Count Tolstoy at Home (article from 1891)

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Niccolo and Donkey
Count Tolstoy at Home

The Atlantic Monthly

Isabel P. Hapgood

November 1891

During our acquaintance in Moscow, in the winter, with the family of Count Lyeff Nikoláievitch Tolstóy, the famous novelist, the countess had said to us: “You must come and visit us at Yásnaya Polyána next summer. You should see Russian country life, and you will see it with us. Our house is not elegant, but you will find it plain, clean, and comfortable.”

Such an invitation was not to be resisted. When summer came, the family wrote to say that they would meet us at the nearest station, where no carriages were to be had by casual travelers, if we would notify them of our arrival. But the weather had been too bad for country visits, and we were afraid to give Fate a hint of our intentions by announcing our movements; moreover, all the trains seemed to reach that station at a very late hour of the night. We decided to make our appearance from another quarter, in our own conveyance, on a fair day, and long before any meal. If it should prove inconvenient for the family to receive us, they would not be occasioned even momentary awkwardness, and our retreat would be secured. We had seen enough of the charmingly easy Russian hospitality to feel sure of our ground otherwise.

Accordingly we set out for Túla on a June day that was dazzling with sunshine and heat, after the autumnal chill of the recent rains. As we progressed southward from Moscow the country was more varied than north of it, with ever-changing vistas of gently sloping hills and verdant valleys, well cultivated and dotted with thatched cottages which stood flatter on the ground here than where wood is more plentiful.

The train was besieged at every station, during the long halts customary on Russian railways, by hordes of peasant children with bottles of rich cream and dishes of fragrant wild strawberries. The strawberries cost from three to four cents a pound,—not enough to pay for picking,—and the cream from three to five cents a bottle.

Halfway to Túla the train crossed the river Oká, which makes so fine a show when it enters the Volga at Nizhni Nóvgorod, and which even here is imposing in breadth and busy with steamers. It was not far from here that a acquaintance of mine one day overtook a wayfarer. He was weather-beaten and travel-stained, dressed like a peasant, and carried his boots slung over his shoulder. But there was something about him which, to her woman’s eye, seemed out of keeping with his garb. She invited him to take advantage of her carriage. He accepted gladly, and conversed agreeably. It appeared that it was Count Tolstóy making the journey between his estate and Moscow. His utterances produced such an effect upon her young son that the lad insisted upon making his next journey on foot also.

We reached Túla late in the evening. The guidebook says, in that amusing German fashion on which a chapter might be written, that “the town lies fifteen minutes distant from the station.” Ordinarily, that would mean twice or thrice fifteen minutes. But we had a touch of our usual luck in an eccentric cabman. Vánka—the generic name for an izvóstchik is Vánka, that is, Johnny—set out almost before we had taken our seats; we clutched his belt for support, and away we flew through the inky darkness and fathomless dust, outstripping everything on the road. We came to a bridge; one wheel skimmed along high on the side rail, the loose boards rattled ominously beneath the other. There are no regulations for slow driving on Russian bridges beyond those contained in admonitory proverbs and popular legends. One’s eyes usually supply sufficient warning by day. But Vánka was wedded to the true Russian principle, and proceeded in his headlong course na avós (on chance). In vain I cried, “This is not an obstacle race!” He replied cheerfully, “It is the horse!”

We were forced to conclude that we had stumbled upon the hero of Count Tolstóy’s story Khólstomir in that gaunt old horse, racing thus by inspiration, and looking not unlike the portrait of Khólstomir in his sad old age, from the hand of the finest animal-painter in Russia, which, with its companion piece, Khólstomir in his proud youth, hangs on the wall in the count’s Moscow house.

Our mad career ended at what Vánka declared to be the best hotel; the one recommended by the guidebook had been closed for years, he said. I, who had not found the guidebook infallible, believed him, until he landed us at one which looked well enough, but whose chief furnishing was smells of such potency that I fled, handkerchief clapped to nose, while the limp waiter, with his jaw bound up like a figure from a German picture-book, called after me that “perhaps the drains were a little out of order.” Thrifty Vánka, in hopes of a commission, or bent upon paying off a grudge, still obstinately refused to take us to the hotel recommended; but a hint of application to the police decided him to deposit us at another door. This proved to be really the best house in town, though it does not grace the printed list. It was on the usual plan of inns in Russian country towns. There was the large, airy dining-room, with clean lace curtains, polished floor, and table set with foliage plants in fancy pots; the bedrooms, with single iron beds, reservoir washstands, and no bed linen or towels without extra charge.

The next morning we devoted to the few sights of the town. The Kremlin, on flat ground and not of imposing size, makes very little impression after the Moscow Kremlin; but its churches exhibit some charming new fancies in onion-shaped cupolas which we had not noticed elsewhere, and its cathedral contains frescoes of a novel sort. In subject they are pretty equally divided between the Song of Solomon and the Ecumenical Councils, with a certain number of saints, of course, though these are fewer than usual. The artist was evidently a man who enjoyed rich stuffs of flowered patterns and beautiful women.

The Imperial Firearms Factory we did not see. We had omitted to obtain from the Minister of War that permission without which no foreigner of either sex can enter, though Russians may do so freely, and we did not care enough about it to await the reply to a telegram. We contented ourselves with assuring the officer in charge that we were utter simpletons in the matter of firearms, afraid of guns even when they were not loaded,—I presume he did not understand that allusion,—and that it was pure curiosity of travelers which had led us to invade his office.

