Tolstoy heir reclaims writer's ancestral land: The estate which inspired 'War and Peace' is back in the hands of its old aristocratic owners, writes Andrew Higgins in Yasnaya Polyana

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The Independent Online
THE aristocratic estate that nurtured War and Peace and a more recent struggle for the sacred soil of Count Leo Tolstoy, is under new management. Eighty-four years after the writer died, dressed like a tramp and convinced of the poison of property, Russia'a most famous manor is again under the control of a Tolstoy.

It is now the domain of Vladimir Ilych Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson, recently named by the Ministry of Culture in Moscow as director of the museum, mansion and grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, where Count Tolstoy was born and where his bones lie under a grassy mound in the woods. A skinny, modest man with thin red hair, Mr Tolstoy's only claim to literary ambition is a degree in journalism from Moscow State University, a qualification as tenuous as his lineage; he is one of 108 great-great grandchildren and more than 50 great-grandchildren.

Mr Tolstoy, 31, believes he has special clout: 'My name allows me to open doors,' says the new master of what used to be a fiefdom of Tula province bureaucrats, 'I am a Tostoy. I have a right.' Mr Tolstoy's arrival delights literary aficionados, who hope he can revive Yasnaya Polyana, which means 'Clear Glade' - a name now cruelly mocked by the clouds of poisonous smoke issuing from nearby factories.

The return of a Tolstoy, however, touches a raw nerve, despite the demise of Communism and the romanticism about Russia's past. 'His aim is to become a count,' scoffs Andrei Tyapkin, the ousted former director of seven years, who now works as culture adviser to Tula's provincial governor. 'He is already calling it 'my estate'. The long-term plan is to get back the land.'

It is an argument Tolstoy might have relished, as he was obsessed with the peril of privilege. He viewed Yasnaya Polyana, which passed into the family in 1822, as a dowry with 800 serfs, as a place 'without which I could hardly imagine Russia or my relationship with her'. The same is true today. Russia is up for grabs and so is Yasnaya Polyana. 'It has always reflected the situation in the country as a whole,' says Vladimir Tolstoy. 'It mirrors everything like a drop of water.'

Like much of Russia, the estate, a place of uncommon beauty, is suffocating. Poison is pouring out of the Dzerzhinsky metallurgical factory and the Shokinsky Chemical Kombinat, barely two miles away. Coloured graphs hanging in Yasnaya Polyana's office chart the fatal doses that have withered leaves, bushes and an alley of fir trees, that greeted visitors in Count Tolstoy's day. Only a row of hardy birch survives.

An adjacent village is also choking. Here live the descendants of the peasants Tolstoy tried to befriend, educate and imitate.

But the two worlds, separated only by a field and a black metal fence, barely meet. 'They have their fights and we have ours,' says Kostya Leonov, a peasant from Yasnopolyansky State Farm. Along a dusty track, a peasant woman pulls a trolley, carrying a bucket and milk- churn filled to the brim with water. Many houses still have no plumbing. The only thing she knows about the Tolstoy estate is that they leave apples to rot in the orchards.

Count Tolstoy spent about 60 of his 82 years at Yasnaya Polyana. Here he grew up, wrote his great works and received pilgrims. There were so many that the Tsarist government ordered a tarmac road to be built from Moscow to Tula.

After Tolstoy's death in 1910, his widow, Sofya, offered it to the state. But Tsar Nicholas, under pressure from the Orthodox Church, which had condemned Tolstoy as a heretic, declined the offer. The Bolsheviks had no such qualms and it became a state shrine in 1921.

The idea that a Tolstoy might again administer the nationalised estate took shape in the summer of 1991, at a family reunion at Yasnaya Polyana. Officials in Moscow liked the sound of it; officials in Tula were appalled. Communism had created its own gentry and the estate director was always a trusted member.

(Photograph omitted)