Inside the Tolstoy Family Reunion
It was almost closing time in the Leo Tolstoy House-Museum at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate. I stood in the bedroom of my great-great-grandmother, Sophia Andreevna, Leo Tolstoy’s wife. I was named after Sophia, who was also known as Sonia. It was the last day of my weeklong stay at the estate. In the past 16 years, I had been in this room at least eight times. I had seen before the small paintings and black-and-white photographs of family members lining the walls; a talented amateur photographer in the early days of the medium, Sophia had taken them herself. Her dressing table gave the impression that it had just been organized, as if Sophia herself had recently sat there, perhaps before leaving on a trip. Small decorated jars, a handheld mirror, and a bristle hairbrush were lined up perfectly, and nearby, an open suitcase held hand-stitched fabric.
The sound of a Chopin duet echoed from the adjacent dining hall, or salon, where portraits of family ancestors hung on the walls and 20 descendants of the Tolstoys were gathered for a small, private concert. I went into the room to listen more closely. Chopin was one of Leo’s favorite composers, and is also one of mine. This salon was the heart of the family home for entertaining guests and where they often gathered to stage plays, play charades in costume, and make music together on the same grand piano being played today. Leo and Sonia loved to play four-handed pieces by Schumann and Brahms, among others. The whole family was very musical, several played the guitar, and of course all played the piano. In fact, Sergei Lvovich, Leo and Sonia’s oldest son, became a well-known musician and composer. They were especially fond of folk songs and gypsy singing, and Sonia's sister Tanya—the prototype for Natasha Rostova in War and Peace—had a beautiful voice. She sang for family and guests regularly. In the corner stood a chess table where Leo enjoyed challenging his friends and family.
I had seen all this before, and yet it felt different this time. I was suddenly overtaken with feelings of warmth and intimacy that brought tears to my eyes. The house had always felt like a museum … but now, I felt a closeness. Perhaps it was the music. Or perhaps it was because I was in a family embrace.
Welcome to the Tolstoy Family Reunion.
I am one of Lev (Leo) Nikolaevitch Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughters. According to our family tree, I am number 196 of the nearly 400 direct descendants of Leo, almost 300 of whom are still alive. A small book about the museum-estate includes a list of Leo Tolstoy’s descendants, where Leo is number one, his eldest child Sergei Lvovich is number two, and so on. We are all catalogued under our generation ranging from children all of the way through great-great-great-great grandchildren. Over the years, revolutions and wars have spread us across the globe, and we now live in Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the U.S., Uruguay, and of course Russia, among other countries. Since 2000, biannual family reunions have been held at Yasnaya Polyana (located in the Tula region, about 124 miles south of Moscow), preserved as it had been when still a home at the time of Tolstoy's death in 1910. The reunion was first organized by Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, then director of the Leo Tolstoy Museum-Estate Yasnaya Polyana and now cultural advisor to President Vladimir Putin. Like many others here, he is my cousin. The current director is Ekaterina Tolstaya, Vladimir’s wife. Vladimir envisioned the reunion as an opportunity to bring the descendants of Leo together, continuing the connectedness of family heritage the writer so honored.
This August, more than 90 family members and friends from 13 nations gathered at Yasnaya Polyana for a weeklong family reunion filled with activities, tours, and lively communal dinners, both celebrating old traditions and making new ones. At breakfast on the first day, I spotted Georg Tolstoy, an engineer from Sweden. I was overjoyed to see him again after 16 years. We greeted each other as old friends. Some descendants are in contact often; Georg and his fellow Swedes, for example, are the largest branch of the family, and they have a Tolstoy association that holds meetings. Others only see each other on Facebook, Instagram, or at the reunions.
We each trace our line back to one of six (out of 13) Tolstoy children who had children themselves. I am of the Mikhailovich line—Leo’s youngest son Michael was my great-grandfather. During the reunions we look for little numbers on our badges that indicate where we are in line from Leo. We find our names and faces on the huge family tree that fills up an entire wall of the museum’s hotel lobby. And we often play the genetics game: who has the Tolstoy eyes, smile, and walk—and hopefully not the Tolstoy nose, which was large and somewhat potato-shaped.
The Tolstoy family home is now the main museum on the property; it is surprisingly small and simple, and does not appear particularly grand or elegant. Rooms meander off each other. The walls are densely packed with photographs and pictures. The house would evolve often with the use changing depending on how many children were living there at any time. It is hard to imagine where all the many children slept when the family was in full assembly. After Tolstoy made some money publishing War and Peace, he built an addition, including the salon, which was more formal and had parquet floors, unlike the rest of the house. The kitchen is separate, located behind the main house adjacent to one of the many orchards. Next to the house, there is a beautiful flower and herb garden, which Sonia tended to herself.
