Leo Tolstoy, author of the classics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, is undisputedly one of Russia’s greatest writers. He was born on 9th September 1828 at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, located about 120 miles from Moscow in Tula Province. His father was a count, his mother a princess, but what should have been an idyllic childhood was cut short, first by the death of his beloved mother when Leo was just two and seven years later with the death of his father also. Together with his three elder siblings, he was raised by first one aunt and then another, moving to Kazan where he later went to university. He tried first languages and then law, but neither course was a good fit and he left with no degree at all. After an unsuccessful stint running the family farm and then a spell as a junker (a junior officer) in the Russian army, he turned to writing. Finally he had found his calling.
In 1856, Leo Tolstoy moved back to Yasnaya Polyana with his family and spent over fifty years there. Their thirteen children were born there on the same leather couch on which Tolstoy was born. While the house evolved to meet the family’s needs, the estate also contained four clusters of peasant cottages to house the 350 or so workers who kept the estate functioning smoothly. Tolstoy took long walks in the estate’s woodlands and also wasn’t averse to working alongside those he employed. He believed good honest labour would provide inspiration for his writing and honed his storytelling in the estate school which he’d set up for the peasant children.
In Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy had found the perfect place where he could focus on his career. War and Peace was written in the study at Yasnaya Polyana between 1862 and 1869 and the novel Anna Karenina also originated in that same office, having taken four years to complete when it was finished in 1877. Each night, the draft pages were proof read by his wife and each rewritten several times. They’re now housed in the Rumyantsev Museum in Moscow. But Tolstoy’s life wasn’t all work and no play: Yasnaya Polyana was also a house for entertaining. It saw many distinguished visitors, amongst them Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky.
The house today remains as it was when Tolstoy died in 1910. His grave is located at the Place of the Green Wand in the Forest of the Old Order at Yasnaya Polyana. It’s fitting that he rests in peace in the woods he so enjoyed when he was alive. In 1911 his widow petitioned Tsar Nicholas II to make the place a state museum, but he refused and it wasn’t until 1919 that it attained that status. Yasnaya Polyana formally opened as a museum in 1921, receiving just over three thousand visitors in its first year. These days, that figure exceeds 140,000 a year. It’s best to visit in the winter as visitor numbers are lower and you’ll be able to wander the house and grounds by yourself as well as taking the informative guided tour. As you walk up the avenue of birch trees leading from the gate to Tolstoy’s house, it’s worth pausing for a minute to reflect on the contribution that this great man made to Russian culture.