Out of the Past 
by Alexandra Tolstoy.
Columbia, December 1981, 9780231051002
Show More
Show More

Alexandra Tolstoy died in 1979. Except for Vanechka, who died in 1895 when he was seven, she was Tolstoy’s youngest child. She was also his close companion and secretary in the last years of his life. ‘The first and best period of my life was with my father. It lasted 26 years – perhaps only six or eight conscious years, and perhaps then not fully conscious, for it was not an easy period.’ So she wrote in 1977, in her foreword to these memoirs. But the memoirs themselves, written mainly between 1929 and 1939, open on a grimmer note: ‘Only now as I near the end do I remember my childhood without any bitterness.’ The shadow over her childhood was the knowledge that her mother did not love her. ‘She had given all her affection to my little brother Vanechka, beautiful as an angel.’

So the early years are swept, not quite under the carpet, but into a small corner: just one chapter in which she sums up the atmosphere in the Tolstoy household. ‘Life was never easy in our family, for we had to choose between two styles: either the life of an aristocrat, or the life of a peasant, a toiler on the land, as my father advocated. How, amid 12 servants ... could we follow my father’s precepts?’ ‘Never easy’ is a euphemism. Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy and Anne Edwards’s recent one of Countess Tolstoy show life at Yasnaya Polyana to have been hellish: perpetual rows between the two factions – the husband’s and the wife’s – tantrums, periods of non-speak, hysteria, walk-outs, suicidal gestures.

As a child, Alexandra herself was out on a limb: seven years younger than the next surviving child, a boy, and 13 years younger than her youngest sister, she was left to a swiftly changing succession of governesses. She was ungainly, tomboyish, ‘rather wild’, and had acquired a dire reputation with the Moscow placement bureaux: ‘O, la petite Sasha Tolstoy – non, merci.’ Next to her father she loved animals, especially horses: her greatest joy was to accompany him on horseback.

A young man asked Tolstoy for her hand in marriage:

‘You want me to trade you for that worthless thing?’ I cried angrily. At this response father embraced me tenderly. I vowed that I would never put anyone in his place, would never marry. He kissed me, assuring me how happy he was that I did not want to part from him.

Mrs Edwards thought this very selfish of Tolstoy and bad for Alexandra’s development. True, she never married; she seems usually to have lived with some female friend or other. But no one could sound less like an emotional cripple than this tough, resourceful, resilient, responsible, dashing, candid and very funny lady; or look less like one. The portrait photograph on the jacket was taken when she was 92: she looks a spry 60, with a squashy Russian nose in a broad Russian face, untidy hair, and a most appealing expression in which serenity and benevolent curiosity mingle.

Alexandra taught herself to type in order to help her father; in 1910, when she was sent to the Crimea for her health, she learnt shorthand in a very grande dame manner – by taking a stenographer with her. When she returned, she and Tolstoy ‘both wept for joy. From that day on I never left him until the end of his life. I myself closed his eyes.’ That was only a short while later, and we hear no more about her life with Tolstoy: but she keeps invoking his memory and teachings.

In the quarrels over Tolstoy’s legacy between her mother and the Tolstoyans, she sided against the Countess. But she did not care for the Tolstoyans either: they were dirty, smelly and glum. They had perverted Tolstoy’s teaching. This was a ‘difficult, insipid and unhappy period’ for her, and it must have been a relief to be able to volunteer for nursing when the war broke out. A Tolstoy had strings to pull, and she managed to be sent where she wanted to go: to the Front, first in Poland, then in the Caucasus. This was dangerous country. ‘Bands of Kurds are attacking the highways,’ the nurses and doctors were warned. ‘Typhus, typhoid, malaria have broken out everywhere. There will be long, hard horseback rides over passes without roads.’ This was just the thing for Alexandra, whose horsemanship was possibly her greatest asset: ‘Nothing seemed to command more respect for our team than when I would lift the leg of a lame horse, press it between my knees, and show the blacksmith how he should attack the shoes.’ There were grislier services to be performed in the operating tent: ‘You might be holding a leg or an arm, and suddenly you felt a dead weight. A part of that person remained in your hands.’