There are many other buildings on the estate, including the Volkonsky House, a more formal structure where Sonia's sisters usually stayed. Today it holds offices and a reception center. Across the way, a rustic stable houses horses and a riding school. Nearby there are forests and meadows. We explore these grounds on foot, horseback, or bicycle. A small one-horse wagon was commandeered to drive the elderly relatives around.
These get-togethers are incredibly raucous events, filled with bellows and laughs across giant communal tables set up outside for al fresco dining. We come together as family to share stories over food and (lots of) wine. We sing birthday songs in five languages (in fact, we celebrated two during this last reunion). In the daytime, we practice flower weaving in the gardens, throw pots of “live” black clay and take Russian lessons. We play traditional games in the yard by the Yasnaya Polyana Cultural Center, including gorodki, a game similar to bowling or horseshoes that was a favorite pastime of Leo Tolstoy’s children. Of course soccer makes its way into activities almost every day. During the competitions, my team, The Lazy Sportsmen, lived up to the low expectations of our name, to the dismay of the more aggressive Caviar & Champagne team, which thought we didn’t put up much of a challenge.
But while the reunion is a bona fide good time, it’s also a lot more than that. "The first reunion literally turned my ‘consciousness upside down,’ as they say in Russian,” recalls Anastasia Tolstoy, Vladimir’s daughter. “Prior to then, I had known only a close circle of family and a few Tolstoys abroad. Everyone else was just a collection of names and numbers in the book detailing our family tree. In 2000, that tree was brought to life, and the colorfulness of the Tolstoy descendants was reawakened. We become a force to be reckoned with that goes beyond the renowned Russian writer, but back to centuries of illustrious ancestors with daring, history-making deeds.”
I do not have centuries of space here to describe those deeds, but to sum it up briefly: Historically, the Tolstoys have been known for their wild nature, intelligence, and creativity, with a very long legacy woven throughout Russian high society in politics, literature, and the fine arts. We can trace our lineage back to the original Tolstoy, a Lithuanian nobleman named Indris who came to Russia in the 1300s. The name “Tolstoy” actually translates to “The Fat One,” so I can only assume he had a little girth to him.
Lena Alekhina, press manager for the museum, says that the reunions are very important to the culture of Yasnaya Polyana because “the idea of a Russian estate is meaningless without the family. It is then just a place. Whereas here this estate can be what it is intended to be: a big house for a big family of many generations.”
The Museum-Estate stands on protected land and is open year-round, attracting more than 200,000 tourists and Tolstoy aficionados alike. It is host to an incredible panoply of cultural programs, including folklore workshops, locally developed crafts and Russian language classes for children and adults, a scholarship program for children in the arts, environmental protection assemblies, and conferences for writers from many countries. This educational focus is in tune with Leo’s life. He opened an informal school for the children in the area, taught by all his children. His daughter Alexandra also opened a formal school as part of the museum in the 1920s. Yasnaya Polyana, now with more than 400 employees, has expanded this dedication to learning, Russia's people and the land, further bringing the Tolstoy spirit and philosophies to life.
Some tourists are excited by the family reunion, even asking for our autographs as we explore the grounds. It can be a little embarrassing: As my Tiotia (aunt) Masha says, “I didn’t write the books!”
Sure, you have been meaning to set aside a year (or more) to finally read War and Peace or oohed over the costumes in the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, but how much do you really know about the author who penned those tomes?
Count Lev Nikolaevitch Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He was prolific, writing many novels, plays, and essays (not to mention hundreds of letters) which continue to inspire worldwide. The many volumes of his journal alone, used to meticulously document every detail of his life—the good, bad, and the ugly—provided fodder for his work. He had theories on absolutely everything and let his opinion be vehemently known on religion (he believed in God but was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901 for his very liberal and protestant ideas), politics (he was not a fan of the monarchy and denounced his own noble standing), human rights (he corresponded with many activists around the globe, including Mahatma Ghandi and the American activist and reformer Jane Addams, who put up Leo’s daughter Alexandra in Chicago when she moved to the US in the late 1920s), and family (beginning with his own children).
Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 (or August 28 by the Julian calendar, which Russia discarded in 1918) on a comfortably worn leather couch that still resides in his study in the main house. A fertile seat, the couch welcomed all of his siblings, and Sonia had many of her children there too. And yet when asked exactly where on the property he was born, Tolstoy would take his guest into the garden and point about three meters up a tree, declaring, “Oh, right about there.”
