Living with Leo: Tolstoy's impressive dynasty

One hundred years after his death, Tolstoy's great works live on. So do hundreds of his decendants. Holly Williams meets some of the family
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Today is the 100th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s death. A century on, he is still one of the most acclaimed, respected – and popular – writers and thinkers in the world.

“Simply put, his works have stood the test of time,” explains Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Slavic literature at the University of Toronto and editor of Anniversary Essays on Tolstoy. “Generation after generation, readers keep on reading them – and among other things, it’s amazing how many writers credit Tolstoy with inspiring them. He found new ways to represent the inner experience of individuals so that readers both recognized themselves in his writing and also learnt things about themselves that they hadn’t known before.”

Amy Mandelker, who wrote the introduction to the new Oxford University Press edition of War and Peace, adds: “He is, like Shakespeare, a writer ‘for all times.’ He was a towering figure in pacifist philosophy and non-violent political resistance at the opening of the last century, and he influenced major figures like Mohatma Ghandi. But these are not the reasons we continue to read him. The only way to understand why Tolstoy is still considered the greatest novelist is to read his amazing novels for oneself.”

But it’s not just his work that has spread across the globe – it’s also his descendents. Leo and his wife Sofia had, during their long and tempestuous marriage, 13 children (five of whom died young). During the revolution, members of this large family fled Russia. In the hundred years since his death, the Tolstoy diaspora – now numbering over 300 – has fanned out, with family clusters in France, Italy and Sweden, and descendants to be found as far afield as Uruguay, Brazil and the United States.

The importance of family to Tolstoy was enormous, according to Orwin. “For him, the family was the lynchpin that brought together nature and civilization, happiness and duty.” Tolstoy’s work itself often features pretty hefty family dynasties: War and Peace includes characters based on Tolstoy’s own relations (Princess Mary and Nicholas Rostov, for example, were modelled on his parents). Orwin adds that “he could never have written Anna Karenina without his family experience. When Tolstoy describes Anna’s clandestine visit to her son Seryozha, he is drawing on his personal observations of the love between mother and child at Yasnaya Polyana.”

Rosamund Bartlett, author of new biography Tolstoy: A Russian Life, adds: “In his earlier life, family meant everything to Tolstoy - although he withdrew from family life in his later years. He was forever seeking in his fiction to recreate the lost paradise of his early childhood, which is one reason why his family estate Yasnaya Polyana was so important.”

The relationships within the extended Tolstoy family tree have certainly been flourishing over the last decade. In 1994, the estate and museum, Yasnaya Polyana, where Tolstoy and his family lived and worked, came back under the directorship of a descendant: great-great-grandson Vladimir Tolstoy. As well as curating the museum and promoting Tolstoy’s cultural legacy, Vladimir has organised biennial family reunions since 2000. This summer saw some 130 Tolstoys getting together at Yasnaya Polyana for a whole week of events and trips, catch-ups and cultural activities, and enormous toast-filled dinners.

From reconnecting with their Russian heritage to discovering personal connections with their famous relative, and from comparing family fables to spotting family traits (all happy families resemble each other, after all), the reunions have been hugely important events for the clan. We hear from Tolstoys what it’s really like to live with the legacy of Leo.

War, peace and marriage: The life of Leo Tolstoy

Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, his father's country house in the Tula province. His wealthy family was one of the oldest in Russia; he was the youngest of four brothers. His mother died when he was two, his father seven years later.

In 1844, Tolstoy began studying law and Oriental languages at Kazan University, although he left without finishing his degree. In 1851 he joined the army as an officer, later fighting in the Crimean War. His first novel, Childhood, was published the following year. In 1860, Tolstoy's elder brother Nikolay died, an event which deeply affected him.

In 1862, he asked Sofia Behrs, the youngest daughter from a well-off family, and 16 years his junior, to marry him. They had 13 children; five died in childhood. Tolstoy completed War and Peace in 1869, and Anna Karenina in 1877.

At 50, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis, which led him to embrace God but reject the authority of the church, renounce worldly wealth and become an outspoken advocate of pacifism. This caused martial and familial strife, as Sofia opposed some of his views. Tolstoy's health began to suffer in 1901, and during a journey in November 1910, he became seriously unwell. He died on 20 November, at the remote train station of Astapovo, and was buried in a simple grave in the woods at Yasnaya Polyana.

Anastasia Tolstoy

Literature student, aged 26, Oxford University


My father, Vladimir, has been organising these reunions since 2000. The older generation were already in touch, but the younger generation had never known about their cousins living in Sweden or somewhere, whereas now we're all on Facebook, Skype; we e-mail each other.

