The Russia House

Against all odds, Leo Tolstoy's great-great-grandson resurrects the novelist's legendary country estate south of Moscow.

To travel the 135 miles from Moscow south to Yasnaya Polyana is to go back in time. Soon after you leave the Ring Road that circles the capital, the horizon widens, the sky becomes huge, and you're enveloped in that sense of echoing, endless space out of which Russian history was born. The snow on either side of the highway looks as if it's been here forever; the birches march away into the distance like an army of ghosts; and the names of scattered villages on occasional signposts sound marginal, desperate: One is called Resurrection, another, Not Ours.

Yet this is the road that Leo Tolstoy took on foot each summer more than 100 years ago to his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana ("The Bright Clearing"); and it's only as you follow the same path that you begin to understand what a beacon of light The Bright Clearing must have seemed amid the vast bleakness of a country paralyzed by its own size and still mired in the darkness of medieval institutions. Tolstoy, who moved permanently to Yasnaya Polyana from Moscow in 1902, was Russia's Dickens and Thackeray, its Gandhi, its Jacques Maritain, even its Montessori. Known during his lifetime as the "Second Tsar," he was, along with Dickens, one of the first international literary celebrities. When he died at a rural railway terminal at the age of 82, in 1910, "the station," wrote Boris Pasternak, who was there, "had turned into the braying camp of the world's press. Trade was brisk at the station restaurant . . . Beer flowed like a river." When his body was brought back to Yasnaya Polyana for burial in the woods near the house where he was born, thousands of mourners came with it, along with a choir of 700.

Virtually ever since, this 1,100-acre estate of forests and meadows near the city of Tula has been a place of pilgrimage, a shrine preserved by the Soviets as a station of the cross on the long Via Dolorosa of pre-Revolutionary life. The grounds, outbuildings, and modest white wooden house where Tolstoy lived with his family were kept as they had been on the day he left; and as the guides showed off the desk at which he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina and the dining room in which he entertained Chekhov, Turgenev, Rilke—all the great ones of his age—they presented him as a sort of proto-Communist, railing against the Tsar and working alongside the peasants in the fields, dreaming of an ideal community in which there would be no distinction between owners and laborers. Much was made of the fact that he fled from here one night in 1910, on his way toward death, possibly because his family refused to allow him to hand over Yasnaya Polyana to the people who worked it.

Reducing the brilliant, contradictory Count (and his ideas) toa piece of propaganda this way was a travesty. The whole place became frozen in time, a tomb—until 1994, when the Ministry of Culture made one of the most extraordinary appointments in its history. The new director of the Yasnaya Polyana estate museum, it announced, was to be the 32-year-old journalist and translator Vladimir Tolstoy. He was Leo Tolstoy's great-great-grandson.

I met Vladimir Tolstoy on a winter's day near Yasnaya Polyana's famous white gateposts, erected by Prince Nikolai Volkonsky at the beginning of the 19th century. On a nearby pond was a pick-up ice hockey game, with boys from a local village leaning into each stride, their scarves flying behind them like banners. On the driveway a horse-drawn sleigh crunched and slithered its way down toward us. There were cross-country skiers on the paths through the woods and horses being ridden in the fields. As we walked up to the house, past pruned apple trees yawing out over drifts of virgin snow like Japanese characters inked onto rice paper, I asked him if he'd come here with a vision.

"Yes, I suppose I did," he said, and he turned back for a minute to take in the ice hockey game, the horses, the sleigh, the skiers. "I wanted it to be as close an approximation to the ideal of Russian life as possible, because that's what I believe the estate community of the nineteenth century to have been. It was bound together by folk art, music, nature, and shared responsibility, and at its best it provided an environment in which art and culture thrived. I wanted it, in other words, to be both an enshrinement of history and a powerful example: an alternative to the absurd country palaces the new rich were building—so close together that they looked in through each other's windows and imprisoned their children instead of freeing them."

For a while we walked on among the various buildings of the estate: the Volkonsky House, where the servants once lived; the Kuzminsky House, where the master started a school for the peasants' children; and the Tolstoy House itself, the remaining wing of a once-great mansion sold to pay Tolstoy's gambling debts in the 1850s. And then we turned off, among groups of Russian tourists, to the unconsecrated, unmarked grave near a ravine in which Tolstoy's older brother once claimed to have buried a moss-covered stick inscribed with the secret of happiness. Vladimir Tolstoy, a short, slight man with an almost ecclesiastical air, looked out over the ravine for a moment, and said quietly, perhaps thinking of the happiness that eluded his writer ancestor: "In the end, I wanted Yasnaya Polyana to be a real living organism, with [the 400 or so] people who worked here—from cleaners and woodsmen to guides and scholar-scientists—understanding that they were part of an important whole."