He wasn’t lying. The house he was born in had once stood in that spot but had been carted away years before, leaving only the wings, which were adapted to become the house that stands there now. It was rumored that he had lost the very large formal house in a card game. Leo had been quite wild in his youth.
Yasnaya Polyana, which literally means “Bright Meadow,” was originally a 3700-acre estate belonging to Prince Nikolai Volkonsky, Leo’s maternal grandfather. It passed to Tolstoy in 1847, at which time he sold off the edge of the property, leaving a mere 1186 acres. He moved there in 1856, after finishing service in the army, and lived on the property for the remainder of his life. He also had a house in Moscow but preferred the open land and being among the peasants in the village surrounding Yasnaya. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed physical labor, working alongside the peasants in the fields. In their 48 years on the estate together, Leo and Sophia developed the natural contours of the parks with native flora to create beautiful spaces. They planted apple orchards with more than 60 varieties, evergreen forests, and flower gardens. The paths were deliberately designed to inspire creativity and allow thoughts to flow during their daily walks.
Every inch of land on Yasnaya Polyana is linked to meaning and a tale. Not far from the house, an orangerie—originally built by his parents—offered exotic fruit and a tropical haven during the bitter winters. Sonia loved the escape it provided, but Leo hated tending to this popular nobleman’s hobby (though he admitted it was meditative) and was not disappointed when it burned down.
For both Catarina Hjort Tolstoy, a PE teacher and painter from Sweden, and Kristina Johlige Tolstoy, a sculptor in Germany, their favorite Leo story is one known by the family as “The Green Stick,” which is closely tied to the land and Leo’s philosophy. When he was a boy, Leo’s older brother Nicholas told him that the secret to healing the world’s ills was carved on a green stick, which would only be revealed when one joined the “Brotherhood of the Ants.” Nicholas said the stick was buried on the estate at the edge of the Zakaz Forest. The Green Stick became a symbol of his lifelong search for love and peace. In the end, he was laid to rest at the supposed location of the mythical stick, thus having the secrets of goodness and peace revealed to him, in a manner of speaking.
Tolstoy’s interests were voracious and spanned hundreds of topics. At Yasnaya Polyana, he entertained many musicians, writers, and artists from around the world, including Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, and the composer A.G. Rubenstein. He spent days on end sitting for portraits by well-known artists like Ilya Repin. He corresponded with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Edison, who gifted him a phonograph, on which the family recorded Leo's voice. Visitors and pilgrims flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, with many staying for months, much to the irritation of Sonia. Photographs, letters, and trinkets from his evolving interests and tastes fill the study in the house. But most impressive is the library that is a big part of the entire house. It contains nearly 10,500 titles in about 27 languages. Tolstoy spoke German and French fluently, and eventually taught himself 13 languages, including English, Hebrew, Tartar, Arabic, and ancient Greek; he wanted to be able to read texts in their original languages. Many of the books are dog-eared with his personal notes and thoughts scribbled in the margins.
While living at Yasnaya Polyana, Sonia carefully documented every single belonging in the house, down to even the smallest items in the drawers and under the bed. She knew the estate had an important destiny. During the reunions, my cousin Fekla Tolstaya, a broadcast host/producer and journalist in Russia, has entertained children by asking them to crawl under the beds and see what they can find there. My grandfather, Vladimir Mikhailovich Tolstoy, remembers staying in a room with many arches that was once used as a meat pantry. Huge hams had hung from the arches on hooks. My grandfather and his brothers would climb up to the ceiling, attach ropes to the hooks, and swing across the room, shouting, "I'm a ham, I'm a ham!"
Truly amazing is that the museum has been sustained in such a remarkable condition over time. In fact, during World War II the Nazis occupied the house for 45 days. They trashed it and set it on fire on their way out. Miraculously, villagers saw the plumes of smoke and rescued the home. And all of those belongings Sophia so painstakingly documented? Before the Germans arrived, they had been evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia to wait out the war. They were eventually brought back to the estate to help restore it to its former glory.
I asked Grégoire Tolstoï, an event producer from Belgium, his perception of the gathering. A fellow member of Team Lazy Sportsmen, Grégoire and I had spent a lot of the reunion not winning races together. A first-time attendee, Grégoire harkens from an older branch of the Tolstoy family. The Leo Tolstoys are a large clan, but the legacy is 700 years deep and much larger than Leo. “I was stunned by the fact that many have an artistic passion or occupation, which was emphasized in my immediate family,” Tolstoï told me. “But I see it is more of a characteristic. What a wonderful surprise.”
