Tolstoy’s Moscow House
Text and photos Ross Hunter
At last! I have found my perfect house in Moscow. There is plenty of choice in this city for the ideal dwelling, from historic to ultra modern, with great views of (or from) the Kremlin, super luxury or perfectly positioned, but if you please, I’d love to live in Tolstoy’s house between Park Kultury and Frunzenskaya.
I wouldn’t complain about Gorky House, given a bit of a freshen up and a spot of paint, a penthouse above the Metropol would see me through, pieds a terre overlooking Tverskaya have their attractions, there are a few eminently acceptable des res spots on the riverbank and I am very happy in my little “vysotka”, but Tolstoy’s house is a home like no other.
The great man wintered here for nearly twenty years, and produced much of his finest work in the study, although he only stayed there under pressure from his family, as he really only wanted to be on his beloved estate at Yasnaya Polyana. I have not been there yet, but if Ulitsa Lva Tolstovo 21 (Khamovnicheskaya ulitsa in his day) is the poor relation, his country haven must be wonderful indeed. Tolstoy’s winter residence is a country house in the middle of Moscow: of wooden construction, elegant but understated, graced by a surprisingly large and tasteful wooded garden, and surrounded by remarkably tasteless industrial sheds and yards. It is not a luxury house, although distinctly comfortable for its day, but exudes the same sense of glove-fitting comfort and stability as a favourite leather armchair.
The house has been a museum for over eighty years, but unlike some stale preserves, could be lived in tomorrow, just lifting the claret cords from the doorways, and the dust covers from the dinner service. The samovar is ready to be lit; the bear on the stairs is waiting to serve you. The entrance is welcoming, and the living rooms are begging to be full of laughter. Being wooden, the house is alive and responds to life. It is solid, but with just enough play in the stairs and boards to register your presence, and although sturdy, the years have eased a few degrees off strict right angles, which combined with lots of unexpected steps and kinks in the walls and corridors makes navigation more of an exploration than a procession. It is a mansion for children to play hide and seek and for friends to talk and party at leisure. House guests included a dazzling selection of Russia’s late 19th century artistic elite, from Chekhov to Gorky, Rachmaninov to Rimsky-Korsakov, and their music and poetry has seeped into the very fabric of the house.
Above all, matching perhaps only Iona or Bodhgaya, the whole house is transcendent with spirit. Tolstoy’s presence is all enveloping, in the house and the garden. Not that this is a simple matter to explain, or rationalise. The contradictions are legion. Tolstoy railed with exquisite eloquence against the evils of class, yet lived with servants and workers – this house needs a lot of looking after; he was so passionate about the ultimate life of Christian simplicity and love that he could be almost insufferable as a family man; meditatively rejecting the clutter of the world, he was a great one for gadgets – a very early enthusiast for the bicycle despite being in his dotage, and ultimately, as he tried to escape worldly cares, he, like his heroine Anna Karenina, met his end at the railway.
It is fitting that he died far away. His house is a celebration of life and creativity, and lives on. It is a timeless house, with all that was epochal of fin-du-siecle Russia, civilised, cultured, and stable, with not a hint of the turmoil to come – and which was made possible in no small measure by Tolstoy’s own writings. Astonishingly, the house survived revolution and civil war, unscathed by the chaos of creating a new order on the ashes of the old. It is incredibly familiar: you have met half the furniture, the chairs, the furnishings, the china and the kitchen fittings at your aunt’s house or in the attic – all is just so, well made without ostentation, comfortable but not showy. The bicycle is there, and most of all, so is his study, tucked away from the bustle of the house, yet comfortable for work, and for entertaining debate. The chair, complete with legs hacked short, the better for failing eyes to focus on vital writing is at an angle and position inviting occupation.
No lesser writer than Chekhov himself, surpassed by very, very few, he once declared that it is easy and pleasant to be a writer, even when realising that nothing is being created, even as Tolstoy did more than many writers could conceive.
To live in Moscow is an experience in itself. To live in this house would be a dream; and for any wannabee hack writer to try his hand in this atmosphere would be the ultimate privilege. How many atoms of Tolstoy’s breath would infuse my pen? As is clear above, none till now. What, then, is to be done? Live in his house, please.