The retreats that inspired Russia’s great writers
Sara Wheeler visits the country estates where Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy wrote and socialised
Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana (the name means Bright Glade), lies 120 miles south of Moscow in the Tula region; in his day it covered 4,000 acres and the family “owned” 350 serfs. Tolstoy always said Yasnaya Polyana – the inspiration for many scenes in War and Peace – was “an organic part of myself ”, and in his diaries he describes candlelight flickering on the icons in a corner of his grandmother’s bedroom, and a serf orchestra playing as he, a small boy, walked down the alley of beech trees leading to the main porch.
You seldom hear uplifting news from contemporary Russia. But deep in the provinces, far from massing troops and oligarchs, I toured the tranquil houses of that country’s unparalleled 19th-century writers and wondered if I had landed in another Russia. Much of historic Moscow might be at peril as developers gather, but when the will is there, Russians preserve the country estates of their Golden Age masters wonderfully.
On the mound marking Tolstoy’s grave, an oriole pulled at a worm. He and I were alone among shafts of midsummer light filtering through a stand of ashes. Beyond clumps of bluebells and hollyhocks, yolkyyellow lily blooms patterned the surface of a pond. A small sign at
Tolstoy’s study at Yasnaya Polyana, a retreat he said was ‘an organic part of myself’