Classic Word Spaces (4): Leo Tolstoy

Posted by @ 3:35 pm on August 6th, 2009
58-Tolstoy's House

View of the house from the gardens.

Matthew Simmons already did a quick feature on Leo Tolstoy’s Word Space (the desk in the photo from Matthew’s post, I believe, is the desk from Tolstoy’s family estate in Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow), but I wanted to post about his Moscow home, in which Tolstoy and his family wintered from 1882 to 1901. According to what I’ve read on various travel sites, he purchased the home to placate his wife, who had grown tired of spending so much time out in the country.

In this house, he wrote The Death of Ivan Illych, among other of his later writings, took up bicycling, played chess, met Tchaikovsky, etc.

After the jump, I’ve posted a lot of photographs. They are not my photographs. I did not take photographs of the house when I was in the house. The photographs come from a personal blog I found through Google image searches. The travel blog belongs to someone named Bryan Persell. Thank you, thank you, Bryan, whoever you are, for posting these pics in 2007. I’m going to type about each photograph the things I remember from when we toured the house in June. The things I type up are what our guide told us, but if anyone knows more or has a correction, please share in the comments.


These are the booties they ask you to wear when you first walk into the house. They have a soft, felt-like material on the bottom to protect the wooden floors. They are basically really awkward house slippers.


This is the family’s dining room. Unfortunately, you cannot see it, but Tolstoy sat at the third chair on the left side of the table. The museum curators mark his place with a clear, empty water glass.


I believe, if I remember correctly, this desk is in Tolstoy’s bedroom and contains accounts/ledgers. I honestly cannot remember who wrote these, but I want to say his wife, Sofia, did in order to assist Tolstoy in the running of the family estate. She also transcribed his books, supposedly copying War and Peace seven times.

DSCN2306In their bedroom opposite the small desk is this sitting area, in which Tolstoy and Sofia greeted business guests. Upstairs are the game room/entertainment room and a parlor for visiting.


And here’s the bed. That screen separates the bed from the sitting room in the picture above this one. In her introduction to a new edition of Sofia’s diaries, Doris Lessing supposedly describes Tolstoy as “sexually inconsiderate and a bit of a monster.”


The next room: the bed to the right is that of Alexis Tolstoy, the tenth child of the family. Our guide told us that he had been Tolstoy’s favorite child, and that Tolstoy was devastated when Alexis died in 1886 at age four. The bed on the left is that of a nanny; her clothes are hanging on a peg over the bed.


Tolstoy and his wife had thirteen children, five of whom died at very young ages. Obviously, here are their toys; what I can’t show you is the room next to this, which contained a ‘classroom’ for the children.


Now we’re upstairs. This bearskin is beneath a piano in the entertainment room, along with a chess table, an enormous dining room table. Their are a couple of stories behind the bear skin: our guide told us that Tolstoy decided he wanted to hunt a bear, went on a hunt, got scared when the bear charged him, and fled. A peasant supposedly found the bear, killed it, and presented its skin to Tolstoy. The other story that I’ve read online is that Tolstoy killed this bear. I have no idea what to believe, as I haven’t read any biographies of Tolstoy.


To the left of the piano is a sitting area for chess. Tolstoy enjoyed playing chess, apparently. If you go here and search (ctrl+f) ‘Tolstoy,’ you can read quite a lot of information on the various chess games he played. If you were sitting on that couch, you could see the large dining table in the middle of the room. As we stood in this game room, someone from the museum played a CD that had a recording of Tolstoy’s voice, taken from a wax cylinder off a phonograph machine that Edison had given him. We were told that it was a recording of Tolstoy telling a group of schoolchildren to work hard at their studies.


This is the parlor just beyond the entertainment room. I’ve got nothing interesting to say about it, sorry. However, our guide told us that the couch in the room beyond is where Tolstoy was ill from fever the night before his death in 1910. I find this hard to believe because I thought that Tolstoy in fact was in his country estate the night before he got sick and died during his flight from his wife. If anyone has details on this, I’d be interested to hear the story.


Tolstoy’s bicycle. Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle at age 67. The bike sits in a sort of utility room on the second floor at the rear of the house right off of his study. In this room were a pair of exercise weights and a water basin on a stand. A set of stairs descends from this room to a backdoor. Tolstoy used this backdoor to admit visitors and quiet his arrivals and departures at odd hours so as to avoid bothering his family.


And the place where it all happened. Here Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Illych, among his other later works, as well as his essays on religion and so on. Our guide told us to look at how low the chair was. Supposedly, Tolstoy cut its legs down so that he might read better without eyeglasses. He didn’t want to purchase eyeglasses because they were not yet cheap enough for peasants to purchase. So our guide said. The room itself is really nice. I remember thinking it was both really bright and a nice quiet, snug place to work. The furniture looked really comfortable, but I couldn’t get into the room to touch it because there was a rope across the doorway. Stupid ropes.


Portrait of Tolstoy by Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1884).

That’s all. Thanks for reading. It’s definitely not a complete tour of the house. We’re missing the small kitchen, in which there were often two courses prepared per meal to cater to Tolstoy’s strictly vegetarian diet; the very tiny hallway, off of which his daughter Tatyana, an artist, had a room; the tiles/furnaces that heated each room of the house; the hill that Tolstoy made in the backyard so that his children could sled in the winter; and many other things I am forgetting. All I can really say is that it was an experience to have walked through his house, something I’ll only really see once, I imagine.

Please, if you have visited or plan to visit an author’s home and are willing to write up something and take pictures for a Classic Wordspaces feature thingy, let me know. Up soon: Nabokov’s childhood home in St. Petersburg and Dosteovsky’s last residence, in which he died, also in St. Petersburg. I’ve been a bit late in posting more things about my June Russia visit due to a summer comp class that’s just about over – hopefully, that’s changing now.