The great-great-grandson's goals flew in the face, of course, of everything that Yasnaya Polyana had become under the Soviets. From the beginning, Vladimir had a very rough ride. The Moscow press treated his appointment as a prelude to the takeover of the estate by the Tolstoy family (now scattered in the West), with Vladimir cast in the role of its capitalist stalking horse. When he arrived in Tula to be interviewed by the local assembly, he was subjected to an interrogation that lasted four hours; and when he finally came to Yasnaya Polyana, it was to find that his predecessor had removed virtually every piece of paper from his office, "relating to the forest, the garden, the finances, everything. The estate workers were in hiding—the whole place was dead." When local authorities were ordered by the central government to find him somewhere to live, he was presented with only two choices—an apartment building in the middle of a wasteland an hour's drive away, and a flat that was already inhabited by a family that would have had to be evicted.

This was the beginning of a campaign that lasted for years—is, in fact, ongoing. The new director immediately made it plain that he was out to tear down the web of exploitation and neglect that had settled over Yasnaya Polyana. He banned cars from the estate and made it clear that it could no longer be used by local ex-Communist bosses as their personal preserve. Then, in a gesture he himself describes as quixotic, he sent as many of the estate workers as he could on a trip to Italy—which brought the State Prosecutor's office into play.

"It was really the first practical thing I did," he says, laughing ruefully. "I said: 'We have to change the lavatories!' Now nobody, of course, knew what I was talking about; the tourist amenities had been fine, they said, for fifty years. So, working on the principle that seeing something once is worth more than hearing it a hundred times, I organized two trips to museums in Italy, for workers at every level. Well, it worked: When they came back, they said: 'Now I understand why you want to change the lavatories!' But the prosecutor's office couldn't see it that way. They assumed there must have been something corrupt going on, as well as something profoundly stupid. I could, after all, have invited the Ministry people and local officials from Tula to Italy—that would have been just fine."

Then there was the case of the two 18th-century buildings in Tula that he acquired for Yasnaya Polyana. His long-term ambition had been to get as many of the workers as he could out of the houses of the estate and into proper offices. He also wanted to open a gift shop and book shop, and set up a publishing house to make postcards and brochures and intellectual journals, which had been "either badly done at prohibitive cost or weren't being done at all." So when he met up with a construction company that said it would give him the dilapidated buildings if he'd pay for renovating them, he jumped at the chance. He'd get what he wanted, he thought, and Tula would get new shops in two beautiful restored buildings. "No one would lose."

This time the Ministry of Culture stepped in—along with, once more, the local prosecutor's office. The Ministry announced that what he had spent on the buildings would have kept the Tolstoy House in fresh paint for well over 50 years; and the prosecutor's office immediately opened an investigation into what it assumed was some kind of sweetheart deal between Tolstoy and the company. "It didn't make sense to them otherwise," he says.

"Look, these were not bad people," he goes on. "The previous director, well, he was a Communist Party instructor, a time-server, part of the local hierarchy, with a hundred bosses to please. 'I'm coming with guests—prepare a picnic.' 'I need five cords of wood for my dacha.' Everything on the estate was simply there for the benefit of the local administration. As for the prosecutor's office, they too were operating with old assumptions. They didn't understand that what we were trying to do here was something new!"

This, though, was just the beginning. Over the years Tolstoy has had to ward off not only the local apparatchiks and the prosecutor's office, but also speculators and the biznesmeni of the mafia, each seeking to trade under the Yasnaya Polyana name. He's also had to face endless bureaucratic committees and the visits of auditors. When he complained about this at a meeting of museum directors in St. Petersburg (he is the director of the Association of Provincial Museums, which he founded), he was accused of trying to become Minister of Culture himself. His reward? He was denied the directorship of the two Tolstoy museums in Moscow. Instead, the former deputy director of Yasnaya Polyana was appointed, an old enemy who is now suing him for libel over an "interview" with an Izvestia journalist whom he's never even met.