For me, planning the reunion starts a good year-and-a-half earlier, and this was a big year for us. We all made a trip to Astapovo, the train station where Tolstoy passed away. It was the first time I'd ever been there – it's in the middle of nowhere. But it was a significant moment for us to all be there, back in Russia, 100 years later. The reunion is an opportunity for us to come together for a week and have fun, like any other normal family. There are the all-important lunches and dinners, and a lot of Russian toasts!

We were quite involved with the producers and director, and Helen [Mirren] and James McAvoy, during the filming of The Last Station, a film about Tolstoy, which we screened at the reunion. They asked my father to advise on the film.

If there's one place that unites us as a family, it's Yasnaya Polyana. We're lucky, because most families, having gone through the Revolution, lost connections – not only with their estate, but with the country.

There are a lot of people who follow Tolstoy, not as a writer but as a thinker, especially in the East where he's very much aligned to Gandhi. I was at Yasnaya Polyana once when a Tibetan monk showed up, having walked all the way from Tibet on foot to lay a flower on Tolstoy's grave. He got to the grave, paid his respects, turned around, and walked back – it was the most extraordinary thing.

As soon as people ask me for my full name, there's no hiding that I'm related to Tolstoy. Sometimes it was awkward at university, where I studied English and Russian literature, but it's obviously something I'm really proud of. I was born in Moscow, although I've been in the UK since I was five, but because my family have continued to live in Russia I have a strong connection. I'm doing a PhD on Nabokov – I never wanted to study Tolstoy.

I almost have two Tolstoys in my life – the great writer everyone knows about and everyone wants to know about and everyone asks me about all the time, and the more private Tolstoy, who I think of as a completely normal figure. Leo was a complex man, yet he saw the world in a simple way. His later works, where he's writing about the idea of non-violence, are still really relevant today – we could do worse than learn from what he was saying 100 years ago.

Dmitri Tolstoi

Photographer, aged 51, Paris

Great-grandsonDuring the Revolution, my grandfather had to escape Russia. The story goes that he went to the bank to take out some money, and at the door he met a farmer, who had worked on the Tolstoy estate for many years. He said to my grandfather: "If you go inside, you will not get out, you have to run now". So we did. Tolstoy was very good to the servants, who in Russia were usually treated more like slaves – so that is perhaps why they were kind to us.

At the reunion, we went to Astapovo, the train station where Tolstoy died. It's a museum now, and the room hasn't been changed since the time when he died. There is something very emotional about being there. Fifteen minutes before he died, someone drew a profile of him on the wall, so you can see him as he was when he was dying. They also stopped a clock in the station at the moment of his death.

My father wrote books about Tolstoy, about his ancestors and his children. Everything in my father's office was Russian – there were all Tolstoy's books in Russian, Tolstoy paintings, Tolstoy sketches ... In France, my father founded a Tolstoy association in 1977; and now my mother is president. To celebrate the anniversary, people from all over the world will be coming and talking about Tolstoy, and celebrating for a week.

I recommend a lot of Tolstoy's novels to my friends – he wrote so many extraordinary works that are very contemporary; they could have been written just yesterday. With Tolstoy it is always the same: poor is better than rich, God is in the story every time. He has a very good philosophy, that if you can find the good inside your spirit, your life will be better.

Vladimir Tolstoy

Yasnaya Polyana museum and estate director, aged 48


I've been the museum director since 1994. It's a family tradition – the first director was Tolstoy's daughter, and in the 1940s and 1950s it was his granddaughter. Yasnaya Polyana plays a pivotal role in bringing people together; I can't imagine another place having as much relevance to us as a family. There will be another reunion in 2012: that's 150 years since Leo married Sofia, which is the starting point for our family!

The museum is dedicated to Tolstoy, but we're also immensely interested in his ancestors and descendants. We're a large but friendly family and we've been able to guarantee that for at least the next 50 years there will be these tight bonds.

I've found that at different periods of my life I'm drawn to different aspects of his literature. But there are several works which for me remain very strong: The Cossacks is one of my favourite, and at the moment I'm completely in love with Anna Karenina. I've been doing a lot of readings of it around the world – we have this event called "Tolstoy reads Tolstoy" – and I get such an aesthetic pleasure from reading it. I think it's one of the best novels written anywhere in the world. And I really enjoy reading Tolstoy's diaries.

