“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (know as Leo Tolstoy) was born into Russian aristocracy in 1828. He became one of the world’s most famous authors, with novels such as ‘War and Peace’, ‘Anna Karenina’ , the semi-autobiographical trilogy ‘Childhood’, ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’, also ‘Sevastopol Sketches’, based on his experiences in the Crimean War. In the 1870’s, he experienced a spiritual awakening, resulting in his becoming a pacifist . He also took up many humanitarian issues related to common people. His writings continued, including dozens of short stories and novellas. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, in such works as ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’, had an impact on influential 20th century figures including Mahatma Gandi and Martin Luther King.
In late autumn 2018, we were staying in the central Moscow suburb of Khamovniki, in the street where Tolstoy’s house is situated. Visiting the house gives an insight into the daily lives of the Tolstoy family for 19 winters (October until May) from 1882 to 1901. In the summers, the family lived in Tolsoy’s ancestral home in Yasnaya Polyana, some 200km to the south. The 16 rooms in the Khamovniki house are filled with over 6000 carefully preserved authentic items. It has been open to the public since 1921.
When Tolstoy purchased the house on about one hectare of land, it was on the outskirts of Moscow in an affordable industrial district of weavers and workmen. He repaired and extended the house in 1882 and brought his family here for better education opportunities, including his eldest son attending university. According to Tolstoy, the garden was “as dense as a forest”. It is recorded in letters that there were roses in bloom, strawberries, gooseberries and raspberries as well as apple and cherry trees.
In one of the upstairs rooms, with a view to the garden, is his study, where many of his works were created. His youngest daughter Masha wrote: “My father’s study room, situated in the remote part of the building, was rather peculiar. The ceiling was so low that you could rest your arm on it. There was upholstered furniture, covered with a black rubber sheet, a sofa, wide armchairs and a writing desk with ornamental legs. It was so calm there, no city sounds or children’s shouts reached there”. Even when it was dark, late in the evenings, he lit only a single candle. He was short sighted and refused to wear glasses, so to be able to read his manuscripts he shortened the legs of his chair (on the left).
Though living recklessly in his youth, as he aged he adhered to a formula of ‘four relays’. He believed this was a way of switching activities in order to train all four of man’s abilities. The first ‘relay’ was devoted to physical labour, the second to mental labour, the third to handicrafts, and the fourth to communication with people. Leo Tolstoy devoted himself to these rules. He got up early, chopped wood and carried water from the well (the house did not have electricity or running water). His handicraft passion was making leather boots – and you can see a pair he made here. He made large efforts to keep fit, using the dumbells here, walking many kilometers around Moscow and at age 67 took up cycling on this bike.
Sophia would entertain friends in this lavish room, and Tolstoy would visit the room once in a while to interact with people who interested him, though he described the room as ‘a dull drawing room’. Sophia’s portrait is on the left. Though a devoted wife who bore him 13 children, there were increased tensions in the marriage as Tolstoy became more radical in his beliefs. He wanted to relinquish his title and give away his book royalties.
Sophia showed her dedication by copying manuscripts, and their frequents revisions, by hand. She acted as copyist for ‘War and Peace’, copying and editing the manuscript seven times from beginning to end at home at night by candlelight after the children and servants had gone to bed, using an inkwell pen and sometimes needing a magnifying glass to read her husband’s notes.
Here by the window of her drawing room, Sophia read proofs of her husband’s works and dealt with household documents.
The younger children had their lessons in this room, including learning foreign languages. The governesses were often invited from abroad by Sophia. She herself would give lessons, including teaching German. The cover on the rocking chair was embroidered by Sophia.
During the daytime the children would play here, sliding down the stairs on metal trays. When the Tolstoys entertained, visitors would ascend the stairs lit by a hanging oil lamp, to be met on the top landing by Leo Tolstoy.
In the ballroom the Tolstoys received guests and held musical and literary evenings and family celebrations. At this mahogany table Leo Tolstoy would read manuscripts of his works to members of his family and close friends. The Khamovniki house was visited by famous men of Russian culture including the young Sergei Rachmaninov who played the piano, the artist Ilya Repin and and the writer Maxim Gorky with whom Tolstoy used to play chess at this table.
Here there were grand tea parties using the French (Limoges) porcelain tea service seen on the table.
In the photo Leo Tolstoy is entertaining relatives and guests. He is seated at the table (with beard), Sophia stands beside him, his daughter Tatyana on extreme left, his son Sergei sits at the table on extreme right.
The simplicity and modesty of this room’s furniture were in keeping with the way of life of Tolstoy’s middle daughter. She was the closest to her father’s views and helped him with his work. She rewrote rough copies of manuscripts, read proofs, answered letters from his correspondants and taught the children of Yasnaya Polyana peasants at the school which Tolstoy set up. Though he usually did not display his sentiments, he said that he ‘loved her very much’ and that he had ‘ great tenderness towards her’. The bed is covered by a woollen blanket knitted by Sophia.
Sophia would be seated at the head of the table (chair closest to camera) and her husband on her left.
This was given to the Tolstoys by their children in 1892, on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary. Of the 13 children, eight survived childhood. Some of the children became writers, one became a composer, another a sculptor and another a portrait artist.
Said to be a kind and gentle child, a favourite of the family, Ivan died in 1895 of scarlet fever, just before his seventh birthday.
Housekeeper Avdotya Popova served the Tolstoys for more than 30 years and enjoyed Sophia’s extreme trust. She was in charge of all the dining room and bed linen and also the food. A dressmaker shared the room with her.
Valet Ilya Sidorkov had many duties – he served food, reported arriving guests, tidied rooms, and fixed oil lamps. Leo Tolstoy often gave him gifts of personal items and photographs with touching inscriptions. The valet looked after the writer when he was ill. But Tolstoy in general avoided any assistance from the servants as he considered it morally corrupted people. The valet’s portrait hangs on the wall.
Tolstoy died of pneumonia in 1910, at the age of 82. His legacy has been a series of works that have withstood the passage of time. He came to believe in poverty and chastity as important virtues. His own life remained complex and conflicted, with contradictions between his upbringing and his changing moral perspectives. Sophia died nine years after him, aged 75. In her busy life she had managed to become an accomplished amateur photographer, developing around 1000 prints of her own photos. Recently some new biographical works, based on her memoirs and diaries, have been published, giving another perspective on the life of Leo Tolstoy.