Within the past 18 months, he's also been charged by the Ministry of Finance with more than 30 counts of serious malfeasance. He has countersued on the grounds of false accusation, and so far he's won his case in four separate trials. "It's pure harassment," he says. Not long ago, his favorite mare in the Tolstoy stables was found poisoned to death, no one knows by whom. Soon afterwards, he saw his dream of restoring the territory of Yasnaya Polyana back to its original boundaries turn to ashes, when the governor of Tula and his chief land planner withheld, at the very last minute, the final two of the more than 30 signatures needed for approval—probably because parts of the land had already been sold off illegally for dachas. And as if that weren't enough, he was accused in the press, in a rumor actually sparked by two members of the scattered Tolstoy family, of having dug up Leo Tolstoy's remains and replaced them with those of a Japanese professor! "This professor," he says with amazing steadiness, "had translated an educational book of my great-great-grandfather's and had it placed in Japanese schools. He wanted part of his ashes to be scattered in the woods of Yasnaya Polyana," he adds, shrugging his shoulders. "So I agreed."

Despite everything, though—the legal challenges, the harassment, the wild accusations—Leo Tolstoy's great-great-grandson has managed to bring The Bright Clearing back to life. You can feel it as soon as you walk in through Prince Volkonsky's white gates. Even in the deep heart of winter there are large groups of smiling visitors. The pathways and the main avenue are being quietly cleared of snow, and the old stables are full of hot-breathing horses—not to mention sleighs and carriages, all for hire. There are ceramicists at work here; beekeepers; orchardmen; and scholars little by little scanning the pages of Leo Tolstoy's vast annotated library for a future Web site. There are children's camps, concerts and exhibitions, and a writers' conference every autumn. The entire estate has been opened up for leisure, and for serious thought; and its influence has spilled out into the village where Vladimir Tolstoy now lives (in an eccentric little house built by the local dentist). He and his wife, Katya, have recently opened there a kindergarten run on Tolstoyan lines. In a former sanitarium nearby there is now a hotel for visitors; and there is even a train that runs direct from Moscow to a re-creation of the little wooden station where Tolstoy's body was brought after his death. An entry in the visitors' book there reads: "There is true beauty here, cleanliness and orderliness—we're just not used to it."

Yasnaya Polyana, in other words, has become again what it was in Leo Tolstoy's lifetime: a beacon in the darkness. Russian writers, musicians, and painters are again making visits of respect to the home of the "Second Tsar." When I was last there, I went for lunch in the village's little restaurant, whose owner told me he had just returned from Belarus. "There everyone is talking about what's happening here," he boomed proudly. "They want to send food, help, everything they can!"

As we walked, in felt overshoes, through the Tolstoy House—past the pianos and pictures, the photographs, the couch on which Leo Tolstoy was born—I asked Vladimir whether he thought it was worth all the difficulties he's faced. "Of course," he said quietly. "If you want to change things, you inevitably make enemies. But you know, you have two alternatives. You can do nothing; or you can do what you have to do and hope that you'll make fewer enemies along the way. In the beginning, of course, there's a very sharp explosion. But then, after a bit, people get used to it. The reaction is less outrageous; the attitude gets better. The thing is not to compromise."

Vladimir Tolstoy, there's no doubt, has something of the steel and obstinacy of his great-great-grandfather, who was attacked by the Tsar's government and excommunicated by the Orthodox Church in 1901. But as we walked away from the house and down the driveway, I began to wonder whether he hadn't also found the strange green piece of wood inscribed with the secret of happiness that his great-great-granduncle claimed to have buried—and that old Leo seems still to be looking for from his grave. Vladimir had at one time, I know, a chance to emigrate, work abroad. But he declined the offer; and he is, in his little house in the village, one of the most serene and happy people I know. Certainly, in his hands, I thought as we said goodbye, Yasnaya Polyana has, against the odds, become what his great-great-grandfather always dreamed of: one of the most beautiful and hopeful places in Russia—or indeed anywhere—that I know.

Memorial Estate of L.N. Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana, 301214, Tula region, Shchekino district, Russia; 7-0872-38-67-10. Trains for Yasnaya Polyana leave from Kursky Station in Moscow Friday-Sunday at 9 a.m. and return at 4:30 p.m. To be met at Yasnaya Polyana station by horse, sleigh, or carriage—or to stay in the hotel—call the estate museum's tourism department, in Tula, at 7-0872-39-35-99.