The more time goes by, the more modern and contemporary Tolstoy begins to seem. His psychological observations were so astute. And in his non-fiction he had this prophetic gift, a foresight of the issues that would be pressing in the 20th and 21st centuries: concerns about the environment; the fight for human rights, religious freedoms and so on. These have become acute issues for our society.

Goran Streiffert

Human resources director, aged 64, Malmo, Sweden


This summer was the first time that I participated in an international reunion, although as there are so many Tolstoys in Sweden we are used to having lots of local family get-togethers. This one was fantastic; you could see very quickly how you were related to other family members, and there was lots of sharing stories and reconnecting. You can also quite easily identify relatives by how we look.

Being related to Tolstoy opens doors, because so many people have read the novels and want to know more. It is a fascinating history, the life of Tolstoy – so you always have something to talk about. In my generation, we often had to give a presentation about Tolstoy at school – we had one that circulated among all the cousins!

There are 31 Tolstoy cousins in Sweden – my mother had seven brothers and sisters, and all of them had quite a number of children. They left Russia in 1917 with their mother, who was Swedish. They had a tough beginning; their father left them, so she was alone in St Petersburg during the Revolution, before returning to Sweden. They lived tightly together, so they had strong relations – and so we cousins have very close relationships, too.

I read all the books when I was younger, but I don't really read them now – it takes a lot of energy to understand them. Russia and Russian history is very interesting to me, though, so if I'm there for business, I often take the opportunity to visit Yasnaya Polyana. I visit the library, the grave, talk to the people. The park and buildings have a lot of atmosphere, so it's nice to just walk around and be a part of it all.

Costanza Gadda Conti

Pharmaceutical company director, aged 44, Paris


It was my second trip to Yasnaya Polyana this summer; I last went to Russia more than 20 years ago. It's great to meet new people who share the same background.

I have a strange relationship with being a Tolstoy. For almost 20 years I never told anybody, because I wanted people to appreciate me for what I am, not because I am a Tolstoy. Perhaps because I am older, now I've decided to accept it.

I'm Italian, but I came to live in France 20 years ago. One day I met a French boy and I followed him here – I don't know if that came from the Italian or Russian passionate blood, or both! As with every woman, I like Anna Karenina a lot.

My grandmother is the daughter of Tolstoy's first daughter, Tatiana. When Tolstoy died, my great-grandmother went back to Yasnaya to be with her mother, his widow – but it was a hard time then, after the Revolution. So she left Russia for Paris, to give a better life to her daughter.

My great-grandmother used to talk about Tolstoy at conferences. Once, she went to Italy, to make a speech about him to an intellectual family. She took my grandmother and she met their son – Luigi Albertini [the anti-fascist who wrote the influential book The Origins of the War of 1914]. So my grandparents met because of Tolstoy! And that's how we ended up in Italy.

Every time I go to Russia I think about Tolstoy, but I mostly think about my grandmother. If you ever see a little girl in photographs with Tolstoy, it is her. I always wonder what this little girl was thinking about this old man – did she see something special, or did she just think of him as her grandfather?

Sophie Lvoff

Photography student, aged 24, New Orleans, US


I went to a reunion in 2000 and in 2008. My grandfather is the oldest living relative, and much of the trip was spent honouring him. He has countless stories and songs relating to the family in his brain.

Yasnaya Polyana is an incredible place, but the actual house where Tolstoy did his writing is very humble; he definitely pared down his life. The land surrounding the estate is absolutely beautiful and it was so important to me – the light in Russia in the summer, at certain hours, is just incredible to photograph.

Being part of the Tolstoy family is important to me and it's always been something we talk about in my family. My dad is very proud of it, and I'm very close to my dad after the trip.

The most vivid reaction to Tolstoy's work I had was to The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I read it when I was 13 and I remember having this sort of existential moment of realising how someone could write about death – and I could understand the fear, and accept it. My mum makes fun of me and dad because we tend to worry, and have an internal fraughtness, and we attribute that to the family – there's something very Russian about it!

My brother and his wife have had a baby, the first of the next generation; he's called Leo.

Maxime Mardoukhaev, 50, Paris, film director

We showed the film The Last Station at the reunion at Yasnaya Polyana. I worked with Michael Hoffman, the director, since he began writing the script, which was adapted from Jay Parini’s novel about Tolstoy. I was an adviser, and I also filmed the ‘making of’ – I’m a documentary filmmaker

Some of the family just loved it, and they cried and laughed. And some of them hated it! They say ‘this is not true, it never happened’ … but this is not a story about Tolstoy, it is a film about love – so obviously some of it is not quite true.