The mountains of the Caucasus inspired Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy; neither the Alps nor the Himalayas seem ever to have had quite the same effect on writers; the majesty of the Caucasian scenery, the freshness of the air, the intoxication of living in the wilds, survives even this ‘translation by various hands’. ‘We arrived at an overnight stop. At such places, half the Caucasian fur cloak is laid on the ground, the other half folded over one’s body as a cover; a Cossack saddle serves as a pillow. In the clear, transparent air, gazing at the cloudless sky, with thousands of stars twinkling overhead in the divine silence, one lost oneself.’ Alexandra loved her cloak; there is a photograph of her in it. She looks like a Christmas pudding. Her looks were the kind that improve with age.

They rode across the mountains to Van in north-eastern Turkey; the Armenians, fighting on the Russian side, had held the town against the Turks until Cossack infantry arrived to relieve them. There was a battle with tremendous losses on both sides. Lake Van was full of corpses. The Turks were forced to retreat, leaving many of their men behind as prisoners. The Armenians burnt down the Turkish quarter and committed atrocities. Typhus and dysentery raged: the medical teams were laid low; only one doctor remained. Alexandra went to see the Russian general in command. Afraid of infection, he listened to her from his window. The only way to stop the troops being decimated by illness, she urged, was to release the Turkish prisoners and send them and all the starving women and children to settle in Turkish villages. The general thought for two days and then agreed. Alexandra’s business was over. She returned to the Polish Front, where her first assignment was to set up temporary schools and dining-halls for the children whose families had remained in the battle zone. Then she had to organise a base and three mobile detachments: she had to find the staff, equipment, transport – horses, which no one would provide except when badgered as only she could badger.

Meanwhile the Revolution had come and the war petered out. Alexandra went back to Moscow. The Tolstoy house there was an empty shell. She had no money: the banks had been nationalised.

In the excitement I felt neither terror nor disappointment, but only relief, as though I had taken off a shuba [her fur-lined cloak] which had been warm but had weighed heavily on my shoulders. Loss of property meant very little compared with one’s loss of inner balance. How were we to live? Why should we live?

She went to her house on the Tolstoy estate: the village Soviet had taken it over. Her mother, sister and niece were still living in the family house nearby which alone had been spared of all the big houses in the area. Alexandra joined them with two dogs, one horse and her cows, which she hijacked on the grounds that they were pedigree cattle and therefore – according to a decree passed to prevent valuable livestock from being ruined by ignorant peasants – the property of the Agricultural Department and not of the village Soviet. She sold off her clothes for food; grew potatoes to feed the family and the faithful old manservant who still served the beets that were all they had had to eat; sold the surplus and bought a pig; raised more pigs and sold them. What did she do with the proceeds? ‘I took a trip to the Caucasus. What a marvellous journey! The lofty, mysterious, inaccessible peaks ...’

In order to save the estate, the family had agreed to have it nationalised and preserved in memory of Tolstoy. In 1918 a Yasnaya Polyana Society was organised at Tula by the intellectuals who were left there. The Chairman was a writer, who mismanaged the estate and bullied Alexandra’s mother and sister. She went to Moscow to see Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education, and proposed that the Tolstoy estate should be, not a Soviet farm, but a Tolstoy museum. There and then he appointed her Commissar for Yasnaya Polyana. ‘My victory was so easy I did not even rejoice. Today I am a commissar, tomorrow I may be in prison.’ She was.

During the next period she was arrested three times and spent several months in gaol. As soon as she was released, she went to Kalinin, ‘the Elder of All Russia’ in the Kremlin. She proposed setting up a school at Yasnaya Polyana: the village school was inadequate for the area. Presumably she did not bother to mention that her school was to be a Tolstoyan, Christian one. This happened during the Soviet ‘spring’, when the intellectuals ‘came back to work ... Many of us believed that we could not only save the old treasures of Russian culture, but could build up new ones.’ The Tolstoyans still living at Yasnaya Polyana, and still as dirty and disagreeable as ever, refused to co-operate. Alexandra got rid of most of them, and over the next few years managed to establish a dispensary, a clinic, and three schools: one for farming, one for industrial skills, and one an ordinary high school. They began in a cowshed, but relentlessly badgering once again, she collected enough money for a building which was erected with bricks made on the estate under her direction. There is an astonishing photograph of it: not a utilitarian box, but a splendid Neoclassical affair with pillars, pilasters, balconies and rusticated corners.

