There’s plenty of a literary flavour to keep a person entertained in Moscow. In just one morning I visited Chekhov’s apartment – his name plate is still on the door and I’ll show you if ever I manage to wrestle the photo from my phone – and Bulgakov’s, and then I sat in the sun for a while, beside the Patriarshy Pond(s) with my eyes peeled for any of those unsettling characters from the opening chapter of The Master and Margarita: never talk to strangers. I didn’t. I ate my banana and moved on. I planned to go to Gorky’s house too but it was closed. ‘Closed for renovation’, ‘closed for cleaning’ and just plain ‘closed’ are frequent conditions in Russia.
A Tolstoy pilgrimage was a more complicated project. Yasnaya Polyana is 120 miles from Moscow. One possibility was a slow train ride to Tula and then a bus. I took a taxi. 60 euros for a 120 mile trip was a bargain, I think you’ll agree. Plus you get to talk to the driver.
I know a bit about Tolstoy. I’ve read a couple of biographies and also the diaries of his long-suffering wife. But at Yasnaya Polyana the Tolstoy legend is carefully curated by the State. Only Pushkin is more revered than Lev Nikolaevich. So there was no mention of the gambling that almost destroyed the family estate, nor of the children he fathered exercising his droit de seigneur with the peasant girls, nor of his stubborn and opinionated character.
The lovely white house is approached along a cathedral nave of silver birches. I have quite fallen in love with those trees. Over the years Tolstoy used several different rooms as his study and whenever he changed locations he had all the furniture moved with him. One can imagine the muttering below stairs. ‘Here we go. He wants the couch moved again.’
He wrote sitting on a low, child’s chair, with a booster cushion. Actually, for all that he was such a big man, physically and intellectually, there was something childlike about him. He loved games and jokes. He was capable of tantrums and sulks. He was still the little boy whose mother died before he could form a memory of her.
You have to walk half a mile or so into the forest to find his grave. I’ve sometimes felt there was a touch of the Marie-Antoinette about Count Tolstoy, chopping wood in his peasant shirt, but there was something truly touching about his simple woodland grave. And you do sense his presence. I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised to see him come striding between the trees. Dumbstruck, no doubt, but not surprised.
My guide and I bought pryaniki from the stall set up outside the gates. Tula pryaniki are a local speciality, a kind of dense, spiced and very sweet cake. We drank black tea and got a sugar hit until our bargain 60 euro return ride showed up. 120 miles back to Moscow. Tolstoy used to walk it. So I guess he wasn’t such a diva after all.