At Home With Tolstoy, The Reluctant City Mouse
By Michele A. Berdy
When you think of Lev Tolstoy, you imagine him at Yasnaya Polyana, the beautiful estate where he wrote his most famous novels. But in 1881, when Lev Tolstoy’s older children were ready to graduate from governesses and tutors to gymnasia, and when Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, put her foot down and insisted on spending winters in Moscow, Tolstoy "with horror," agreed to the move. Their first house on Denezhny Pereulok off Prechistenka, was a disaster. Tolstoy wrote in his diary, "A month has gone by – the most tortured month of my life." Desperate to relocate to more tolerable Moscow living conditions, in the spring of 1882 he found a house on what was then called Dolgokhamovnichesky Pereulok, and bought it for 27,000 rubles sterling.
The 16-room wooden home had been built in the early 1800s and miraculously survived Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. It was a simple building, with no running water, sewage system, or electricity. The kitchen, entry lodge, carriage house, and a small wing surrounded the main house on a spacious lot (the Tolstoy family added a charming dog house later). Most appealingly for Tolstoy, it was set on a relatively quiet street and had a large, lush garden. Tolstoy arranged for some reconstruction (raising the ceilings and enlarging a few rooms) and moved his family – his wife Sophia, seven children, and servants – to Moscow. Here the family would spend 19 winters, and Tolstoy would write some of his most famous late works: What do I Believe In? What is to Be Done? and The Kingdom of Heaven Within Us.
The garden, while not as lush as it was in Tolstoy’s day, is all the same a small bit of heaven in today’s asphalt-and-glass Moscow. Flanked on one side by the walls of a beer brewery (which was operating when Tolstoy lived here), the garden is shaded by enormous oaks, maples and birches. A gazebo (where you can see the wallpaper Sophia painted) stands invitingly under the trees. In the back of the garden is a huge man-made hill – the favorite playground of the somewhat rowdy Tolstoy children. (One of the daughters used to climb out the window to join her siblings, to the great irritation of her mother.) During the winter months, the area directly behind the house was flooded to make a skating rink (captured – with Tolstoy and children on skates -- in a museum photo).
The interior of the house is surprisingly simple and comfortable. Downstairs you can see the dining room (breakfast for Tolstoy, who was up at 6am to haul water, chop firewood and write, breakfast for the family at 8am, lunch at noon, supper at 6pm, and a light tea at 9pm), and imagine the servants dashing with trays from the outdoor kitchen. You can also see several of the children’s rooms and the bedroom shared by Tolstoy and his wife: two narrow twin beds shielded by a screen, several tables and a washstand. Throughout the house the original covers that Sophia knitted for the family lie neatly on the beds.
Up the staircase (that the Tolstoy children used to sled down on pillows) is the spacious formal hall. Here Tolstoy met with the illustrious guests who visited the house: the painters Serov, Repin and Ghe; the musicians Skryabin, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shalyapin; the writers Chekhov, Gorky, Leskov, Ostrovsky and Bunin. Next to the long table (for 50 guests), the tour guide plays a tape of the waltz Tolstoy composed (originally played on a phonograph that Thomas Edison gave him) and a recording of Tolstoy himself, speaking to a group of children.
Down the narrow, dark hall that the family called the Catacombs, past small rooms for the daughters and servants, is Tolstoy’s modest study. Here you can see Tolstoy’s bicycle and dumbbells (Lev Tolstoy was the world’s first Exercise Nut), and shoes he made (also the original Idle Hands Make Idle Minds Fanatic). He chose the furniture for his study: oilskin covered chairs and couch, a spacious desk, and simple wooden chair. Nearsighted and vain, he refused to wear reading glasses; instead he sawed down the legs of the chair to sit lower and closer to his writing.
A year after Tolstoy’s death, Sophia sold the house to the city authorities to be turned into a museum. Some of the furniture was given to the children, but she wrote a detailed description of every room, and even included scraps of wallpaper and paint chips so that the colors and patterns could be reconstructed. In 1920 the house was nationalized and prepared for the museum opening. When the restoration work was complete, the two oldest Tolstoy children said, "It’s like mama and papa just stepped out for a minute."
Today, with much of the original furniture back in place, it has the feel of a living house. You half-expect to see Tolstoy in his famous peasant shirt, stepping back in the door with an armful of freshly cut firewood.
Where: 21 Ul. Lev Tolstoy. Metro: Park Kultury. Turn right onto Komsomolsky Prospect, then right again immediately after the church onto Ul. Lev Tolstoy. The museum is a few blocks from the corner on the left side of the street.
When and how much: Îpen every day except Monday and the last Friday of the month, from 10am to 6pm from April 1 to September 30, and until 3:30pm from October through March. The entry fee for Russians is 50 rubles, 150 for foreigners; 20 for Russian children, 50 for foreign children. Very informative tours can be arranged at the door (200 rubles for Russians, 300 for foreigners). A typical tour takes about an hour. For more information, call 246 9444..
Language factor: Tours are Russian-only, but if you bring a translator, he or she will be admitted to the museum free of charge. Each room has a description in Russian and passable English, but the tour guides bring the museum to life, describing the routines, follies and foibles of this large, complicated family. .
Kid factor: Kids will like imagining sledding down the staircase on pillows, but might lose patience with the historical background. On the other hand, a dreamy 14-year-old who just read Anna Karenina should be impressed.