However, there was no dearth of shops where we could inspect all the wares in metal for which this Russian Birmingham has been celebrated ever since the industry was founded by men from Holland, in the sixteenth century. In the matter of samovárs, especially, there is a wide range of choice in this cradle of “the portable domestic hearth,” although there are only two or three among the myriad manufacturers whose goods are famed for that solidity of brass and tin which insures against dents, fractures, and poisoning.

During the morning we ordered round a troika from the posting-house. It did not arrive. Probably it was asleep, like most other things on that warm day. It was too far off to invite investigation, and sallying forth after breakfast to hire an izvóstchik , I became a blessed windfall to a couple of bored policemen, who waked up a cabman for me and took a kindly interest in the inevitable bargaining which ensued. While this was in progress up came two dusty and tattered “pilgrims,”—“ religious tramps” will designate their character with perfect accuracy,—who were sufficiently wide awake to beg—I positively had not a kopék in change; but not even a Russian beggar would believe that. I parried the attack.

“I’m not an Orthodox Christian, my good men. I am sure that you do not want money from a heretic.”

“Never mind; I’m a bachelor,” replied one of them, bravely and consolingly.

When we had all somewhat recovered from this, the policemen, catching the spirit of the occasion, explained to the men that I and my money were extremely dangerous to the Orthodox, both families and bachelors, especially to pious pilgrims to the shrines, such as they were, and they gently but firmly compelled the men to move on, despite their vehement protestations that they were willing to run the risk and accept the largest sort of change from the heretic. But I was obdurate. I knew from experience that for five kopéks, or less, I should receive thanks, reverences to the waist or even to the ground; but that the gift of more than five kopéks would result in a thankless suspicious stare, which would make me feel guilty of some enormous undefined crime.

This was Count Tolstóy’s experience also. We devoted ourselves to the cabby once more.

Such a winning fellow as that Vánka was, from the very start! After I had concluded the bargain for an extra horse and an apron which his carriage lacked, he persuaded me that one horse was enough—at the price of two. To save time I yielded, deducting twenty-five cents only from the sum agreed on, lest I should appear too easily cheated. That sense of being ridiculed as an inexperienced simpleton, when I had merely paid my interlocutor the compliment of trusting him, never ceased to be a pain and a terror to me.

The friendly policemen smiled impartially upon Vánka and us, as they helped to pack us in the drozky.

Túla as we saw it on our way out, and as we had seen it during our morning stroll, did not look like a town of sixty-four thousand inhabitants, or an interesting place of residence. It was a good type of the provincial Russian town. There were the broad unpaved, or badly paved, dusty streets.

There were the stone official buildings, glaring white in the sun, interspersed with wooden houses, ranging from the pretentious dwelling to the humble shelter of logs.

For fifteen versts (ten miles) after we had left all these behind us we drove through a lovely rolling country, on a fine macadamized highway leading to the south and to Kieff. The views were wide, fresh, and fair. Hayfields, ploughed fields, fields of green oats, yellowing rye, blue-flowered flax, with birch and leaf trees in small groves near at hand, and forests in the distance, varied the scene. Evergreens were rarer here, and oak-trees more plentiful, than north of Moscow. The grass by the roadside was sown thickly with wild flowers: Canterbury bells, campanulas, yarrow pink and white, willow-weed (good to adulterate tea), yellow daisies, spiraea, pinks, cornflowers, melilot, honey-sweet galium, yellow, everlasting, huge deep crimson crane’s-bill, and hosts of others.
Throughout this sweet drive my merry izvóstchik delighted me with his discourse. It began thus. I asked, “Did he know Count Tolstóy?”

“Did he know Count Tolstóy? Everybody knew him. He was the first gentleman in the empire! There was not another such man in all the land.”

“Could he read? Had he read the count’s Tales?”

“Yes. He had read every one of the count’s books that he could lay his hands on. Did I mean the little books with the colored covers and the pictures on the outside?” (He alluded to the little peasant Tales in their original a cheap form, costing two or three cents apiece.) “Unfortunately they were forbidden, or not to be had at the Túla shops, and though there were libraries which had them, they were not for such as he.”

[Author’s note: At this time, in Moscow, the sidewalk bookstalls, such as this man would have been likely to patronize, could not furnish a full set of the Tales in the cheap form. The venders said that they were “forbidden;” but since they openly displayed and sold such as they had, and since any number of complete sets could be obtained at the publishers’ hard by, the prohibition evidently extended only to the issue of a fresh edition. Meanwhile, the Tales complete in one volume were not forbidden. This volume, one of the set of the author’s works published by his wife, cost fifty kopéks (about twenty-five cents), not materially more than the other sort. As there was a profit to the family on this edition, and none on the cheap edition, the withdrawal of the latter may have been merely a private business arrangement, to be expected under the circumstances, and the cry of “prohibition” may have been employed as a satisfactory and unanswerable tradesman’s excuse for not being supplied with the goods desired.]

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LOL, typical. Even today, Russians prefer Oblomov to Tolstoy, even if unconsciously. This is more a virtue than a flaw, IMO. To paraphrase Bob Black: why secure the rights of the workers when you can secure your right to not work at all?