I had a similar insight about the Tolstoys. It is striking that for hundreds of years we share the same occupations from generation to generation, in the fine arts, music, human rights, politics, international affairs, and of course literature. It is amazing to see how many people are walking in these footsteps: visual artists and actors, politicians, philanthropists and peacemakers, journalists and writers, television personalities and linguists. In speaking to reunion attendees, I find that their excitement about the boisterous event is always underscored by a deeper connection to each other and our common ancestors.
“The first time I came to Yasnaya Polyana, I collected daisies and intended to make a piece with them,” Kristina, the sculptor, shared with me in the meadow by the stables. “It was there that I learned that Sophia created artwork out of pressed flowers and plants. Learning this and reading her diaries, I felt so much more connected to her. In honor of this discovery, I dedicated a work to her titled ‘Seeing More’.”
My mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, says that she was overwhelmed when she saw Sophia’s small paintings of mushrooms hanging in her bedroom. Collecting mushrooms has been an abiding hobby of my mother's, and she too likes to paint little pictures of mushrooms as gifts for friends and relatives.
Life for Leo Tolstoy did not end in 1910 with his death from pneumonia. Many of his children remained committed to the family heritage, including writing several books about their extraordinary lives, such as Tolstoy, A Life of My Father, by Alexandra Tolstaya. Alexandra, the youngest daughter, also helped convert Yasnaya Polyana into the museum, which opened on June 10, 1921. When Stalin's oppression paralyzed her work, she moved to the United States in 1929, eventually starting the Tolstoy Foundation, which sponsored thousands of Russian refugees to come to America during and after World War II, including Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and my mother.
Today, some of Tolstoy’s descendants are inspired by his ideas to move Russia in a new direction. “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken,” Leo wrote. In this spirit, Daniil Tolstoy, a great-grandson of Leo, is starting the first organic farm in Russia, just outside of Yasnaya Polyana. Called “Nasledie Tolstogo” (Наследие Толстого, or Tolstoy’s Heritage), the concept originated during a previous family reunion when Daniil visited Nikolskoye-Vyazemskoye, a country estate that belonged to Tolstoy’s great-grandfather. There he found gorgeous fields filled with rich black soil laying fallow. He anticipates beginning to plant this spring using new technology and techniques for sustainable farming. He hopes to develop products under a unique brand and eventually establish an organic agriculture school on the property to educate young Russians about sustainable farming.
Others are committed to both maintaining and modernizing Leo's legacy. Fekla Tolstaya, a great-great granddaughter of his, has been extraordinarily active in bringing Leo Tolstoy into the 21st century. Tolstaya told The Guardian that at the end of his life Tolstoy did not want money for his work, but instead wanted to give his work to the public: “It was important for us to make it free for all people across the world. It is his will.” Among these initiatives is All of Tolstoy in One Click, an effort to digitize the entire 90-plus volume collection of Tolstoy’s writings, making them available on e-readers, iPads, and smartphones. This effort required massive crowdsourcing. In 2013, thousands of volunteers from 49 countries answered the call to arms to proofread 46,800 pages of already scanned works. They completed the project in just 14 days.
In December 2015, Fekla organized a four-day marathon reading of all four volumes of War and Peace, which Tolstoy wrote at Yasnaya Polyana and published in 1869. Some 1300 readers from 30 cities around the world took part, including actors, sports stars, politicians, and even cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who read from the International Space Station. The event was live-streamed online and broadcast live on Russian TV.
Next, Fekla plans to collaborate with several academic institutions, including Moscow State University and Harvard University, to create the “Tolstoy Digital Universe.” This online encyclopedia of the writer’s literary heritage will allow users to have, right at their fingertips, access to Tolstoy’s texts, quotes, correspondence, etc. In addition, she hopes to digitize the more than 5000 manuscript pages of War and Peace, giving us a behind-the-cover look at the incredible development of this literary masterpiece.
When the Chopin concert was over, I exited the house with my cousins. We gathered in the yard for a family picture, just as Leo and Sonia did quite often with their children. I adore looking at photos of them enjoying afternoon tea in the garden and pointing out my great-grandfather among the siblings. I think Sonia would have enjoyed these family reunions for their liveliness and feelings of love and closeness. As for me, I am newly inspired to delve further into my family history and eventually write that book that I’ve been planning for ages.
Special thanks to my mother, Tanya Tolstoy Penkrat, who is the most incredible oral historian and keeper of stories for many of our extended family.
Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of the author and her relatives.