I’ve made about 50 documentaries, but it was the first film I had made about Tolstoy, although I had made a film about Constantin Stanislavski, who was also my great-grandfather.

I was born in the Soviet Union and grew up there till I was 13. I used to work as a journalist for the Capa agency in France, and I specialised on the Soviet Union and Russia. And most of my family are in Russia, so I still feel very connected to the country. I can’t say it’s been un-useful, being related to Tolstoy - although I don’t try to use it. But it is important for me personally. I’ve always been interested to know about my family.

The reunion was beautiful. It was great to be there for one big week, so you have time to share and express. We don’t speak about Tolstoy; we speak about children, life, god, and love.

There are fairytales about the family that still get passed around today. For example, everybody knows the story about a green stick [Tolstoy’s brother Nikolay told him that he had written a secret that would prevent all suffering on a green stick and buried it on the edge of a ravine at Yasnaya Polyana; Tolstoy used to hunt for the stick]. And I had the same idea coming from Stanislavski – the blue bird of happiness, from the Maeterlinck play he directed. They symbolise the same thing: looking for your happiness, looking for what the true life is, and if you find this green stick – or this blue bird - then you find the secret. Everybody in the family knows about this; we are all still looking for it.

Viveca Tolstoy, 49, Stockholm, Sweden, drama teacher

We didn’t know if we could go to the reunion in the summer because of all the fires in Russia. But we decided we had to. To be there everyday, with relatives from everywhere, was very special. I feel like we all have a shared sense of humanity, a shared way of looking at the world.

There was one concert where instead of sitting down to listen I went walking around the estate alone, and I could hear this Russian piano music, and it gave me an idea of what it was like in the old days, and I could understand why Leo Tolstoy loved this place. There was music everywhere – under the apple trees, in the woods, by the house – and I felt a real connection. It was almost a religious experience, I just cried and cried.

When people want to know about it, I don’t have a hard time telling them. I’m a drama teacher, so I’m very into telling stories. Sometimes it seems like a fairytale. But you do hear different stories about Leo. They had a big house at Yasnaya Polyana, but took it down – one story is that it was to pay for his gambling debts, but some people say it was to start schools for the poor. I think the truth is somewhere between!

Most of his characters say things that make you say ‘I agree with that, that’s how I feel’. They have many wise things to say. Even though the books were written a long time ago, they are still very much up to date actually. They’re mostly about relationships, and that will always be interesting – when it’s not, something’s really gone wrong.

Andrea Albertini, 50, Rome, Italy, asset manager

My grandmother was born in 1905, and lived for five years with Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana. If you asked her if she remembered him, she would she didn’t know if it was a real memory or just from pictures.

Being related to Tolstoy has not affected my life. I can only feel grateful – because of him I had the opportunity to have a fabulous connection with the family. If Tolstoy had been a taxi driver, I would be happy the same. I didn’t deserve to descend from a great author; it just happened.

Every night at the reunion is like a marriage, big dinners with everyone. But we are very, very different – even though we are from the same root, we live in different ways. It’s better not to be too Italian: you can be too warm! Although we can be very warm to the Russians, they understand.

We don’t leave Rome thinking it’s a holiday – we are going to Russia, it’s different. There is a particular feeling: we are going to a home from home.

I don’t want to look impolite to Tolstoy, but we are not worshipping him as a god because he wrote War and Peace. The reunion is not a celebration of a great writer – Vladimir has plenty of other opportunities to celebrate Tolstoy in a formal and cultural way – we are there to celebrate our strong family.

Nils Aschan, 26, Gothenburg, Sweden, events marketing student

I am Tolstoy number 178 – there are about 300 of us. This summer was my first time in Russia. It was very good to see how Tolstoy actually lived - my brother and sisters had been and they said ‘you have to go and have your own feeling for this place’.

We’re building up a website for the family, like a facebook for Tolstoys. It’s a very interesting family to be part of; I’m close to people who have had a big impact on the cultural world. I'd always known that Leo Tolstoy was a relative, but now I’m older, I can get a grip on this huge thing. The trip made me want to learn more, but also to have my own thoughts and get my own perception of Leo.

The books look quite heavy to read, and you have to be at a certain level to get a deeper meaning and read between the lines. I want to dig and learn more, because of the trip to Russia. It’s a sort of a responsibility.

I’m not shouting out that I’m related to Tolstoy, but it can be a good conversation starter – if you take it up in the right arena, in the café or whatever, it can lead to all sorts of discussions. I’m proud of the heritage, and of course it's quite a cool thing to be able to talk about!