shops, bathhouses and other enterprises around Moscow. The family identified with the Old Believers, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church which did not accept reforms that were pushed through in the 17th century. Ivan grew up in a strict, religious, patriarchal home. This remained a part of his world view for the rest of his life, sometimes as he rebelled against it, sometimes as he reclaimed it. He grew up mostly in the general region of this building in the Zamoskvorechye neighborhood, where outside, on the street, he ran into a very different kind of life among the street urchins and the children of many emigrants from Central Asia who have always gathered in this area (it continues to be true today). Shmelyov talks about the “education” the street offered him, and it helped add a strain of tolerance and curiosity to his unbroken strict views of the world.

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By the time Shmelyov moved into this building he was already an established writer with close friends in high places – Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin and many more. Shortly before taking up residence here a large, 8-volume collection of his works had been published. I can’t quite put a finger on how long he actually lived here. The plaques, and various internet sources, say he was here from 1915 until 1922 when he emigrated to Europe. But these same sources and others also say that, while he welcomed the Revolution at first, he soured on it quickly and left for Crimea to avoid the excesses he saw taking place before coming back through Moscow in order to emigrate. One assumes, then, that Shmelyov actually resided at this address regularly only from 1915 to, perhaps, 1918. But that’s my guess.
In any case, by emigrating, and by continuing to make his religious upbringing a large part of his work, Shmelyov was guaranteed to be shut out of the pantheon of Soviet writers. He was well-known in emigration, earning the praise of Thomas Mann and Gerhart Hauptmann for a documentary book called The Sun of the Dead (1923) about the horrors of the Revolution and Civil War coming to Crimea. Shmelyov’s son Sergei was captured and shot by the Red Army, and Ivan himself, being a reserve in the Tsarist Army, was in danger of encountering a similar fate.
Beginning in 1990 Shmelyov’s works began to be republished in Russia prolifically, either for the first time or for the first time since before the Revolution. The brilliant encyclopedia Russian Writers of the 20th Century (Russkie pisateli 20 veka: Moscow, 2000) counts around 45 major works by Shmelyov. “Shmelyov,” writes the scholar O.N. Mikhailov, “was far from the classical precision and clarity of Ivan Bunin’s descriptions; from Boris Zaitsev’s penetrating, moody lyricism; and from the semi-grotesque protuberance of Leo Tolstoy’s or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s characters. But at times Shmelyov nearly attains equality with each of these writers…”   Wolfgang Kasack, in his wonderful Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, writes, “Shmelyov’s style can be too lyrical and overly emphatic. Masterly is his grasp of the skaz style, interrupting the action of the plot by switching to a fictitious narrrator. Here Nikolai Leskov’s influence can be seen. Leskov’s writings, with those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, had an effect on Shmelyov.”

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