As the Yorkshire surroundings of Emily Bronte’s birthplace influenced Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte Bronte’s hardships at a stern high school fed her with the image of Lowood in Jane Eyre, so too Tolstoy’s oeuvre fed on the characters and landscape of his estate. The writer said, I cannot imagine Russia, or my relationship to her, without Yasnaya Polyana.
Yasnaya Polyana (which means Beautiful Meadow in English) was where Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1828 into the landowning gentry of pre-revolutionary Russia. It is more estate than house; a two-storied structure made of stone, conceived by Tolstoy’s grandfather, Count Volkonsky. A long avenue skirted by birch trees leads up to the estate that accommodates several rooms including Tolstoy’s bedroom and study. Rooms were immaculately furnished and maintained. One of the more significant rooms was the zala (dining and living room) which housed a corner for serious talk. This is where the Tolstoy family would congregate each evening for discussion. Today Yasnaya Polyana is a national shrine. About 250,000 people visit the site per year. During Tolstoy’s lifetime, it became a magnet for people who wanted to see the writer, ask for his advice, and sometimes ask for money.
In 1855, Tolstoy’s predilection toward gambling (shtoss, an old-fashioned card game), cost him the center section of his estate, which had to be sold, transferred and built on another site. During this period, Tolstoy began his literary career, publishing the autobiographical trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857).
Tolstoy’s novels, short stories and novella illustrate how deeply and precisely he had paid attention to the environment, people’s emotions and characteristics. The ability to don another’s emotional and psychological mantle was intrinsic to the credibility of his writing. Even as a child, Tolstoy wept when a stable boy was beaten. War and Peace brims with characters from his family: his wife’s sister Tanya sparked the character Natasha Rostov, the heroine and life-force behind the novel; his ancestral family Volkonsky became Bolkonsky; Prince Andrei was engendered by Sergei, Tolstoy’s aristocratic brother. Tolstoy fathered an illegitimate child during his youth, a model surely, for the hero of the novel Pierre Bezukhov (the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov).
Tolstoy continuously took notes about Yasnaya Polyana’s inhabitants. Take this passage from War and Peace (Book One, Chapter VII):
Sonya was a slender little brunette with a tender look in her eyes which were veiled by long lashes, thick black plaits coiling twice round her head, and a tawny tint in her complexion and especially in the color of her slender but graceful and muscular arms and neck. By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat.
Tolstoy’s wife Sonya certainly was the inspiration for the name, but not necessarily the character described in the passage above. But this excerpt is a fine example of his keen powers of observation and its fruition. Isaiah Berlin writes, There is no harsher word in Tolstoy’s entire critical vocabulary than made-up indicating that the writer did not merely experience or imagine but merely composed, contrived, made-up that which he is purporting to describe.
When a neighbor, Anna Stepanova, threw herself on train tracks to rid herself of jealous feelings toward other governesses, Anna Karenina was born. Tolstoy read the first line of a Pushkin novel (The guests had arrived at the country house from Tales of the Balkin) which planted in him a desire to plunge into the story in media res. The book starts with one of the most memorable sentences in literature, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, which warns us ahead of time, like a Jane Austen novel, what the plot will parley.
In Anna Karenina, we discover Konstantin Levin, virtually Tolstoy under a pseudonym, with ontological questions. He is often dissatisfied with himself and longs for clarity of purpose. That Levin is Tolstoyan in outlook becomes clear in his attitude towards capitalism (derogatory) and peasants (esteeming). But the novel’s genius lies in the accurate portrayal of etiquette and the essential social decorum violated by the sinful couple, Vronsky and Anna, who are deliberately set as mirror opposites to the legally wedded Kitty and Levin. This can best be gathered by a solemn talk Anna’s husband, Alexey Alexnadrovitch, has with Anna on the cusp of her affair:
I want to warn you, he said in a low voice, that through thoughtlessness and lack of caution you may cause yourself to be talked about in society. Your too animated conversation this evening with Count Vronsky (he enunciated the name firmly and with deliberate emphasis) attracted attention.
Anna Karenina’s tragedy lies in the inability of her heart to fit into society’s labeled emotional boxes. We look upon Vronsky and Anna as outsiders, people who have crossed the threshold of morality. Tolstoy’s distinguished lineage had afforded him the luxury of perceiving at close range, the mores of the upper class.
After War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy converted to Christianity after intense struggle. The conversion saw the birth of many pieces of Christian literature. Most are didactic and his short stories are folk-tales with a moral center. In the short story A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, the moral is Live by your own labor, and covet not what others produce. During his pre-conversion period, Tolstoy would have skirted such directness. The ending of Childhood for example, which can be viewed as a collection of short stories, ends with a question, Did Providence unite me to those two beings solely in order to make me regret them my life long?” Although Tolstoy was continually seeking new forms his art would take (and this obsession engendered many crises), the gateway into his religious and moral period is marked by A Confession.
Peasants are always esteemed in Tolstoy’s work; for example, Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and Constantine Levin in Anna Karenina sense a simple harmony in peasants and soldiers, and wish to be like them. But it is in the work of his post-conversion period that we clearly see how much Tolstoy detested the professors, the barons and the bankers. Tolstoy regarded the nobility as usurpers of peasants produce, and blind to truth (living life simply and harmoniously). The Kreutzer Sonata illustrates Isaiah Berlins point: As a writer he truly understood only the nobility and the peasants: the former better than the latter. He shared many of the instinctive beliefs of his country neighbors: like them he had a natural aversion from all forms of middle-class liberalism: the bourgeoisie scarcely appears in his novels. In this emotionally-charged story, the protagonist, a member of the nobility, is a deeply distressed man who cannot see things simply. Delusional, thinking his wife has committed adultery, he stabs her in the ribs. In reality she has merely been playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with a musician.
Tolstoy’s simple writing style stemmed from his conscious decision to lead a simple life. In direct contrast with the opulent habits of his paternal grandfather, Count Ilya Andreyevich, who was governor-general of the Kazan province, who threw parties at the drop of a hat and had bed-sheets sent by train to Holland to be laundered, Tolstoy immersed his family in gathering the fruits of manual labor. After conversion to Christianity, he sought to earn his bread with his own hands, pointing out that that was the chief duty of man (bread labor). This predilection is seen in many of his short stories of this period.
Yasnaya Polyana seeded almost all the gamut of his output, apart from his experiences in the army. It would be hard to find an example of a single work without a tinge of its direct or indirect influence. The estate was witness to the peaks, valleys and crises in Tolstoy’s life.
Befittingly, Tolstoy is buried in a forest near Yasnaya Polyana. He wanted no priests, no cross or symbols of the church when he died. Thousands of people attended his funeral, among them peasants who held a banner, which read, Dear Lev Nikolayevich, the memory of your goodness will not die among us, the orphaned peasants of Yasnaya Polyana.
Originally published in 2006