Alexandra divided her time between working on the land, running the museum and the schools, and going to Moscow and Tula to scrounge money for them. But the political climate was changing. ‘Badgering’ of another kind began, and she was the victim: a Communist cell was established at Yasnaya Polyana; the important positions in the museum went to party members; stool pigeons reported that the teaching was not in line with official policy; the children were encouraged to disobey and spy on the teachers; the museum was used for anti-religious propaganda. ‘All of us – teachers, children, museum workers, peasants – were living two lives, one the official, that is, the Bolshevik life, the other our own, which was being crushed and destroyed and driven far into the depths of our beings.’

By this time – 1929 – the work of the Tolstoy Society was finished. Tolstoy’s papers were all sorted and a complete edition of his works prepared: it was deliberately kept small and very expensive, so that ordinary Russians could not get hold of the subversive stuff. Alexandra felt defeated at Yasnaya Polyana. She decided to go abroad and managed to get permission to spend six months in Japan to study schools. She remained there for nearly two years, accompanied by a friend and the friend’s daughter. They lived from hand to mouth by giving Russian lessons and lectures on Tolstoy.

Alexandra’s account is by far the best I have read of what it is like to be a foreigner in Japan. She approached the Japanese with sympathy and an almost awed admiration for the purity and austerity of their taste, the elegance of their behaviour, their kindness, their profound patriotism and dedication to their past. But, like every other visitor, she was brought up against their impenetrable mystery. The mystery was double-sided: ‘They did not know what I knew.’ Her immense size as she thudded about the country in men’s shoes (there being no women’s large enough to fit her) emphasised the comic side of Japanese-European relations. She was ruefully aware of it, and this part of her book is packed with very funny passages. ‘Yesterday I wrote an article and sent it to my newspaper,’ a journalist told her:

Everybody laughed. I wrote Tolstoy-San bought the biggest dancing slippers to be had. I also wrote how many pounds Tolstoy-San weighs. Very good article. Everybody pleased.

‘Blowing and inhaling noisily in token of modesty and respect’, a tailor came to copy a nightdress for her:

‘S-s-s-sh-ah,’ he breathed, sounding like a plugged water pipe. He measured – once, twice, a third time, crossed out some of his scrolls, rewrote something. At last, as if exhausted, he rose. I brought out the nightgown. His face showed despair. He took it from my hands, clearly intending to hand it back at once, felt it, pulled the sleeves, gazed through it against the light, and said resolutely: ‘Very sorry,’ returning it to me.

 When a Japanese says ‘Very sorry’ it means the case is hopeless.

In 1931, after a hard struggle with the US immigration authorities, Alexandra and her friends moved to the States. They took over not one but several derelict farms in succession, working the land in Tolstoyan fashion, restoring the buildings, driving their produce to market. Alexandra continued to lecture, mad with irritation that liberal Americans would not listen to her anti-Soviet message. Just before the Second World War she joined other émigrés in setting up the Tolstoy Foundation to help Russian refugees. Once more, she was raising money and starting a farming community – this time a therapeutic one – for homeless people, and an orphanage for abandoned children. This last section of the book lacks the colossal, idiosyncratic charm and fascination of the earlier ones, although there are funny bits here too, and a moving description of being reunited with her brother llya and witnessing his death. She becomes more explicit about her beliefs: her Christianity – a flexible, somewhat DIY doctrine – and her anti-Communism. But what she thinks seems ordinary in comparison with what she did and was. One reads these passages as one reads the didactic interludes in Tolstoy’s novels: with respect, but also with regret for Natasha riding to hounds.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences